On November 29th, 1981, the body of the actress Natalie Wood was discovered in the waters off the shore of Catalina Island and ever since it has remained a case shrouded in mystery.
The renowned star who was known for performances in Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, was set to work alongside Christopher Walken in Brainstorm. In a break from filming, Walken was invited to spend a weekend aboard her yacht, the Prince Valliant, with her husband Robert Wagner and the yachts trusty caption Dennis Davern in attendance.
At about 7:30 AM on November 29th Natalie Woods body was found floating face down in the water about 200 yards from the shore of Catalina Island. She was wearing only a nightgown, socks and a down jacket.
Here, we look back at the evidence of the story.
What did the official investigation state at the time?
On November 30th, Thomas Noguchi of the L.A. County Coroner’s office concluded that the death was a result of accidental drowning. He did note that superficial bruising was present on Wood’s body and there were claw marks on the yacht’s dinghy, but the bruising was attributed to the fall into the water and the scratch marks were her attempts to climb on board the dinghy before she succumbed to exhaustion.
The investigation was subsequently closed as a result, as it was believed that she had fallen into the water accidentally and been unable to make it back onto the yacht.
What was Robert Wagner’s account?
In Robert Wagner’s original police report, he is known to have told the officers that he had been arguing with Wood about her extended periods of time spent away from the family, but at no point did this get physical. His understanding of the accident was that at one point in the night his wife must have been unable to sleep owing to the dinghy knocking against the side of the boat. At which point she must have gone up to the deck to tighten the rope, hit her head and fallen into the water.
His story has since changed slightly over the years as he later recalled in his 1986 memoir, Heart to Heart with Robert Wagener, that he and Walken were engaged in political debate for much of the evening. When Wood was bored of the discussion, she took herself to bed but was unable to sleep owing to the knocking dinghy.
In his second memoir in 2008, he revised his account once more, concluding, “There are only two possibilities – either she was trying to get away from the argument or she was trying to tie the dinghy.”
What was Captain Dennis Davern’s account?
Over the years, Dennis Davern, who considered himself a family friend owing to many boat trips spent with them, has been very vocal about his suspicions on the matter.
Davern stated that Wood had become infatuated with Walken while filming Brainstorm and that they had been flirting for the duration of the trip. On the night of the accident, this apparently came to a head as Davern told Vanity Fair that he heard Wagner smash a bottle and bark at Walken: “What are you trying to do? Fuck my wife?”
In the interview, Davern then claimed Wood stormed to her room and a blazing row ensued thereafter as Wagner headed below deck to confront her.
Later, he claimed to have heard the dinghy being untied. He also claimed to have seen Wagner on deck later that night dishevelled and “sweating profusely”. Not suspecting anything, he had a few drinks with Wagner while Walken and Wood were presumed to be in bed sleeping. At 1:30am, Wagner is alleged to have gone below deck to check on his wife and returned shortly after saying that she couldn’t be found.
Davern then claims that Wagner rejected his suggestion to turn on the searchlight as he didn’t want to bring attention to the yacht. Eventually, when she could not be found on board, they radioed in for emergency assistance.
What has Christopher Walken said about the case?
Aside from offering up his condolences and his emotional response to the incident, he has offered up very few details.
As it has widely been noted by both Wagner and Davern that he was asleep at the time that it appears Wood went overboard, there is very little case to answer on his part other than corroborating the events that led up to the tragic incident.
What is happening with the case now?
Following the immediate closing of the investigation, the case lay dormant for years. However, with a continual surfacing of suspicious reports from Davern and even the original coroner stating his original verdict came with various unanswered question marks, the case was reopened in 2011.
In February 2018 the L.A. sheriff’s department formally reclassified the death as suspicious and named the now-91-year-old Wagner as a “person of interest.”
In a 2020 documentary titled Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, her daughter brought the case to public attention once more and openly accused Wagner of murder on the US talk show Dr. Phil. As for now, there have been no further updates on the case in a criminal sense.