Thursday, April 28, 2016

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES----"NATALIE WOOD – Accidental Drowning or Something Else?" by Earl Staggs

After considering the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance in January and the death of actor George Reeves in February and who killed Bugsy Siegel last month, Earl considers the circumstances surrounding the death of Natalie Wood.


When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery. 

NATALIE WOOD – Accidental Drowning  or Something Else?

by Earl Staggs

Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, to Russian immigrant parents, she began acting at the age of four and soon changed her name to Natalie Wood.  In 1947, at the age of eight, she played Maureen O'Hara's daughter in the original film version of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, a role which established her as one of the top child movie actors.  As an adult, she starred in a number of major films including , Splendor in the Grass (1955), West Side Story (1961), Gypsy  (1962), and  Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).  

By the time she was twenty-five, Natalie Wood, a strikingly beautiful and talented actress, had  accummulated three Oscar nominations.  That was a record number of nominations for a young actress until  2014 when Jennifer Lawrence accomplished the same feat  by the age of twenty-three.

At 8:00 on the morning of November 29, 1981, Natalie's body was pulled from the water near Catalina Island, off the coast of California. 

The previous night, she had partied on their yacht, Splendour, with her husband, actor Robert Wagner.  They were married in 1957, divorced six years later, and remarried in 1972.   Also on board the yacht were their friend, actor Christopher Walken, and Dennis Davern, the boat's captain.

The Los Angeles county coroner ruled her death an accident by drowning and hypothermia and noted that a night of heavy drinking could have caused her to slip and fall into the water.

Not everyone accepted that ruling.  Lana Wood, Natallie's sister and a former Bond girl,  accused  Wagner of killing Natalie in a jealous rage over an alleged affair with Walken. When it was suggested Natalie fell into the water trying to board a dinghy alongside the yacht, Lana said Natalie was a  poor swimmer with a lifelong fear of water, and for her to voluntarily leave the yacht on a dinghy was  implausible.  All three men on board said they thought Natalie had gone to bed and had no idea she was in the water.

The case was reopened in November 2011 after the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, published a  book titled, GoodbyeNatalie, Goodbye Splendour.  In his book, he admitted he lied to police during the initial investigation and now stated Wagner was responsible for her death.  Davern appeared in a 1992 Geraldo Rivera special, a 2000 Vanity Fair piece, and CNN interview in 2010.

Davern claimed Wagner pushed Natalie away after a drunken brawl and she fell overboard.  He said he wanted to  save her, but Wagner said, “Leave her there. Teach her a lesson.” 

Wagner dismissed Davern's allegations as nothing more than an attempt to sell books through tabloid headlines.

In his 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart,  Wagner acknowledged he had a fight with Natalie  that night after Walken went to bed, and that both of them had been drinking heavily.  As for what caused her to fall off the boat, he wrote it was "all 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."

"Did 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 belowdecks. I didn't hear anything. But ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one, and she was my loved one."

After a fresh examination of the original autopsy report, the Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner in 2012, amended Natalie's death certificate.  The cause of death was changed from  “accidental drowning” to "drowning and other undetermined factors."

The amended document also states:

. . .the circumstances of how Natalie ended up in the water are "not clearly established;"
. . .some two dozen bruises on her body and an abrasion on her left cheek may have been sustained before she went into the water;
. . .she may have been unconscious when she entered the water.

As of now, the case is still open and unsolved.  Investigators have circumstantial evidence, allegations, and suppositions, but no definitive evidence that Natalie's death was due to foul play.

As for me, I'm undecided.  Maybe they had  a physical altercation on deck, and she went over the side accidentally or aided by an angry, drunken husband.  Perhaps she was so anxious to get away from him, the amount of alcohol she'd consumed overwhelmed her fear of water, and she braved climbing into the dinghy only to lose her balance and wind up in the water.

One thing I'm certain of.  I don't believe we'll ever know for sure what happened on that ill-fated yacht on that dark night off the coast of Catalina.

What do you think?

Earl Staggs ©2016

Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year.  He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. 

He invites any comments via email at

He also invites you to visit his blog site at to learn more about his novels and stories.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I think it was probably murder--caused by too much drinking. Who did it, I'll not even guess, but the whole thing is terribly sad. Everyone drank too excess in those days.

Kaye George said...

Here's my theory, after reading this excellent summation. Wagner pushed her overboard, as the Captain witnessed, but was so drunk he doesn't remember any of it. Actually, at the time, I thought he did it, from everything that was floating around.

Earl Staggs said...

Marilyn, you may be right. A lot of those Hollywood people STILL abuse bad stuff of all kinds. You'd think they'd learn but. . .

Earl Staggs said...

Kaye, I sortakinda agree with you, but I strongly doubt if there will ever be proof one way or the other. Too bad.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I agree that there never was real proof one way or the other. Clearly, they were all drunk. So anything could have happened. Makes for an interesting story plot though.

Earl Staggs said...

Definitely a lot of "what if" possibilities, Jacqueline. I'd love to drill Christopher Walken. The only thing I've ever seen about him is that he and Wagner had an argument, he went to bed, and he knew nothing about what happened after that. I find that hard to believe. The yacht was not huge and it's hard to imagine he didn't hear what went on between Natalie and Wagner. And what did he and Wagner argue about? Her, maybe?

Susan said...

I think Walken was involved, but that is not an unbiased thought as I've never liked the man and find him vaguely repellent. But a personal opinion is wholly insufficient on which to base an accusation. Whatever happened, alcohol abuse was the real villain. I don't think Wagner consciously killed his wife. But I've always liked him, so again a personal opinion is insufficient on which to base a defense. As for the captain, I think he's nothing but a rather slimy opportunist, using an unsolved death to sell his book. The whole affair just proves that fiction is so much neater than real life. It has rules - real life unfortunately doesn't. Good post, Earl.

Caroline Clemmons said...

As Susan said, I've always liked Robert Wagner and find it hard to believe he consciously killed Natalie Wood. But people who have been drinking don't have total recall (or so I've heard). Perhaps he shoved her as he walked away and didn't realize she didn't stop at the rail. Of course we'll never know. I didn't like Christopher Walken until I saw the video of him dancing. Somehow that made him more human.

Good job, Earl.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, I agree with you about the captain. He could be one of those who'll say anything to make a buck. Alcohol was definitely a major player in whatever happened. And real life has no rules as you said. I suppose that's why it gets so sloppy some times.

Earl Staggs said...

I like Robert Wagner, too, Caroline, and find it hard to picture him as a killer. We don't know what he was like back then, though, or what he's like with a tank full of booze. It's a damn shame we don't know what really happened and a bigger shame that a talented beauty was lost way too soon.

Marja said...

Another thought provoking post, Earl. No, we'll probably never know what really happened. I can picture her being shoved by any one of the three men after which he turned and walked away, maybe not realizing she went into the water. Drunks don't stop to think things through and don't necessarily go back to see if they've done any damage.

Earl Staggs said...

That could be exactly what happened, Marja. Someone else suggested she was pushed by her husband, and he didn't realize she went overboard. The only problem with that scenario is this: unless she was unconscious when she went into the water, she would have made some noise. Calling for help, for example. As a matter of fact, the ME said she may have been unconscious when she went over. There are a lot of scenarios to play with, and yours is another good one.