Inside the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood

A new ‘48 Hours’ report has labeled her then-husband, actor Robert Wagner, a ‘person of interest’ in her death—which has long remained one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

In 1981, Natalie Wood’s body surfaced in the Pacific, 200 yards off Catalina Island’s Blue Cavern Point. According to an upcoming 48 Hours report, Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water, Wood’s actor-husband at the time, Robert Wagner, is “more of a person of interest now” in the long-unsolved case.

On the night of her death, the 43-year-old Wood was a three-time Oscar nominee in the middle of filming her would-be comeback, the sci-fi film Brainstorm. After eating dinner together on Catalina Island, Wood, Wagner, and her costar Christopher Walken boarded the couples’ yacht. According to Vanity Fair, some of the staff at Doug’s Harbor Reef restaurant thought that the Wagner dinner party “was drinking rather heavily, and later remembered volatile behavior on Wood’s part.” The restaurant’s manager reportedly “warned” the harbormaster “to keep an eye out for their safety.” What happened that night on the Splendour has been contested ever since. Around midnight, the story goes, Wood slipped, either while attempting to exit the yacht or simply adjusting the dinghy attached to the ship. Eight hours later, the coast guard found her corpse.

While Wood’s death was declared accidental, with the coroner’s report revealing that Natalie “had drunk seven or eight glasses of wine” before drowning, there were reports that Wood had been heard by a nearby boat calling out for help. Additionally, the most innocent iteration of the story doesn’t quite add up; Wood was publicly terrified of drowning, once sharing in an interview that, “I’m frightened to death of the water… I can swim a little bit, but I’m afraid of water that is dark.” Would a woman who could barely swim really risk boarding a midnight dinghy, alone? Wood’s sister was dubious, telling CNN in 2010, “My sister was not a swimmer and did not know how to swim. She would never go to another boat or to shore dressed in a nightgown and socks.”

Wood was found in a flannel nightgown, red down jacket, and wool socks.

According to Vanity Fair, “Despite the fact that there were obvious inconsistencies in the testimony of the three principal witnesses, the police investigation was closed on December 11, less than two weeks after the tragedy, with the conclusion of ‘accidental drowning.’”

Davern recalled, Wagner returned, ‘tousled, sweating profusely, as if he had been in a terrible fight, an ordeal of some kind.’

If Wood’s death wasn’t an accident, Wagner appears to be the most suspicious witness. Wagner and Wood were first married on Dec. 28, 1957. In a 2009 article Wagner described their early interactions: “The first time I remember really talking to her was at a fashion show in 1956. She was beautiful, but still gave no hint about the mad crush she had on me. I later found she had signed with my agent simply because he was my agent. A month later, I invited Natalie to a premiere on what turned out to be her 18th birthday. At dinner, we both sensed things were different.”

Wagner continued, “I remember the instant I fell in love with her. One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life.” Wood and Wagner divorced in 1962, only to remarry in 1972. The two actors reconnected after failed second marriages, and remained married until Wood’s 1981 death.

In his 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart, Wagner wrote that, that night on the Splendour, Walken started lecturing about the West Side Story star’s professional life. “I got angry,” Wagner wrote. “Why don’t you stay out of her career?’ I said. ‘She’s got enough people telling her what to do without you.’” At one point, he recalled, “I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table and broke it into pieces.” In the memoir, Wagner claims that, “the last time I was with my wife, she was fixing her hair in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris… She was going to bed.

“I went below, and Natalie wasn’t there. Strange. I went back up on the deck and looked around for her and noticed the dinghy was gone. Stranger. I remember wondering if she’d taken the dinghy because of the argument, and then I thought, no way, because she was terrified of dark water, and besides that, the dinghy fired up so loudly, and we would have heard it, whether we were in the salon or on deck.”

Theorizing on Wood’s death, Wagner concluded that “nobody knows.” He continued, “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.”

Two years later, Walken finally discussed the incident publicly, insisting that “it was an accident.” Walken concluded, “The people who are convinced that there was something more to it than what came out in the investigation will never be satisfied with the truth. Because the truth is, there is nothing more to it.”

In the rich world of Natalie Wood conspiracy theories, there are a few other relevant voices that stand out. Thomas Noguchi, the former chief medical examiner in the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office, revisited Wood’s death in his 1983 book, Coroner. He wondered, “When she first fell off the swimming step into the water, why didn’t she simply swim a few strokes and reboard the yacht by way of the step? It must have been only a few feet away from her. Even with the heavy jacket, she could have accomplished this effort easily.” Noguchi asked, “Why had she slipped out to the stern of the yacht in the middle of the night, climbed down a ladder, and untied the dinghy? What was she doing? And where was she going? And why?”

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Then there’s Dennis Davern, the Splendour’s captain.

According to Vanity Fair, Davern “claims he has always believed that something more sinister occurred.” But Davern had changed his story since his initial report, causing the case to be reopened in 2011. Davern rehashed that fateful night for Vanity Fair, claiming that Wood stormed out after Walken and Wagner fought, and then Wagner went down to check on his wife. He told Vanity Fair that the couple was “fighting like crazy… I’d never in a million years seen them fight like that before. I just couldn’t believe it… You know, stuff getting thrown around.” Davern further claimed that the fight “got carried out into the cockpit,” and that he heard “the dinghy being untied,” and then silence. A while later, Davern recalled, Wagner returned, “tousled, sweating profusely, as if he had been in a terrible fight, an ordeal of some kind.”

In a Today show appearance, Davern said that he felt Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death: “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.’” He also took some personal responsibility, admitting that, “I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report.”

Davern told Vanity Fair that he was “baffled” by the notion of Wood taking to the dinghy—“If the stars aren’t out, it’s total darkness. There’s no place to go. Darkness all around. I wouldn’t go out on [the dinghy] at night.”

In 2012, the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office amended Wood’s official manner of death to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office claimed that his detectives had “tried to interview Wagner on more than 10 occasions, but had been turned down each time.” Wagner’s lawyer insisted in a statement that, “Mr. Wagner has fully co-operated over the last 30 years in the investigation of the accidental drowning of his wife in 1981… He has been interviewed on multiple occasions by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and answered every single question asked of him by detectives during those interviews.”

In the upcoming 48 Hours report, Corina posits that Wagner has “constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.” Furthermore, he claims that, “I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case.” Corina, who deemed Wagner a “person of interest” in the case, concluded that, “I don’t think she got into the water herself, I don’t think she fell into the water.”