The haunting tale of Natalie Wood has been a Hollywood mystery for nearly as long as there has been a Hollywood. Perhaps it is due to the suspicious nature of the death itself or the tales of her rampant infidelity and complicated personal relationships.
Whatever the reason was, Natalie’s mysterious drowning has had millions of people questioning “why” for almost 40 years. Today, some investigators believe they have finally cracked the motives and mysteries that still surround the actress’ tragic demise…
Natalie Wood’s sad story began in the beautiful, hilly city of San Francisco, California. She was born on July 20, 1938. Her parents, both Russian immigrants, knew almost immediately that their beautiful daughter was bound to be in show business. In fact, her mother fostered Natalie’s ability to perform from a very young age, even going as far as to enroll her in pee-wee ballet classes.
A Child Actress
By the time she was four years old, Natalie had landed her first film role. It was a bit part in a nothing movie, but it would prove to be the young girl’s first glorious foray into the world of film. The film, Happy Land, had been filming in nearby Santa Rosa, California. Little Natalie had followed her mother’s instructions to the letter and had won over the director in no time at all. She was a natural…
The dark-haired, doe-eyed young girl soon found her way into other, more famous films. She played an orphan in the 1946 drama, Tomorrow is Forever and even starred with Orson Welles. A year later, Natalie landed her most famous role to date: starring as the main character in the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street.
Rebel Without a Cause
When she turned 16, the teenage Natalie had become more beautiful than ever. She landed a part in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, which starred James Dean and Sal Mineo. The film was an iconic Hollywood classic and earned Natalie an Academy Award nomination for her work. It had finally happened, Natalie Wood was a true movie star…
Despite her initial success, Natalie struggled to get acting parts. Still, by 1961, she had landed another famous role. She starred opposite actor Warren Beatty in a film called Splendor on the Grass. The role would ultimately show Natalie’s range as an actress as it required her to play an emotionally fragile young woman driven to madness by love.
West Side Story
That same year, the success of Splendor granted Natalie the role of a lifetime. She played the title role of Maria Nunez in the film adaptation of the 1957 play West Side Story. Though she didn’t sing for the part, she did do all of her own dancing in the popular musical. Unfortunately, the success of her film career was starting to have an unwelcome effect on her anxiety…
Pressure to Act
Since her very first ballet class, Natalie had been pressured into the spotlight by her mother. As her career grew, so too did her anxiety. She felt forced into roles for which she was unsuited and yet was beholden to them under both contract, and her constant need for her mother’s approval. 1962’s Gypsy, which is about a domineering stage mother driving her daughter to perform, was the perfect part for Natalie.
Natalie Wood earned a lot of press for her stellar acting performances, even for those that she herself wasn’t exactly proud of. Nevertheless, her movie roles would not be the only part of her life that drew the attention of the press. Before long, Natalie would gain a reputation in Hollywood for dating some of the most eligible actors of the time….
Natalie enjoyed, though perhaps that’s not the right word, numerous relationships over the years. Many of them were public and made headlines throughout Hollywood, others, however, were secret dalliances. She dated her co-stars, colleagues and other stars as well, including superstar Dennis Hopper, hotel dynasty heir Nicky Hilton, and even singer Elvis Presley.
When Natalie turned 19, she married fellow actor Robert Wagner, a man eight years her senior. The couple drew much media attention and was covered by all of the Hollywood magazines of the time. Sadly, it seemed the two were not to be. A mere five years after being wed, the two split and Natalie became involved with her Splendor co-star, Warren Beatty….
Natalie’s need for “new love” and her penchant for floating from man to man, was only the first sign of an even deeper problem. In 1966, Natalie had reached a point of deep despair. Crippled by depression, she attempted to kill herself by overdosing on drugs. Once she recovered, she took a brief break from movies… but not from men.
Twist in the Tale
In 1969, she married writer and producer Richard Gregson. The two had a daughter, and it seemed that life was finally settling into a sense of normalcy for her. Unfortunately, Natalie’s volatile personal life was still a problem and she ended up divorcing Gregson in 1972. Rather than go for another new man, she decided to remarry Robert Wagner. The two soon hada daughter. Despite all this happiness, deep inside, Natalie was still hurting…
She returned to the screen a few years later, having found the life of a full-time homemaker to be a bit dull. Yet, the success of her former film career seemed to elude her now. Her final film, Brainstorm, co-starring Christopher Walken, was filmed in 1981: the same year of her death.
In November of 1981, Natalie and her husband Robert Wagner took a trip out to California’s Catalina Island on their boat, Splendour. During her time on the Brainstorm movie set, she had struck up a close friendship with her new friend and co-star, Christopher Walken. The three sailed out alone but once they were out at sea, some painful secrets floated to the surface…
Him too, Natalie?
Apparently, on November 29th, the three friends had been drinking pretty heavily. Feeling that they were all on the same page, a drunken Natalie admitted to having slept with Walken on the set of their movie. Wagner, drunk and in a fit of rage, broke a bottle and began to argue loudly with his wife while Walken watched on, bewildered.
Natalie wandered off into the boat in a tizzy while Wagner and Walken kept a reasonable distance from one another. When he went to look for his wife later that evening, Wagner found he was unable to locate her. The next morning, her body and one of the Splendour’s dinghies were discovered floating in the water off of Catalina….
Initially, Natalie Wood’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, that she had fallen in the water while drunkenly attempting to secure the boat. There was just one problem, drunk or not, Natalie wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the dinghy by herself: she had a widely-known, lifelong fear of water. The question remained, how did she get into the dinghy in the first place?
Was it an Accident?
Captain Dennis Davern, who was the only other person on the Splendour that night, was skeptical and very outspoken about the night Natalie died. As the captain of the Splendour, he had heard the terrible argument between Wagner and his wife on the night she disappeared and feared that the actor may have been responsible for Natalie’s death…
In November 2011, thirty years after the incident, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced that it would be reopening the investigation. The department had apparently received some new information about the case, including testimony from Captain Davern himself. Had Robert Wagner actually been behind his wife’s death after all?
Unfortunately, since that time, no specific details were released by the L.A.P.D. regarding any newly-discovered evidence or new suspicions as to the “murder” of Natalie Wood. However, it must be noted that the coroner did change the cause of death from “accidental” to “Undetermined” in 2012. Which means the answer is still out there.