It was a sunny morning in southern California, and officials were desperately searching the ocean around Santa Catalina Island. Hours before, the movie star Natalie Wood had disappeared from her luxury yacht, and the race was on to locate her. When authorities spotted a body floating in the water, however, the grisly find kickstarted a mystery that continues to haunt Hollywood to this day. And while decades have now passed since Wood’s death, crucial information about the incident continues to emerge. In fact, one key witness in the case has even gone on to reveal some dark new details about that fateful night.
Naturally, news of Wood’s passing dominated headlines around the world, while a story as good as any movie plot unfolded behind the scenes. For starters, a number of sinister rumors had begun to spread. Why could nobody give a clear account of what had happened that night on board the Splendour? And what role had Robert Wagner – her allegedly jealous husband – played in the tragedy?
Well, for almost 40 years, the events surrounding that evening remained a mystery. And even though a murder investigation was never launched, suspicion regarding Wagner’s participation in Wood’s death cast a shadow over his career. Then, in November 2019, the captain of the Splendour gave a telling interview – and it thrust the actress’ grim ending into the headlines once more.
We’ll discover exactly what the captain’s claims are later, but first let’s learn more about Wood herself. Born in San Francisco in July 1938, she was the daughter of Russian parents who fled to Canada during the Russian Civil War. The couple later settled in California, where the glamor of Hollywood soon worked its magic on their daughter. In fact, even as a young girl, the future Oscar nominee was glued to the silver screen.
Wood became famous early on, too, after receiving her big break in 1947 with a leading role in Miracle on 34th Street. And as she grew up, she continued to act all the way throughout her childhood and teens, making the transition to adult stardom in 1961 with an award-winning performance in Splendor in the Grass.
From that point onward, in fact, Wood’s career went from strength to strength. The actress even ultimately earned an Oscar nomination for her turn as Maria in West Side Story – probably her most famous role. And even though in 1970 she took a break from her career to raise a family, she remained one of Hollywood’s best-loved faces for many years.
Wood’s personal life, by contrast, was rather more rocky. On the day that she turned 18, her studio arranged for her to go on a date with Robert Wagner, who was 26 at the time. Having launched his career as a leading man back in 1953, the actor was already established, and Wood had been nurturing a crush on her fellow star.
Wood and Wagner soon became an item, too, and they tied the knot less than 18 months on from their initial encounter. However, the couple’s wedded life ultimately turned out to be far from perfect, and in 1961 they duly separated after less than four years of marriage. Nonetheless, Wood picked herself up, dusted herself off and found a new man. She started dating Richard Gregson, a British producer, and in May 1969 he became her second husband.
Sadly, this relationship ended in heartbreak as well, as Wood left Gregson when she suspected that he was having an affair. Wagner, for his part, also married again – this time to Marion Marshall, an actress and old acquaintance. But after eight years he found himself divorced for the second time, and he ultimately resumed his romance with Wood in 1972.
In July that year, Wood and Wagner wed once more, with daughter Courtney following in 1974. But while those close to the couple believed that they were doing everything within their power to make the relationship work, cracks began to show less than ten years into that second marriage.
For most of the 1970s, Wood had been absent from Hollywood, choosing to focus on her family instead. By the end of the decade, however, she had begun taking roles in both television and movie productions. And in 1981 Wood signed on to star opposite the actor Christopher Walken in the science fiction thriller Brainstorm.
So, from September 1981, Wood spent six weeks shooting on location in North Carolina, after which she returned to California to continue working on the movie in MGM’s studios. Then, in November 1981, the production team took a break, and the actress seized the opportunity to enjoy some leisure time.
To celebrate Thanksgiving, Wood and Wagner decided to spend the weekend on their boat the Splendour. And with Walken along for the ride, the couple sailed to Santa Catalina Island – some 30 miles off the coast of Long Beach, CA. Aside from captain Dennis Davern, the three movie stars were alone on the voyage.
Later, Wagner would recount the events of that fateful cruise in his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart – an excerpt of which was published in the Daily Mail a year later. On November 28, 1981, Wagner claimed, he had awoken to discover that Wood and Walken had headed to eat together on the island – thus leaving him on the boat alone. And according to Hollywood rumor, the two co-stars had at that time been engaged in an illicit affair.
Even despite the tittle-tattle, though, Wagner suggested that he had not grown too agitated about Walker and Wood’s dinner date. Instead, he claimed that he had sailed over to join his wife and the actor on shore. And from there, according to Wagner, the trio apparently began drinking – an activity that they continued later when back on board the Splendour. But, in time, the companionable evening would ultimately take a much darker turn.
Wagner then alleged that he and Walken had gotten into an argument over Wood’s career, with the beleaguered actress subsequently leaving the table as the disagreement escalated. And if this story is to be believed, then Wagner never saw his wife alive again. The actor asserted, you see, that he had found his and Wood’s shared stateroom empty when he had returned to the space later on.
Today, though, there is still much speculation about what really happened that tragic night. And as it stands, established facts are few and far between. According to records, the coast guard was notified that Wood was missing at around 3:30 a.m. For over four hours, then, would-be rescuers used helicopters to comb the Pacific Ocean around Santa Catalina Island.
However, at around 8:00 a.m., the team’s worst fears were confirmed. In the water just a mile away from where the Splendour was moored, searchers discovered Wood’s lifeless body. Clad in a red down jacket, socks and a nightgown, she looked as if she had simply stepped off the deck of the boat and into the ocean below.
The dinghy from the Splendour was also found beached up on the shore. Had Wood decided to take the boat on a late-night adventure only to meet with a terrible fate? Her sister Lana would go on to argue that this seemed unlikely. According to Town & Country magazine, a fortune teller had once told the siblings’ mother to “beware of dark water,” while the actress herself had long harbored a fear of the sea.
Nevertheless, the coroner recorded a verdict of death by drowning. And even though officials were unable to determine exactly what had happened, there seemed to be a consensus that a tragic accident had occurred. Some reasoned, for instance, that the actress may have fallen into the ocean while attempting to secure the dinghy. Given that she had spent the evening drinking wine and champagne, it did not seem like an unreasonable assumption to make.
And, at first, this seemed a likely explanation for Wood’s death. Indeed, according to Don Whiting, the night manager of Santa Catalina Island restaurant Doug’s Harbor Reef, the entire party had been intoxicated before heading back to the Splendour. An autopsy also showed that the actress had at some point taken painkillers and a motion-sickness pill, and so she may have felt even drunker as a result of combining alcohol with this medication.
But as time passed, some grew suspicious about Wagner’s version of events. You see, the autopsy had also revealed bruises and abrasions on Wood’s body, and at least one detective suspected that something sinister may therefore have happened. In 2018 Ralph Hernandez from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told CBS News, “[Wood] looked like the victim of an assault.”
For three decades, though, nothing more was learned about the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death. Then, in 2011, the Splendour’s captain went public with a startling statement. Apparently, Davern had not been honest during the initial investigation. And what he had declined to tell police, it seemed, was that Wood and Wagner had argued on the night of her death.
Davern even claimed that Wagner had delayed searching for his wife after noticing that she was missing. He told NBC News that year, “We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate [Wood]. I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, [and] we’re not going to notify anybody right now.’”
And Davern went so far as to suggest that Wagner was responsible for his wife’s death. Naturally, the movie star didn’t take well to this accusation, and in turn he complained that the captain was trying to profit from the anniversary of the tragic occasion. Whatever Davern’s motivation, though, it was enough to spark police interest in the case, and the investigation was reopened in 2011.
Then, in 2012, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, the former Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, adjusted Wood’s records to reflect the uncertainty surrounding her death. Another amendment was also made the following year, with investigators going on to acknowledge that the actress may have sustained her injuries before she entered the water.
Perhaps the most stunning development of recent times came in 2018, however. In that year, the Los Angeles Police Department’s Christopher Bergner revealed that new witnesses had emerged with testimony that seemed to support Davern’s version of events. According to Marilyn Wayne, who had apparently been spending the evening on a boat just 80 feet from the Splendour, the night had been punctuated by desperate cries.
Wayne and her partner alleged that they had heard a couple arguing and a woman screaming for help. Yet no assistance had supposedly arrived, even though the witnesses claimed that they had contacted the harbormaster. And Wayne even asserted that she had received a handwritten death threat urging her to keep quiet about what she had heard.
But while no arrests were made in the light of these claims, police made it clear that Wagner was still a person of interest in the investigation. And while the actor denied any involvement in Wood’s death, suspicion continued to mount. Then, in July 2018, Wood’s sister, Lana, gave an interview to the crime podcast Fatal Voyage. Apparently, she also believed that Wagner had somehow played a part in his wife’s passing.
“I believe that there was a horrible fight on board the Splendour,” Lana told Fatal Voyage. “I think it escalated to a point where [Wood] was either struck or pushed.” And while she did not believe that Wagner had planned to murder her sister, she nevertheless urged him to help investigators get to the truth.
Then, in November 2019, there came yet another twist in the sordid tale. In an interview with the American television personality Dr. Oz, Davern claimed to have had even more details about the night of Wood’s death. Apparently, she and Wagner had not only argued, but they had also left behind all the evidence of a violent altercation.
“It looked like a storm went through that room,” Davern explained during his appearance on The Dr. Oz Show. “Everything was just all over the place. I found one of [Wood’s] earrings; it was thrown somewhere in the corner. I don’t know if it was just ripped off her ear or what, but there was an earring [and] the pillows were all over. The room was a mess. There was a full-on fight in that room.”
Davern also maintained that he had overheard the couple’s disagreement as their room was located directly below the bridge deck. When the captain had ventured downstairs, though, he had apparently been greeted by Wagner standing on the deck alone. And according to Davern, the actor had then informed him that Wood was missing and instructed him to search the boat.
During the program, Dr. Oz also spoke to Marti Rulli, the author of the 2006 book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour. And according to Rulli, Davern knew exactly why Wood and Wagner had been arguing. Apparently, Wagner had grown angry at the closeness between his wife and Walken and had smashed a wine bottle in frustration.
After that, Rulli claimed, Walken had retreated to his cabin, where he had remained for the rest of the night. Wood and Wagner, meanwhile, allegedly returned to their own stateroom, where an argument soon ensued. And Rulli added that Davern had supposedly overheard some loud and alarming noises that he had felt compelled to investigate.
“Dennis knocked on the stateroom door,” Rulli told Dr. Oz. “When Wagner went and opened the door, he wedged himself between the door and told Dennis, ‘Go away, mind your own business and leave us alone.’ So [Davern] stepped back, and the arguing continued. But now [Davern] was hearing things being thrown around the stateroom – and maybe a body being slammed against the wall.”
According to Rulli, the argument eventually spilled out onto the back deck. And, the author claimed, Davern had begun playing music from the bridge in an attempt to drown out the shouting. However, it’s said that the captain eventually noticed that things had fallen silent. And, allegedly, when he went to check on the situation, he noticed that Wood had disappeared.
To illustrate her narrative, Rulli used a miniature crime lab – a faithful recreation of the Splendour’s interior. And with models of Wagner, Wood, Walken and Davern, she demonstrated where each of the key players had supposedly been that fateful night. What’s more, Rulli cast doubt on the notion that Wood had fallen while attempting to tie up a wayward dinghy. Apparently, Davern had told her that he had secured the vessel to the swim step – not along the port side, as many theories claim.
And as it happens, Davern had yet another remarkable claim regarding the events that surrounded Wood’s death. Specifically, the captain asserted that Walken had been heartbroken when he heard the news that his co-star had drowned. Davern told Dr Oz, “[Walken] didn’t say a word; he just cried. I mean, he was devastated standing there… Here is all the authorities, this is all on the back of the boat. He was full of tears.”
Today, the case continues, with Rulli believing that there is enough evidence to mount a homicide trial. Davern has also reputedly passed a polygraph test supporting his version of events. But will the truth about what happened on board the Splendour ever make it to light? Or will it remain a secret for many years to come?
There are of course other Hollywood mysteries that continue to captivate the public to this day. Take, for instance, the death of actress Brittany Murphy. The strange circumstances surrounding her 2009 passing – followed, bizarrely, by that of her husband months later – still cast a shadow over her legacy. But will we ever truly know what happened?