The Strange Drowning of Natalie Wood
How could one of the most respected, all-American actresses die on a boat filled with celebrities without anyone figuring out what happened? The strange drowning of Natalie Wood leaves us scratching our heads today.
If you love classic movies, then you already have learned to love the work of Natalie Wood. She was, at one point, a cherished American treasure known for her wholesome acting career, her beautiful body, and one of the most stunning faces in classic cinema.
Natalie Wood's roles involved major hit movies like Rebel Without A Cause, Miracle on 34th Street and, of course, West Side Story. Even in her later years, she was acclaimed and respected by the acting community — a feat that most of the Hollywood starlets in her time could not replicate.
Her entourage featured major A-listers, like Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. Plus, she lived the Hollywood lifestyle ever since she was a little girl. In terms of celebrity status, you couldn't get any bigger than Natalie Wood. She was wholesome, happy, and been married a total of three times — twice to her teenage sweetheart.
At the time of her death, she was married to Robert Wagner, a movie producer, actor and major celebrity known for his roles in The Pink Panther, The True Story of Jesse James, and Let's Make It Legal. He was a Hollywood hunk in his prime — and he was totally enamored with her.
She had a great life...right?
You'd think so, but the strange drowning of Natalie Wood suggests there may have been a lot of dirty laundry that still remains unaired. It's a story that involves a classic Hollywood scandal, Christopher Walken, and a sea captain who may have let loose one of the biggest clues to her untimely demise.
The Strange Drowning Of Natalie Wood: Setting The Stage
To fully understand why the scandal was so huge, you need to understand where Natalie Wood was in her life, and who she was surrounded by. At the time, Wood was on her third marriage — a seemingly happy marriage to her ex-turned-spouse-again to Robert Wagner.
Wood herself had long struggled with trying to find true love in Tinseltown. Who wouldn't, though? It seems like the seedy lifestyle of old world Hollywood was just too much for love to bear, at least when it came to this youthful actress.
Natalie Wood had many loves, and two very rocky marriages prior to her final marriage to Wagner. It seemed like the third time was going to be a charm.
But, perhaps, there may have been some signs that her third marriage wasn't going to be as happy as she'd have hoped it to be in her past history with men...
She had gone on her first date with Robert Wagner at 18, as arranged by the studio. It was a whirlwind romance that quickly culminated in the two walking down the aisle. However, the first time around didn't last long, and the two split up for reasons unknown to the press.
Her next fling was with hunky co-star, Warren Beatty.
Her relationship with Warren Beatty was one that was rumored to have begun as an affair behind Wagner's back. When Wagner saw them, he allegedly broke out into an uncontrollable rage — which ended up dissolving Wood's marriage to him and causing her to run into the arms of the handsome Beatty.
Beatty ended up being very abusive towards her, and the rocky fling ended with a breakup that included her attempting suicide via sleeping pills. It was uncertain that the actress would ever be totally mentally well after Beatty's breakup with her.
Her second marriage, to British producer Richard Gregson, ended with her finding out that he was having affairs — and promptly divorcing him.
When Robert Wagner came back into her life once more, they quickly remarried. Though it did come as a major perk to their publicity, those around them claimed that their marriage was a truly passion-filled relationship filled with love.
Or, at least that's how it seemed.
The Strange Drowning of Natalie Wood: The Discovery
By the late 70s and early 80s, the Wagner family was enjoying their Hollywood successes — and had bought a family yacht that quickly became the centerpiece of many celebrations. Natalie and Robert became known as a seafaring duo.
This is strange, since Natalie Wood was reportedly terrified of drowning. In fact, her fear of "dark water" was legendary in Hollywood circles. However, by all accounts, it seemed like Natalie Wood did enjoy her outings at sea with Robert Wagner.
One rainy autumn day, November 28th, 1981, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner decided that it was time to take their yacht, The Splendour, out to Catalina Island. The couple invited their good friend, Christopher Walken, as well as the yacht's paid captain, Dennis Davern.
Before they decided to go to the Island, they headed out to a champagne dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef — the only restaurant at Isthmus Cove. The restaurant manager noted the Wagner party was pretty boisterous, to the point that it seemed like they were heavily intoxicated.
To an outsider's eye, it would seem like this was going to be another night on the ocean, champagne glasses filled with sparkling wine in hand, and filled with joy and laughter. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that wasn't the case.
At 1:30 AM, radios nearby began to pick up a signal. Natalie Wood apparently was not with Robert Wagner when he went to sleep, and could not be found on the boat.
"This is Splendour, needs help."
Natalie's drowned, bruised body was found November 29th, with an inflatable dinghy called The Valiant beached ashore.
The Strange Drowning Of Natalie Wood: The Coroner's Decision
Officially, coroner reports called Natalie Wood's death an accident — citing a "tragic fall" to be the cause of her death. However, if you look at the details, it seems like there was a lot more to the story than people were initially willing to disclose...and it becomes clear that something was very wrong with the scene.
When Wood's body was found, there was a BAC level reading of 0.14 percent, with both motion sickness pills and painkillers in her system. For reference, in all 50 states, a BAC of 0.08 is considered to be drunk driving.
Her body also had a large number of bruises that weren't there the day before. She had abrasions on her cheeks, as well as a number of bruises on her arms. These are classic places people search when looking for evidence of domestic violence.
Upon inspection, the dinghy found near her body wasn't used, either. It seemed like it was just dropped in hopes that it would provide a cover for a murder.
Coroners believed that Wood may have tried to get in the dinghy, only to have the "wind funnel" effect of the cove blow the inflatable boat away. Then, they believe that she may have slipped and fallen — which, in turn, led her to drown in the water.
But, this doesn't explain why she would want to leave the boat, nor does it explain why Hollywood seemed so quite about it all. There is also some seriously damning testimony given by those who had seen the Wagner group, as well as from Christopher Walken and the yacht captain, himself.
Could Robert Wagner have killed the woman he so reportedly loved? As more dirty laundry gets aired, it becomes clear that this morbid Hollywood scandal may have just shown a lot more about Tinseltown's top people than the media wanted to admit...
The Strange Drowning of Natalie Wood: The Dirty Laundry
Right from the get-go, the night manager of Doug's Harbor Reef told police that he was worried about Natalie Wood's drinking. According to him, he was concerned that the Wagners were so inebriated that they weren't likely to be capable of steering a yacht.
Natalie Wood, in particular, had to be pulled aside from time to time, due to her loud and drunken behavior at the restaurant. According to those who were on the ship, she continued to drink when she got on The Splendour.
Davern himself admitted that Natalie Wood seemed to have a party girl streak in her that could have contributed to her demise. In an interview, Davern discussed Natalie Wood as such:
" I’d tell her, ‘I’ll give you five quaaludes if you give me 10 Valiums,’ because at that time I liked taking a Valium in the morning and floating all day long. . . . So it would be, ‘Let’s eat these quaaludes, let’s chase them down with some wine.’ They had total trust in me, so they could do anything they wanted."
Moreover, a nearby boat group heard Natalie Wood screaming in the middle of the night. Robert Wagner also openly claimed that Wood was not suicidal, and that the two had a serious argument right before she went missing.
Both those informational tidbits seemed strange to many people around Wagner. If she wasn't suicidal, then why would he bring that up to the press knowing it'd be suspicious?
Christopher Walken claimed that Natalie was alone when she disappeared, and initially, so did Davern. However, the story seemed to change for Davern, and things became even more suspect once Hollywood rumors began to swirl.
The Strange Drowning of Natalie Wood: The Affair and Her Final Moments
Hollywood is one of those venues where you never know what's real, and what isn't real. Even Natalie Wood herself admitted that she struggled with being half of "a perfect couple" while dealing with "relationship issues" that were "too big" to ignore. One has to wonder what those issues were, right?
Rumors long existed that Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood had an affair. The chemistry was also clearly there, and that upset Robert Wagner immensely. Rumors also have long discussed Wagner's propensity for rage and jealousy.
Even Davern himself noticed it that night on The Splendour:
"Christopher and Natalie are sitting in the salon together and giggling, and I’m looking at R.J. and thinking, He doesn’t look too happy. R.J. was getting annoyed, and plus, we’re drinking. . . . I was seeing R.J. getting mad. The boat just starts getting smaller. You can’t look for a whole lot of escape."
As misfortune would have it, ship captain Davern also mentioned that he overheard Walken tell her to "Get the f*** off the boat" in the middle of the night.
Later on, a couple by the name of John Payne and Marylin Wayne overheard a woman screaming for help in the direction of The Splendour. They weren't concerned, possibly because they also heard a very inebriated man's voice ring out, "Okay, honey, we'll get you."
It seems like Wayne may have heard the final moments of Wood's life.
The Strange Drowning of Natalie Wood: Dennis Davern's Testimony
Both actors, at the time of Natalie Wood's drowning, were oddly silent about what happened. Robert Wagner maintained that he was innocent. Christopher Walken maintained that he was in his room at the time of her death, and that there's nothing he could say.
Dennis Davern seemed to know something, but claimed that Wood's drowning was an accident. The case was closed, until 2011 — when Davern admitted to the press that he had lied to police during the investigation.
Now, why would Davern lie during a police investigation, if it wasn't to cover for the murder committed by his friend, Robert Wagner? What about Walken? Why was he so silent and camera-shy during the investigation?
Many surmised that Walken's longterm silence could be guilt-induced — or fear of the repercussions that would happen if he were to speak. The only real statement he issues was as follows:
"What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone."
He then offered a possible explanation...but once again, repeated that he didn't know what happened. Suspicious? Absolutely.
The Strange Drowning of Natalie Wood: Epilogue
To this day, no one knows how Natalie Wood drowned, or if she was killed. No one knows the full scope of the sordid secrecy behind this misunderstood actress's love life and personal life, either.
Upon her death, many of Hollywood's greatest attended her funeral. She left behind three children, two devastated ex-husband, and a handful of men who have never fully been able to shake their ties to her drowning.
It seems like the case of the strange drowning of Natalie Wood will never fully be solved — regardless of whose hearts may sink realizing the truth.