Natalie Wood: The Rise And Tragic Demise Of One Of Hollywood’s Most Promising Stars

Natalie Wood was the embodiment of Hollywood glamour. With brunette tresses and a face made for the movie screen, the San Francisco native got her big break as a child actress before starring alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. She went on to act in several high-profile movies — but it would ultimately be her complicated romantic life, highly publicized marriages to Robert Wagner, and mysterious drowning in 1981 that would cement her legend.

A Promising Career Ends In Tragedy

With the circumstances surrounding her death shrouded in mystery and Wagner’s testimony of events ever-changing, the tragic tale has consumed fans for decades. Join us as we reflect on the highs, lows and devastating blows of a screen icon taken too soon and learn why new developments in the case have authorities claiming Wagner’s story just doesn’t add up.

She Was Born Natalia Zakharenko

Natalie Wood may sound like the perfect all-American name, but Natalie was actually born to Russian and Ukrainian parents, Maria Stepanova and Nicolai Zakharenko. Her father immigrated when he was a child with his mother and two brothers to Canada, later moving to San Francisco where Natalie was born in 1938. Her mother had dreams of being in showbiz from an early age, often telling her daughter of her desire to become an actress or a ballet dancer. Growing up in a bilingual household, Wood was able to speak both English and Russian, stating in her adult life, “I’m very Russian, you know.”

She Got Her First Movie Role At 5 Years Old

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It didn’t take long for Natalie’s star quality to be noticed. Her family was living in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County when members of a crew working on a film nearby told her mother that she had potential. Within a matter of months, her mother uprooted the family and moved to Los Angeles in order to give Natalie a shot on the silver screen. Studio executives David Lewis and William Goetz from RKO Radio Pictures began working with her, ultimately deciding to change her name to Natalie Wood. Not long before her fifth birthday, she landed a small part in the 1943 movie Happy Land.

As A Child, She Starred In Over 20 Movies

When things began to take off for Natalie, they really took off. At the age of eight, she landed her first major role in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street. After this, she was one of the most bankable and most popular child stars in Hollywood. Orson Welles, who directed her in Tomorrow Is Forever, said she was “so good, she was terrifying.” With her career in full swing, traditional schooling wasn’t an option. Instead, she was educated on the sets of her movies by a private tutor.

From Child Star To Sex Symbol

After starring as the Judy to James Dean’s Jim in Rebel Without a Cause, Natalie was signed by Warner Brothers and largely typecast into unsatisfying ‘girlfriend’ roles. Her career staggered to a brief halt as studios didn’t know how to cast her. No longer the sweet child of Miracle on 34th Street, but not quite an adult, the offers ran dry.

All wasn’t awry for Natalie though — and while her acting career may have been stalling, her personal life was just heating up…

Her First Marriage To Robert Wagner

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Natalie had always professed that from an early age, she had a crush on fellow actor, Robert Wagner, who was eight years her senior. Despite having already dated around the Hollywood scene, Robert was destined to be the one that stuck, even though Natalie’s mother was very much against the union. The pair hit it off after the studio arranged a date and they married a year later. Without realizing, the besotted couple had just entered into a lifelong relationship with the press — one that would outlive even Natalie herself. It would be the first of three marriages for the star.

Natalie’s Other Romances Included Elvis and Frank Sinatra

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Natalie may have married Robert Wagner, but she wasn’t all that innocent. By the time he rolled around, the young starlet had already been involved with some of the biggest names of the century. She was spotted out several times with Elvis in 1956 and also had a reported relationship with Frank Sinatra in the ’60s, although neither romance lasted long. Supposedly, it was Elvis’ domineering mother Gladys that put a stop to the relationship, believing the young actress wasn’t good enough for her son. After a brief encounter with her, the courtship was called off.

Divorce, Second Marriage, And Relationship With Warren Beatty

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Like many Hollywood relationships under the microscope, Natalie and Wagner filed for divorce after five years of marriage in 1962. In the years that ensued, she began a relationship with Warren Beatty while working on Splendor in the Grass. The pairing was far from idyllic and would be one of the most volatile and toxic relationships of Natalie’s life. After they went their separate ways in 1966, Natalie was so devastated she overdosed on sleeping pills. Thankfully, she recovered and went on to marry British producer Richard Gregson. The couple had one daughter, Natasha, who would go on to be an actress just like her mother.

Natalie Remarried Robert Wagner

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Unfortunately, her marriage to Richard Gregson was also short-lived. The couple split in 1972 after Natalie suspected the film producer was being unfaithful to her. Her first husband Robert Wagner had remarried but later divorced Marion Marshall. Although Natalie and Robert went their separate ways, they were about to find their way back to each other for the final time. Just three months after her divorce from Richard, she remarried Robert.

The Weekend Trip She Would Never Return From

In late November 1981, 43-year-old Natalie was filming Brainstorm, a science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull which also starred Christopher Walken. Natalie took a boat trip with her husband and Walken on the couple’s yacht, Splendour, something they would often do. They planned to travel to Santa Catalina Island, along with the captain, Dennis Davern. However, the voyage was to be Natalie’s last, and a Thanksgiving weekend that Hollywood would never forget.

Trouble In Paradise

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The group had sailed the 60-foot yacht to Catalina Island on Friday, November 27th. Looking forward to a break from the stresses of movie star life, the trio accompanied by Davern made the most of the idyllic setting, anchoring just off of Avalon and disembarking for drinks and dinner. The following day, they sailed to Isthmus and dined at a small restaurant. The manager would later tell police that Robert Wagner seemed to be drinking heavily, while Natalie was volatile. He asked the harbormaster to ensure their safety back to the yacht.

“This Is Splendour. Needs Help.”

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What happened next on that fateful November evening has been hotly speculated for decades with few questions solved. According to Robert Wagner, he and Natalie got into an argument and she retired for the evening. A while later, he stated that he went to check on the actress but couldn’t locate her — she wasn’t on the boat. After a frantic search of the yacht, himself and Davern put out a call for assistance at around 1.30 a.m. on November 30th. Radios nearby began picking up the signals which said, “This is Splendour, needs help.”

All Hands On Deck

Within the hour of reporting Natalie’s disappearance, the harbor was swarming with lights searching for any sign of the missing actress. A couple on a nearby boat was struggling to sleep due to the noise of a party on the beach when they picked up Robert Wagner’s call on the radio. “This is Splendour. We think we may have someone missing in an 11-foot rubber dinghy.” Not only was Natalie missing, but so was the small, motor-powered lifeboat, Valiant.

A Grisly Discovery

Despite frantic searches from Harbor Patrol boats, private boats of the Bay Watch, and Coast Guard helicopters, no one could find any trace of Natalie in the hours directly after her disappearance. It would be a Sheriff’s Office helicopter traveling to join the search at 7.30 a.m. that would finally locate the 43-year-old actress. One of the crew members spotted something red in the water and ordered the pilot to go down to investigate. It was Natalie, floating face down in the cold ocean waters, in her red jacket.

The Mystery Of Natalie Wood Unfurls

Natalie was found less than one mile south of Splendour, with Valiant found on a nearby shore. Almost immediately, detectives began to question her death. She was wearing a flannel nightgown, knee-length wool socks and a down-filled jacket — hardly attire appropriate for a boat ride. The dinghy also aroused suspicion. The gear stick was in neutral, the ignition turned off and the oars were tied down. It hadn’t been used — so why was the dinghy untied from the boat?

Natalie’s Autopsy And Cause Of Death Are Revealed

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AP Photo/Reed Saxon
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

The autopsy of Natalie showed that she had a blood-alcohol level of .14, which is .4 above the legal driving limit at the time. Her body was covered with a variety of bruises and she had an abrasion on her left cheek. It was assumed that the injuries had most likely occurred as she was fighting for her life against the cold, dark waves. The coroner ruled her death as an accidental drowning. The mother of two was laid to rest in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetary in Los Angeles, but the story was far from over. Hollywood was angry — and it wanted answers.

Hollywood’s Search For The Truth

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While the official investigation into Natalie’s death had been closed, people wanted answers. This was a beloved friend, actress and mother. Two young children were without her. How did Natalie get into the boat? Why didn’t she take off the water-logged jacket that was weighing her down so she could climb back on board? How did Walken, Wagner and Davern not realize she was missing? Why didn’t Walken or Davern make a public statement regarding the events of that night? The world would continue to speculate on Wagner’s involvement in the series of events. It wouldn’t be until 30 years later in 2011, that things would take a dramatic turn.

The Case Is Re-Opened

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In 2011, the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, came forward and stated he had lied to police about what he had heard on the night of Natalie’s death. He said that the argument between Robert Wagner and his wife was very heated — and involved Christopher Walken too. Robert believed that Natalie was having an affair with the actor. According to Davern, Robert smashed a bottle of wine (Robert had told police the broken glass was due to rough seas) and screamed at Christopher to “get off my [expletive] boat!” His testimony led authorities to re-open the case. In 2012, the cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Was the mystery about to be solved once and for all?

Robert Wagner’s Version Of Events

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Robert Wagner has always maintained that he does not know how his wife ended up in the water that fateful night. Contrary to Davern’s allegations, Robert told police that the argument between himself and Natalie was minor. At the time, with the cause of death ruled as accidental, they saw no need to further question the actor, despite witnesses from a nearby boat claiming that they heard a woman screaming “Help me! Help me!” in the hours before Natalie was reported missing. After Davern’s statement, authorities tried to interview Robert but insisted that he wasn’t a suspect. Little did he know, that would all change in a few short years.

Robert Wagner Named Person Of Interest

After 36 years, police have now named Robert Wagner as a ‘person of interest’ in the death of Natalie Wood. According to Lieutenant John Corina, Robert’s version of events just doesn’t add up to what happened on that Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. Thanks to the re-opening of the investigation in 2011, authorities have new eye-witness accounts of the argument between the couple. Some say it was so bad that Davern went to check on them, before being sent away by Robert…then it went silent. Now 87 years old, Robert is refusing to talk to the authorities for reasons unknown.

With The Case Reopened, More Suspicious Details Have Surfaced

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Since the reopening of the investigation into Natalie Wood’s death, more unsettling details have come to light. With so many different accounts of the tragic events that took place on November 18, 1981, it’s hard to tell who is telling the truth and who isn’t. In any case, no one can deny that there are numerous contradictory facts surrounding Natalie’s demise. From the Los Angeles County Coroner changing Natalie’s cause of death three decades later to the starlet’s fear of water, take a look at some of the most suspicious elements of the unsolved case…

The Coroner Changed Natalie’s Cause Of Death 30 Years Later

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We already mentioned that the case was reopened in 2012, but the new details in the case have been nothing short of unsettling. On January 14, 2013, the Los Angeles County Coroner released a 10-page addendum to Natalie’s initial autopsy. While the original report released in 1981 stated that the bruises found on Natalie’s face, wrists, knees, and ankles were sustained from the star trying to climb back into the yacht, the coroner redacted these claims.

The new coroner’s report states: “The location of the bruises, the multiplicity of the bruises, lack of head trauma, or facial bruising support bruising having occurred prior to entry in the water.” This account has led even more people to point the finger at Wagner.

Robert Wagner Called The Coast Guard Just Weeks Before Natalie’s Death

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Many suspected that Robert Wagner wasn’t innocent following Natalie’s tragic death, but he wasn’t named a person of interest until nearly 40 years later. In January 2018, shocking new allegations surfaced regarding apparent phone calls Wagner made just weeks before the tragedy. According to Marti Rulli, author of Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, Wagner made a series of suspicious telephone calls to the Los Angeles and Long Beach U.S. Coast Guards base in San Pedro, California six weeks before Natalie’s death.

“There is evidence Robert Wagner called the Coast Guard to find out about search and rescue procedures,” Rulli said. “He wanted to know exactly what happens when someone is reported missing from a boat! I’m confident Natalie Wood’s death was not spur of the moment — it was in the works for a month!”

The Captain Waited Four Hours Before Calling The Coast Guard

One of the most suspicious elements of the case is the four-hour period in which Natalie was missing that cannot be accounted for. In some accounts, it is believed that after Natalie went missing Wagner forced Dennis Davern, the yacht’s captain (seen above next to Natalie), to hold off on calling the Coast Guard. All in all, Davern didn’t call the Coast Guard to report Natalie was missing for four hours. While it hasn’t yet been proved, many are drawing ties between the suspicious phone calls Wagner placed to the Coast Guards week before Natalie’s death and the intense commands he gave Davern.

In 2011, Davern Told Authorities Wagner Wouldn’t Let Him Call For Help

Shortly before the case was reopened, Davern released new information regarding the night of Natalie’s death. In his sworn statement, Davern claimed that Wagner appeared “sweaty, flushed, anxious, nervous, and disheveled” after realizing Wood was missing.

Also in his statement, Davern said that after realizing she was missing, Wagner led him through the statement, which was an absolute mess — despite it being spotless shortly before when he passed through after securing the dinghy a half-hour earlier.

But the most shocking part of Davern’s statement was that he had tried to call for help, but Wagner said no. “I immediately wanted to radio for help and to turn on the searchlight,” Davern said. “But Robert Wagner told me, sternly, “We are not going to do that. We will wait and see if she returns.’”

A Witness Heard Someone Cry For Help

Marilyn Wayne was a stockbroker whose boat was anchored close to the Splendour the night of Natalie’s death. Wayne claims that on that night she was awakened by a woman crying for help. “My cabin window was open. A woman’s voice, crying for help, awakened John and awakened me, ‘Help me, someone please help me, I’m drowning,” Wayne said in an interview.

After hearing the woman’s cries for help, Wayne said her husband John quickly turned on the yacht’s beam light but they couldn’t see anything. She called the harbor patrol officer but no one answered. Not long after, the cries stopped.

Marilyn Wayne Soon Received Death Threats

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Not long after Natalie passed away, Wayne received a death threat. In a sworn statement submitted to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Wayne said. “‘I had a “client box” designed for clients to drop off their messages through a slot in the front. Three days after Natalie died, I found a scribbled message on a torn piece of paper in my box that read, “If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know. “I immediately suspected it was related to Wood’s death because that’s all anyone had been talking about. I was disturbed and even told an attorney about the threat.”

Everyone Was Very Intoxicated That Night

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On the night that Natalie passed away, she, along with Wagner, Davern, and her co-star Christopher Walken, had gone out to eat. Don Whiting was the night manager of the restaurant said he was concerned for the four, who drank multiple bottles of champagne with dinner and were far too intoxicated to make it back safely to their yacht in the dinghy. Whiting was so concerned that he even asked Kurt Craig of the Harbor Patrol to make sure the four returned safely. The toxicology reported that was released after Natalie’s death revealed her blood alcohol content had been 0.14, which is enough to impair motor function and physical control.

While some believe this could mean Natalie was so drunk that she very well could have taken the dinghy out herself. Others, however, believe Wagner could have intended for her to black out all along carry out an evil plan.

Natalie Had An Extreme Fear Of The Water

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Natalie and Wagner had spent lots of time on their yacht together, but the Oscar-nominated starlet was vocal about her fear of the water. In fact, just a few short weeks before her tragic death, Natalie said in an interview that she was “afraid of water that is dark.” During her career, Natalie struggled to film certain scenes that involved her being in the water. While filming the 1961 movie Splendor in the Grass, Natalie was supposed to film an important scene that took place in a water reservoir. She was so scared of the idea that she begged director Elia Kazan to let her film the scene in a small tank inside of the studio.

Considering Natalie had a fear of dark water, it is highly unlikely that she would have taken the dinghy out by herself — especially in the middle of the night.

Natalie Wasn’t Dressed Accordingly

One suspicious fact surrounding Natalie’s death is what she was wearing when her body was discovered. She was located a mile south of the yacht near an isolated cover called Blue Cavern Point. However, Natalie wasn’t dressed like someone who planned to go out in the water. Instead, she donned a nightgown, knee-length wool socks, and a red down jacket. While the star’s body was being examined 24 hours later, it was noted that her clothes were still wet and her sopping jacket weight between 30 and 40 pounds — clearly something that caused her to struggle in the water.