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On November 29, 1981, the actress Natalie Wood, who starred in such movies as Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, drowns in a boating accident near California’s Catalina Island. She was 43 years old.
READ MORE: The Mystery Surrounding Natalie Wood's Death
Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco, California, Wood began her acting career as a child. She gained acclaim for her role as Susan Walker, the little girl who doubts the existence of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As a teenager, Wood went on to play James Dean’s girlfriend in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She also earned Best Actress Academy Award nominations for her performances in Splendor in the Grass (1961) with Warren Beatty and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) with Steve McQueen. Wood’s film credits also include West Side Story (1961), winner of 10 Oscars, in which she played the lead role of Maria; Gypsy (1962), which was based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name and co-starred Rosalind Russell and Karl Malden; The Great Race (1965), with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis; Inside Daisy Clover (1966), with Christopher Plummer and Robert Redford; and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) with Robert Culp, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon.
Wood was twice married to the actor Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), from 1957 to 1962 and from 1974 to the time of her death. On the night of November 29, 1981, the actress was with her husband on their yacht “The Splendor,” which was moored off Santa Catalina, near Los Angeles. Also on the yacht was the actor Christopher Walken, who at the time was making the movie Brainstorm with Wood. Neither Wagner nor Walken saw what happened to Wood that night, but it was believed she somehow slipped overboard while untying a dinghy attached to the boat. Her body was found in the early hours of the following morning. Brainstorm, Wood’s final film, was released in theaters in 1983.
Natalie Wood Had Eerie, Lifelong Connection to Water
Long before the mysterious drowning death of actress Natalie Wood in 1981, the star and her husband Robert Wagner had a history of memorable moments involving water.
In his 2008 memoir, “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner recalled how he had fallen in love with Wood on board a boat he owned.
“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,” he said.
The couple wed in 1957, but split in 1962.
After years apart, the two reunited in 1972. Following a hectic storm at sea while en route from New York to London on the Queen Elizabeth II, the couple announced they were planning to remarry.
Natalie Wood was terrified of water from a young age
According to Natalie Wood's sister Lana Wood, the idea of her older sister boarding the dinghy in the first place was a red flag that her death may have been more than an accident, especially considering Natalie was incredibly afraid of large bodies of water ever since her girlhood.
In a 2011 interview with TMZ, Lana — who, along with her sister, was an accomplished actress, best known for her turn as a Bond girl in the movie Diamonds Are Forever — insisted that her sister would never purposely put herself in the situation that led to her death. "Natalie hated the water," she relayed. "She had a great fear of it. She didn't go into her own swimming pool at home."
In addition to this fear of water, the younger sibling opined that her sister would never have attempted to leave the yacht for the shore unaccompanied and wouldn't have done so in a nightgown.
"Natalie would not go anywhere not fully made-up, wearing something terrific," Lana insisted in 2019 (via the New York Times). "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."
36 Years Later, the Twists and Turns of the Investigation into Natalie Wood's Drowning Death
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on April 13, 2016. On Thursday, CBS News published a report quoting an investigator who described Robert Wagner as “more of a person of interest now” in then-wife Natalie Wood’s drowning death.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Natalie Wood on Nov. 29, 1981, while sailing off of Catalina Island outside Los Angeles, have become the stuff of Hollywood legend and mystery.
Wood, 43, drowned while sailing with her husband, Robert Wagner, on their yacht, Splendour. Christopher Walken, Wood’s then-costar in the movie Brainstorm, and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, were also on board.
At the time, Wood’s death was classified as an accidental drowning. Thirty-six years later, the case, which was reopened in 2011, is still making headlines.
“We continue to look into it and we will continue to look into it until we can come to some conclusion,” L.A. County Sheriff Lt. John Corina told PEOPLE in 2016.
For an upcoming 48 Hours‘ episode on the case to air in February 2018, Corina told CBS, 𠇊s we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Wagner is] more of a person of interest now. I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
Wagner’s attorney did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment about the 48 Hours report.
In Wagner’s 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart, he wrote that after a night of drinking, he got into an argument with Walken over Wood’s career.
At one point, Wagner wrote, “I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table and broke it into pieces.”
As for what caused her to fall off the boat, Wagner wrote it was 𠇊ll conjecture. Nobody knows. 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.”
Speaking to PEOPLE for a cover story in 2016, Wagner said the family was left in despair over Wood’s death. “We were all so shattered by the loss, and we were hanging on to each other,” he said.
In his memoir, Wagner also wrote of his grief and shock following his wife’s untimely death.
𠇍id I blame myself?” he wrote. “If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t see her. The door was closed I thought she was [below decks]. I didn’t hear anything. But ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one, and she was my loved one.”
RELATED VIDEO: Natasha Gregson Wagner’s Memories Of Her Mother, Natalie Wood
Three years after Wagner’s memoir was released, the case took a strange turn when the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case after Davern came forward claiming he lied to investigators about certain details related to Wood’s death.
At the time, a sheriff’s spokesperson made clear that Wagner was not a suspect.
Wagner also released a statement through his spokesman expressing support for the sheriff’s investigation, stating his family would “trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death.”
Corina, who declined to discuss details of the investigation at the time, said detectives did travel to Hawaii to inspect the yacht: “I can’t tell you what we did because it is still part of the investigation.”
Actress Natalie Wood DROWNS in Catalina 1981 Westwood Village Cemetery
Natalie Wood (July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981) was an American actress.
Wood began acting in movies at the age of four and became a successful child actor in such films as Miracle on 34th Street (1947). A well received performance opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and helped her to make the transition from a child performer. She then starred in the musicals West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962). She also received Academy Award nominations for her performances in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963).
Her career continued successfully with films such as Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969). After this she took a break from acting and had two children, appearing in only two theatrical films during the 1970s. She was married to actor Robert Wagner twice, and to producer Richard Gregson. She had one daughter by each: Natasha Gregson and Courtney Wagner. Her younger sister, Lana Wood, is also an actress. Wood starred in several television productions, including a remake of the film From Here to Eternity (1979) for which she won a Golden Globe Award.
In September and October 1981, Wood and Wagner stayed in Raleigh, North Carolina, while Wood did location work for the science-fiction film Brainstorm. Wood then spent most of November in California shooting interior scenes with Christopher Walken and other cast members on the MGM lot in Culver City.
The day after Thanksgiving, Wood, Wagner and Walken went to Catalina Island for the weekend and on the night of November 28, the Wagners' yacht (Splendour) was anchored in Isthmus Cove. Also on board was the boat's skipper, Dennis Davern, who had worked for the couple for many years. The official theory is that Wood either tried to leave the yacht or to secure a dinghy from banging against the hull when she accidentally slipped and fell overboard. When her body was found, she was wearing a down jacket, nightgown, and socks. A woman on a nearby yacht said she heard calls for help at around midnight. The cries lasted for about 15 minutes and were answered by someone else who said, "Take it easy. We'll be over to get you." "It was laid back," the witness recalled. "There was no urgency or immediacy in their shouts." There was much partying going on in the area, though, and while it has never been proven that the woman calling for help was, indeed, Natalie Wood, no other person ever has been identified or come forward as having called out for help on that night. An investigation by Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi resulted in an official verdict of accidental drowning. Noguchi concluded Wood had drunk "seven or eight" glasses of wine and was intoxicated when she died. Noguchi also wrote that he found Wood's fingernail scratches on the side of the rubber dinghy indicating she was trying to get in. Wood was 43 at the time of her death and is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery .
On March 11, 2010 Wood's sister Lana Wood decided to re-open the case of her death.
At the funeral, at least a thousand spectators, along with scores of photographers and reporters from around the world, were spread out behind the cemetery walls. Among the guests at her funeral were Laurence Olivier, who flew there from London. Also there were Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, and director Elia Kazan.
This Day in History: Nov 29, 1981: Actress Natalie Wood drowns
On this day in 1981, the actress Natalie Wood, who starred in such movies as Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, drowns in a boating accident near California’s Catalina Island. She was 43 years old.
Wood was twice married to the actor Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), from 1957 to 1962 and from 1974 to the time of her death.
On the night of November 29, 1981, the dark-haired beauty was with her husband on their yacht “The Splendor,” which was moored off Santa Catalina, near Los Angeles. Also on the yacht was the actor Christopher Walken, who at the time was making the movie Brainstorm with Wood. Neither Wagner nor Walken saw what happened to Wood that night, but it was believed she somehow slipped overboard while untying a dinghy attached to the boat. Her body was found in the early hours of the following morning. Brainstorm, Wood’s final film, was released in theaters in 1983.
Natalie Wood Findings: Was the Actress Bruised Before She Drowned?
Did Natalie Wood accidentally drown—or was she assaulted before she hit the water?
Frank Worth/Courtesy of Emage International, via Getty
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office released a stunning report Monday that calls into question original findings that Natalie Wood accidentally drowned off the coast of California in 1981. The glamorous star’s death has been reclassified to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
The report, which was completed in May but only released Monday, specifically honed in on unexplained bruises found on the Rebel Without a Cause actress’s arm, legs, neck, and face. Chief medical examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran concluded that he was “unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries,” and that “the bruises especially in the upper extremities appeared fresh and could have occurred before she entered the water.”
Wood’s case was reopened by the coroner’s office in the fall of 2011 after the L.A. sheriff’s office asked for a reevaluation of the original findings. One of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries, each new development in the case has stirred up a frenzy of interest.
Because the bulk of the forensic evidence in the case had been destroyed or missing, Sathyavagiswaran based his autopsy findings on a reexamination of the existing evidence: 10 histology slides that were found of the bruises, the fact that Wood had no history of suicide attempts, and new information provided by the sheriff’s department.
To be clear, the details of Wood’s death are still murky at best. “There are conflicting statements as to when [Wood] went missing from the boat and whether there were verbal arguments between the [actress] and her husband,” Sathyavagiswaran wrote.
He did not reclassify the case as a homicide. Nor was he able to determine exactly when the injuries happened. “This Medical Examiner,” he wrote, however, “is unable to exclude non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water.''
Bill McSweeney, chief detective at the L.A. sheriff’s office, was careful to temper the new findings. “We’ve been working with that information for a long time,” he said. “Nothing has changed. We have an open case, and we will always keep looking at everything.”
According to reports at the time, Wood, then 43, drowned after a night of partying with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and The Deer Hunter actor Christopher Walken. They were spending the weekend on a yacht called Splendour.
On the night of her death, the three had drinks and dinner at a local restaurant on Catalina Island, and then continued drinking back on the yacht, where Wagner and Walken began a verbal fight, according to law-enforcement officials. While they were arguing, Wood went to the bathroom, and later Wagner went to look for her and discovered she was missing.
Officials said they believed Wood slipped off the yacht when she went on deck to reattach a dinghy that came loose. Others, such as Natalie’s sister, Lana Wood, and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, have said they believed the actress and Wagner quarreled that night about Walken, who was costarring with Natalie in a movie.
In 2011, Davern, who was on the yacht the night the actress died, and Lana Wood, asked the sheriff’s department to reopen the case. Davern along with Marti Rulli, who co-authored a book with Davern about the night Wood drowned, delivered a package to the sheriff’s department containing six signed statements from Lana Wood, Davern, a woman on a nearby yacht who claimed she heard Wood screaming for help, and Roger Smith, a Coast Guard staffer who helped recover Wood’s body.
The sheriff’s department reopened the case and re-interviewed the witnesses, but has not made any arrests in the case.
In the new autopsy findings, Sathyavagiswaran reported that because of the partially digested food material found in her stomach, Wood most likely drowned at midnight, one-and-a-half hours before the call from the Splendour came at 1:30 a.m. reporting her missing. “She drowned within a short time of her entry into the water,” he wrote.
Wood was found the following morning floating face up in the Pacific Ocean and wearing a blue-and-red flannel nightgown, argyle socks, and a red down jacket. The dinghy was discovered near the shoreline with the key in the ignition in the off position, the gear in neutral, and the oars tied down—indicating the boat had never been used, according to the report.
Natalie Wood began her acting career at the age of 4 and starred in dozens of movies. She was transformed from a well-known child actress to a sought-after movie star in 1955, after she starred opposite James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Two years later, she beat out Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn for the title role in Marjorie Morningstar. In 1961, she starred in West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass. And, in 1962, she starred in Gypsy.
Wood married Robert Wagner twice. They married in 1956, divorced in 1965, and remarried in 1972. She later starred in such films as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Meteor. She was working on the MGM production Brainstorm with Walken when she drowned over Thanksgiving weekend.
Natalie Wood: Screams in the Night
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood aboard their yacht the Splendour. Undated photo.
According to a witness whose account has never been disclosed, Hollywood star Natalie Wood was screaming for help as she drowned in 1981.
Retired stockbroker Marilyn Wayne said she tried to report the star’s ‘last desperate cries for help’ but was ignored.
Los Angeles police last week said ‘substantial new evidence’ has led them to reopen their investigation into the death 30 years ago this week.
Readers: For more on Natalie Wood on Lisa’s History Room, click here.
&aposSplendor in the Grass&apos and &aposWest Side Story&apos
In 1961, Wood starred opposite Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass, playing the part of a young girl torn by desire and social conventions. In this role, Wood showed great range as an emotionally fragile young woman driven to madness. That same year, she starred in another troubled romance, West Side Story, in which she falls for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. This urban retelling of William Shakespeare&aposs Romeo and Juliet proved to be a hit. Wood did all her own dancing in this popular musical, but her singing was done by Marni Nixon, a Broadway performer.
Mirroring her own life story in a way, Wood played the title character in 1962&aposs Gypsy, the musical about stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Rosalind Russell co-starred as her domineering stage mother who drove her daughter to perform.
Associates raised questions as recollections changed
Although an accidental drowning seemed fully plausible, nagging questions lingered for those paying attention.
Noguchi himself raised some of those questions in his 1983 book, Coroner. Why, he wondered, did Wood slip out to the yacht&aposs stern in the middle of the night and untie the dinghy? Where was she going? And why did it take so long for the men aboard to realize she was gone?
Wood&aposs sister Lana, who followed by publishing Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister (1984), was also puzzled by the supposed chain of events. How was it possible that Wood, with her long-known fear of "dark water," would venture out into those very environs, alone, on a starless night?
Elaborating on things in the 1986 book Heart to Heart with Robert Wagner, the actor described how he and Walken were engaged in a "political debate" for much of the evening, prompting his bored wife to check out of the discussion and head to bed. He theorized that she was unable to sleep with the dinghy banging against the yacht and fell and hit her head while attempting to tighten the line.
However, his recollection of impassioned discussions differed from an original description to police, in which he admitted to arguing with Wood about her extended time away from the family. It was just one of the many inconsistencies that surfaced as accounts of the night&aposs events evolved over the years.
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1972
Photo: Chris Wood/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Wood Could’ve been Saved?
Wood’s body was found dressed like someone with no plans to go in the water. Her body was found floating in a flannel nightgown, a down jacket, and woolen socks. During an examination of the actress’s body, the saturated weight of the woolen jacket alone was between 30 and 40 pounds. Experts believe the weight of the woolen jacket likely caused Wood to drown.
What really happened? Despite reopening the case, the investigators doesn’t seem to be closer than they were in 1981. No one has been charged with Natalie Wood’s death and no one has been charged with Natalie Wood’s death, and it doesn’t seem likely anyone will ever be.
What happened aboard the Splendour at the night of 28th Nov, remains a mystery.
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