What Happened The Night Natalie Wood Died? Facts And Theories
Natalie Wood, star of Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story, and Splendor In The Grass, died in the water off Catalina Island on November 29, 1981. But how, exactly?
Wood's body was found a mile away from where the boat was anchored. Her skin was bruised, and she had a scratch on her face. There had been tension and shouting that night, and drinking -- lots of drinking. Was it a drunken accident, or was Natalie Wood killed?
The mystery of Natalie Wood’s death checks all the boxes of a Hollywood script. A beautiful, cherished actress dies while enjoying a romantic yacht ride off the Pacific coast in the company of other celebrities -- her husband, Robert Wagner and the actor Christopher Walken. Of course, the death of Natalie Wood wasn’t a Hollywood script but a real-life tragedy that has defied explanation despite exhaustive efforts to determine what actually happened.
A 2020 HBO documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, produced by Wood’s oldest daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, explores her mother’s amazing work in Miracle On 34th Street, Rebel Without A Cause, and West Side Story. The documentary also delves into what happened on that fateful night.
A Drunken Disaster
Many elements of Natalie Wood's final night are up for debate. However, one fact is not. Wood, Walker, Wagner, and Dennis Davern, the boat's captain, were all drunk from dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef in Catalina. The manager, Don Whiting, worried that all four were too intoxicated to make it back to the boat safely in their dinghy after the meal and even went so far as to ask the Harbor Patrol to make sure the group made it safely back to their yacht when they left the restaurant at 10:30 p.m. Toxicology reports stated that Wood’s blood alcohol content was .14.
An Argument And A Suspicious Delay
Featured in the documentary and in most media regarding Wood’s death was the argument between Walken and Wagner. According to the documentary, they quarreled over Wood’s career and Walken’s right to an opinion. Wagner who admits to being both drunk and high remembers ending the argument with, “I think it’s important that you stay out of our life.”
Around 11 p.m., the others on the boat noticed Wood was missing. Two hours later a call was made from ship to shore and it took another 2 hours before the coast guard was finally called. That’s 4 four hours from the point Wood disappeared before the the Coast Guard. That decision to wait has been heavily scrutinized over the years.
The most logical explanation that doesn’t involve foul play centers on a noisy dinghy and Wood’s inability to swim. The weather was also poor with lots of rain. Walken opened up to Playboy magazine with what he believed happened (as quoted in The Hollywood Reporter):
"Anybody there saw the logistics—of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining—and would know exactly what happened. You hear about things happening to people—they slip in the bathtub, fall down the stairs, step off the curb in London because they think that the cars come the other way—and they die. You feel you want to die making an effort at something; you don’t want to die in some unnecessary way.
"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."
A Family Blood Feud
Naturally, the death of a beloved family member causes grief that can last decades. The Woods are no different; the tension of normal family relations hits a boiling point when such a tragedy occurs. Natalie Wood's younger sister, Lana, has come to suspect that Natalie's death was not an accident, but murder. Her public statements to that effect have caused a rift in the family.
Natalie’s youngest daughter talks about the emotional wound caused by Lana in the HBO documentary. “Her name was not Wood, but her mother changed it to Lana Wood. I don’t even think she believes what she’s saying. She’s literally accused my dad of killing my mom, when that’s the farthest thing from the truth.”
Suspicions That Kept The Story Alive
Explainable tragedies can be easier to accept and leave in the past. Natalie Wood’s death defied explanation and kept getting worse when various stories changed and new suspicions arose. For instance, Davern’s story, was likely why the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reopened their investigation 30 years after the incident because they received “additional information" from unidentified sources.” Shortly after that, Davern claimed Wagner was responsible and that he screamed “Get off my f**king boat!” to Wood.
The story became even muddier when, in 2018, the police officially changed Wood's cause of death from an accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors." Robert Wagner was named a "person of interest."
The point of the HBO documentary appeared to be clearing Wagner’s name. Natalie’s daughter pointedly asks and clears Wagner of any wrongdoing, “It’s important to me, Daddy, that people think of you the way I know that you are,” Natasha says, “and it bothers me that anyone would ever think that you would be involved in what happened to her.”