Natalie Wood's first taste of fame came as a child when she scored the lead role in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street. She would grow up to become a three-time Academy Award-nominated actress, but her mysterious 1981 death has become her lasting legacy. Pioneering gay writer Mart Crowley would also attract international fame when his breakthrough and controversial play, The Boys in the Band, opened Off Broadway in 1968. But to each other, Wood and Crowley were simply just the best of friends.
Wood and Crowley met on the set of 'Splendor in the Grass'
Edward Martino “Mart” Crowley was born on August 21, 1935, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After graduating with a degree in theater from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. in 1957, he soon struck out for New York. The daughter of poor Russian immigrants, Wood began her acting career at age 4 and was a leading Hollywood draw thanks to star turns in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Searchers (1956). She married fellow actor Robert Wagner in 1957.
When Wood and Crowley first met, she was eager to be acknowledged as a serious actor and had pegged her hopes on the lead role in the 1961 Elia Kazan-directed melodrama, Splendor in the Grass. As a production assistant on the film, some of Crowley’s daily tasks included assisting Wood, often accompanying her to the set. “Therefore we talked an awful lot,” Crowley says in the 2020 documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind. What began as a working relationship quickly morphed into a trusted friendship and confidences were shared.
It was at that time Wood and Wagner’s marriage was in turmoil. A situation Crowley was privy to due to his own growing emotional attachment to Wood. “It was clear to me there was trouble in their marriage,” Crowley said. Wood and Wagner divorced in 1961 amidst rumors of infidelity on Wood’s part with Splendor co-star Warren Beatty. When Wood was cast in the big-screen adaptation of West Side Story (1961), she hired Crowley as her personal assistant, with the aspiring writer quickly becoming part of Wood’s inner circle.
Crowley stuck by Wood's side through tough times
Though Crowley would remain friends with both Wood and Wagner, his deep attachment to Wood was undeniable. Having grown up in the Hollywood movie system, Wood was wary of opportunists, preferring to surround herself with those few she truly trusted. According to daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner in her memoir, More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, she “created a nucleus of people around her, including a lot of gay men and others who felt marginalized, and my memory is that everyone was always talking about their feelings and their emotions.”
Crowley was present the night Wood attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. In the aftermath of her divorce from Wagner and the alleged affair with Beatty, a vulnerable and lonely Wood reached a breaking point during the 1964 filming of The Great Race. “It was an overdose and a half. I mean God Almighty she was out,” Crowley tells Wood’s daughter in What Remains Behind. “And I was told after they pumped her stomach they didn’t know whether she was going to pull through or not. But she did.”
Wood encouraged Crowley to write 'Boys in the Band'
In the following years, Crowley’s career faltered, with Wood encouraging the writer to produce original work, eventually leading to the creation of Boys in the Band. “Natalie did help me out when I was writing the play,” Crowley told Playbill. “And my career, such as it had been up to that point, had been nothing but sputtering failure. … So, I was sort of dropped by agents and given up for dead. My career was going nowhere. I really didn't have any money. I house-sat in Beverly Hills for a very wealthy friend, the actress Diana Lynn. I had to do something with my time. So I wrote this play.”
Debuting Off Broadway in 1968, the play was hailed as groundbreaking due to its frank and realistic portrayal of gay characters. It played 1,000 performances and was a theatrical precursor to the historic protests at New York’s Stonewall Inn a year later. In 1970 it was made into a feature film while continuing to play in theaters around the world, and in 2018 was revived for Broadway with a cast featuring Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells and Zachary Quinto, all of whom reprised their roles for a 2020 Netflix-release film version.
Crowley was almost with Wood the night she mysteriously died
Crowley was present when Wood met British film producer Richard Gregson, whom she married in 1969. When Wood gave birth to daughter Natasha, it was Crowley who was chosen to be the child’s godfather. Wood and Gregson filed for divorce in 1971. Though Wood’s career received a boost thanks to her role in the 1969 film comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and a Golden Globe-winning turn in the TV miniseries From Here to Eternity (1979), she spent much of her thirties in semi-retirement.
Wood and Wagner remarried in 1972, with Wood telling People that Wagner had now “become a man instead of a boy.” A daughter, Courtney, was born in 1974. “Both of them were besotted with each other,” Crowley said to CBS News. “I mean they really, really loved each other. And I think that explains the fact that after they got divorced they went on to other partners and had children, but those marriages didn’t work out and eventually, they found each other again and got back together. … It’s just tragedy the second marriage was ended the way it was, with her death.”
It was Thanksgiving 1981 when Wagner, along with Wood and her then-Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, would take the family cruiser Splendour out to California’s Catalina Island. Crowley was invited to attend but had turned the invitation down. Wood and Wagner reportedly argued on board, supposedly over the relationship between them and their costars, with Wood retiring to a cabin and Wagner unable to locate her hours later.
Wood’s body was found the following morning floating in the water off Catalina, the Splendour’s dinghy nearby. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning, yet rumors circulated in the decades following about inconsistencies in the stories of those present and the exact circumstances of Wood’s death. Citing new evidence, the cause of death was changed from “accidental” to “undetermined” in 2012 and Wagner faced scrutiny once more over his role in the events of that night.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” replied Crowley when asked by The Advocate about the reopening of the case some 30 years later. “It’s obscene to suggest that R.J. could have harmed her. There isn’t a human being on the face of the earth that he worshiped and adored more than Natalie.” So convinced, Crowley continued working directly with Wagner as a writer and producer on the hit television series Hart to Hart throughout the early 1980s.
Shortly before his death in 2020 at age 84 from complications due to heart surgery, Crowley received the Tony Award for best revival of a play for Boys in the Band. “I think that was the highlight of his life,” life-long friend Wagner told the New York Times upon his death. Keeping the family close, Crowley’s date to the Tony Awards that evening was his goddaughter, Natasha.