Everyone Loved Natalie
How could someone so lovely as Natalie Wood die so unlovely a death, drowning in the dark water she feared? Officially an accident, foul play was always whispered about. Which begs the question: who would murder iconic child actor and film star Natalie Wood? She was not just liked, she was idealized.

Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, Natalie was the daughter of Russian immigrants. Studio executives changed Natalia’s name to Natalie Wood when she first started acting at age four. Through Natalie, her parents lived the American dream. Or, you could say, her mother pushed and shoved the young beauty until she made it big.

At age five, little Natalie tugged on Santa’s beard in “Miracle on 34th Street”, now a Christmas classic. Natalie was soon so popular that Macy’s invited her to appear in the store’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade. As an early teen she played the Jewish girl-next-door in “Marjorie Morningstar.”
Natalie walked on the wild side in “Rebel Without A Cause.” One critic wrote that Wood showed “restlessness that was characteristic of the youth of the 1950s.” Natalie played a lovely Latina, Maria, in “West Side Story,” Natalie was the girl who wouldn’t give in to her young lover in “Splendor In The Grass” and had a nervous breakdown.
Natalie Wood always played someone you might know.

After an Academy Award and numerous other honors Natalie was rewarded with status. She was Hollywood royalty. In the 1960s she was as famous as Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn.

So, back to the question, the problem…what happened to Natalie all those years ago?
Let’s take a look at the husband, as they say in cop movies. Always start with the husband.

Worth A Look, Right?
Handsome actor Robert Wagner was Natalie’s perfect match. In 1956, “R.J.” went on a first date with Natalie. They fell in love and wed in December, 1957. The perfect couple divorced in 1962. After sampling other marriages, they remarried in 1967–always interesting when a couple gives it a second time around.

They had a child, a daughter. Were they happy, it seems, would either of them rock the boat?

The Unthinkable Happens
In 1981, Natalie drowned on a weekend boat trip to Catalina Island. Although she was known to have a fear of the water, Natalie was said to be getting in a dingy alone, fleeing the boat at midnight, in her nightgown.
Someone on a nearby boat said they heard a woman screaming.

Natalie’s companions on this weekend getaway were actor-husband Robert Wagner (R.J.) and her current co-star, Christopher Walken.

They both said they weren’t there when Natalie went overboard.

Earlier, Wagner said they were drinking wine, the three of them. R.J. and Christopher were arguing. Natalie went to bed. A riff between Walken and Wagner escalated and Wagner broke a wine bottle in a fit of pique—or rage. Neither, they said, had any idea Natalie was outside, getting out of the boat, at that hour.
The boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, backed up their story that Wagner did all that he could to find her, to call an alarm. The death was ruled accidental.

Some, more superstitious, felt it was predicted to Natalie’s mother, Maria, long before.

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.

Nancy Bilyeau, May 5, 2020, Town and Country

Just The Facts, Ma'am!
Prominent Los Angeles coroner and medical examiner Thomas Noguchi cited in his report “numerous bruises to arms and legs” that were “superficial and probably sustained at the time of drowning.

An autopsy report at the time revealed that Natalie was found with not only bruises on her body and arms but also a facial abrasion on her left cheek. The initial investigation found she was “slightly intoxicated,” according to Noguchi.

Her autopsy showed that she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14%, over the legal limit of 0.10%. In addition a motion sickness pill and painkillers were in her bloodstream.

According to the New York Times, younger sister Lana Wood had doubts. “Natalie would not go anywhere not fully made-up, wearing something terrific. She certainly would not get into a dinghy in her nightgown by herself. She would get dressed, put on full makeup and have Dennis Davern take her ashore to stay in a motel on Catalina, which is exactly what she did the night before, when she wanted to leave.”

Wagner said Natalie went to bed at about 10:45, but after talking for a while longer with their guest, Walken, Natalie’s co-star at the time, Wagner went to join her in the cabin. She wasn’t there.

Wagner 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.

All Clear Says The Captain
Now Davern says he wasn’t telling the whole truth.

During the investigation into Natalie’s death Dennis Davern, who was captaining their yacht, backed up everything R.J. and Christopher Walken said.

Then Davern changed his story. “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” is the result of a decades-long investigation by journalist Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern.

According to his book, Davern, Wood, and Walken spent hours that day at a bar on Catalina Island. Christoper and Natalie were flirting. When her husband, R.J. showed up, he was fuming. The four had dinner, drinking champagne, two bottles of wine, and cocktails. At one point, Wood or Walken threw a glass at the wall..

That night, Davern said Walken left to go to his own room. Natalie left for her state room, with Wagner following, and Davern heard a loud quarrel on the deck. Then “everything went silent.” He found Wagner alone on deck, saying, “Natalie is missing.” Wagner asked Davern to start looking for her.

When his search was unsuccessful, Davern said Wagner told him, “The dinghy is missing too.” He claims Wagner didn’t want to attract bad publicity and refused to turn on the boat’s flood lights. He says Wagner delayed calling for help and did not make the first call to shore until 1:30 a.m.

In 2011, when the investigation into his former co-star Natalie Wood’s death was reopened, Christopher hired a lawyer though he has never been considered a suspect.

“What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone. She had gone to bed before us, and her room was at the back. A dinghy was bouncing against the side of the boat, and I think she went out to move it. There was a ski ramp that was partially in the water. It was slippery—I had walked on it myself. She had told me she couldn’t swim; in fact, they had to cut a swimming scene from [Brainstorm]. She was probably half asleep, and she was wearing a coat.”

Christopher Walken, September, 1997, Playboy Magazine

Lana Wood and Davern were both asking questions. The investigation was reopened in 2011 and in 2018, in response to public urging, the case was reclassified as “suspicious” death.

An HBO documentary by Natalie’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, reignited interest in the case. However Natasha believes in R.J. ‘s innocence as does her sister, Courtney.

In 2013, Wagner released a statement through his attorney, Blair Berk: “Mr. Wagner has fully cooperated over the last 30 years in the investigation of the accidental drowning of his wife in 1981. Mr. Wagner has been interviewed on multiple occasions by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department and answered every single question asked of him by detectives during those interviews.”

Now, in 2021, Lana Wood has continued her investigation in a new book, “Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood.” She remains dubious about the official story.

But more than likely, Wagner will never have to answer any questions about Natalie’s death ever again.

The End of the Story?
Robert Wagner appears to have been shattered by the loss of his wife. In his memoir, “Pieces of my Heart,” he writes “Grief mixed with shock is such a difficult state to be in; it’s hard even to describe it. On the one hand, I was numb and felt like I was in some sort of dream state – I couldn’t believe Natalie was gone, but I knew it was true. And despite the shock, which makes you feel like you’re muffled in cotton, my nerve ends were screaming. I was in emotional pain so intense it was physical.”

Even more tangibly, Natalie’s last will and testament named R.J. as executor and trustee of the funds she left her daughters and named him heir to half of her $2.5 million estate, the equivalent of $7 million currently.

Natalie died on November, 29, 1981. Almost three months R.J. found new happiness, on Valentine’s Day, with old friend and sometimes co-star, Jill St. John. They married within the year. R.J. is now 90 years old and they are still married.

To a loving public with a long memory, Natalie remains the little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street,” To rebels everywhere she remains the tough girl who’s sweet inside. Actors live forever through their movies.

He real-life murder case is still “open,” but barring some dramatic new disclosure, or deathbed confession, it’s really closed. The mystery it’s always been.