In 1981 the mysterious death of Natalie Wood at the age of 43 shocked millions of her fans. The beautiful actress drowned in the waters off Catalina Island after she reportedly fell from a yacht named Splendour, which she and her husband actor Robert Wagner owned. For years, officials deemed that the cause of her death was an accident. Now, authorities are questioning that ruling.
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner Marriage
Natalie Wood first garnered attention as a child actress in the classic Miracle on 34th St. in 1947. However, she gained her greatest fame in the film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Her personal life was also connected to Hollywood, and she fell in love with the famous Robert Wagner when she was 18 and he was 26. The two married in 1957 but divorced in 1962. They eventually reconciled and remarried in 1972. While Wood’s sister Lana noted that Natalie and Wagner maintained a good relationship, things between the two apparently did become strained at times.
Boat Trip to Santa Catalina Island
Both Wood and Wagner were joined by the captain of the yacht, Dennis Davern, and fellow actor Christopher Walken. Walken and Wood were filming a science-fiction feature titled Brainstorm.
The boat traveled to different island ports around Catalina and the mood of the passengers appeared festive at first. Things did not remain so positive as the night wore on. Wagner was seemingly drinking too much and Wood’s temperament shifted to angry and agitated. Their behavior at the Doug’s Harbor Reef restaurant even alarmed members of the staff. It seemed that significant tensions existed on the boat trip. Wagner felt Walken and Wood were becoming too close to one another.
The added consumption of alcohol during the trip likely led to increased conflicts between the three. According to the Captain, Wagner and Wood became engaged in a loud and volatile argument that traveled throughout the ship. Things would become much worse.
Death of Natalie Wood
No one really knows exactly what occurred on the Splendour that fateful night of November 29, 1981. According to Wagner, he went to check on Natalie only to discover that both she and a dinghy were missing.
In the following days after Wood’s death, occupants of a nearby boat did report that they heard a woman screaming for help and a man responding to her cries. They assumed the voices were from people joking at a loud party on another yacht.
Officially, the medical examiner believed that Wood was intoxicated and fell into the ocean while trying to board the dinghy. Her clothes may have quickly become waterlogged making it impossible to get back into the dinghy. While all this may explain how Wood drowned, the obvious unanswered question is, why would she try to leave the safety of a yacht in the middle of the night?
At that time, the answers to this questions weren’t pursued. The investigation into the death of Natalie Wood was closed and remained so until only recently. A copy of Natalie Wood’s autopsy can be downloaded here.
Investigators Take a New Look at Natalie Wood’s Death
After the case remained dormant for more than 35 years, investigators seem to be reopening the investigation. The official assessment of “accidental drowning” has been changed. Now, the death has been ruled “suspicious.” No charges have been filed related to her death, but the change does indicate investigators no longer believe it was purely accidental. They have not, however, ruled the case a homicide.
The case was initially reopened in 2011 based on tips and reports. Los Angeles law enforcement authorities didn’t find all the tips to be credible. In time, an eye-witness came forward describing an argument that took place on the yacht prior to the sound of something crashing into the water. One eye-witness was Captain Davern. He revealed the details about the onboard argument including a mention about Wagner smashing a wine bottle in anger.
In an interview with NBC News, Captain Davern puts the responsibility for Woods’ passing on Robert Wagner. Davern says the situation wasn’t addressed properly. A searchlight, for example, wasn’t used to locate Woods in the water.
None of this proves foul play, but the eyewitness account indicates authorities no longer prescribe to the “purely accidental” theory. In fact, Robert Wagner is now considered a “person of interest” in the case. No charges have been filed, though. Wagner has not honored requests to speak to authorities.
Whether we learn anything more concrete about the mysterious death of Natalie Wood remains to be seen