Why questions linger about Natalie Wood’s 1981 drowning death off Catalina Island

Nancy Bilyeau
Featured image
Getty Images

Hollywood mysteries have a way of seizing hold of us. To some, Marilyn Monroe’s death has contradictory, strange aspects to it, turning her 1962 demise into a cottage industry of books forwarding various dark theories. Unsolved crimes invite speculation, from the murder of silent-film director William Desmond Taylor to that of Hogans Heroes star Bob Crane.

But the death of actress Natalie Wood on November 29, 1981, is in a special category.  When news broke that the 43-year-old was found drowned off California’s Catalina Island after being declared missing from their yacht by her actor husband, Robert Wagner, the world was horrified. Wood had been a star since she was a child, winning hearts as Maureen O’Hara’s daughter in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947She dazzled in Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Splendour in the GrassGypsy, and other big-budget Hollywood pictures.

After an investigation by the Sheriff’s Department and an examination by Los Angeles’ Chief Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi, Wood’s death was declared accidental. New images flooded the newspapers and TV news, of a devastated Robert Wagner, wearing dark glasses.

Photo publicity still of Natalie Wood.

Wood and Wagner married twice. Their first date was on her 18th birthday; they married a year later. After the couple divorced in 1962, amid rumors of her having an affair with Warren Beatty, they married other people, split from those partners, and then wed once more in 1972. They were raising a family of three children, while Wood pursued film roles and Wagner starred in the hit series Hart to Hart. The couple still found time for short cruises on their 60-foot yacht, Splendour, which lifelong sailing devotee Wagner had purchased.

Even after the funeral of Wood and the accidental-death verdict, public interest remained intense and more details began to emerge about the weekend sailing trip that led to Wood’s death. A guest was aboard for a couple of days: Christopher Walken, then co-starring with Wood in the science-fiction film Brainstorm and hot off his Academy Award win for The Deer Hunter. The fourth person on Splendour was Dennis Davern, a young Navy vet who was the boat’s captain while also fulfilling other functions for Wood and Wagner. Among all of the mysteries and contradictions of the Thanksgiving weekend of 1982 on and off the island of Catalina, one thing is indisputable: Everyone was drinking heavily. Wood’s blood alcohol level was at least .14 percent when she died.

Wood with husband Robert Wagner in 1960

Such a grim death–found floating dead in the water in her nightgown, socks, and coat, after days of drinking–is very much the opposite of the image many fans had of Natalie Wood. She was a product of the Hollywood studio system, groomed and schooled within its walls and on its backlots. In fact, her polished, sparkling, vivacious beauty seemed almost too much for some critics. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael mocked her performance in John Ford’s The Searchers: She was a rancher’s daughter kidnapped in childhood by Comanches and finally tracked down by John Wayne, but Wood appears “in glossy makeup as if she were going to a 1950s prom.” Kael also derided Wood in West Side Story as a “machine-tooled” actress and “perfectly banal.”

That air of poised perfection belied an early background of deprivation and grueling pressure. “God created her, but I invented her,” Wood’s mother once said.

Film star Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco in 1938 to emigree parents. Her mother, Maria Gurdin, came from Siberia, part of a “White Russian” family that fled to Harbin, China, after the Bolshevik Revolution. One day while living in China, Maria sought out a fortune-teller who told her to “beware of dark water” and that she’d someday have a second child who “would be a great beauty, known throughout the world.”

Wood as Susan Walker in “Miracle on 34th Street,” 1947

Maria’s second husband was Nikolai Zakharenko, who had grown up in the eastern Siberia port of Vladivostok and also left after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. A miner and a sailor, he loved to play the balalaikia but would go on Vodka binges ranting about Communists and get into fistfights, according to the respected biography Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad. After his daughter Natasha (Natalie) was born, Zakharenko got a job as an elevator operator but “they didn’t have a penny to their name.”

Maria, obsessed with the silver screen, thrust her daughter into the movie business when she was five years old. Natalie was a talented and extremely reliable child star, nicknamed by grateful directors “One Take Natalie.” But having a childhood as breadwinner took its toll. Years later, Wood would seek out daily psychotherapy, and at times relied on alcohol or prescription drugs. Her rise to stardom, however, was meteoric, with Academy Award nominations for Rebel Without a Cause, Splendour in the Grass, and Love With the Proper Stranger.

What is not widely known now is that Natalie Wood’s career was seriously languishing in the years before her death. She’d not had a movie hit for a long time and was appearing in TV roles. Brainstorm, a studio film in which she appeared opposite Walken, five years her junior, could have been a comeback.

Wood with her sister Lana Wood in 1956

Revelations of what happened on the Splendour have come in waves after 1981. Initially, the public version was that Wood, Walker, Walken, and Davern had dinner at Doug’s Harbor Reef restaurant on Catalina Island, drinking three bottles of champagne and multiple daquiris. The group then took the yacht’s inflatable dinghy, named the Valiant, out to the Splendour. After a conversation between the three actors turned a bit heated over politics, Wood retired for bed alone. When Wagner went to join her in the stateroom, his wife was missing. He and Davern soon discovered the dinghy was missing too. Afraid of water–her mother had told her to fear “dark water” all her life–it seemed highly unlikely that Wood would take the dinghy out at midnight while wearing a coat over her nightgown. A search commenced. Wood’s body was found after dawn, with the dinghy nearby, its ignition key in “off” position and its oars in locked position.

No one could say how Wood ended up in the water. It was possible that she was upset about the earlier argument and wanted to reach Catalina Island. Wagner later said she might have been bothered by the sound of the dinghy banging the side of the yacht and wanted to move it, as he often had. Bruises were present on Wood’s body that Noguchi attributed to her possible stumbling on the yacht’s side or ladder, and then going overboard. Her blood alcohol level was at the point where judgment is compromised and a blackout could occur. There were also fingernail scratches on the side of the yacht that Noguchi said might have occurred when she tried to pull herself up. A theory is that she clung to the side of the dingy for a while as it drifted away, until exhaustion and hypothermia set in.

One piece to the puzzle that has never fit is the statement of a couple, John and Marilyn Payne, spending the night aboard their own yacht nearby, who heard a woman’s voice around midnight yelling, “Help me, someone please help me!” The voice came from the direction of the Splendour. How was it that Wagner, Walken, and Davern did not hear such a cry?

In the next phase of the investigation into Wood’s death, Dennis Davern comes to the fore. He had begun making light night calls, after drinking, to Wood’s sister, Lana Wood, saying that there was more to Natalie’s death than he’d told the authorities. In fact, he said Wagner had pressured him to lie to the police.  Lana Wood began to say publicly that there were unanswered questions about her sister’s death.

Press photo of Natalie Wood on the Paris set in Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race.”

In 2009, Davern’s book, co-written with Marti Rulli, was published: Goodbye, Natalie, Goodbye Splendour. In it, he changes his account of the night completely. He wrote that after a tense couple of days of fighting between Wood and Wagner, and Wagner’s unmistakable jealousy of Walken, the four of them returned to the Splendour that night, only for another argument to break out and turn ugly. It was not about politics. Wagner broke a wine bottle, shouting at Walken, “Are you trying to —- my wife?” and Wood stormed away. According to Dennis Davern, Wagner followed his wife into their room and they screamed at each other. A short time later, Wagner, looking “sweaty, flushed, anxious, nervous and disheveled,” came to find Davern and said, “Natalie is missing.”

What has always complicated Davern’s revised statement is his reliability, it’s widely known he’s continually trying to get journalists or producers to pay for his story. In 2016 he was attempting to sell photos and wooden artifacts from the Splendour to raise money. Lana Wood has also recently fallen on hard times. A Bond Girl in Diamonds are Forever, Lana was close to homeless in 2017, living with five family members in a hotel room outside of Los Angeles.

“Because of new information from multiple sources,” the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation into the death of Natalie Wood in November 2011. However, Lt. John Corina said at a press conference that Robert Wagner “was not a suspect.”

With Peter Falk in “Penelope” (1966)

After taking statements and examining the Splendour, now with a new owner, the authorities reclassified her death to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” No one was charged with a crime. However, two new troubling facts emerged. Some of the bruises on Wood’s body may have been sustained before she hit the water. And although Wagner told Davern his wife was missing by 1:30 at the latest, the Coast Guard was not notified until “hours later.”

Related story from us: When a Hollywood producer died shortly after a wild party on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, there were whispers Charlie Chaplin was involved

While there have been rumblings as recently as spring 2017 that a grand jury on Natalie Wood’s death would be called, no new police statements have been released. It’s not clear if the case is still open.

In his memoir, Robert Wagner wrote: “There are only two possibilities–either she was trying to get away from the argument or she was trying to tie the dingy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”