Wednesday 22 November 2017

Still waters run deep - the drowning of film star Natalie Wood

As new revelations emerge about the drowning of film star Natalie Wood in 1981, our reporter examines the case that still has Hollywood fascinated all these years later, and looks back on her controlling mother - who pimped her out at age 15 to 38-year-old Frank Sinatra - and her complex relationship with Robert Wagner, the man she married twice

Actress Natalie Wood in a photo shoot circa 1960. Photo: Getty
Actress Natalie Wood in a photo shoot circa 1960. Photo: Getty
Natalie Wood with Robert Wagner, who she married twice, in 1959. Photo: Getty
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It was to be Natalie Wood's final scene. At 7.45am on November 29, 1981, the body of the triple-Oscar nominee - Love with the Proper Stranger, Splendor in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause - was found in a dark and lonely cove off Santa Catalina Island.

The terrible irony of her death that night was that in 1980, Natalie had said in an interview: "I've always been terrified, still am, of water; dark water; sea water..."

There is an apocryphal story that a fortune teller had once told Natalie Wood's mother, Maria, that she would drown... and this fear of water had been passed on to her child.

The star who was called 'The Most Beautiful Teenager in the World' by LIFE magazine in 1956 was dead at 43 years of age - her body floating just beneath the surface of the water.

It remains one of Tinseltown's greatest mysteries.

It was from her 55-foot cruiser Splendour that Natalie Wood had vanished at 11pm the night before; with unconfirmed reports that there were shouts heard from the water that night. (Marilyn Wayne, a Los Angeles commodities broker, on a nearby boat to Splendour claimed to hear a voice screaming: "Help me, someone please help me!")

"This is the Splendour... need help," was how Wood's husband Robert Wagner notified the coast guard at 1.30am. (Author Suzanne Finstad noted: "The first call isn't made until 1:30 in the morning... That's two-and-a-half hours between the time that someone is heard screaming in the water.")

At around 11pm, Wood is believed to have left her cabin after a drunken row with Wagner, involving the actor Christopher Walken, who was also on the boat that night. (Walken was at the time making the movie Brainstorm with Wood.) The ship's captain Dennis Davern, gave a sworn statement to police alleging that Wagner shouted at Walken: "Do you want to f**k my wife? Is that what you want?"

So, were Wood and Walken involved in a dalliance of some description? Wagner wrote in his 2009 memoir, Pieces of My Heart: "The thought occurred that she was having an emotional affair." Was this what fuelled his alleged anger that night ? Please note: Wood's and Wagner's first marriage to each other broke up because of Wood's affair with Warren Beatty, on the set of Splendor in the Grass in 1961.

After allegedly accusing Walker of wanting to sleep with his wife, Wagner smashed a bottle of wine. Wood then disappeared to her cabin and was not seen again until her dead body (in a flannel nightgown, red down jacket, and blue wool socks) was discovered eight hours later by Roger Smith of the coast guard.

Wagner, in his memoir, saw the argument differently. "Chris [Walken] began talking about his 'total pursuit of a career', which he admitted was more important to him than his personal life. He clearly thought Natalie should live like that, too," Wagner wrote. "I got angry. 'Why don't you stay out of her career?' I said. 'She's got enough people telling her what to do without you'."

Wagner claimed Wood then left. "The last time I saw my wife, she was fixing her hair in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris. I saw her shut the door. She was going to bed."

Born July 20, 1938, in San Francisco, Natasha Zakharenko, as she was then, was manipulated by her overbearing mother Maria with a mixture of ambition and fear. When she was only five years of age, Maria placed her on the lap of director Irving Pichel, who was shooting Happy Land and landed Wood a part in the film. (Years later, Wood said that her mother told her to "make Mr Pichel love you".) She grew up in front of the camera, literally from that age on.

"God made her," Maria told one reporter, letting her guard down for once, "I invented her."

Another tale that emerged was that Maria, "a pimp", arranged for her 15-year-old daughter to be seduced by a 38-year-old Frank Sinatra.

There is also an apocryphal story that Wood's mother stopped her teenage daughter from going to the police after a Hollywood producer allegedly raped Wood during an audition.

In 1947, eight-year-old Natalie starred in Miracle on 34th Street. Eight years later, she starred opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. She was just sixteen.

Even a cursory skim of some of the books written about Natalie Wood leaves one with the unmistakable impression that she was insecure, if not unstable, all her adult life.

New York grand dame Liz Smith wrote that Wood's private life (the 'public' private life) was not as "messy" as Liz Taylor or Judy Garland's, yet her whole "life was an endless search to understand herself". Deprived, even robbed, of her childhood by her mother, Wood's state of mind as an adult was volatile, complicated, and reliant on her psychiatrist and her meds.

There is the story, impossible to verify, that in 1967 she turned down ex-lover Warren Beatty's offer to play opposite him in Bonnie and Clyde because she did not want to be apart from her shrink for a long period of time.

"I spent practically all my time in the company of adults," Wood said of her early years. "I was very withdrawn, very shy, I did what I was told and I tried not to disappoint anybody."

Wood's romantic relationships seemed typically dysfunctional and short-lived. She had flings with, among others, Warren Beatty, Elvis, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, and American politician Jerry Brown (whose manhood she described as being "like a wand".)

Suzanne Finstad's notorious 2002 pot-boiler Natasha alleged that Wood was addicted to prescription medications as well as suffering from alcoholism and anorexia, quoting actor Robert Hyatt as saying: "Natalie would get up in the morning and take a dexie, then she would have a bowl of chicken noodle soup and white wine for breakfast."

Maybe some of the most poignant words about Natalie Wood - amid all the sordid sludge - were spoken by one of her friends, Tom Mankiewicz, after she died: "Studio life from an early age had cut Natalie off from so much, and she was eager to make up for it, but I often had the impression that she never knew exactly how to live her life.

"To stay on an even keel, Natalie needed all her cards, and she was very afraid of losing her beauty card." That card is at the bottom of the ocean now.

Natalie Wood married Robert Wagner, eight years her senior, for the second time, on July 16, 1972, aboard the yacht Ramblin' Rose. There had been a brief marriage to producer Richard Gregson in between (from May, 1969 to August, 1971), which she ended when she accused him of having an affair with his secretary and threw him out.

When Wood died, Wagner was to bring up his and Natalie's daughter, Courtney, as well as Natalie´s daughter Natasha from the marriage to Gregson.

From the beginning, Wagner and Wood's relationship seemed too fairytale - even for Hollywood - to last. Wood recorded their first date, arranged by the studio, thus: "Two lonely stars found their orbit - each other - and they were one."

Wagner himself was to write this melodramatic homage that would have made Mills & Boon blush: "At dinner, we both sensed things were different. I sent her flowers and the dates continued. I remember the instant I fell in love with her. One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life."

Far more interesting reading, however, is what Wagner wrote many years later in his memoir: "There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened. Did I blame myself? If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn't there. I didn't see her."

It was dubbed the 'curse of Rebel Without a Cause', because Wood's two co-stars in the 1955 classic, James Dean and Sal Mineo, had both suffered tragic and untimely deaths: Dean, just 24 years of age, in a car accident on September 30, 1955, near Cholame, California; Mineo, aged 37, stabbed to death in the alley behind his apartment in Hollywood on February 12, 1976.

Fortune tellers' prophecies, Hollywood curses, foul play, or merely a drunken, tragic fall into the sea late at night, the tragedy of Natalie Wood's death still fascinates the world almost 35 years later.

Last month, author Marti Rulli wrote an open letter to Natasha Wood, the 45-year-old daughter by producer Richard Gregson, who was launching her perfume 'Natalie', denouncing her for keeping silent until "you have something to sell".

Rulli, the author of the 2009 book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendor added, a tad hysterically: "You are a victim of your step-father's empire of lies and deceit. The empire would crumble if you cooperate with the law, and you cannot face it, or you do not want to face it."

In February of this year, Natalie Wood's sister Lana is alleged to have confronted Wagner in the lobby as he entered a reception and demanded that he tell the truth about that terrible night in 1981. In a video that was recently posted online by the Radar website, Wagner is heard responding: "Lana, why would you even bring up anything like that? I have talked to everybody. You have accused me! You have accused me of murdering her!"

Her death remains a mystery that has haunted Hollywood to this day. Why would Natalie Wood, who had an almost pathological dread of dark water and drowning (after having almost drowned during the filming of The Green Promise in 1949 when she was a 10-year-old), have attempted to get into a dinghy at midnight off the coast of California on that ill-fated Thanksgiving weekend? Did she fall in? Or was she pushed?

In 1985, Christopher Walken ended his silence to say this: "The people who are convinced that there was something more to it than what came out in the investigation will never be satisfied with the truth. Because the truth is, there is nothing more to it. It was an accident."

Heavily hinting at foul play of some description, Natalie's sister Lana told CNN in 2010: "My sister was not a swimmer and did not know how to swim. She would never go to another boat or to shore dressed in a nightgown and socks."

A few years ago, Joan Rivers said: "Nobody really believes that RJ [as Wagner was known to his friends] consciously had anything to do with Natalie's death. But something happened that night on that boat. It wasn't just a sweet, sad accident."

Vanity Fair magazine concluded that Wood's death was the "final act in a two-day drama of jealousy and rage, fuelled by round-the-clock drinking."

The coroner's report found that Natalie had drunk seven or eight glasses of wine (Pouilly-Fuissé and had also imbibed from two shared bottles of Champagne) before the incident, concluding that the cause of death was "accidental drowning".

In 2013, the Los Angeles County coroner's office changed the cause of death from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and other undetermined factors".

Last month, one of the last people to see Natalie Wood alive, boat captain Dennis Davern, wrote an open letter to the Los Angeles Police Department claiming Robert Wagner "deserves to be arrested" for Natalie Wood's death. He claims that when "detectives had me hooked up to their polygraph test equipment, when I was asked, 'Did Robert Wagner murder Natalie Wood?', I answered yes - and I passed the test!"

Davern said he only decided to speak publicly about this because Natalie Wood's daughter Natasha had said that those who believe Robert Wagner murdered her mother are "conspiracy theorists".

"The last expression I saw on her face [Wood's] was pure humiliation as she stormed off to her stateroom," Davern also alleged. Closer to the truth is that Dennis Davern appears to be as slippery as the deck of the Splendour on the night of November 29th, 1981. Rather than trying to uncover the real truth about what happened to Natalie Wood so that the actress may finally rest in peace, Davern's motivation seems somewhat more base.

He has been trying to hawk his part of the story to the highest bidder in tabloidland for years. There was a farcical appearance in February 1992 on Geraldo Rivera's Now It Can Be Told, when Davern was filmed without his knowledge with author Marti Rulli, with whom he was writing a book about Natalie Wood. Rulli is heard prompting Davern to tell Geraldo: "They were yelling and screaming at each other to get off the boat... "

Davern is heard to respond: "Oh God, I don't know if I can tell them that or not." Rulli angrily replies: "Ten years of this, Dennis! This needs to be cleared up! We have to say how she got in the water, Den." Rulli is heard suggesting to Davern to tell Geraldo: "Don't you tell them how she got into the water - we put that in the book and we'll make billions from it."

Perhaps the only victim in all of this is Natalie Wood's legacy. Her name has been dragged through the mud at the bottom of the ocean ever since she drowned. Everybody has been out to make a dime out of her, dead or alive. And not just Dennis Davern.

Thomas Noguchi, chief medical examiner in the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, in his 1983 book Coroner, posed the question: "Wasn't it strange that the two men on the yacht didn't even know that she had left the boat? Why had she slipped out to the stern of the yacht in the middle of the night, climbed down a ladder, and untied the dinghy? What was she doing? And where was she going? And why?"

Suicide was even floated as a possible cause of her death (in 1966, Wood had allegedly attempted to take her own life with a drug overdose).

Wood drank heavily, was in an unhappy marriage - and almost as devastating for Natalie who had been a star since childhood, she was stuck in a rut of B-movies; her once-illustrious movie career was but a memory from the distant past.

There was a story that when Natalie heard that Meryl Streep had been cast as the lead in Sophie's Choice, a role she desperately wanted, she was inconsolable.

Added to this, Wood allegedly had a falling out with her publicist Kathie Berlin the month before she died over a feature in the 'Over-Forty' issue of Harper's Bazaar. "I thought she'd be thrilled," Berlin was reported to have said. "But she was furious and screamed at me, 'How dare you let them know I'm over 40?'. After that, she wouldn't talk to me."

Natalie Wood was not in a good place in her life, emotionally. But then, she rarely had been.

"Natalie," wrote Suzanne Finstad, "was always on the precipice of a crisis."

The last two entries in her private diary were "the undertow is very strong today" and, then, "this loneliness won't leave me alone". It seemed, just like Wood's life had come to embody her character, Judy, in Rebel Without a Cause, when she tells James Dean's misfit teen Jim Stark: "All this time I've been looking for somebody to love me."

Be that as it may, however, it was plain to see that the movie star was loved by the world. Upon her death, the tributes poured in. Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Fred Astaire carried Natalie's coffin on December 2, 1981, at her funeral in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. Queen Elizabeth II sent Wagner her royal condolences by telegram.

A few months ago, 86-year-old Wagner, who wed actress Jill St. John in 1990, said of Wood's death in an interview with People magazine. "We were all so shattered by the loss, and we were all hanging on to each other. You just take it moment by moment and it gets better," he said.

In the same interview, Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was just 11 when her mother died, spoke of before and after that fateful boat trip.

"I wanted her to stay home. I had a funny feeling. I don't know if it was just being a child who didn't want her mom to leave or what it was, but I didn't want her to go. I got the news [of her mother's death] when I was at a sleepover. It was like my life was in colour; and she died, and then it was black and white."

Still waters run deep.

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