The Mystery of the Death of Natalie Wood

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by Michael Curtis

I had else been perfect but now I am confined to saucy doubts and fears.

We know now from publication of photos, or purport to know because they may be doctored, that Kim Jong un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, is alive and perhaps well, at least not dead. The mystery of his absence from public life for over two weeks has not yet been explained. Nor is it clear why his first reappearance should have been staged in an improbable place, a fertilizer factory. His appearance on May 2 coincided with a brief exchange of gunfire between North and South Korea, but there were no known casualties and no further escalation, and the noise was not a symbol of welcome for the enigmatic leader.

Mysteries remain, even mount, concerning pandemic Covid-19. Medical personnel are in the dark on whether the anti-viral drug Remdesivir will have any significant positive effect as a cure for the virus or is not a magic bullet. Specious explanations grapple with the mystery of why the coronavirus has had a considerably greater deadly impact in some countries and large cities, New York, London, Paris, than in others, New Delhi, Moscow, or Bangkok. More simply but equally mysterious are the wide disparities of the models and projections by private and official medical organizations of the expected number of infections and the daily death rate due to the virus.

In view of these present uncertainties it is not surprising that mysteries linger. This is particularly the case when outcome of the medical, social, or legal system does not correspond to expectations of available evidence or the use of procedure of due process. In legal issues, mistakes and miscarriages of justice are not unknown, especially if the prosecution has not turned over all the evidence that might exonerate the accused person, as was held in the 1963 case of Brady v. Maryland. In a similar issue, Giglio v. U.S., 1972, the Supreme Court held that it was a violation of due process that the prosecution had failed to inform the jury of all relevant evidence.

It is a cardinal principle in the U.S., and in democratic countries, that everyone has a right to a fair trial, and that the accused have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This was at the core of the controversial and compelling case in which O. J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend on June 12, 1994. The case differs from most others because it, and the not guilty decision of the majority black jury, may have been more based on racial issues than on the specifics of the murders. The evidence presented in court seemed to overcome reasonable doubt about the innocence of Simpson, but it was disconcerting there was such a wide difference of opinion between U.S. white and black citizens over Simpson’s guilt, though the gap has narrowed in recent years. Yet the mystery of the two deaths remains, and O.J. Simpson has been determined to solve it and find the real murderer, in spite of his imprisonment for armed robbery in 2007.

The Simpson case had sex, race, and Hollywood, the epitome of glamor. Two of the three are pertinent in an old mystery that has now resurfaced by the presentation on May 4, 2020 of the life and death of the actress Natalie Wood in a documentary produced by her daughter.

Some of the facts of her end are known and undisputed. On the night of her death November 28-29, 1981 the body of Natalie was found floating in the shallow surf, dressed in flannel nightgown, jacket and wool socks, with superficial bruises on her body. She was found about a mile away from where she had spent the evening in her yacht, The Splendor, off Catalina Island outside Los Angeles, together with three others. One was her husband, actor Robert Wagner, then 51 years old, to whom she was married twice, 1957- 62, and 1972-81. The others were actor Christopher Walken, a younger man born in 1943, with whom she was co-starring in a film, Brainstorm, completed after her death with a stand-in playing her role, and the young captain of the yacht, a man named Dennis Davern. The ongoing mystery is whether her death was an accident, or due to murder.

Natalie had a short but vibrant life, successful professionally but personally disordered with allegations of affairs including with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. If that life was not as messy as that of Judy Garland who died at roughly the same age in her 40s, it included apparent suicide attempts, heavy drinking, and her eventual relegation to B movies. Beside her glamorous life style, Wood was also admired off-screen, and regarded as being ahead of her time, fighting for equal pay for women, and rights for the LGBT community. She supported and helped finance the play The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, the groundbreaking portrayal of gay life, and helped Robert Redford start his film career.

Natalie was born in 1938 to Russian immigrant parents. She began acting when she was five, and in a short time became a studio child film star. She filmed with Orson Welles at age 8, and then, with her aura of sexuality and magnetic personality, rapidly made a transition to mature roles and became an adult star. She was to be for a time the second highest paid actress, after Elizabeth Taylor. Among her best known films are: Miracle on 34th Street at age eight; Rebel without  a Cause (with James Dean) and directed by Nicholas Ray with whom she had a sexual relationship at age 16; Splendor in the Grass (with Warren Beatty, another lover); West Side StoryLove with a Proper Stranger (with Steve McQueen); and Gypsy (with Rosalind Russell) in which, unlike the case in WSS, she did her own singing. She was nominated several times for an Oscar, but never won. She was not offended when Harvard’s Lampoon in 1966 called her the worst actress of the year.

From the beginning, different versions of Natalie’s death have emerged. The LA County Medical Examiner concluded she had died of a tragic incident accident while slightly intoxicated. Her body had a blood alcoholic count of 0.14%, and contained medication. She had bruises on her body and arms, and abrasion on her left cheek. Later it was said she had sustained the bruising before she entered the water.

A witness in a nearby boat said she had heard a woman scream during the night but took no notice. There was the mystery of the missing phone call. Robert Wagner said that a call was made to report her missing at 1.30 a.m, but officials said they did not get any call until 5 a.m. The two actors offered different accounts of events. Wagner at first said he had had a heated “political debate” with Walden, and that Natalie was bored and left them. However, Christopher Walken said she had left and was trying to tie up the dingy attached to the yacht. Natalie was said to be initially trying to climb into the inflatable dinghy.

The LA Coroner Thomas Noguchi, coroner to the stars who conducted autopsies on many celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, recorded the death as due to “accidental drowning and hypothermia.” A relevant factor was that Natalie was supposed to be terrified of water, and it seemed inexplicable she would have tried to take the dinghy out on her own in the middle of the night, as had  been suggested.

The verdict appeared to be based on the heavy drinking on the yacht, that Wood had slipped on the steps of the boat, and fell into the water after trying to tie up the dinghy that was banging against the yacht.

The case of Natalie was reopened when the captain of the yacht Dennis Davern in November 2011 confessed he had lied during the initial proceedings, and that he had new evidence. The main point was that the two men, Wagner and Walden, had a strong argument, that Wagner was jealous of Walken who he said was flirting with his wife, that Wagner had an explosive fight with Natalie and that he had pushed her off the boat. Davern had not previously named Wagner as a suspect.    

Nevertheless, in 2012 the LA county chief coroner decided that there was no new evidence and that the circumstances of Wood’s death were not clearly established. However, the verdict was altered. It was now due to “death and other undetermined factors”. To add to the confusion, in 2016 the medical examiner held that the case will remain undetermined until additional evidence is brought forward.

Again, in February 2018 the LA Sheriff’s department called the death suspicious and named Wagner, born in 1930, a “person of interest” since he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared. The question was raised, did Wagner’s version of events add up?

It is unlikely that Wagner, now 90, will ever be questioned again about the events in 1981.

Yet the nagging question remains, was Natalie’s death due to foul play? For lovers of mysteries the puzzle remains to be solved.

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