Natalie Wood: The Mysterious Death Of A Hollywood Icon
Natalie Wood Young
Around 7:30 a.m. on the 29th November 1981 the body of Hollywood star Natalie Wood was discovered floating face down in the Pacific Ocean near Catalina. She was wearing a flannel nightgown, blue wool socks, and a red down jacket. The rubber dinghy from her yacht Splendour was found washed up on the rocks a little further south.
There are few Hollywood mysteries more enduring—or more heartbreaking—than the one surrounding Natalie Wood's tragic death. The actress—known for starring roles in films like West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, and Splendor in the Grass—drowned when she was just 43 years old; but the circumstances surrounding the fatality are barely any clearer today than they were when the news first broke. What happened to her? Many years later, the question still stands.
A few weeks before her fifth birthday, Natalie Wood made her film debut as a character actress in a fifteen-second scene in the film Happy Land (1943). Despite the brief part, she attracted the notice of the director, Irving Pichel. He remained in contact with Wood's family for two years, advising them when another role came up.
The director telephoned Wood's mother and asked her to bring her daughter to Los Angeles for a screen test. Wood's mother became so excited that she "packed the whole family off to Los Angeles to live,". Wood's father opposed the idea, but his wife's "overpowering ambition to make Natalie a star" took priority.
Wood, then seven years old, got the part. She played a post-World War II German orphan, opposite Orson Welles as Wood's guardian and Claudette Colbert, in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). When Wood was unable to cry on cue, her mother tore a butterfly to pieces in front of her to ensure she would sob for a scene. Welles later said that Wood was a born professional, "so good, she was terrifying." Wood acted in another film directed by Pichel, The Bride Wore Boots, she went to 20th Century Fox to play Gene Tierney's daughter in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).
Wood's best known film as a child was Miracle on 34th Street (1947), starring Maureen O'Hara at Fox. She plays a girl who believes Edmund Gwenn is Santa Claus. The film has become a Christmas classic; Wood was counted among the top child stars in Hollywood after the film and was so popular that Macy's invited her to appear in the store's annual Thanksgiving Day parade. For the next few years following her success in Miracle On 34th Street, Wood played roles as a daughter in a series of family films: In all, Wood appeared in over twenty films as a child.
Natalie Wood Actress
On her eighteenth birthday, Natalie had a date with actor Robert Wagner. Wagner was eight years her senior, but a romance quickly developed. A year later, in 1957, the couple got married.
The studio system played a hand in their first date, an arranged meeting on here 18th birthday in 1956 set up to garner publicity for the admired actress (she had appeared the previous year alongside James Dean in the hit Rebel Without a Cause). The attraction was real and they were married a year later after 26 year old Wagner proposed by placing a pearl-and-diamond ring in Wood’s champagne glass
Robert Wagner, known to friends and family as R.J., had dreamed from a young age of life as a working actor and had become a handsome fixture around Hollywood by the mid-1950s. Though he would appear in more than 40 films, big-screen stardom would elude him as the studio system was dismantled and the entertainment industry began embracing the burgeoning television market.
It was a love match anchored in the history of old Hollywood. A child star turned teen idol, Natalie Wood had grown up on film screens in front of millions of Americans, and at age 18 had made the transition to serious adult actress. Robert Wagner, a 26-year-old square-jawed aspiring contract player at 20th Century Fox, had looks, charisma and his sights on big-screen stardom.
Their romance and subsequent marriages kept fans enthralled over the course of two decades. But it would be Wood’s 1981 death by drowning and its surrounding circumstances – an apparent late-night fall over the side of the family yacht on which she was vacationing with husband Wagner and actor Christopher Walken off the coast of California’s Catalina Island – that would eclipse any professional or romantic legacy the couple could ever have envisaged.
Wildly in love, the newlyweds began their life together under the constant glare of publicity, something Wood had been dealing with since her years as a child star. “We drove a Corvette across the country,” Wood recalled of the time. “Radio stations would announce we had just passed through, and people would wait for us in every little town.”
The media scrutiny continued as Wood’s star rose to even greater heights in the following years due to starring roles in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Splendor in the Grass (1960), and as the doomed Maria in West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962).
But off-screen, her marriage to Wagner was on shaky ground. “We knew each other better than we knew ourselves,” she recalled. “I always knew he was okay. It was myself I didn’t know about.”The couple separated in 1961 and divorced the following year with Wood remaining silent on rumors the marriage had ended suddenly because she had had an affair with her Splendor in the Grass costar Warren Beatty.
Another story regarding the reason behind the breakup involves Wood finding Wagner in bed with another man, according to Wood’s younger sister Lana.
Following the split, Wood plunged into therapy, often attending sessions five times a week. Both parties began dating again and would go on to marry other people, but they “never stopped loving each other,” according to Wood. Wagner remarried in 1963 to actress Marion Marshall, with whom he had a daughter, Katie, born in 1964. The couple divorced in 1971.
In 1969 Wood married film producer Richard Gregson. They too had a daughter, Natasha, born in 1970, but separated a year later. Wood maintained the split was amicable.
Natalie hadn’t forgotten Wagner, though. Wood remarried Wagner in 1972, within three months of her second divorce. “Friends told me to put on the breaks,” Wood recalled of her decision to reunite with her ex-husband after she accepted an invitation to his house in Palm Springs.
“We were both in shock,” Wood said. “We talked about what had happened to our marriages. He had become a man instead of a boy.” Wood believed that the time apart during the intervening years was essential to their reconnection. They chose the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony as their first public outing as a newly reformed couple.
In contrast to the first time they said, “I do,” Wagner’s career was the one ascending but on the small screen. Premiering in 1968, ABC’s It Takes a Thief was a hit and Wagner was commanding about $10,000 per episode. The role of a debonair ex-con would pave the way to his biggest success, Hart to Hart, which aired from 1979 to 1984 on ABC.
Wood had settled into semi-retirement by the time she remarried Wagner. “Work doesn’t play the same role in my life it used to,” she said of her decision to focus on her marriage and children. Wagner and Wood’s only child together, Courtney, was born in 1974. Along with their two previous children from earlier marriages, they formed a Hollywood family unit admired by fans new and old.
What Year Did Natalie Wood Die?
November 27th, 1981
It was the weekend after Thanksgiving. Natalie and Wagner had invited some people on their yacht Splendour, but most declined due to the predicted bad weather. Only Christopher Walken accepted. The actor was working with Natalie on the science fiction film Brainstorm. According to boat's captain and self-proclaimed family friend Dennis Davern, Natalie had fallen in love with Walken during shooting.
Around the same time reports noted that she had jealous streaks over the relationship between Wagner and his Hart to Hart co-star Stefanie Powers. Whether any of these rumours were true or not, it’s safe to say there was tension between the couple that weekend.
Splendour set sail to Catalina Island around noon on the 27th of November and everyone on board was drinking more than their bid.
Natalie and Wagner got into a heavy fight that evening, after which Davern took the actress ashore on the dinghy. They passed the night in the Pavilion Lodge Hotel and returned to Splendour the next morning. Oddly, the first time Davern was questioned about this he lied, stating that all four of them had slept on the yacht.
Natalie Wood|Robert Wagner
We can conclude that Robert Wagner was arguing or even fighting with someone else on the yacht. It’s also certainly Wagner who discovers (or pretends to discover) Natalie is missing.
In some statements, the boat was then searched by the three men, who alarmed the coast guard after noticing the dinghy was gone too. In others, Wagner is not immediately concerned since his wife often took the Valiant out alone, and he only contacts the coast guard when she doesn’t reappear.
According to Davern in current years, Wagner at first delayed calling for help and refused to turn on the floodlights or the engine because he didn’t want to attract bad publicity. John Payne and his girlfriend Marilyn Wayne, sleeping in a nearby boat, reported hearing shouts around 11 p.m. that fateful evening.
They claimed to hear a woman yelling “Help me! Someone please help me! I’m drowning!”, then (according to some accounts) a drunken man mockingly responding “Okay honey, we’ll get you.” The cries went on for about half an hour.
There was a party going on on another boat or on shore, so the couple didn’t think much of it at the time.
The Coast Guard was not informed until 1:30 a.m. Possibly hours after the actress had disappeared. It took another six hours before Natalie Wood's body was found, floating about a mile away from the yacht.
The dinghy was discovered washed up on the rocks. The ignition was off, the gear shift set to neutral and the oars locked. She probably never even started it. Coroner Thomas Noguchi reported that her blood-alcohol level was at least 0.14.
The actress had relatively fresh superficial bruises on her arms and lower legs, plus a cut on her cheek. These were initially attributed to her fall in the water. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning. The coroner concluded that Natalie had been drinking, for some reason tried to board Valiant, slipped and drowned.
How Old Was Natalie Wood When She Died?
The actress—known for starring roles in films like West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, and Splendor in the Grass—drowned in 1981, when she was just 43 years old; but the circumstances surrounding the fatality are barely any clearer today than they were when the news first broke.
There are lots of questions left unanswered. What was Natalie trying to do when she drowned? Did she want to go ashore? Why? Why did she not start the dinghy? How did she get in the water? Why did Wagner’s account change so often over time?
Christopher Walken has said next to nothing about the case and Dennis Davern is probably not the most reliable witness. It took him years to come forward with what he says to be the truth, releasing bits of information to the tabloids.
His testimonies, however, ring most consistent with those of other witnesses and evidence. What happened to Natalie Wood? There are two possibilities:
Was Natalie’s Death An Accident?
Walken made one of his rare statements about the case in a 1997 Playboy interview: “Anybody there saw the logistics – of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining – and would know exactly what happened.
She had gone to bed before us, and her room was at the back. A dinghy was bouncing against the side of the boat, and I think she went out to move it. There was a ski ramp that was partially in the water.
It was slippery—I had walked on it myself. She had told me she couldn’t swim; in fact, they had to cut a swimming scene from Brainstorm. She was probably half asleep, and she was wearing a coat.” It is possible something along those lines happened. Walken’s account of the evening is consistent with investigators’ initial findings.
The Boat Splendour
Since her death, accusing fingers have been pointed to Robert Wagner. In 2011 the LA County Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation after receiving additional information. Two years later, the cause of death was changed from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors”.
The new report casts questions on the nature of the bruises found on Natalie’s body. It’s likely they were there before she hit the water. In February 2018, a press conference was held stating that new witnesses had come forward with relevant information. Wagner was named as “a person of interest”.
In January 2021, an inquiry into the drowning was opened after a petition. Legal action has been filed to obtain confidential records supposedly covering up the circumstances of the star’s death.
Cause Of Death Natalie Wood
Wood’s funeral, held on December 3rd 1981, showed a devastated, weeping Wagner, surrounded by friends, family, and the cream of the entertainment world: Laurence Olivier, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Rock Hudson. Instead of finality, Wood’s death only seemed to provoke questions, and three decades later, in 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation.
And at a press conference in February of 2018, Captain Christopher Bergner of the homicide department said “new witnesses” and those with relevant information had been identified and a different timeline had emerged of Natalie Wood’s last hours on the boat and when help was requested.
When Natalie Wood died in 1981, there was almost no explanation given to the public and alarmingly subdued media coverage. It's the tabloids that have kept the case in the news all these years later.
Following her untimely death, she was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. On her grave, marked Natalie Wood Wagner: Beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother & friend "more than love".
She was posthumously awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7000 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on February 1, 1986.
Natalie Wood Footnotes:
Natalie Wood Facts
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