The Tragic Death Of Natalie Wood

The Tragic Death of Natalie Wood
July 20, 2020 - 15:45 / Lucas Anderson

Natalie Wood died tragically under mysterious circumstances on Nov. 29, 1981. The actress, who was only 43 years old, drowned while spending Thanksgiving weekend on her yacht with husband Robert Wagner, actor Christopher Walken, and the ship's captain Dennis Davern. Here are the facts about what went down the night of Wood's death, which has long been viewed with suspicion and conflicting reports.

Natalie Wood broke onto the scene in Hollywood as a child actress in the 1940s. She went on to become a three-time Oscar nominee and prolific film and TV star, with appearances in classics such as Rebel Without a CauseWest Side Story, and Splendour in the Grass. But sadly, the beloved actress's life came to a premature end in 1983 when she died at the age of 43.

The death of Natalie Wood

On Thanksgiving weekend 1983, Wood had vacationed on her yacht, the Splendour, with husband Robert Wagner. The couple had married young in 1961, but divorced less than one year later, only to reconnect again after about a decade. Joining Wood and Wagner was Christopher Walken, who was a co-star of Wood's at the time on the science fiction film Brainstorm. The final passenger on the ship was its captain, Dennis Davern.

Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner during their second marriage.

The foursome reportedly partook in a night of drinking on Nov. 28, but many different versions of the night's events have been told. However, the final, tragic outcome was the same in all cases: On the morning of Nov. 29, 1983, Wood's body was found floating off Catalina Island with a dinghy beached nearby. An autopsy reported the cause of death as "accidental drowning and hypothermia." Her body was recovered with bruises, which were attributed to her fall in the water.

But ever since, many have questioned the validity of that ruling. Speculation focused on why Wood had left the yacht in the middle of the night, when she was even quoted as having said that she was afraid of dark water.

Robert Wagner and Dennis Davern describe Natalie Wood's final hours

Over the years, Wagner related inconsistent versions of the night of Nov. 28. He originally told a story about a family argument he'd had with Wood before returning to find her missing, along with the yacht's dinghy. The next morning, Wood's body was found with the dinghy beached nearby.

Later, however, Wagner backtracked and said that he'd been engrossed in conversation with Walken for the evening, before going to check on his wife in her cabin and finding it vacant. He also speculated that she may have fallen and hit her head while attempting to adjust the dinghy. Walken, meanwhile, has offered few public comments about the night but supported the family argument version of the night.

But it was a bombshell interview given by captain Dennis Davern decades later that shed new light on the night of Wood's death. In 2000, Davern told Vanity Fair that Wood and Walken had been flirting during the trip, which infuriated Wagner. The captain recalled a blowout argument that included a smashed wine bottle and Wagner storming off "tousled" and "sweating profusely."

Davern said Wagner later checked on Wood and reported that she was missing but allegedly insisted that they not look for her. He suggests Wagner allegedly pushed Wood overboard. But Davern's story has also changed over the years, and he most recently said that Wagner did tell him to look for her.

Natalie Wood in a ca. 1969 photograph.

Davern's 21st century accounts of the events led to a reopening of the case, which was later amended to a cause of death by "drowning and other undetermined factors." Other new witnesses have also emerged with reports of hearing Wood yelling for help on the night of her death. In February 2018, Wood's death was also reclassified as "suspicious" with Wagner named as a person of interest, though he's continued to deny involvement in her drowning.

Wagner remains a person of interest in the case, which remains open, to this day.