In late 1981, three Hollywood stars embarked on a weekend sailing trip. Only two returned.
Now four decades later, on the anniversary of her death, the circumstances around the night actor Natalie Wood died still remain a mystery.
The case hit headlines again in 2018, following news authorities had begun treating her former husband Robert Wagner as a “person of interest”.
“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Wagner] more of a person of interest now,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant John Corina revealed in the CBS documentary, 48 Hours in 2018. “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
So what really happened that fateful night?
Before her untimely death at the age of 43, Wood was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, thanks to leading roles in ’70s movies including West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause.
The future looked bright: Her career was soaring and she was married to Wagner, a charming TV star best known for hit shows Hart To Hart, It Takes A Thief and Switch.
In late November 1981, the couple invited their friend Christopher Walken – who’d co-starred with Wood in Brainstorm – for a trip away on the family’s yacht, Splendour, off Santa Catalina Island in California. The only other person on board the boat was its skipper, Dennis Davern.
Just after 1am on November 28, Wagner radioed a boat nearby.
“Easy Rider, are you cruising in the vicinity?” he asked.
“Well, this is Splendour. We think we may have someone missing in an 11-foot rubber dinghy.”
The “someone missing” was Natalie Wood – who had seemingly vanished, along with the boat’s dinghy.
Half an hour later, the sea was lit by the beams of harbour patrol boats, private boats of the bay watch and coastguard helicopters, searching for the missing actor.
At 7.30am the following day, a helicopter was on its way to join the search when suddenly one of its crew spotted a red object in the sea below and directed the pilot to move closer.
Face-down, in a flannel nightgown, red jacket and blue socks, floated the body of Wood, less than 2km from Splendour.
The dinghy was found beached nearby.
The dysfunctional relationship
Before Wood’s untimely death, the relationship between the two stars had provided plenty of Hollywood fodder over the years, due to its well-publicised highs and lows.
TV star Robert Wagner first married up-and-coming actor Natalie Wood when she was in her late teens and he was in his mid-20s. Like plenty of other women, Wood confessed to having a huge crush on Wagner before they got together.
But after five years, things went sour and the pair were divorced in 1962. Wood married Richard Gregson in 1969, giving birth to daughter Natasha in 1970, but the couple split in 1971.
Then, in 1972, a decade later after divorcing, Wood and Wagner remarried. In 1974, they welcomed daughter, Courtney.
Her final hours
Rumours of foul play have swirled around Wood’s death since that fateful night in 1981 for a number of reasons, but largely because of the changing stories of the witnesses.
The tragedy set off frenzied speculation in Hollywood: was it an accident or murder? And if so, who did it?
After her body was found, Wagner told police that his wife had gone to bed before him and he didn’t notice she was missing until he went to their bedroom sometime after midnight and noticed she wasn’t there.
Later, Wagner, Walken and Davern told investigators Wood “took off in a dinghy and went ashore” – even though it was well-known that she was terrified of the water.
In his 2008 memoir, Wagner admitted he’d fought with both Walken and Wood on the night she died – but that they’d all calmed down afterwards, and he still didn’t know what had happened to her.
“Nobody knows,” he wrote. “There are only two possibilities; either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.
“Did I blame myself? If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t see her. The door was closed; I thought she was below deck. I didn’t hear anything. But ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one, and she was my loved one.”
In 2011, Walken spoke about the death and provided a plausible explanation for what may have happened.
As he told Playboy magazine: “What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone. 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.”
But skipper Dennis Davern has insisted there is more to the story.
Speaking on the US Today show in 2011, he admitted that he “made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report” in the days following Wood’s death.
Davern said that the couple had got into a huge fight, and that Wagner shouted at Walken “Do you want to f**k my wife?” before smashing a bottle of wine and then later yelled, “Get off my f***ing boat.”
Davern claimed Wagner told him what to say initially and had lawyers write a statement on his behalf which he forced him to sign.
He also described the scene on the yacht in the moments after Wood’s disappearance.
In a sworn statement to police in 2011, Davern claimed Wagner appeared to be “sweaty, flushed, anxious, nervous and dishevelled” when they realised she wasn’t on the boat.
“He led me through the stateroom which was a mess … it had been spotless when I passed through it after securing the dinghy a half-hour earlier.
“I immediately wanted to radio for help and to turn on the searchlight, but Robert Wagner told me, sternly, ‘We are not going to do that. We will wait and see if she returns.’
“While we waited, Wagner opened scotch and poured alcohol for me. He encouraged me to drink.
“He discussed with me the repercussions of bringing any immediate attention to the situation and he claimed he did not want to tarnish his image.”
Later, Davern told NBC News: “We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her … I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, we’re not going to notify anybody right now.'”
After the case was reopened by the LA County Sheriff’s Department in 2011, Wagner’s publicist issued a statement saying his family supported the decision, and that they “trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid”.
After an autopsy was conducted on the body, authorities revealed that Wood’s arms had been covered in bruises, there was a scratch on her neck and abrasions on her face – and that it was likely the injuries had occurred prior to her drowning.
At the time, due to the alcohol and two types of medication found in her system, her cause of death was ruled as an “accidental drowning”.
But after Davern’s changed account led to the case reopening in 2011, a medical examiner changed the cause to “drowning and other undetermined factors”.
'Person of interest'
In 2018, the enduring Hollywood mystery once again hit the headlines, with police officially naming Wagner a person of interest.
As Lieutenant Corina explained in 48 Hours: “I haven’t seen him [Wagner] tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case. I think he’s constantly changed his story a little. And his version of events just don’t add up.”
He was also asked whether he believed Wood was murdered, and replied: “I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened.”
Last year, a new HBO documentary was released, produced by Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was only 11 when her mother died.
For Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, she filmed an interview over two days with her stepfather, Wagner, who told her of the moment he was told Wood’s body had been found.
“Everything just went out from under me,” he said.
“We were all stunned, everybody. That night’s gone through my mind so many times. You can imagine.”
Speaking to Vanity Fair about the documentary last year, Gregson Wagner said she felt “protective” towards Wagner.
“I am very protective of my stepdad and I adore him. So I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. And yet I was asking him to step outside of his comfort zone to talk about the night that [Wood] died.”
She added that she hadn’t been attempting to disprove certain theories about her mother’s death, but simply wanted to show his “humanity”.
“I wasn’t really concerned with disproving these outlandish theories, I was more just wanting to have the kind of conversation that he and I have had in the past about other things, but on camera. I wanted him to feel safe enough to unfold, like a flower, and be honest, and show his humanity. That was my goal, or my intention for that interview,” she said.
“I never questioned him [about Wood’s death]. I knew the circumstances that had surrounded her death, because he told me.”
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