On November 29, 1981, the body of actress Natalie Wood, star of such acclaimed films as Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, was found floating in the Pacific Ocean off California's Catalina Island, in a flannel nightgown, a down jacket and wool socks.
It soon emerged that Wood had spent Thanksgiving weekend aboard her yacht, Splendour, with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, her Brainstorm co-star, Christopher Walken, and the ship's young captain, Dennis Davern, before an accident of some sort left her lifeless in the water.
On November 30, Thomas Noguchi, chief medical examiner in the L.A. County Coroner's Office, announced his determination of an "accidental drowning." He noted the "superficial" bruises on Wood's body, likely from falling in the water, and the scratch marks on the yacht's dinghy, Prince Valiant, as evidence of her attempts to climb on board before succumbing to exhaustion.
Two days later, Hollywood mourned Wood's passing at a star-studded funeral, marked by a teary Wagner kissing her coffin, and the investigation was formally closed on December 11.
Associates raised questions as recollections changed
Although an accidental drowning seemed fully plausible, nagging questions lingered for those paying attention.
Noguchi himself raised some of those questions in his 1983 book, Coroner. Why, he wondered, did Wood slip out to the yacht's stern in the middle of the night and untie the dinghy? Where was she going? And why did it take so long for the men aboard to realize she was gone?
Wood's sister Lana, who followed by publishing Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister (1984), was also puzzled by the supposed chain of events. How was it possible that Wood, with her long-known fear of "dark water," would venture out into those very environs, alone, on a starless night?
Elaborating on things in the 1986 book Heart to Heart with Robert Wagner, the actor described how he and Walken were engaged in a "political debate" for much of the evening, prompting his bored wife to check out of the discussion and head to bed. He theorized that she was unable to sleep with the dinghy banging against the yacht and fell and hit her head while attempting to tighten the line.
However, his recollection of impassioned discussions differed from an original description to police, in which he admitted to arguing with Wood about her extended time away from the family. It was just one of the many inconsistencies that surfaced as accounts of the night's events evolved over the years.
The ship’s captain came forth with his version of events
Still, with Wagner sticking to his general version and Walken saying next to nothing, the case likely would have lain dormant if it weren't for the efforts of Davern. After years of trying to get publishers and tabloids to bite on the story, he began leaking more revealing details to the mainstream press.
In a March 2000 story for Vanity Fair, the captain divulged that Wood and Walken had been flirting throughout the weekend and that things turned nasty after the foursome returned to Splendour after an evening spent drinking on the island. According to Davern, Wagner at one point smashed a wine bottle on the table and yelled at Walken, "What are you trying to do, f**k my wife?"
Wood stormed off and slammed the door of her room, with Wagner eventually heading down to confront her, setting off what Davern recalled as an epic fight. He claimed to have heard the dinghy being untied before Wagner returned, "tousled" and "sweating profusely."
With Walken in bed for the night, the two remaining men stayed up for more drinks, before Wagner, at around 1:30 a.m., said he would check on his wife. He returned with the news that he couldn't find her, prompting Davern to conduct his own search.
At that point, the captain recalled, Wagner rejected his suggestions to turn on the floodlights and look for Wood in the water. "We don't want to do anything, Dennis, because we don't want to alert all these people," the actor allegedly said, before they finally radioed for help.
Wagner revisited the case one more time in his 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart. "There are only two possibilities – either she was trying to get away from the argument or she was trying to tie the dinghy," he wrote. "But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."
The case was reopened in 2011 and later reclassified as ‘suspicious'
In 2009, Davern finally published his long-gestating tell-all, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour. Two years later, he was among the 700-plus people who signed a petition over the flawed investigation into Wood's death, prompting the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to reopen the case in November.
The following summer, the L.A. County coroner added emphasis to the newfound urgency by changing the cause of death to "drowning and other undetermined factors," citing a closer examination of bruises that suggested Wood was assaulted.
Yet another wrinkle emerged in February 2018, when the sheriff's department reclassified the death as "suspicious" and named Wagner "a person of interest" following interviews with former neighbors and fellow boaters.
At almost 90 years old, Wagner was no longer interested in talking to the police about his wife’s death. Still, it was clear that other people were, leaving open the possibility of finding some real answers after four decades of question marks.