Things You Didn't Know About Natalie Wood's Mysterious Death

With the May 2020 release of the HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, directed by Natalie Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, attention has once again been renewed regarding the life of the famous actress. Her career-defining movies — among them Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, and Inside Daisy Clover — changed the Hollywood landscape, and the course of film history, forever.

While Gregson Wagner's documentary places most of its emphasis on her mom's early days and ensuing career, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Natalie — who drowned off the shores of California's Catalina Island in November 1981 during a Thanksgiving weekend spent aboard the yacht she owned with her husband, Hart to Hart television actor Robert Wagner — are impossible to overlook.

Paired with the fact that Wagner — who always maintained his wife accidentally drowned after taking out a 13-foot motorized dinghy attached to their yacht for a nighttime ride — was named a person of interest in the case in 2018, reexamining the facts is practically compulsory. (That 2018 update came seven years after the case was reopened and Natalie's autopsy results were revised, categorizing the circumstances of her death as "undetermined.")

So, what led to the starlet's tragic demise at the age of 43? Let's take a look.

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."

A psychic foretold how Natalie Wood would die... or was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Part of what fueled Natalie Wood's fear of water was a story her mother told both the Rebel Without a Cause actress and her sister Lana Wood when they were young — a story of a prophecy that, in some way, might have been a self-fulfilling one, and above all, preventable.

As Lana relayed in an exclusive interview with OK! Magazine in 2018, the Wood sisters' mother, Maria Zakharenko, told her daughters that during her earlier years living abroad in China, a psychic proclaimed she would give birth to a "child that would be known internationally" and "somebody was going to die from drowning."

According to Lana, the story terrorized young Natalie, galvanizing her fear of open water and prompting her to never take swimming lessons. Her inability to swim, of course, played a huge part in the cause of her death, leading to the prophecy coming true.

Even worse is the idea that the story Natalie and Lana's mother told them was entirely a work of fiction. According to Lana, their mother Maria was a "manipulative" and controlling presence in their lives, and the story of the psychic and "dark waters" filled with portent could have been yet another way of controlling what she and her sister did in their day-to-day lives.

Natalie Wood's death fueled rumors of a 'Rebel Without a Cause' curse

Natalie Wood's drowning spurred more than just rumors surrounding its suspicious nature — it also kickstarted Hollywood lore, namely that the three leads in Rebel Without a Cause were victims of a curse. The reason? Along with Natalie, her co-stars James Dean and Sal Mineo died under mysterious or tragic circumstances.

The story of Dean is as foundational to Tinseltown as the Hollywood sign. After skyrocketing to fame and garnering accolades for East of Eden, Giant, and the aforementioned Rebel (in which he played misunderstood teen Jim Stark — a role forever representing the epitome of youthful rebellion), Dean was killed in a high-speed car accident at age 24 while taking his new Porsche, named "Little Bastard," out for its first ride in 1955. He was the first to meet an untimely end.

Mineo — who played Plato, the quintessential "little boy lost" in Rebel — went on to earn an Oscar nomination for his role as a Jewish Holocaust survivor-turned-extremist in 1960's Exodus, but afterward faced a slow-but-steady career decline. A closeted queer man at a time when Hollywood (and the mainstream at large) openly discriminated against the LGBTQ community, rumors of Mineo's sexuality caused studios that once adored him to cease their offers. Mineo's life was cut tragically short in 1976 after he was fatally stabbed by two muggers.

With Natalie's 1981 death, all three Rebel leads were gone — and speculation regarding a curse grew.

Robert Wagner was Natalie Wood's first husband — and her third

Natalie Wood first saw Robert Wagner when she was just 10 years old and swore she was "going to marry him" someday, per People. Years later, the pair met on Natalie's 18th birthday for a date arranged by their shared Hollywood studio and her prediction came true: They married each other not once, but twice. The two first tied the knot in 1957 after a year of courtship, but divorced five years later.

Natalie went on to marry producer Richard Gregson — the biological father of her daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner — but the marriage, too, ended in divorce in 1972. After that, Wagner and Natalie reconnected and wed a second time, only three months after her divorce to Gregson was finalized. (By all accounts, Gregson and Natalie retained a good co-parenting relationship, with Gregson Wagner referring to both of her mother's paramours as her fathers). 

In a 1976 interview with People magazine, Natalie cast their reunion in the vein of a fairytale, telling reporters that she harbored a crush on Wagner, who was eight years her senior, since she was a little girl. To others, however, their union was the beginning of the end.

The accounts of what happened on Natalie Wood's last night alive keep changing

A major factor that led to the reopening of the Natalie Wood case was an account from one of the only people at the scene the night she drowned. Dennis Davern, who worked as a boat captain on the Splendour, came forward in 2011 to contest his previous statements about what happened that November night in 1981 — namely, that he had not been forthcoming about allegedly overhearing Robert Wagner and Natalie fighting right before she disappeared overboard (via The Hollywood Reporter).

In 2014, Davern once again came forward with previously unheard details about what happened onboard the Splendour in the hours leading to Natalie's drowning, purporting Wagner had pushed Natalie off of the boat in his book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, co-authored by journalist Marti Rulli. And in 2018, Davern came forward yet again, this time with an account of how Wagner had made sure he wouldn't go forward to the police by making the sea captain a virtual prisoner in his home, per The Hollywood Reporter.

According to Davern, Wagner had the employee live in his home for the year following the incident, limiting his contact with friends and family, keeping tabs on where he went via a private chauffeur and escort, and supposedly locked Davern in his room when he went to sleep, though in the interceding years, it has become nearly impossible to corroborate his story.

Christopher Walken was there the night Natalie Wood drowned

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood weren't the only celebrities aboard the Splendour the night of the West Side Story star's tragic demise. Christopher Walken — who co-starred with Natalie in 1983's Brainstorm — was also on the 55-foot yacht, though any of the actor's insight as to what did or didn't happen has yet to be determined.

One of the only statements he's ever really given about that faterful night occurred nearly five years after during an interview with People. "I don't know what happened. She slipped and fell in the water," he claimed. His quick summation was followed by a sharp rejoinder and dismissal. "Look, we're in a conversation I won't have," admonished Walken before clamming up, "It's a f***ing bore."

As per Heavy, Walken touched briefly on the incident a little more than a decade later in an interview with Playboy, stating the "logistics" of the night pointed to an accident. "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," Walken concluded, "because the truth is, there is nothing more to it. It was an accident."

Considering Wagner's latest iteration of what happened posits it was Walken, not Natalie, who he was arguing with — a story which sharply contrasts Dennis Davern's — it might prompt Walken to either corroborate or deny Wagner's version of events. Walken hired an attorney after the case reopened.

Robert Wagner might've suspected Natalie Wood was having an affair with Christopher Walken

Then again, Dennis Davern did insist for years that Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner did have an argument — one that might've been spurred by Wagner's suspicions that the two were having an affair.

As Davern alleged to Vanity Fair in 2000, Natalie and Walken flirted all weekend in Catalina, including their final night aboard the yacht, which spun Wagner into an increasingly jealous rage. "Christopher and Natalie are sitting in the salon together and giggling... [and] I was seeing [Wagner] getting mad," he claimed, adding that large amounts of alcohol only increased the tension. "The boat just starts getting smaller. You can't look for a whole lot of escape."

The situation took a turn for the worse with Wagner lashing out at Walken for getting too cozy with his wife. While Davern's informal testimony gives credence to Wagner's account, it doesn't necessarily clear him as a suspect: Both accounts simply diverge from the touchstone of the Wagner-Walken verbal bout in the ring. (Though Wagner at one time admitted to arguing with Natalie that night, his latest account, per the HBO documentary, directed by Natalie's daughter and his stepdaughter, omits it entirely.)

While there's little evidence, aside from Davern's observations, to support the notion Natalie and Walken were embroiled in any extramarital activity, there's enough to lay the foundation that it contributed to her death — if it wasn't an accident, that is.

The initial autopsy's results may have been tampered with

Part of what sparked the initial reopening of the case was the questionable nature of how the findings gleaned from Natalie Wood's initial autopsy led the coroner to rule her death as accidental. Conspiracies that the coroner at the time, Thomas Noguchi, was paid off to downplay any suspicious injuries Natalie incurred the night she drowned range from unsubstantiated to far-fetched. However, it's most likely Noguchi did downplay them due to the actress' blood-alcohol level testing at .14%, pointing to extreme intoxication. 

In order to avoid sensationalizing the news at a press conference, Noguchi avoided anything that could potentially tarnish the Hollywood icon's reputation, therefore ruling her death accidental, as per Vanity Fair. It wasn't until decades later — after Dennis Davern came forward with his version of what happened that night and the case was reopened in 2011 — that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran changed the initial ruling from "accidental" to "undetermined." The reason? A series of bruises and other injuries that couldn't be explained by drowning or hypothermia.

"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," Sathyavagiswaran wrote in the autopsy report (via ABC News). "Since there are unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this Medical Examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined," the coroner added.

Witnesses heard a woman screaming for help the night Natalie Wood died

While Robert Wagner, Dennis Davern, and Christopher Walken were the key witnesses in the Natalie Wood case (or suspects, depending on what you believe), they weren't the only witnesses.

According to Vanity Fair, Los Angeles residents and couple John Payne and Marilyn Wayne were sleeping in a boat located near the Splendour and were woken to the sound of a woman screaming and calling for help. Though the pair reported what they heard after Wood's death already hit the news cycle, they had chalked up the cries as the product of revelers partying on a nearby boat. Whether or not the unidentified woman was indeed Natalie cannot be unequivocally confirmed, but chances are more likely than not.

In addition to Payne and Wayne, the New York Times reported in 2018 that a number of other witnesses have since come forward following the reopening of the case, though their identities have been kept secret by the LAPD during the course of the continuing investigation.

Natalie Wood's sister Lana spent decades fighting for justice

Though Robert Wagner was officially labeled a person of interest in 2018, Natalie Wood's sister Lana has spent decades rallying for authorities to reopen the case, all while pointing to a patriarchal Hollywood that only takes care of its own as the biggest impediment in her fight for justice. "You need to speak up to fraternal Hollywood," Lana told the New York Times in 2019, "and also understand the price that is paid for that type of life. Natalie paid dearly — with her life. Nothing was done about that."

Lana's decades-long battle to uncover the full truth about what happened to Natalie that night in 1981 culminated in a podcast interview in 2018. On Fatal Voyage: The Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood, she revealed (via Daily Mail) that like many survivors in the #MeToo movement, Natalie was sexually assaulted by a powerful, unnamed Hollywood figure at age 16 — a crime which Lana has wished to avenge ever since. Lana doubled down on the claim to Fox News.

"She is the one family member willing to cooperate in the investigation," Detective Ralph Hernandez, the lead homicide investigator in the case, told the Times. "We work for the victim's family. So we consider Lana Natalie Wood's family and that's who we're working for, to try and find out the truth about what happened to her sister. The case is going to stay open until we find out the truth of what happened."

Robert Wagner won't even dignify rumors about his possible involvement in his wife's death

Despite being declared a person of interest, Robert Wagner has remained stalwart in his telling of the events leading up to his wife's death. Moreover, he refuses to dignify rumors that he could've hurt Natalie Wood — or even worse, killed her.

Wagner's publicist took a much more brusk, direct tack (via the Washington Post): stating Dennis Davern and Lana Wood should be "ashamed of themselves," categorizing both as "despicable human beings, capitalizing on the accidental death of a beloved member of the Wagner family."

In HBO's What Remains Behind, the former television actor admitted he tries not to think about speculation of his involvement in Natalie's death. "I don't pay very much attention to it," said Wagner, adding the rumors "are not going to redefine me," because "I know who I am."

While we may never know the real circumstances of Natalie's fateful last few hours, there's one truth that's undeniable: Her legacy in film, and her vibrant life, will always overshadow her death, and she'll forever exist in celluloid, in dreams, and in our hearts.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit RAINN.org for additional resources. 

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. You can also find more information, resources, and support at www.thehotline.org.