Natalie Wood: What Really Happened On The Night Of Her Death?

(Natalie Wood. Picture credit: imdb)

The unforgettable Natalie Wood was one of those actresses that didn't just light up the screen with her incredible beauty, her acting abilities and range were a real scene stealer too. The first time I ever saw her was whilst watching an old classic film where she played the role of Gypsy Rose Lee in the iconic 1962 movie, Gypsy. Natalie was no stranger to iconic roles, having worked in the entertainment industry since the age of just four years old, her career was nothing short of astonishing with classic roles in Miracle On 34th Street, Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story as well as many others. 

She was born Natalie Zacharenko on the 20th of July 1938 in San Francisco, California. She was of Russian descent and had one younger sister, (full name: Svetlana) Lana who was also an actress. Natalie's surname was changed from Zacharenko to Wood when she first began acting as RKO executives believed that it would help her appeal to American audiences. Her career took off from the get-go and she just seemed to naturally shine on screen, audiences could not get enough of her and numerous awards and nominations piled up. She certainly had a glittering career and even though she had such a short time on this earth, she left behind an incredible legacy of iconic roles (and not to mention, stylish moments) that most actresses and actors could only dream of. 

As well as her career success, her love life was also full of sparkle. Many leading men in Hollywood had their eye on her and she did have some romances with some of the handsome leading men of the day. It was her love story with the legendary actor, Robert Wagner which seemed to be the one that was the most prominent and long lasting of all her relationships. People would liken their love story to that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, it seemed to be a beautiful fairytale of two very attractive, talented people. Natalie and Robert crossed each others pasts twice in Natalie's short life. The first time they were together, Natalie was 18 and Robert was 26 and despite the age gap, the pair fell deeply in love. Things were great for a while but Robert began to grow very envious of Natalie's career which continued to go from strength to strength. Robert had difficulty sharing the spotlight with someone else and being with Natalie he resented the fact that people seemed to be more interested in her than in him. It wasn't long before the pair went their separate ways and entered into other relationships. 

(Robert Wagner & Natalie Wood. Picture credit: people)

Just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, they found that over the years they couldn't stop thinking about each other and never seemed to find a relationship with the same sort of spark and bond that they had. They ended up getting back together again and for a while things were good until Robert's jealousy returned. With her talent, Natalie had already done something so rare in the acting field and that was transitioning from a child star to an adult star. Very few can make this transition, for example, Macaulay Culkin is a talented guy and we all love him but a lot of people still see him as Kevin from Home Alone (check out his incredible sinister performance in 'The Good Son') and it's a shame because he has a lot to offer. Maybe one day Tarantino might give him a shot and it could really turn things around?. 

Robert's career was not what it once was but Natalie was still big news in Hollywood and to make things worse in Robert's eyes, she was working alongside the up and coming male talents of the day. In particular, Christopher Walken, we know him as a master of the screen now but back then he was still fresh, exciting and people just knew that he was an incredible talent who was going to have a legendary career. 

There's no doubt that Robert was in love with Natalie but he was also in love with himself and his own career as well. The relationship was a fiery one with tempers often flaring. Sometimes it was Robert who'd explode in a rage, sometimes it was Natalie, neither one of them was an angel and when they had a few drinks things would get more toxic. A former neighbour of the couple told investigators after Natalie's death that she had appeared at his parent's house late one night, terrified for her life after one of Robert's outbursts. She ended up staying with the family overnight and claimed that Robert was going to kill her. She returned home in the morning and nothing else became of the matter but various people have spoken over the years of the couple's intense arguments. 

So what happened to Natalie Wood? well, the couple owned a boat named 'Splendour' and they planned to spend Thanksgiving weekend on board with their caretaker/captain (Dennis Davern) and Christopher Walken (who Natalie was working on a movie with) in the November of 1981. It was odd that Christopher had been invited along because Robert was fiercely envious of him and grew increasingly paranoid about Christopher's friendship with his wife. 

(Splendour. Picture credit: Flynet Pictures)

The couple were at each other's throats before they even set sail and the lead up to Natalie's suspicious death was marred with heavy drinking and heated arguments. At one point, Natalie requested that Dennis (the boat caretaker/captain) take her away from the boat and the pair stayed in a hotel whilst Natalie poured out all of her troubles to him. She reportedly told Dennis that the marriage with Robert was hell, she couldn't cope with his jealousy of her success and that she planned to leave him. The next morning though, Natalie returned to the boat and seemed to patch up her differences with Robert.

Things were still tense when the group decided to go for some dinner in the evening. Robert, Natalie and Christopher had dinner and the drinks continued to flow and tensions continued to build. Robert grew tired of watching Natalie and Christopher laughing and his paranoia was in overdrive. When the three actors finally decided to leave the restaurant, they were so drunk that the staff had a word with Dennis and told him to make sure they got back on to the boat safe. 

Some hours passed, Dennis, Christopher, Robert and Natalie were all aboard the Splendour. The weather was horrific and the sea was harsh, it was a very dark, cold and stormy night. Dennis went about doing bits and pieces on the boat and the three actors were below deck having drinks and talking. Natalie decided that she'd had enough alcohol and made some tea. At some point, Natalie and Christopher shared a joke about something and Robert suddenly snapped ''Are you trying to f**k my wife?''. The situation was awkward and Natalie was so upset that she said she wasn't dealing with it and went to one of the bedrooms. Christopher didn't hang about either and he retired to one of the rooms. Dennis could hear the drama and later reported that just before Christopher went to bed, he heard a heated conversation between him and Robert where Robert smashed a bottle of wine deliberately (Robert denied this taking place on numerous occasions but later admitted that this did indeed happen). 

So Christopher had gone to his room away from Robert's drama. Robert then went into the room where Natalie was and all hell broke loose in there. Dennis claimed that he heard a heated argument with sounds of objects being thrown. There was constant commotion and then a sudden silence. Dennis decided to go and see if everything was ok, when he knocked on the door, Robert answered looking flustered and angry, he told Dennis to go away to which he did. The next thing he knew, Robert was in tears, frantic telling him that Natalie had vanished.

Natalie couldn't swim and was terrified of water, especially dark water so Robert was trying to imply that she had somehow slipped and fell off the boat. They searched the boat again and alerted Christopher who joined them. No sign of Natalie was to be seen. Dennis suggested turning on the search lights and telling the coast guard asap but for some reason, Robert told him not too. Robert also insisted that everyone drink a shot of scotch and get their stories together. Natalie went missing at midnight and authorities were not alerted until 1:30 am. Robert was also quick to mention that a dingy had gone missing and he came up with the theory that Natalie had left the boat on the dingy. It was a ludicrous story, Natalie was in her bed clothes and socks when she was last seen and there's no way that she would get on a dingy in the middle of the night when it was freezing cold and the water was so fierce.

When authorities were finally on the scene, Robert appeared to be distraught, Christopher and Dennis were in a state of shock. When Natalie was sadly found deceased hours later in the water, Robert ordered Dennis to identify her body, he and Christopher left the boat. The whole chain of events raised a lot of questions but because of Robert's fame and power, everyone just took his word for it and declared the tragic incident as simply an accident. This, despite what had been heard just hours before with the arguing, Robert's mood that night, his strange actions and the delay of reporting Natalie missing as well as refusing to turn on the search lights when Dennis was trying to look for her. 

(Dennis Davern. Picture credit: jacksonville)

The injuries to Natalie's body was consistent with someone who had been assaulted, according to a coroner. Witnesses had also claimed to have heard (and seen) a man and woman on the boat that night arguing. So many questions, not enough answers.

Dennis went along with the story that he agreed with Robert but later confessed that he knew other details. Some people believe that Dennis was and is just looking for attention and money. Natalie's sister has also raised doubts about Robert's real actions that night, she believes that he is responsible for Natalie's death. 

Various theories have circulated around for years and one of them is the silly idea (in my opinion) that Natalie heard the dingy bashing against the boat and went outside to untie it but slipped and fell in the water. Why would she do that when Dennis was there? that was his job and why would she go out there on a freezing cold night in her nightgown to untie a dingy? Another theory was that she decided to end her own life? 

It's been over 40 years since Natalie Wood's death and questions still remain. Was it a simple tragedy that ended this lovely lady's life or did something happen with Robert that night? Did an argument go too far? Robert didn't seem to be in a hurry to call authorities, why? Will we ever know the truth after all these years?

(Christopher Walken. Picture credit: britannica)

Opinion is divided, some people believe that Robert is responsible and others think he is completely innocent. Some people believe that all three men were responsible (Christopher and Dennis have been ruled out as suspects). Some people think that Christopher is keeping quiet for Robert. Everyone has an opinion on this case, what's yours? 

In recent years, Natalie's official cause of death has been changed from 'Accidental' to 'Undetermined'. The police have stated that Robert Wagner is a 'person of interest' and not an official suspect. Robert is remarried and living in Aspen, Colorado with his family, he is 93 years old. 

(Robert Wagner. Picture credit: aspentimes)

Natalie was only 43 when she died, with an already legendary career as a child star behind her and at that time, a respectable adult career ongoing, who knows what other screen gems she would have given us. She'd be in her 80s now. She lives on for eternity as the beautiful, talented woman that she was in cinema history.

Rumours have continued for years that Natalie and Christopher were having an affair but he denied it. There's so many things to unpack with this sad story that I could be here all night telling you the rumours and theories as to what really happened and the possible reasons behind it all. 

Maybe we will never know the truth?

RIP Natalie x

(Natalie Wood. Picture credit: tcm)

Further Reading & Sources:

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Thank you for joining me in this post and I hope you will come back next week for more of my weekly true crime content (I post every Sunday evening).

Take care & stay safe until next time x

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