Byline: Nancy Collins
Lost in the mystery of Natalie Wood's death is another tragic tale--the treachery of growing old in Hollywood.
A CHAOTIC DEATH seldom happens in a vacuum. That Natalie Wood's life might have been ushered out, shrouded in mystery, emotional violence, and convoluted truths seemed eerily preordained to those who knew her well. "Natalie fought -chaos her whole life," says Faye Nuell Mayo, her body double on Rebel Without a Cause. It began with "her controlling stage mother. Maria would've done anything to make Natalie a star"--even discouraging her 16-year-old daughter from blowing the whistle on a powerful actor-producer who allegedly raped her during an audition. It continued later in her life with a suicide attempt and years of daily analysis. "Natalie," adds Suzanne Finstad, author of Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, "was always on the precipice of a crisis."
The year 1981 was no exception for the 43-year-old actress. Her storied second marriage to television star Robert Wagner, known to his friends as R.J., was experiencing turbulence. "Natalie was worried," says Ginger "Sugar" Blymyer, her hairdresser for 17 years, "that R.J.'s drinking was getting out of hand." Her once-dazzling movie career had all but evaporated. Having happily pulled back almost a decade earlier to be a full-time mother to Courtney and Natasha, her daughters with Wagner and former husband, Richard Gregson, Wood had slipped under the box-office radar. "It wasn't the period of Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, Gypsy--one great film after another. They weren't beating down her door," says her close pal, film critic Rex Reed.
But on Nov. 29, 1981, Natalie Wood would again command the world's attention, when her waterlogged body was found floating off Catalina Island, where she and Wagner had spent Thanksgiving weekend aboard their boat along with actor Christopher Walken, Wood's costar in the movie Brainstorm. Deemed an accidental drowning, Wood's death has nonetheless remained one of Tinseltown's great mysteries, with amateur sleuths trying to prove something sinister transpired that night aboard the Splendour.
The latest twist in Wood's dramatic life and death came last month, when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department decided to reopen the case based on new testimony from several witnesses, including the boat's captain, Dennis Davern. In 2009, Davern published a book about Wood's death, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, and it caught the eye of a Washington, D.C., patent lawyer named Vincent DeLuca, who describes himself as "a fan always bothered by how Natalie died." DeLuca decided to start an online petition calling for the case to be reopened, and together with Davern's coauthor, Marti Rulli, he gathered 800 signatures and sworn statements from Davern and other witnesses. "The book didn't jump-start law enforcement because words are hearsay," says DeLuca. "But ignore a sworn statement and they're saying, 'Davern lied to us, but we're doing nothing about it.' They had to act."
According to Davern's statement, Wagner was upset with having to entertain Walken that weekend. Davern said that tensions escalated during a boozy night aboard the Splendour, with Wagner smashing a bottle of wine on the coffee table and screaming at Walken, "Do you want to fuck my wife? Is that what you want?!" Walken retreated to his cabin, and Wood stormed off to the master stateroom, with Wagner following her within minutes, according to Davern.
"Then a terrible argument proceeded," Davern claims in his statement. "I knocked on their stateroom door from the main salon to try to calm the situation. Robert Wagner answered to tell me to go away and to not interfere. I went to the bridge, directly above the Wagner master stateroom. The loud arguing continued and I heard things (objects, possibly people) hitting the walls and things being thrown at the ceiling of the master stateroom, directly beneath me where I stood. …