icon bookmark-bicon bookmarkicon cameraicon checkicon chevron downicon chevron lefticon chevron righticon chevron upicon closeicon v-compressicon downloadicon editicon v-expandicon fbicon fileicon filtericon flag ruicon full chevron downicon full chevron lefticon full chevron righticon full chevron upicon gpicon insicon mailicon moveicon-musicicon mutedicon nomutedicon okicon v-pauseicon v-playicon searchicon shareicon sign inicon sign upicon stepbackicon stepforicon swipe downicon tagicon tagsicon tgicon trashicon twicon vkicon yticon wticon fm
17 Dec, 2021 00:22

The mysterious death of ‘West Side Story’ star Natalie Wood

The mysterious death of ‘West Side Story’ star Natalie Wood

A new version of ‘West Side Story’ has hit the silver screen, but how many in the cinema realise the life of the original “Maria” ended in tragedy off the coast of California and that her death still remains a mystery?

The big-screen release of Steven Spielberg’s remake of ‘West Side Story’, a 1961 classic that cemented Natalie Wood as a bona fide Hollywood star has reignited speculation around a question that remains unanswered 40 years after she drowned off the Californian coast: How exactly did she end up in the freezing waters of the Pacific that November night?

Only three other passengers were aboard the ‘Splendour’, a 58-foot motor yacht owned by one of them, her husband, actor Robert Wagner, on the night of November 28, 1981. The remaining two were family friend and skipper Dennis Davern and Oscar-winning actor Christopher Walken, Wood’s co-star and love interest in ‘Brainstorm’, a movie they were both working on at the time.

Someone among that trio knows more about Natalie Wood’s demise at the age of 43 than they have ever cared to share. No one seemed that interested in the uncomfortable questions about the star of such hits as ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘Splendor in the Grass’.

According to Davern, who in 2011 admitted he lied to police when denying there was an argument between the couple on the fateful night, Wagner was not happy with Wood for inviting Walken away for the weekend cruise to Catalina Island and rowed with his wife and ‘The Deer Hunter’ actor about their relationship.

Unexplained bruising discovered on Wood’s body was initially dismissed by coroner Thomas Noguchi, who ruled that her death was due to accidental drowning and hypothermia despite claims from those who knew her that Wood had a phobia of water, could not swim and had no idea how to pilot the dinghy from which it was suggested she had fallen.

In 2020, a former intern of Noguchi’s stated that the marks and bruising on Wood’s body that he saw were consistent with those of someone who had been thrown from the boat, which he said he had observed to his boss.

In ‘Little Sister’, her recent book about Natalie’s death, her sister, Lana Wood, adds further weight to the suggestion that Natalie was unconscious when she hit the water after finding the autopsy report recorded the actress had a full bladder when her body was recovered. Experts say that the cold Pacific waters would mean anyone unexpectedly finding themselves in the ocean would have immediately voided their bladder. Unless, of course, they were unconscious.

So the question remains: How did she fall into the water?

Not surprisingly, Lana’s attention turns towards Rober Wagner, now 91, who upon raising the alarm that night, prevented skipper Davern from using the searchlight to scan the waters for his missing wife because, he said at the time, he didn’t want to bring attention to the boat. 

What is evident is that while the body of the actress was found washed up on the beach of Catalina on the morning of November 29, the preceding search and subsequent investigation were hampered by one factor: the investigators and most of those involved in the official efforts to piece together what had happened were star-struck.

Wagner and his friends were barely interrogated before being allowed to return to the mainland without any forensic evidence being retrieved or serious questions being asked lest they take against their inquisitors and jeopardise the chances of making a breakthrough into a new career.

Because Hollywood is a place where everyone has a side hustle. Waiters are resting actors, cab drivers have scripts to pitch and police detectives freelance as private security to the stars or technical consultants on the latest crime thriller.

So when the body of one of the biggest names in Tinseltown washes up on a beach, sure it’s a terrible shame and maybe even a crime, but it’s also an opportunity to make important connections and someone like Robert Wagner could certainly facilitate those. Maybe investigators were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when he claimed his wife’s drowning was all just a terrible accident. Lana certainly thinks so.

After all, who could prove Wagner wrong? Walken was asleep in his cabin when Wood went missing and Davern had initially reported, lying as he later confessed, that nothing was amiss that night. 

In Lana’s latest book – her follow-up to her 1986 work, ‘Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister’ – the actress’s sibling reaches the conclusion that Wagner and Wood were involved in a violent altercation in which Natalie was knocked unconscious and was pushed into the water. She claims that Wagner then untied the dinghy attached to the ‘Splendour’ and let it drift away to suggest that his wife had commandeered it as she took an impromptu, late-night boat trip.

Lana alleges that while Wagner may not have drowned her sister, he certainly didn’t save her, either. He was named a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into his wife’s death in 2018 although no further action has been taken.

But, of course, maybe Lana Wood’s accusations are just the latest in an endless procession resulting from amateur investigations into the death of the Hollywood star, and not even the last. ‘Brainstorm’, a 560-page book based on five years of investigation by Sam Perroni, is due out next month.

It can be added to the library of works about that night in 1981 that already includes two biographies by Suzanne Finstad, ‘Natalie Wood: Murder Most Foul’ (Vincent Price), ‘Drowning Sorrows’ (Howard Johns), ‘Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour’ (Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern) ‘Natalie Wood’s Fatal Voyage: Was It Murder?’ (Dylan Howard) and ‘Dark Water’ (Douglas V Dollard). 

The show, however, must go on. So new audiences will inevitably flock to Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’, and immerse themselves in the latest Hollywood retelling of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, enjoying the songs created by the twin genius of Leonard Bernstein and recently deceased Stephen Sondheim.

Many will be oblivious to the fact that in the original screen version of ‘West Side Story’, the original “Maria” met an untimely death in the cold waters off the Californian coast 40 years ago and that her husband was implicated in her drowning.

Maybe Lana Wood has something. Could it be that her version of events is closer to the truth than anyone has dared venture in the past? With age and remorse catching up with some of those involved in the case at the time, the real story about the death of Natalie Wood might be finally unfolding. Meanwhile, the case remains open.