It was a crisp November day 39 years ago. Four people went for a boat ride off the southern coast of Los Angeles aboard a 55-foot yacht, the Splendour. But on November 29, 1981, only three people made it back safely to shore. The fourth, actress Natalie Wood, would never see her home or children again.
Details surrounding the Hollywood icon’s tumultuous past and dramatic relationship with actor Robert Wagner have come to light in recent years. And while her death was declared accidental, these new details shed some light on what actually happened that fateful night at sea.
We not only take a look at her murky and controversial death but celebrate the life of one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, Natalie Wood.
Natalie Wood’s life is like a wooden matryoshka doll. When you open one doll, you find another one inside, over and over again. People who think they know Wood’s sparkling life are often taken back by the details and reality of her childhood. The child actress was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian immigrants in July 1938 in San Francisco, California.
Her father, Nikolai, had a drinking problem and often terrorized his family with his alcohol-fueled outbursts. Maria, her mother, was a stage mom whose childhood dream was to become an actress or ballet dancer. Maria lived vicariously through Natalie while counting on her to become the breadwinner of the family.
Much of Maria’s pushiness also stemmed from a meeting she had with a gypsy as a child. Her family had just escaped to China during the Russian Revolution, and her parents took her to get her fortune read. Maria was told that her second daughter would be “a great beauty, known throughout the world.” But the fortune-teller also warned that while she would be beautiful, she would need to “beware dark water.”
So when Natalie was invited to a screen test in Los Angeles as a child, her mother was ecstatic that the prophecy was coming true. Even before Natalie got the part, Maria moved the entire family to the City of Angels.
This move was just the beginning of Maria’s reign as a stage mom. After Natalie received a few small parts in Hollywood, Maria was determined to make her daughter a star. She had her eyes on a part in Irving Pichel’s 1946 film Tomorrow is Forever. Natalie was up for the part of an emotionally fragile orphan, but in order to win the part, the child actress was going to have to cry on cue.
Maria didn’t trust her daughter’s abilities and took to a more extreme route to turn the waterworks on. Seconds before the screen test, Maria whispered into the seven-year-old’s ear to think about their family dog dying. But Natalie’s crying wasn’t up to Maria’s standards.
According to author Suzanne Finstad, Maria took her daughter aside and pulled out a jar with a live butterfly inside. She then started to tear the wings off, which sent Natalie into hysterics. As soon as Natalie started to cry, Maria called out, “She’s ready!” and pushed her in front of the camera. Well, sad or not, the stunt worked.
Natalie was cast alongside Orson Welles in the film, she signed a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox. The child actress was known for being hardworking and professional, even though she was only seven years old at the time. In fact, she was so good that she learned other people’s lines as well as her own, earning the nickname “One Take Natalie.”
It wasn’t until Natalie starred in the Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street that she became America’s sweetheart. The movie was an immediate hit, and Natalie was so popular that Macy’s asked her to appear in their annual Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. By the time Natalie turned nine, Parents magazine had named her the “most exciting juvenile motion picture star of the year.”
The child actress went on to play the role of the daughter in several family movies, such as No Sad Songs for Me, The Jackpot, and The Star. Even as Natalie became a teenager, she would wear frilly dresses and pigtail braids so she could be cast in much younger roles. But like many child stars, Natalie’s rebellious stage was right around the corner.
When the actress turned 16, she began filming the iconic film Rebel Without a Cause. The angsty 1955 film was groundbreaking, and fans finally got the chance to see Natalie in a totally different light. The actress played the girlfriend of a troubled outsider, played by James Dean. Natalie was praised for her performance, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
But the actress’s rebelliousness wasn’t just confined to her work life—it affected her personal life as well. While filming Rebel Without a Cause, she had an affair with director Nicholas Ray, who was 44 years old at the time. And, according to Finstad, Natalie also had a fling with her co-star Dennis Hopper.
By now, Natalie was a teen icon. She dated entertainers like Elvis Presley and ‘50s heartthrob Tab Hunter. In Tab’s case, however, the relationship was just for publicity as the actor was still in the closet at the time. But it wasn’t until Natalie started dating actor Robert Wagner that everything changed.
Although the actress didn’t formally meet the actor until her 18th birthday, she had a crush on him dating back to before she was a household name. “I was 10, and he was 18 when I first saw him walking down the hall at 20th Century Fox,” she told People magazine in 1976. “I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m going to marry him.’”
It was actually the studio that arranged the couple’s first date on Natalie’s 18th birthday in 1956. Robert was a huge Hollywood star, and the studio saw it as a great opportunity to get the actress some publicity. But seeing that Natalie had had a crush on the actor for over eight years by this point, she was very happy with the studio’s decision.
The two hit it off, and, after less than a year, Robert proposed to the actress by dropping a pearl ring into her champagne glass. The lovebirds officially tied the knot in December 1957. Seeing as the two actors were huge Hollywood stars, the press had a field day with their relationship.
“We drove a Corvette across the country,” Natalie told reporters. “Radio stations would announce we had just passed through, and people would wait for us in every little town.” As the newlyweds began their life together, Natalie’s career took off. The actress went on to star in Marjorie Morningstar, Splendor in the Grass, and her most famous role, Maria in West Side Story.
But while everything seemed perfect on-screen, things were falling apart in Natalie’s personal life. The couple separated in 1961, which came as a shock to the press, and divorced the following year. The specific reasons for the couple’s divorce were never confirmed, but the public had their speculations.
Some people believed that Natalie had an affair with her Splendor in the Grass co-star Warren Beatty. Other people, including the actress’s sister Lana Wood, believed that Natalie actually walked in on Robert cheating on her with another man. Regardless of the reasons behind the split, the divorce sent the actress over the edge.
She began attending therapy sessions, as many as five times a week, to get over her love for Robert. The two went on to start families with other people, but neither of their marriages lasted. Robert married actress Marion Marshall in 1963, who gave birth to the couple’s daughter Katie the following year. The couple divorced in 1971. Wood, on the other hand, had some trouble finding love.
The actress went on to date actor Warren Beatty, but their relationship was far from perfect. “We were both so confused that we thought fighting and hostility meant real emotional honesty,” the actress wrote in an unpublished article for the Ladies Home Journal. But the relationship soon became too much, and the couple called it quits in 1964.
By now, Natalie’s mental state wasn’t in the best shape, and it only got worse while filming The Great Race. According to Wood’s daughter Natasha, Wood was in a deep, dark hole. The actress was afraid that she was never going to have a healthy, happy relationship. One night it got so bad that Natalie took enough sleeping pills to end her life.
As soon as she took the pills, she ran to her friend and playwright, Mart Crowley, who stayed at her house that night. “It was really a cry for help,” Natasha said in the 2020 HBO documentary about her mother’s life. “After she swallowed the pills, she banged on Mart’s door so, obviously, she wanted to live.” Mart called paramedics, who pumped the actress’s stomach.
She miraculously pulled through and began attending therapy sessions, which was then called “analysis.” Her good friend, Mia Farrow, says that “With her own significant intelligence and a good therapist, she was able to make sense of some pretty severe nonsense that had come her way.”
Natalie went on to marry British film producer Richard Gregson in 1969. The couple had one daughter, Natasha, but divorced in 1971 after the actress overheard her husband speaking inappropriately with his secretary. Natalie had a brief fling with the future governor of California, Jerry Brown, but soon went running back to her first husband’s open arms.
Robert invited Natalie over to his house in Palm Springs, and the actress fell for him all over again. “Friends told me to put on the breaks,” the actress told People magazine. But the actress believed that their time apart did the couple well. “He had become a man instead of a boy.” Three months after her second divorce, Robert and Natalie wed for the second time.
This time, the couple’s marriage flourished. Robert’s career was taking off with ABC’s hit TV show Hart to Hart, and Natalie gave birth to their daughter Courtney in 1974. The actors were seen as the couple who overcame their obstacles, and everything seemed to be perfect from the outside. The couple, along with their newborn daughter and two kids from previous marriages, soon became the new “It” Hollywood family.
During this time, Natalie took on very few acting roles. Although some people say this was because the actress wanted to spend more time with her family, others say that it had more to do with finding work. By now, Natalie was reaching 40 years old and, in Hollywood in the ‘70s, that was considered old.
In 1981, Natalie began to work on her last film, Brainstorm. She played a scientist alongside actor Christopher Walken. Natalie initially feared that she looked older than Christopher on-screen (he was five years her junior), but the two struck up a friendship, and soon rumors were flying about the two being romantically involved.
David McGiffert, the film’s co-director, shared his experience with working with the two actors. “It wasn’t like they were lovey-dovey on the set or anything like that,” he told author Suzanne Finstad. “But they just had a current about them, and an electricity.” While this suspected affair didn’t sit too well with Robert, he seemed to brush off the rumors. But then came Thanksgiving weekend.
The couple invited Christopher for a weekend getaway on their yacht, the Splendour. Although Natalie was known to be terrified of the water, she loved the privacy that the boat provided her. The plan was to sail around Catalina Island, which is located just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The couple’s friend and Navy Vet, Dennis Davern, was the Splendour’s captain that fateful weekend.
According to the investigator’s report, the party of four left the yacht to have dinner at a nice restaurant on the island. At around 10 p.m., the visibly intoxicated group returned to the yacht aboard its dinghy. At 10:45 p.m., Natalie went upstairs to bed, leaving her husband and her co-star in the middle of a conversation.
But when Robert went to join his wife in the cabin, she wasn’t there. According to the police report, he and Christopher discovered that the dinghy was also missing and “immediately” radioed for help. The Harbor patrol, private divers, and the Coast Guard all combed the waters until the early hours of the morning. A Sheriff’s Department helicopter eventually located Natalie’s body in the water.
The actress was pronounced dead at 7:44 a.m. on November 29, 1981. Despite the “numerous bruises to arms and legs,” the actress’s death was ruled as an accident and “probably drowning in the ocean.” It was a typical open-and-shut case, and the actress was laid to rest a few days later. But three decades later, new details began to surface…
According to Dennis, the investigative report did not give the entire truth about what happened to Wood in the hours before her death. According to the captain, Natalie and Robert began to argue the day before her death. “The tension was going through the whole weekend,” he told Nancy Grace in a TV interview years after the incident. “Robert Wagner was jealous of Christopher Walken.”
It all started before the group met before dinner. Natalie and Christopher spent hours laughing and flirting at the bar on Catalina Island while waiting for Robert to show up for their dinner reservation. When Robert finally arrived and saw his wife flirting with her co-star, he was fuming. But according to Dennis, Robert swallowed his pride, at first.
Natalie, Robert, Christopher, and Dennis then headed to their dinner reservation at Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant, where they drank champagne, two bottles of wine, and a few cocktails. At one point, someone threw a glass at the wall, according to employees at the restaurant. The restaurant manager saw how intoxicated the group was and worried that they would not be able to reach their yacht without falling off the dinghy.
The group left at 10 p.m., and supposedly everyone made it safely onto the yacht 45 minutes later. But the story about what happened after the group left the restaurant has changed many times. According to Finstad, Christopher originally told police investigators that he and Robert got into a “small beef” when the group arrived back at the boat.
Apparently, the fight was about a parent leaving their children for a long time while filming a movie, as Natalie was doing. According to Christopher, apologizes were made and the fight died down. But in the most recent version, Dennis says that the fight never died down. In fact, it escalated so fast that Robert broke a bottle on the table and began to accuse Christopher of sleeping with Natalie.
The captain told Finstad that Christopher stormed off to his own room, and “that was the last I saw of him.” Then Natalie reportedly left her room, with Robert following, and the two began to fight. While Dennis didn’t see the couple, he heard the fight continue on the deck of the boat.
All of a sudden, “everything went silent.” After some time had passed, Dennis decided to check on Robert and Natalie, but when he reached the deck, he found Robert alone. “Natalie is missing,” Robert told Dennis. He then asked the captain to start looking for her. Dennis started searching the boat but obviously couldn’t find Natalie.
When the captain went to tell Robert that he had come up empty-handed, Robert said that “The dinghy is missing too.” Everyone knew that Natalie was deathly afraid of water, so Dennis says that he doubted that the actress took out the small boat herself. The captain also said that Robert refused to turn on the yacht’s floodlights and delayed calling for help because he was scared about bad publicity.
The investigative report also shows a key witness statement from Marilyn Wayne, who was on a boat that was anchored 80 feet away from the Splendour. Marilyn said that at around 11 p.m., she heard a woman calling out, “Somebody please help me, I’m drowning.” According to the witness, the screams continued for half an hour.
Apparently, Marilyn’s boyfriend tried calling the harbormaster, but the calls went unanswered. She also added that there was a party on another boat not too far from them, so she wondered if the calls for help were all a joke. But the most troubling part of the story is that there is a critical gap in the storyline.
Both Robert and Dennis have stuck with their story that they “immediately” notified authorities. But, in fact, the first call to notify police wasn’t until 1:30 a.m. So if Marilyn’s story is true and the screams ended at 11:30 p.m., why did it take two hours for Dennis and Robert to call the authorities?
And if Natalie was, in fact, screaming for help (and could be heard from 80 feet away), then why did Dennis, Robert, and Christopher not hear her cries for help? Over the years, the actress’s younger sister, Lana Wood, has repeatedly asked Robert to clarify his hazy details about what happened that fateful night. “She would never have left the boat like that, undressed, in just a nightgown,” Lana said.
After Dennis told reporters that he and Robert didn’t tell investigators the entire truth about that night, Natalie’s case was reopened. Unsurprisingly, Robert lawyered up and “cooperated” with investigators. The following year, the Los Angeles Country Chief Corner amended the actress’s death certificate, changing the cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and determined factors.”
The coroner’s office also included a statement that said it is “not clearly established” how Natalie ended up in the water. Forensic pathologist Michael Hunter also added that Natalie bruised easily because she took a thyroid medicine called Synthroid, with another doctor adding that her bruises were fitting to someone who was thrown off of a boat.
And then, in February 2018, Robert was named as a “person of interest” by the LA police department. “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Robert] more of a person of interest now,” John Corina of Los Angeles County sheriff’s department said in an interview with CBS.
“I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.” Investigators also noted that the autopsy report said that Natalie had fresh bruises on her upper body, including her wrists, and a fresh cut on her cheek. In an interview with 48 hours, Detective Ralph Hernandez said that Natalie looked like a “victim of an assault.”
The sheriff’s department is still working on piecing together what happened that night. “We have not been able to prove this was a homicide, and we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either,” Ralph said. “The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.” And there is another problem.
Robert was never formally charged with any crime relating to Natalie’s death. This means that any statements he gives to police are purely voluntary. According to an article by the Associated Press, investigators tried at least ten times to interview Robert after reopening the case in 2011, including tracking him down in Colorado, but he refused to speak every time.
Just the fact that the coroner’s office amended Natalie’s birth certificate, and the sheriff’s department named Robert as a person of interest, but cannot charge him, just deepens this tragedy. “Wood’s suspicious and gruesome death was never investigated, and she was wrongly and publicly blamed and shamed as the drunken cause of her own death,” Finstad says.
Over the years, Robert has maintained his innocence. “There are only two possibilities—either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy,” Robert wrote in his 2008 memoir. “But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.” The actor has also repeatedly claimed to be “shattered’ by the loss of his wife.
Courtney, the couple’s only daughter, was seven years old when her mother died. While it seems like the entire world thinks that Robert had something to do with Natalie’s death, Courtney believes that it is all nonsense. She has continuously expressed her love and support for her father. She even told one interviewer that “There are certain people in our lives that continue to drudge up all this speculation and stories every year for no other reason than to indulge themselves.”
We’ve talked a lot about Dennis and Robert, but what about Christopher? Like Robert, Christopher has said very little about his co-star’s death. In a 1997 interview with Playboy magazine (where he gave his fullest response to Natalie’s death), Christopher said that anyone there that night would have realized her death was just an accidental drowning, nothing more.
“You hear about things happening to people—they slip in the bathtub, fall down the stairs, step off the curb in London because they think that the cars come the other way—and they die,” Christopher told interviewers. “You feel you want to die, making an effort at something; you don’t want to die in some unnecessary way.” As of today, no one has been charged in Natalie’s death.
Investigators are still working on building a timeline of exactly what happened that night and are open to taking any other witness statements. Today, Robert lives in Colorado with his wife, actress Jill St. John, whom he started dating on Valentine’s Day 1982, just two and a half months after his wife’s death.