On Nov. 29, 1981, Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood, set sail on an expedition to Santa Catalina Island on board the Splendour. She was not alone. Joining her was husband Robert Wagner, and “Brainstorm” co-star Christopher Walken. The third party was the Splendour’s captain, Dennis Davern. However, by 8:00 a.m. on Nov. 29, Wood’s lifeless body was discovered floating in the water. She was more than a mile away from the boat. With her, was a small blowup dinghy, called the Valiant.
The autopsy report revealed that she had wounds all over her body. Her arms and legs were severely bruised, and on her left cheek was a nasty abrasion. For the next 40 years, Wood’s drowning death would remain one of Hollywood’s biggest mysteries, since the Black Dahlia Case in 1945. Will new evidence finally resolve it as homicidal instead of an accidental death?
The Final Stand
In February 2018, after nearly four decades of speculation, investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are making their final plea to resolve the case. They were determined to prepare the last push for eyewitnesses to come forward. Their primary “person of interest”– Wood’s then-husband, actor Robert Wagner. “Mr. Wagner was a person of interest because he is the last person with her before she went in the water,” Homicide Bureau Lt. John Corina told correspondents.
At a news conference, investigators acknowledged that time is not on their side. In fact, it is running out quickly. The clock is ticking to solve the unexplained conditions around Wood’s demise. Numerous onlookers have passed away, who were on boats close by in 1981. The initial detective on the case is deceased. Still optimistic, private detectives are reaching out one more time to see if individuals will come forward with evidence.
The Tainted Actress
Wood’s tragic case is ironic. All her life, she was haunted by the fear of water after nearly drowning on a movie set as a child. In a dialogue with TMZ, Wood’s sister Lana made the point to state that her death was prophesized by their mother. She told her that she would die in dark water. Those dark waters would one day be the Atlantic Ocean.
Wood, who was best known for her parts in “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and “West Side Story,” would not live past the age of 43. The artist took her last cruise in the family vessel off the shoreline of California’s Catalina Island with Wagner, now 87.
Wood’s sister never stopped blaming Wagner for that horrific night. She was not alone. In November 2011, Davern publicly came forward and admitted to police that he lied during the initial investigation. He confessed that Wood and Wagner argued the whole evening. Davern also claimed that Wood and Walken were flirting. He witnessed Wagner fly into a jealous rage. Davern believes his sudden rage cost Wood her life.
Walken lawyered up and assisted with the investigation. He was never considered a suspect by authorities. However, the same cannot be said about Wagner. He has refused having any part in his wife’s death. In February 2018, he was named a person of interest in the cold case.
‘Leave Her There; Teach Her a Lesson.’
According to the now 65-year-old sister of Wood, Wagner’s final words to his wife were the kiss of death. She believes that he left her to drown on the night of her tragic passing. “Leave her there; teach her a lesson’ is what Davern claimed Wagner told him.
Davern, being a key witness, mentioned the nightmare did not end there. Not only did he claim that Wagner knew Wood was in the water, but he did nothing when the fainted cries of a woman were heard in the night. Davern added:
Neither one of us took any steps to see if we could locate her. I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, we’re not going to notify anybody right now.’
Davern claims that the resentful Wagner tried to cover his back. Could this case be the classic jealous husband that flies into a fury and kills his wife? Or was it an accidental death? According to criminologists, Rebecca and Russell Dobash at The University of Manchester, the Wagner, and Wood situation would be considered far too typical. With over two dozen bruises on her body, it was clear that there was some physical abuse. Both criminologists discovered that in most cases, men kill their partners because of sexual jealousy. Could this have been the flirtation among Wood and Walken? Or was there some hidden sexual tension that the world will never know? There is no evidence.
The Dobash’s spent 10 years interviewing murderers serving life sentences in British prisons, that led to significant studies of men who kill women. Either at the point where the woman articulates, “I’ve had enough of you whacking on me, I’m out of here,”—since 65 percent of the men have beforehand abused their spouses—or after they had left.
Could Wood have been a longtime victim of domestic violence before her death? There is no evidence, and no eyewitnesses that have come forward to verify abuse. The Dobash research exposed several frightening societal questions. Most prominently, they discovered that numerous women are killed by jealous, domineering, and controlling men. Could Wagner fit this stereotype? The concepts of entitlement bound up in masculinity are, in some circumstances, fatal.
Unhappy Wife, Unhappy Life
According to those who knew Wood, marriage for the second time around was no fairy tale. In fact, it was full of depression. She had tied the knot to Wagner previously on Dec. 28, 1957. In June of 1961, they were separated, and in April 1962, they filed for divorce. Nevertheless, they gave it a shot again on July 16, 1972.
She had terrible insomnia; lying awake at night for hours. She spent most of it trying to figure out why she was so discontent. She would soon turn to sleeping pills. Finally, Wagner suggested that she see a psychiatrist. According to witnesses, she spent eight years during her lunch hours, day after day consulting with her psychoanalyst. She turned down many roles during this time. Her marriage to Wagner was one of the finest in Hollywood, but was it? With the case being reopened, the world waits to finally learn the answer to the 40-year-old mystery.
By Jomo Merritt
Edited by Jeanette Smith
Daily Mail: She would never go near that dinghy’: Sister says Natalie Wood’s fear of water makes Wagner and crewmates’ tale of how she drowned IMPOSSIBLE
VICE: Inside the Minds of Men Who Kill Women
ABC News: What to know about Natalie Wood’s still unsolved 1981 drowning death
Top Image Courtesy of Insomnia Cured Here’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License