Natalie Wood: Remembering Her Life and Death After Boat Accident

Some celebs achieve strange immortality because they died young, beautiful and under mysterious circumstances. There have been years of conspiracy theories about Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and Whitney Houston, for example. But Natalie Wood is a special case because officials redefined her death, three decades after the fact.

Wood would be 85 this year; she was born July 20, 1938, and died Nov. 29, 1981. She and Robert Wagner — her husband from December 1957 to April 1962, then again from July 1972 until her death — were on their boat Splendour in Catalina for Thanksgiving weekend, along with guest Christopher Walken and the captain, Dennis Davern.

Everybody agrees on those facts; otherwise, it’s been decades of what Variety described at the time as “speculation and as-yet unanswered questions.”

Wood was found floating in the water, wearing a flannel nightgown and down jacket. On Dec. 1, 1981, Variety headlined that it was ruled “accidental.” L.A. County coroner Thomas Noguchi theorized she had been trying to board an inflatable dinghy and missed her step. He said “her intoxication was one of the factors involved in her inability to respond to an emergency situation.” 

Among the questions were why she would get on a dinghy on a cold, rainy night, whether she and Wagner had been fighting that evening and why there were so many bruises on her body and arms.

As Variety predicted, the speculation and questions continued for decades, fueled by the tabloids.

Wagner’s 2008 memoir offers the theory that Wood fell into the water as she was re-tying the dinghy that had been banging against the boat. The following year, Davern wrote his own book; he alleged Wagner had argued with Wood then pushed her in the water. Davern claimed he’d withheld info in 1981 because Wagner had intimidated him into silence. People from nearby boats said they’d heard arguments but hadn’t volunteered that information since it had been declared an accident.

At this point, the mainstream media joined in the speculation. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Office reopened the investigation in November 2011 and changed the cause of death to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Lt. John Corina and Detective Ralph Hernandez told interviewers the facts didn’t add up.

Wagner declined to speak to investigators and in February 2018 was named a person of interest, but he was not named a suspect.

Wood’s sister Lana wrote her book in 2021 and again points the finger at Wagner (“I don’t think that it was planned. It’s not first-degree anything, but it happened.”)

Walken has remained silent for the entire time. In 1981, he was starring with Wood in MGM’s “Brainstorm,” a science-fiction movie directed by the great Douglas Trumbull. Wood only had five days remaining on the film, but they included key scenes. For a year after her death, Variety carried multiple stories as MGM, the filmmakers and insurance carriers decided whether to complete the film or abandon it.

Finally, in fall 1983, “Brainstorm” was ready. Variety’s review said it was all about the visuals, not character or plot: “Majority of players, including stars Walken and Wood, seem merely along for the ride.”

But Wood’s death hung like a cloud over the film — and, to some, over her whole career.

She worked frequently as a youngster in titles like “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” (which also included Monroe in the cast), “Father Was a Fullback” and “The Silver Chalice.” But she first made an impact in the 1947 Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street.” (which was oddly released during the summer).

The 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause” established her as a teen fave and a real actor; at 17, she earned her first Oscar nomination. (The film, still admired, stars three young actors who all died tragic deaths: Wood, James Dean and Sal Mineo.)

After a key role in “The Searchers” (1956) with John Wayne, Wood starred in two 1958 dramas, “Marjorie Morningstar” with Gene Kelly, and “Kings Go Forth,” with Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis.

But a peak years was 1961, with “Splendor in the Grass” (her second Oscar nom) and “West Side Story.” Variety praised Wood and Warren Beatty in the former film (which showed “great care, compassion and cinematic flair”) and raved about “West Side Story” saying Wood was “entrancing.”

Her third and final Oscar nom came with the then-daring “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1963), in which she becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with Steve McQueen.

In 1965 and 1966, she co-starred with rising star Robert Redford in “Inside Daisy Clover” and “This Property Is Condemned.” (Wood and Redford had originally met, briefly, when both attended Van Nuys High School.)

After three years away from acting, she had a big hit with Paul Mazursky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969); she didn’t make another film for six years, aside from a cameo as herself in Redford’s “The Candidate.”

She did some of her best work on television, including Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), with Wagner and Laurence Olivier, and the miniseries “From Here to Eternity” (1979).

Like most actors, she had career ups and downs, and her output wasn’t prolific; fans remember the classics and ignore the low points. Younger generations may not know most of her work, but might remember hearing about her death; it was a lonely and sordid ending for someone who had been in the public eye most of her life. Wood played many characters who were true-blue reliable, and others who were high-strung and neurotic. In every case, audiences liked her and wanted to see her have a happy ending — which is just one reason why real life is tougher than movies. 

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