The Deep, Dark Ocean and Natalie Wood

If you’ve seen the critically acclaimed movies West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, you know Natalie Wood. A child actress-turned-critically-acclaimed-star, Wood was well loved during her career. Nobody expected her untimely death in 1981, at age 43.

In time for Thanksgiving, I’m taking a look at what really happened aboard Wood’s Yacht, the Splendour, with her husband, Robert Wagner. Wood and Wagner married into a complicated relationship in 1957, and they divorced in 1962. Wood remarried and divorced, and she married Wagner again in 1972.

On November 29, 1981, Wood was found dead in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Catalina Island.

Natalie Wood’s Yacht, The Splendour

Wood had been spending Thanksgiving weekend on her yacht with her husband Wagner, co-star Christopher Walken, and the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern. On November 29, She was found face down in the water, in a flannel nightgown, a down jacket, and wool socks.

Immediately following her death, it was ruled an accidental drowning, the superficial bruises probably a result of falling overboard and trying to stay afloat. After her funeral, the case was formally closed on December 11, 1981.

Since then, conflicting statements and dubious evidence has caused this case to reopen, becoming a mystery to many. The story just didn’t make sense. The dinghy was untied, prompting the question: Where was she going?

In the book Natalie Wood: A Memoir by Her Sister (1984), Lana Wood writes that the chain of events didn’t match up; Wood was supposedly scared of dark waters. Why would she be travelling alone, on the water, late at night?

Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner

Wagner’s statement in his book from 1986, Heart to Heart with Robert Wagner, differs greatly from his original statement to the police. In his original statement, he said that that night he and Wood had been arguing about the time away from family. In his book, he said that Walken and he had been engaged in a long political debate, and Wood, bored, went to bed early. He claims that she must’ve been irritated by the dinghy, a smaller boat, making noise, and gotten up to tighten in, promptly falling in the water. This began the long line of inconsistencies in the mystery surrounding that night.

For years after Wagner’s book, the case had no new leads, that is, until the captain, Dennis Davern, finally talked about his side of the story in a magazine article from 2000. Davern said that Walken and Wood had been openly flirting all night, causing Wagner to become angry. After a brief confrontation with Walken and a long argument behind closed doors between Wood and Wagner, Wagner returned sweaty, and “tousled.” The captain claims to have heard the dinghy being untied at the time of the argument as well. Davern and Wagner were the only two still awake, and they had more drinks together before Wagner exclaimed that he was going to check on Wood. When Wagner reported that Wood wasn’t in her bed, and after a serious search of the yacht, Davern suggested they turn on the floodlights and look for Wood in the water. To his surprise, Wagner refused, claiming that they didn’t need to cause too much worry too early on. They didn’t officially radio for help until much later.

In Wagner’s 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart, he wrote the following statement:

“There are only two possibilities – either she was trying to get away from the argument or she was trying to tie the dinghy,” he wrote. “But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”

After years of Davern fighting for the case to be reopened and Wagner named as a person of interest, they finally won in 2011, when the case was reopened by the police. In 2018, the police reclassified the death as “suspicious,” and finally named Wagner as a suspect. With Wagner at the ripe old age of 89, we may never get to know what happened to Natalie Wood in November of 1981. Although, with the case officially reopened, in time, the answers people have been waiting for for four decades might finally come out.

Robert Wagner “Saying Goodbye”, kissing Natalie Wood’s coffin at funeral.