November 29th 1981, Thanksgiving weekend
Cause of death: drowning and other undetermined factors
When one of the world’s biggest movies stars mysteriously drowns on a holiday weekend on her yacht with her husband and her co-star aboard the ship, people are going to talk. And When the case is re-opened nearly two decades later because a whiteness changes his story, well… then, as they say in Hollywood, the plot thickens. This is the mysterious death of Natalie Wood.
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved. Listener digression is advised.
With big brown eyes and infectious smile, Natalie Wood, was one of the brightest child stars of the 1940’s and gracefully made the transition to sultry superstar as she grew into a leading lady. But on Thanksgiving weekend of 1981, that all came to an untimely end when Natalie’s lifeless body was found floating face down in the Pacific Ocean off of the shore of Catalina Island. She was just 43 years old.
So, what happened to Natalie Wood? This case has stumped and infuriated investigators and Wood’s fans alike for years and it wasn’t until, nearly two decades later, the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, came forward a changed his story... stating that he lied on the night of Wood’s death. So… what happened that night? And what does this change of story mean for the mysterious death of Natalie wood?
Let’s start at the beginning
Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zatrarenco on July 20th, 1938 in San Francisco, California to Russian Immigrant parents. Her and her sister, Lana, both showed excitement for the arts and loved performing for anyone who would watch. Their mother took notice and made it her mission to turn the girls into stars.
Natalie began acting at the age of four and by the time she was 25 she had received three academy award nominations. She starred in movies such as West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause and Gypsy, among others.
But her first role was a bit part in a 15 second scene in the 1943 film Happy Land. And while her role was belief, she made an impression on the director who remained in contact with the Wood’s family for years. When another role that Natalie was right for came up, he contacted the Wood’s family and asked for Natalie to test. According to reports, her mother was so excited she just packed the whole family up to move to LA
Her breakout role was a co-starring role in mega-hit Miracle on 34th Street which she worked on when she was just 8 years old.
According to reports, Natalie’s parents had conflicting views on their young daughter’s career, with her mother wanting to make Natalie a star and her father opposing the idea. Ultimately, her mother won and Natalie’s young career continued to blossom.
Natalie went on to star in a number of high-profile projects and was nominated for a number of awards from Golden Globes to the Oscars and became one of the most beloved actresses in the world.
While working on a film, Natalie crossed paths with Robert J. Wagner – also knows as RJ – and according to reports, she developed a crush on this dashing young star almost immediately.
Robert John Wagner, Jr. was born in Detroit Michigan on February 10th 1930. He gained notoriety after starring in a number of hit television shows such as It Takes a Thief, Switch and Hart to Hart. While Wagner did have a number of film roles, he garnered a reputation as more of a television actor.
On her 18th birthday, they went on a studio-arranged first date.
A little over a year later, on December 28, 1957, a 27-year-old Wagner married 19-year-old Wood.
The young duo because the “it” couple in Hollywood. Being photographed regularly at events, red carpets and dinner with other Hollywood big wigs.
In 1961, Wood starred opposite Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass and then in the mega-hit West Side Story. Both garnered Wood incredible attention and accolades. But her marriage to Wagner was on the rocks. Wood was under immense pressure to perform in both her person and professional life was mounting.
Wood and Wagner’s relationship started to head south. The pair allergy began bickering and according to reports, Wagner was always jealous of Wood’s stardom and would often refer to her as the movie star and himself as just the lowly TV actor. Nowadays, working in TV is just as respected (hello Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies) as working in movies (or better in my opinion) but back then, television was seen as secondary to movies. And in Wagner’s eyes, Natalie’s star was bigger than his.
I’m no psychologist, but that to me sounds like an unhealthy relationship.
The pair separated in June of 1961 and finalized the divorce in 1962.
Shortly after, Natalie met British film producer and writer, Richard Gergson. The pair married on May 30th 1969 and the next year, Natalie gave birth to their daughter, Natasha. They pair split in early 1972.
That same year, Natalie rekindled her relationship with the love of her life, Robert Wagner (also known as RJ) and the pair wed for a second time on July 16th 1972. The pair had their first child together, Courtney, in 1974.
By all accounts, Wagner and Wood were the real deal. The kind of couple that would fight through anything to get back to each other. The pair stayed together until her death in 1981.
But their relationship was anything but perfect. Now, I know only the two people in the relationship really know what’s going on, but from outside accounts, Wagner and Wood fought frequently.
In November 1981, Wood, Wagner and Wood’s costar, Christopher Walken took Wood’s yatch, the splendor out for the weekend and docked off of the coast of Catalina Island, about an hour off of the coast of southern California.
Natalie had always been afraid of water and didn’t know how to swim. That fear might have been instilled by her mother who shared the same deep-rooted fear.
In the early morning hours on November 29th 1981, Natalie Wood’s body was found floating in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Catalina Island where her yacht had been docked for a weekend away with her husband and current film co-star, Christopher Walken.
The day before her death, the trio spent the day drinking and partying and having a good time, but that didn’t stop Wood and Wagner from getting into it. It got to be so bad, that Wood as Davern to take her and Walken to shore so they could sleep in a hotel and allegedly give Wagner time to cool off. The next day, Wood and Walken returned to the ship and everyone brushed the scuffle from the night before under the rug. All seemed good until the night dragged on and Wagner (can we talk about how everyone has a W last name in this case) told investigators that a wine bottle was broken because of the motion of the boat.
Wagner later changed his story and admitted that he smashed the wine bottle on the table in front of Walken and Wood because he was a jealous man. Wagner allegedly had broken the bottle in a fit of anger over his assumption that Wood was in a relationship with her co-star. He said that they just seemed too close. Wood and Walken tried to defend themselves stating that they weren’t having an affair but allegedly Wagner wasn’t hearing it. According to reports, Walken excused himself to his quarters to let the couple work it out and he never saw Natalie alive again.
Now, that is one lie that Wagner told police. If there is one, there is probably others.
After the bottle is smashed on the table, allegedly Walkin goes to his room where he stays until he learns of Natalie’s disappearance. Convenient, right?
Devern heard the couple fighting and according to reports, he says that the fight sounded physical and this went on for a bit and then it went silent. Allegedly Devern went up to the deck to see what was going on and he saw Wagner standing there, but Natalie was gone.
Now, I recognize that this is all he-said-she-said but in 2011 the case was re-opened. QUOTE “The case was reopened in November 2011 after Davern publicly stated that he had lied to police during the initial investigation and that Wood and Wagner had an argument that evening. He alleged that Wood had been flirting with Walken, that Wagner was jealous and enraged, and that Wagner had prevented Davern from turning on the search lights and notifying authorities after her disappearance. Davern alleged that Wagner was responsible for her death.”
The story is that Wagner and Wood had a fight and Wood got mad went out in the Dingy. This is weird for a number of reasons. 1. The night before, when Wood had wanted to go to shore, she had asked Davern to take her. 2. She didn’t know how to operate the dingy 3. All she was wearing when she was found was a thin nightgown on the cold November night.
This case should be pretty simple. There were four people on the boat, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken and the captain of the ship, Dennis Davern. With one of them dead, that leaves three suspects. So who did it?
An investigative report on her autopsy reveals this
1.Six hours after her death her body was found floating, face down, a mile away from her yacht
2.She had multiple bruises on her face, arms and wrist.
3.Her legs were covered in bruises and they went down her right knee and left ankle.
4.Overall, 28 bruises were counted on the front of her body and 11 were counted on the back.
Allegedly one fall caused all 39 of these bruises…. Allegedly.
Here’s the kicker…the corner found that Natalie’s bladder was essentially full at the time of her death. Now, according to reports, if she had fallen into the water and didn’t know how to swim, then her “fight or flight” response would have kicked in and her bladder would have released due to the state of shock her body would have endured. BUT if she was knocked unconscious before entering the water, her body would not have had the same response.
I am totally speculating here, but it appears that she was rough up a bit and knocked unconscious before being thrown in the water.
This case has garnered so much attention over the years because of the high-profile nature of those involved. Countless theories and investigative reports have been done on the case and so why did it take so long for us to start to put the actual story together? Well, my guess, is because everyone lied that night (or at least, didn’t know the full story).
So now, that Wagner’s story has been disproven (or at least holes have been poked) we can safely start to question Wagener seriously and hopefully get some answers. With all three of the men who were there at night still alive and the case reopened, it is finally time to get some answers on what really happened to Natalie Wood.
So what caused investigators to re-open the case?
The investigation was re-opened in 2011 after the captain of the Splendor, Dennis Davern, came forward and stated that his original testimony was untrue. Robert Wagner was named an official suspect in the death of Natalie Wood in 2018. In 1981 Wood’s death was deemed to be caused by drowning, in 2012, the Los Angeles County Corner Chief changed her death certificate from “cause of death: drowning” to “cause of death” drowning and other undetermined factors.”
So why would Davern lie in the first place? According to reports… it was because Wagner promised him fame and fortune… literally. Davern admitted to wanting a career in Hollywood and Wagner allergy promised him one if he went along with his story. Now, this is all based on Davern’s statements, and if they are true, it doesn’t look like Wagner held up his end of the bargain. While Davern had a few roles here and there, they don’t amount up to more than a blip on the Hollywood radar.
This case is so deep and so fascinating, I wanted to continue the conversation with old Hollywood fil buff and film critic, Kristen Lopez to go deeper into what really happened that night. (Interview available on the podcast episode).
So what are your thoughts? Did Natalie really die in a tragic accident? Or is there more to the story? Tweet me at hollywoodlandpc or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know your thoughts.
Next time on Hollywoodland: Unsovled. What makes a father brutally murder his wife in her sleep, attempt to murder his eldest daughter and then commit suicide? Even worse, why has that house sat vacant for over 5 decades after these brutal attacks? This is the Loz Feliz Muder HOuse
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