On a cool November day 38 years ago, four adults went for a cruise off the southwest coast of Los Angeles aboard Splendour, a 55-foot yacht. Three of those adults would come safely back to shore. The fourth would never see home again. She’d never work again or see her children reach adulthood. She was discovered floating in the water in a flannel nightgown, socks, and a down jacket the next morning.
In this story, the unlucky adult was also the most famous adult, movie star Natalie Wood, who was 43 at the time. She had been a beloved child actress, first capturing national attention in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street—she played the skeptical, precocious Susan Walker—and then as a beautiful ingenue in such films as the 1961 musical West Side Story, in which she played a graceful Maria. By the age of 25, she had been nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Actress, for her leading roles in Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, and Love With a Proper Stranger.
But perhaps because of her tragic end, when you hear the name “Natalie Wood” today, you don’t think first of her storied career. To wit: There are 38 million Google results for the search term “Natalie Wood death.” While the circumstances surrounding her death remain murky and controversial, we can agree that in dying so young, and so mysteriously, Wood’s talent was denied a proper legacy.
In 1981, Natalie’s death was classified as an accident and “probable drowning in ocean.” Prominent Los Angeles coroner Thomas Noguchi cited in his report “numerous bruises to arms and legs” that were “superficial and probably sustained at the time of drowning” and wrote, “No other trauma noted and foul play is not suspected at this time.”
The investigator’s report attached to Noguchi’s document said that Wood and a small party that included her husband, Robert Wagner, had left the Splendour for a restaurant dinner on Catalina Island. At about 10 p.m., the “intoxicated” group returned to the yacht, using its dinghy, Valiant. Robert Wagner told the investigators that Natalie retired for the night in the couple’s cabin at about 10:45, but after talking for a while longer with their guest, Natalie’s co-star at the time Christopher Walken, Wagner went to join her in the cabin, only to find her missing.
Wagner and the others soon discovered the dinghy was also missing, and they “immediately” radioed for help. Harbor Patrol, private searchers, and eventually the Coast Guard all combed the water and island coastline, and a Sheriff’s Department helicopter eventually spotted Natalie’s floating body. She was pronounced dead at 7:44 a.m. on November 29th.
Wood’s funeral, held on December 3rd, showed a devastated, weeping Wagner, surrounded by friends, family, and the cream of the entertainment world: Laurence Olivier, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, and Rock Hudson.
Instead of finality, Wood’s death only seemed to provoke questions, and three decades later, in 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation. And at a press conference in February of 2018, Captain Christopher Bergner of the homicide department said “new witnesses” and those with relevant information had been identified and a different timeline had emerged of Natalie Wood’s last hours on the boat and when help was requested.
At that February press conference, John Corina, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau, said that Robert Wagner, 88, was “a person of interest” in her death and they would like to speak with him again and hear his version of events. The new witnesses, he said, were people in boats moored near the Wagner yacht who heard a couple loudly arguing as well as a woman calling for help.
“[Wagner] is a person of interest, because he was the last one with Natalie Wood. And somehow she ends up in the water and drowns,” said Corina.
“The case is still open,” says Suzanne Finstad, author of Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. (Natasha was the name her Russian family called her.) When Finstad’s book was published in 2009, it contained startling claims about arguments between Wood and Wagner shortly before she was declared missing from their yacht. The source was the fourth person on the boat, its captain, Dennis Davern, who is now 71. In the February press conference, Corina said the witness statements from those who heard a couple fighting matched up with what Davern has said in recent police interviews.
Corina added that his department have also talked to witnesses who saw the group on Catalina Island that weekend as well as people who knew Wagner and Wood. Some of the details that have emerged about the last hours of the yacht are ugly, with whispers of drunkenness, rage, and accused infidelity.
The life of Natalie Wood is like a Russian matryonshka doll, a set of wooden dolls nesting in one another. When you pick up one doll, you find another inside, over and over. Even those who thought themselves familiar
with the life story of the sparkling Wood would be taken aback by the reality of her childhood.
Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, Wood was the daughter of Russian immigrants. (Studio executives changed Natalia’s name to Natalie Wood when she first started acting as a child.) Her father, Nikolai Zakharenko, was a laborer given to violent alcoholic rages, and her mother, Maria, was a fantasist and abusive taskmaster who drove her tiny daughter to become the family breadwinner, according to Finstad’s biography and other books, documentaries, and articles about Wood.
Maria’s family fled to China after the Russian Revolution, and when she was a child, she said she had her fortune read by a gypsy in Harbin. The fortune teller told her that her second child “would be a great beauty, known throughout the world.” But she also said that Maria must “beware of dark water.” Maria passed on that fear to her second daughter, while pushing her to fulfill that first prophecy.
PROC. BY MOVIES