"I've always been terrified, still am, of water," said Natalie Wood shortly before her tragic death in 1981, one then ruled to be accidental due to drowning.
Wood, born in San Francisco in 1938 to Russian parents, was originally named Natalia Gurdin. Her first major movie role was at age 7 and by age 16 she starred with then 24-year-old James Dean in "A Rebel without a Cause," a performance that won her the first of three Oscar nominations. She married Robert Wagner when she was 19 and in 1961 she starred in "West Side Story." Her marriage to Wagner went away, but she would appear in 56 movie and TV roles before having a breakdown in the mid-1960's. She eventually returned to the screen, married and divorce a second time and then reconciled with Wagner. Notwithstanding her fame as an actress, it was the enigmatic nature of her death that has been a mystery for 30 years, at least until this week.
It was 30 years ago this month (11/29/81) that Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and a friend, actor Christopher Walken, went boating on the Wagner's private motor yacht named "Splender," captained by Dennis Davern. Davern, who recently co-wrote a book on Wood's death, has been interviewed on almost every TV channel, suggesting that people read his book to find out what really happened to Wood that clear night.
What we do know is that the Wagners and Walken were allegedly drinking that night, that, according to the Captain, Robert Wagner walked in on his wife sitting with Walken on a couch and allegedly accused Walken of wanting to have sex with Natalie, after which Robert Wagner broke a bottle of wine on a glass table top. Then, the story goes, Walken retreated to his cabin, the Wagner's went to their cabin, and the captain was on the bridge, turning the music up so he wouldn't hear the Wagner's arguing below. Again it is Captain Davern that suggests that he heard arguing and other loud noises coming from the Wagner's cabin, perhaps suggesting a serious argument between the two.
Later that evening, we are told, Natalie Wood, who the coroner would later estimate to have consumed seven glasses of wine, went on deck alone and either attempted to secure a dinghy banging against the side of the boat or tried to board the small dinghy and leave the larger boat, this all the while dressed in only a nightgown and socks.
Natalie was never seen alive again and was found hours later floating in the dark waters, the dinghy found in a nearby cove. Examination of her body revealed a number of bruises and scratches and other injuries. Her death would be investigated and declared to be an accidental drowning.
How do people Die?
Accident, homicide, suicide, natural causes. That's what death investigators look for when they try to determine cause of death. While obvious that Wood did not die of natural causes at age 43, were the authorities too quick to rule her death accidental?
1) Perhaps the story they settled on was that she was intoxicated, distraught after her argument with Wagner, and did, in fact, venture from her cabin to the deck in the middle of the night to stop the dinghy's banging against the yacht from keeping her awake, and she slipped on the deck, injured herself, and then fell overboard with no one hearing her go over the side of the boat.
2) Or, perhaps, she was distressed after her argument with Wagner, so distressed that in her wine fueled emotions that she fled their common bedroom, clothed only in her nightgown, in an attempt to escape both Wagner and her then situation. Wood, a woman who had then recently expressed her fear of the water, and who could not swim, nevertheless overcame her fears and attempted to get into the dinghy and row to shore to get away from Wagner. In such a scenario, she may have fallen overboard, again striking her head and body as she fell into the very blackened waters she so much feared.
3) Or, perhaps, again under the influence of at least a bottle of wine, she jumped into the waters to commit suicide, and, unfortunately, was able to accomplish her mission.
Evidently investigators felt whatever happened, it was an accident, perhaps the result of her drinking and perhaps the result of the events of that evening. After all, only Robert Wagner and perhaps Walken really know what happened....
After three decades and exactly at the time of his book release and somehow timed perfectly to gain maximum publicity for the new book, the good, or not so good Captain Davern comes forward to say he had lied to investigators some 30 years ago. What do you know?, asked NBC's David Gregory on The Today Show? The ever elusive Captain Davern evaded Gregory's questions as if they were underwater mines and only said the answers could be found in his new book.
So what, if anything, is new in this death case? Investigators say they have reopened the case, one still classified as an accidental drowning, based upon information from a number of individuals, suggesting, perhaps, that they have more than the good ship captain's self-admitted perjury. Is a "tell-all book" sufficient to reopen a death investigation, and if so, if the Captain lied once, could he be lying again, this time for financial purposes/book sales?
Perhaps the case can be reviewed, the evidence reexamined, the victim's body even exhumed for examination for DNA or other evidence possibly not apparent when her body was first examined. While some may not have suddenly remembered what happened that fateful night, others, maybe someone on the yacht or someone privy to tightly held, 30-year-old secrets may have finally decided to come forward and cleanse their conscience.
Whatever the genesis of the new information, and whatever the cause of Wood's death, it is well worth the time of investigators to review this cold, cold case in order to determine, hopefully once and for all, why a woman so afraid of the water wound up in such a dark, watery grave.