The Mystery of the Death of Natalie Wood

An old mystery has resurfaced by the presentation on May 4, 2020 of the life and death of the actress Natalie Wood in a documentary produced by her daughter.

Some of the facts of Wood's end are known and undisputed.  On the night of her death, November 28–29, 1981, her body was found floating in the shallow surf, dressed in flannel nightgown, jacket, and wool socks, with superficial bruises on her body.  She was found about a mile away from where she had spent the evening in her yacht, The Splendor, off Catalina Island outside Los Angeles, together with three others.  One was her husband, actor Robert Wagner, then 51 years old, to whom she was married twice, 1957–62 and 1972–81.  The others were actor Christopher Walken, a younger man born in 1943, with whom she was co-starring in a film, Brainstorm, completed after her death with a stand-in playing her role, and the young captain of the yacht, a man named Dennis Davern.  The ongoing mystery is whether her death was an accident or a murder.

Wood had a short but vibrant life, successful professionally but personally disordered, with allegations of affairs including with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.  If that life was not as messy as that of Judy Garland, who died at roughly the same age in her 40s, it included apparent suicide attempts, heavy drinking, and her eventual relegation to B movies.  Besides her glamorous lifestyle, Wood was also admired off-screen, regarded as being ahead of her time, fighting for equal pay for women and rights for the LGBT community.  She supported and helped finance the play The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, the groundbreaking portrayal of gay life, and helped Robert Redford start his film career.

 Wood was born in 1938 to Russian immigrant parents.  She began acting when she was five and in a short time became a studio child film star.  She filmed with Orson Welles at age 8 and then, with her aura of sexuality and magnetic personality, rapidly made a transition to mature roles and became an adult star.  She was to be for a time the second highest paid actress, after Elizabeth Taylor.  Among her best known films are Miracle on 34th Street at age eight; Rebel without a Cause (with James Dean), directed by Nicholas Ray, with whom she had a sexual relationship at age 16; Splendor in the Grass (with Warren Beatty, another lover); West Side Story; Love with a Proper Stranger (with Steve McQueen); and Gypsy (with Rosalind Russell), in which, unlike the case in WSS, she did her own singing.  She was nominated several times for an Oscar but never won.  She was not offended when Harvard's Lampoon in 1966 called her the worst actress of the year.

From the beginning, different versions of Wood's death have emerged.  The L.A. County medical examiner concluded she had died of an accident while slightly intoxicated.  Her body had a blood alcohol content of 0.14% and contained medication.  She had bruises on her body and arms and an abrasion on her left cheek.  Later it was said she had sustained the bruising before she entered the water.

A witness in a nearby boat said she had heard a woman scream during the night but took no notice.  There was the mystery of the missing phone call.  Robert Wagner said a call was made to report her missing at 1.30 A.M., but officials said they did not get any call until 5 A.M.  The two actors offered different accounts of events.  Wagner at first said he had had a heated "political debate" with Walken and that Wood was bored and left them.  However, Christopher Walken said she had left and was trying to tie up the dinghy attached to the yacht.  Wood was said to be initially trying to climb into the inflatable dinghy.

The L.A. coroner, Thomas Noguchi, coroner to the stars, who conducted autopsies on many celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, recorded the death as due to "accidental drowning and hypothermia."  A relevant factor was that Wood was supposed to be terrified of water, and it seemed inexplicable she would have tried to take the dinghy out on her own in the middle of the night, as had been suggested.

The verdict appeared to be based on the heavy drinking on the yacht, that Wood had slipped on the steps of the boat and fallen into the water after trying to tie up the dinghy that was banging against the yacht.

The case of Natalie Wood was reopened when the captain of the yacht, Dennis Davern, in November 2011 confessed he had lied during the initial proceedings and that he had new evidence.  The main point was that the two men, Wagner and Walken, had a strong argument, that Wagner was jealous of Walken, who he said was flirting with his wife, that Wagner had an explosive fight with Wood and that he had pushed her off the boat.  Davern had not previously named Wagner as a suspect.

Nevertheless, in 2012, the L.A. County chief coroner decided that there was no new evidence and that the circumstances of Wood's death were not clearly established.  However, the verdict was altered.  It was now due to "death and other undetermined factors."  To add to the confusion, in 2016, the medical examiner held that the case will remain undetermined until additional evidence is brought forward.

Again in February 2018, the L.A. Sheriff's Department called the death suspicious and named Wagner, born in 1930, a "person of interest" since he was the last person to be with Wood before she disappeared.  The question was raised: did Wagner's version of events add up?

It is unlikely that Wagner, now 90, will ever be questioned again about the events in 1981.  Yet the nagging question remains: was Wood's death due to foul play?  For lovers of mysteries, the puzzle remains to be solved.

Photo: YouTube screen grab  (cropped) from Splendor in the Grass (1961)