Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Natalie Wood's Mysterious Death

is for Natalie Wood. Another maritime mystery, but this time of a different flavor.

On the evening of November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood, Oscar nominated actress, met her death in the Pacific Ocean, off Catalina Island.

Natalie Wood
By unknown photographer (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Natalie was out on the boat with her husband, Robert Wagner (their second marriage to each other, her third overall), Christopher Walken, and the ship's captain. Reports said the trio of actors had gotten quite drunk at a restaurant onshore, and had caused some problems. Waitresses reported that Natalie and Christopher Walken were flirting (or that at least Wood was flirting with Walken).

Originally, the captain just reported them having continued their partying when they returned to the ship. However, in 2011, on the thirtieth anniversary of her death, the captain admitted lying about what happened that night. (It should be noted that this coincided with the release of his tell-all book on Natalie Wood's death*). He now claimed that there was a fight once they arrived back on the ship. He heard Wagner yelling at Walken, claiming he wanted to sleep with Natalie. The couple retired to their room, the fight continuing.

The boat was discovered missing sometime after midnight. Wagner went out searching for her, but came back empty-handed. Harbor Patrol was notified at 1 AM. At 7:30 AM, her body was discovered by a helicopter involved in the search effort. She was bruised, a scrape on her cheek, and the cause was determined to be accidental drowning (some reports include hypothermia as an additional cause). Her blood alcohol level was .14%, and she was found to also have a sea sickness medication and a painkiller in her system.

Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
By Studio (Dr. Macro) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 2011, in light of the new information reported by the captain, along with claims that others had come forward with information, the coroner changed cause of death from accidental drowning to an undetermined cause of drowning. It has been stated that the bruises on Natalie Wood's person were likely to have been caused before she went into the water, at least some of them. In addition, Robert Wagner admitted to being in a fight with Wood when she died, though I didn't see anything that said he admitted to striking her.

When the dinghy was found, the key was in it, and it was off. It didn't appear to have been used.

A 2001 recording of an interview with Natalie's sister, Lana, included a statement by Lana that the captain had called her while drunk and admitted to having witnessed Robert Wagner kill Natalie Wood. He said they were fighting, and that Wagner shoved Wood. She went over the side, splashing around, but unable to get purchase. Wagner told the captain to let her learn a lesson. Eventually, the noise ceased, and the two men covered it up. Walken was apparently in his room and had no knowledge of what had happened. At least one person on a neighboring boat reported hearing a scream. The police were called.

In all the years I've known of this mystery, I've never seen or heard an opinion from Christopher Walken on what happened that night, nor have I seen any statements about it.

Suggested reasons for her drowning include the following:

  • The dinghy might have been knocking against the ship, so Natalie went out to secure it better and slipped in, seeing as how she was under the influence.
  • She tried to go for a late night trip in the little boat to see the stars. In her nightgown, down coat, and knee-high socks...
  • She committed suicide by throwing herself into the water (though why she untied the ship first is unknown). In 1966, she was rushed to the hospital due to a drug overdose. She admitted to not wanting to live, and it was considered a suicide attempt, so suicide was not an unprecedented move for her.
  • Wagner and Walken were having an affair (one of the reasons Natalie was said to have divorced him the first time was due to an affair Wagner had with a man). She walked in on them, so they killed her (yes, I saw this suggested all over, despite the fact that it's probably the least likely).
  • She attempted to escape Wagner's rage, but fell off the boat or fell trying to get into the boat. Her heavy jacket dragged her down as it filled with water, and she was unable to save herself.
  • Robert Wagner killed her in a jealous rage, whether accidentally or on purpose, then untied the boat to make it look like she'd gone out on it.

An interesting side note: Natalie Wood was deathly afraid of the water.

What do you think happened? Were you aware of the mystery surrounding her death?

May you find your Muse.

*Author Marti Rulli stopped by after this post went up and commented on this. Her full comment can be read below, but the summary is that this book came out first (confirmed publication in 2010), with them working for two more years to get the police to listen to statements the captain had been making since Natalie Wood's death. The case was officially announced as reopened in 2012, two years after the release of the book. I'll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions. 

*Letter N courtesy of kittenskill, clker.com


  1. It's amazing how long this mystery has been in the public's minds. I can remember my parents talking about it when I was little, seeing the occasional 'made-for-TV' special over the years, etc.

    Sadly, they'll never know 100% exactly what happened to her that night. If she was murdered, it's a shame the person who took her life has been able stay in free control of their own life for so long after her's was taken.

  2. We'll never know the whole story. Walker either never said anything on purpose or he really had no idea.

  3. I remember this happening and always had it in the back of my mind.

    Interestingly enough my wife was named after Natalie Wood because her father liked the actress.

  4. I remember hearing about this and always wondered what really happened.

    I'd believe any of the theories put forth...Hollywood types are a strange lot.

  5. She died before I was born, but I'll speculate she was drunk and drown.

  6. It's sad that Natalie Wood's family will never know what actually happened to her. The fact that Walken has never said anything about what happened seems a little strange to me. If people on other boats heard a scream, I would imagine that he had to have heard something.

    Tales of a Pee Dee Mama

  7. Personally, I never cared for Wagner, a swaggering, full of himself type. It doesn't make sense, because we aren't being told the entire truth.

    Angry husbands used to be excused for these crimes of passion, what a lot of rot that was. My guess is she was the bigger star, everyone liked Natalie, and he resented it. Why didn't she learn the first time to stay away from that creep?

  8. While intriguing and endlessly fascinating, I fear that speculation is the best we can ever expect from this mystery. I adored Natalie Wood and feel she still had much more to offer the world.

    But we shall never know the true facts of this case any more than we will ever have a definitive conclusion to the mystery of who shot JFK.

    Yet, as always, you write and elevating and entertaining post. Many thanks.

  9. I'm a huge fan of mysteries, so I really like your A-Z theme! This one's certainly fascinating. Too bad it's not a movie so we won't get to see a revelation of the killer.

    ~ D is for Deecoded ~

  10. I doubt even the people there really know what happened anymore.

  11. I don't believe it was suicide, nor do I believe she went out in the boat and accidentally drowned for that one fact-- she was deathly afraid of water and had nightmares about drowning. Someone like Natalie Wood would have killed herself with sleeping pills not by jumping into the abyss. That would have scared her beyond belief. She was surely murdered. By whom is the big question, and I think it was Robert Wagner who did it. Especially after the captain came out with his new information a few years ago. But he was discredited because he's a nobody and Wagner's still a big celebrity. I am convinced it was Wagner. I'd like to read the captain's book but figure I better not because it will make me so upset that Robert Wagner is getting away with murder.

  12. I completely agree with what Karen just said. Thanks, Karen for saving me all that typing! ;-)

    Nice that google recognized something you're obviously proud of!
    Tina @ Life is Good
    Co-host, April 2013 A-Z Challenge Blog
    @TinaLifeisGood, #atozchallenge

  13. With so many years gone by I doubt any true determination will ever be discovered. With Wagner being a celebrity it appears he was treated differently. IN most cases like this the husband is basically guilty until proven innocent.

    I have no real opinion and that is rare in itself! Very thought provoking.

    Chuck at Apocalypse Now

  14. I'm pretty sure Christopher Walken stabbed her in the face with a soldering iron.

    *I apologize, it's a movie quote.*

  15. In light of how the Captain's book coincided with his revised statement, I can't believe anything he says. I don't believe she committed suicide in light of her fear of drowning. I say either accident or murder with both being equally plausible, imo. I would, however, like to know what Walken told the police. He must've had to make a statement.

  16. I don't believe she killed herself. If she did, I don't believe she would have used her biggest fear to do it. I think she was killed, but by whom, I don't know.

  17. Alcohol, jealousy, and water don't mix well.

  18. She was so lovely! Just stopping by for the A-Z Challenge. Juliet atCity Muse Country Muse

  19. I appreciate this author's understanding that there is suspicion in Natalie's case. But I am so tired of the misconception that the reopening of Natalie's case coincided with a tell-all book release, which would be MY book! No, that's not the way it happened. My book, Goodbye Natalie Goodbye Splendour, was released TWO years before the reopening of the case and it's ANYTHING BUT a "tell-all" -- I spent over 20 years researching and substantiating what the captain tried to confess to authorities as far back as the mid-80's. No one would listen to him, so I went to work to bring this iconic actress her justice and after my book was published, I still had to work hard at it for two more years to get the authorities to listen. Finally, they are doing something about all of the truth and facts about what really happened the weekend the lovely Natalie Wood was robbed of her life. There was no other mission involved with my book GNGS than to get Wood's case reopened. If authorities had wanted to work with us first, there would have been no book. Thank you for reading this comment. Marti Rulli, author of the misunderstood book.

  20. Wow, that is interesting. How great you chose to write about the mystery surrounding Natalie's death only to have an author--Marti Rulli--see it and talk about her extensive research pointing toward murder.

  21. I think he probably killed her accidentally, during a drunken fight, but never tried to save her.

    #atozchallenge, Kristen's blog: kristenhead.blogspot.com

  22. I was only 1 year old when this took place, so I never knew about it. I grew up loving Christopher Walken (Robert Wagner is relatively unknown to me), and while I could see him being kind of a mobster/gangster (just has the look/style), I had no idea he was closely associated to a case like this.

    After reading Marti Rulli's post, I can't lie... I may lean more towards a murder/coverup.

    Jak at The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink

  23. E.J., it is sad that someone got away with this (if that is the case). Did your parents have theories?

    Alex, I'd like to believe he had no idea. I'm not a huge fan of his (find him freaky), but he doesn't seem like the murdering type, and it really sounds like he was a hapless victim of a different sort, caught between squabbling spouses.

    Tim, how fun! I was named after a character in a romance novel, LOL. And I'm about as far as one can get from romantic.

    Mark, I agree that Hollywooders are weirdos.

    Beth, sounds like that's as likely a story as murder. Seems like a 50/50 split.

    TaMara, that's a good point. Then again, maybe he was so drunk he was passed out?

    D.G., that's the question, isn't it? Had she not gone back, she might still be alive today. Wouldn't it have been lovely for her to have outlived Wagner? (I've never been a fan of his, either).

    Scarecrow, thank you! Yes, she definitely had much more to offer. Another life taken too young. That's always sad.

    Dee, thank you! I like that way of looking at it. Wouldn't it be great if every mystery featured a reveal at the end? People like things wrapped up.

    Andrew, probably. And isn't Wagner dead?

    Karen, yes, it's that fear of the water that gets me. Given, she was out on a boat despite it, but I'm willing to bet she stayed far from the sides for that reason. And certainly wouldn't galavant off in a rowboat!

  24. Tina, that was nice of Karen, haha! What did Google recognize?

    Chuck, gasp, no opinion!? I think Wagner did it.

    David, hahaha! I always appreciate movie quotes.

    Marcy, indeed, he would have had to speak to the police, at the very least. I wonder what would happen if this occurred in this media-heavy day and age?

    Rachel, I agree. Like someone else said, she'd already tried to use sleeping pills, and I imagine she would have done so again had she been attempting suicide.

    Jo, no, they certainly don't. Sad that they clashed in such a way.

    Juliet, she was, wasn't she?

    Marti, I can see how it would be frustrating. I hope your book and the ensuing investigation lead to the truth being understood. I appreciate you stopping by to tell us the facts behind the release and the captain's story.

    Jagoda, I'm glad she was able to set things straight.

    Kristen, sounds quite likely, doesn't it? Not saving her is the same as premeditated murder, in my opinion.

    Jak, I also lean toward murder and subsequent cover up. I'm certain Wagner was involved, but have my doubts about Walken being part of it. But who knows? That's my completely uneducated opinion.