On November 28, 1981, the weekend after Thanksgiving, a notorious, very mysterious Hollywood scandal took place on the Splendour, a 60-foot yacht anchored off Catalina Island, about 20 miles from Los Angeles. On board were Natalie Wood, husband Robert Wagner, friend Christopher Walken, and Captain Dennis Davern. All four were heavily intoxicated, both aboard the ship and on land, after a dinner complimented by multiple bottles of champagne. At approximately 8:00 am the following morning, 43-year-old Wood was found dead in the water about a mile from the yacht. It determined an accidental drowning, despite the very suspicious circumstances of Natalie Wood’s death.
Many items on this list are confirmed facts. The world knows with absolute certainty alcohol and pills played a factor in the childhood-actress-turned-Hollywood-icon’s death. It’s also known Wood had a deep-seated terror of water and was fighting with Wagner that evening.
Along with the facts are many questions surrounding her death. How did Woodwind up in the freezing water that night? Did she slip trying to retie the dingy to the yacht? Did she simply fall overboard? How did she get all of the scratches found on her body? What was the exact relationship between Wood and her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken?
Weird celebrity deaths have fascinated the world for decades. The tragic mystery of Natalie Wood’s death may never be solved. There are so many varying versions of the events on that fateful night. Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? Who, if anyone, can be trusted? Discover for yourself the bizarre night in 1981 that’s essentially Rashomon come to life.
The LA County Coroner Changed Wood’s Cause Of Death 30 Years On
Natalie Wood’s death was ruled a drowning by the LA County Coroner in 1981. On January 14, 2013, officials released a 10-page addendum to her autopsy. The original 1981 coroner’s report states the bruises found on Wood’s face, wrists, knees, and ankles were from the actress trying to climb back into the yacht after falling over the side.
When the case was re-opened in 2011, it resulted in a new coroner’s report stating the bruises occurred before Wood went into the water. The medical examiner, however, could not conclude if the bruises were “non-accidental” and maybe the result of an assault.
Wood’s death was first ruled accidental. The new report ruled its cause undetermined. The location of the bruises had a lot to do with the amendment. “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,” the report stated.
2. Wood Had A Serious, Primal Fear Of Deep Water
Although Wagner and Wood spent a lot of time on their yacht together, the Oscar-nominated actress had a fear of deep water. In fact, just weeks before her death, Wood told a journalist, “I’m afraid of water that is dark.”
The most common theory as to how Wood died involves her slipping trying to tie a dinghy to the yacht. Why would she have been in the dinghy alone – maybe escaping Wagner after an argument? – if she was so deathly afraid of deep water? According to Lana Wood, Natalie’s sister, “She would never go near that dinghy.”
Wood’s fear of water was sparked a few times during her career. While filming Splendor in the Grass in 1961, director Elia Kazan learned of Wood’s phobia when she told him, regarding an important scene that takes place at a reservoir, she had a deep-seated “terror of water, particularly dark water, and of being helpless in it.” She asked him if she could film the scene in a small tank inside a studio.
Kazan declined her request because he wanted to use her terror to enliven the scene (directors can be big time jerks), but assured her she would be safe in the reservoir because it was shallow enough her feet would always touch bottom. Ever the professional, Wood did as instructed, but once the scene was shot, leaped out of the water and shivered out her fear before laughing hysterically.
While filming The Star with Bette Davis in 1952 (ironically, off the coast of Catalina), director Stuart Heisler told Wood to jump over the railing of a private yacht and land in the water. He assured her there would be men in rowboats there to pick up her up after the jump. The actress reluctantly did the scene, but panicked and screamed when she landed in the sea. She was 14 at the time.
The scene was so devastating to watch Bette Davis threatened to quit the production if they made Wood do it again. A double body was brought in for the reshoot, and when she hit the water, she got caught up in kelp and almost drowned. Despite the trouble, the scene was ultimately cut from the movie.
3. The Coast Guard Wasn’t Called Until Nearly Four Hours After Wood Disappeared
According to the coroner’s report, Wood’s stomach contained 500 cc of partially digested food, which puts her time of death around midnight. Wood was missing at 11:05 pm, yet a ship-to-shore call wasn’t placed until 1:30 am and the Coast Guard wasn’t notified until 3:30 am. Why such a long delay?
Marti Rulli, co-author of the book, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour told CNN, “There are many, many things that should be examined, but mainly the four-hour wait to call for the Coast Guard.” If Captain Davern is to be believed, it’s because Wagner was relatively unconcerned with Wood’s whereabouts, whether she rode away in the dinghy or was pushed overboard by her drunk, enraged husband.
4. Wood (And Everyone Else) Was Extremely Intoxicated The Night She Died
Don Whiting, the night manager of the restaurant where Wood, Wagner, Walken, and Davern dined the night/night before Wood died, was concerned the four, who drank several bottles of champagne at dinner, were too intoxicated to make it safely back to their yacht in a dinghy. Whiting was so concerned, in fact, he asked Kurt Craig of the Harbor Patrol to make sure the group got back safely.
The toxicology report released after Wood’s death revealed the West Side Story star had a blood alcohol content of 0.14 percent, at which point you experience, according to University of California San Diego Student Health Services:
“Gross motor impairment and lack of physical control. Blurred vision and major loss of balance. Your euphoric feelings may give way to unpleasant feelings. Your judgment and perception are severely impaired. You may become more aggressive, and there is an increased risk of accidentally injuring yourself or others. This is when you may experience a blackout.”
Motion sickness medication and painkillers were also found in the actress’s system, which would likely have increased Wood’s level of intoxication.
5. A Witness Claims She Was Ignored By Authorities And Received A Death Threat
Marilyn Wayne, a retired stockbroker whose boat was anchored near the Splendour, said she received a written death threat three days after Wood’s death. The note read, “If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know.” Wayne was “disturbed” by the note and contacted her attorney.
Wayne claims that, on the night of Wood’s death, she heard someone cry for help around midnight. “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 insists she tried to contact harbor patrol but no one responded. She also called the local sheriff, who informed her a helicopter would be sent to the scene. However, Wayne said it never came. She also asserted she heard a man’s “slurred voice” saying, “Oh, hold on, we’re coming to get you.”
6. A Fight Erupted Between Wagner And Walken That Night, Accounts Of Which Differ
Ship captain Dennis Davern said in the sworn statement to detectives he heard Wagner shout to Walken, “Do you want to f*ck my wife?” (who didn’t at one point or another, though? Come on, she’s Natalie Wood). Davern then heard a bottle of wine smash, just moments before Wood fell overboard.
Wagner, who divorced Wood only to remarry her, confirmed in his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart he and Walken fought the night that Wood drowned. He wrote:
“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. 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 said the argument got heated and Wood left to go to bed. According to the account, he and Walken moved to the deck as “things were threatening to get physical,” but the two “were calmed by the fresh sea air.”