Inside Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner's Tumultuous, Ultimately Tragic Romance

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·19 min read
Inside Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner's Tumultuous, Ultimately Tragic Romance
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"I've always been terrified, still am, of water—dark water, sea water," Natalie Wood said in an interview in the 1970s.

Considering the Oscar-nominated actress' fate, those words couldn't be more haunting. But what's even more haunting is that people still don't know for sure what, exactly, happened to her. More frustrating still, they may never know, the story only acquiring more question marks as the years went by.

Wood's shocking death on Nov. 29, 1981, when she was only 43 was initially ruled an accidental drowning, but that conclusion didn't withstand the test of time with law enforcement—or in the court of public obsession. In turn, what occurred in the final moments of Wood's life has become one of Hollywood's most enduring, endlessly rehashed mysteries, still the subject of books and documentary specials decades later.

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What Happened During Natalie Wood's Final Hours?

Wood and husband Robert Wagner had been spending Thanksgiving weekend on their 60-foot yacht, Splendour, with Christopher Walken, Wood's costar in what turned out to be her final film, 1983's Brainstorm. The only other person out with them was Splendour's captain, Dennis Davern.

Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner
Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Homicide Bureau re-opened the investigation Wood's death in 2011 because they had been contacted with new information.

The actress' sister, Lana Wood, had also asked that the case be reopened, insisting that Natalie, who was deathly afraid of the water, would never have been trying to re-tie the dinghy to the family yacht, a scenario suggested at the time as a possible reason for her fall.

Davern said on Today in 2011 that he overheard Wood and Wagner having an explosive fight, and he blamed Wagner for whatever happened.

The listed cause on Wood's death certificate was amended in 2012 to read "drowning and other undetermined factors." Meanwhile, a slew of tips came in when the case was re-opened and authorities have been following up ever since.

Natalie Wood, boat, The Spendour
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

In 2018, L.A. County Sheriff's Department investigators told CBS News' 48 Hours that Wagner was a person of interest. Not a suspect, authorities emphasized, nor was he a suspect in 2011. Just a person of interest.

"It's suspicious enough to make us think that something happened," Sheriff's Department Lt. John Corina said on the February 2018 special 48 Hours: Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Waters. Wagner "absolutely does" know more than he's said, "because he's the last one to see her." He adds, "She got in the water somehow, and I don't think she got into the water by herself."

On the night of Nov. 28, 1981, Walken, Wood and Wagner had dined at a restaurant in Isthmus Cove on Catalina Island, about 22 miles off the coast of Southern California.

Wagner later wrote in his memoir Heart to Heart With Robert Wagner that he and Walken had been arguing about politics throughout the evening and, when they boarded the boat, Wood excused herself after about a half hour. An hour after that, he returned to their stateroom and she wasn't there. When he walked around looking for her he saw that the inflatable dinghy, the Valiant (named after his 1954 film Prince Valiant), wasn't there either; but, she had taken it out alone before, so he wasn't initially worried.

After 10 or 15 minutes, he went out to look for her in a smaller cruiser, a family spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. Not finding her, Wagner radioed ashore and eventually the Baywatch Isthmus patrol and Coast Guard started searching. At 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 29, a search helicopter spotted Wood's fully clothed body floating in the water about 100 yards off Catalina's Blue Cavern Point.

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Wood had said that she was "petrified" of the ocean, making the idea of the Splendor in the Grass star trying to clamber down to the dinghy in the dead of night far-fetched, but multiple people told police at the time that she was skilled with boats. Wagner said, however, that his wife wasn't a strong swimmer.

"It was only after I was told that she was dressed in a sleeping gown, heavy socks, and a parka that it dawned on me what had really occurred. Natalie obviously had trouble sleeping with that dinghy slamming up against the boat," Wagner wrote in Heart to Heart. "...She probably skidded on one of the steps after untying the ropes. The steps are slick as ice because of the algae and seaweed that's always clinging to them. After slipping on the steps, she hit her head against the boat...I only hope she was unconscious when she hit the water."

An autopsy determined that Wood had consumed seven or eight glasses of wine before she died. There were some fresh bruises on her legs and arms and an abrasion on her left cheek that could be synonymous with a fall. Thomas Noguchi, chief medical examiner for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office at the time, concluded in 1981 that Wood's death was an accident.

Noguchi wrote in his 1983 book Coroner (per Vanity Fair), which detailed a number of celebrity postmortems he worked on, that scratch marks on the side of the dinghy indicated she had grabbed it, but likely the parka she had been wearing weighed her down. Clinging to the dinghy, she drifted further from Splendour and ultimately couldn't hang on any longer.

"It's always with you," Wagner told London's Express in December 2017. "When Natalie died I thought my life was over. Natalie was such a special, wonderful woman."

When the case was re-opened in 2011, Wagner stated that he fully supported any legitimate efforts to get answers.

James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause
James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause

How Did Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner Meet?

Wood starred in some of the most classic movies of all time over the span of four decades, starting from her days as a child actress in the 1940s in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Miracle on 34th Street.

In 1955, the year she starred in Rebel Without a Cause, LIFE magazine named her "The Most Beautiful Teenager in the World."

Her leading men included James Dean, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford and, several times, including in a 1976 TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, her storied real-life love, Robert Wagner.

Now 92, Wagner has been married to his third wife, actress Jill St. John, 81, since 1990. (It's his fourth marriage, as he and Wood were married twice.

Wagner has shared that his first real love affair was with screen legend Barbara Stanwyck, whom he met when she was 45 and he was 22 on the set of 1953's Titanic. She broke his heart three years later. Over the course of his career he crossed paths with a who's-who of the most legendary women in Hollywood, including Elizabeth Taylor (whom he also dated), Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

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Wagner also hailed from the old studio system, where you signed a contract and toiled away while they figured out what to do with you.

He had the quintessential leading-man looks but ultimately was a B-movie star in the likes of the 1956 thriller A Kiss Before Dying. He had dramatic gravitas to spare, though, and even after his film career stalled in the 1960s, he had a renaissance on TV. More recently he became known for his roles as henchman Number Two in the Austin Powers movies and playing the father of Michael Weatherly's Agent DiNozzo on NCIS.

Incidentally, Weatherly played Wagner in the 2004 Peter Bogdanovich-directed miniseries The Mystery of Natalie Wood.

Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, wedding
Jack Albin/Getty Images

Meanwhile, it was that old-fashioned studio system that brought Wagner and Wood together—they were fixed up on a date in 1956, ostensibly for publicity, but ended up hitting it off.

Though apparently Wood had her eye on the dashing actor for awhile.

"I was 10 and he was 18 when I first saw him walking down a hall at 20th Century Fox," Wood recalled to People in 1976. "I turned to my mother and said, 'I'm going to marry him.'"

On Dec. 28, 1957, the 19-year-old married Wagner, 27, in Scottsdale, Ariz, where the groom's parents lived. The windows at the Scottsdale Methodist Church were covered with butcher paper to keep the several hundred onlookers who managed to find out that two huge celebrities were tying the knot there from seeing inside. The reception was held at the Hotel Valley Ho, which was recently renovated and remains touted as the former playground of some of Hollywood's biggest golden-age stars.

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The Wood-Wagner nuptials were deemed the "glittering union of the 20th century"—and they may have been, for a little while.

They got it wrong the first time around, though, and divorced in 1962.

Oscar Couples, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"We knew each other better than we knew ourselves," Wood told People years later. "I always knew he was okay. It was myself I didn't know about."

By the age of 24 she was one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, and she never wanted for company. She first met Frank Sinatra, whom she dated in the 1960s, when she was 15. Suzanne Finstad wrote in her 2001 book Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood that at 16 she had an affair with Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray.

Having allegedly already bedded Beatty on the set of 1961's Splendor in the Grass, she aimed to have an affair with the also-married Steve McQueen while they were making the 1963 drama Love With the Proper Stranger, according to Marc Eliot's 1999 biography Steve McQueen. The actor resisted because Wagner was a friend, as was Beatty—and his wife closed ranks, visiting the set often.

Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Wood attended high school in Van Nuys, Calif., with Redford, whom she appeared with in several movies, and made a cameo in 1972's The Candidate "as a favor" to him. They lost touch in the later years of her life, but in the '00s Redford narrated a Turner Classic Movie montage about her, remembering her fondly.

"I knew Natalie long before she knew me," Redford said in the clip. Although, being "completely unimpressed with celebrities and the movie business" at the time, the actor didn't know who she was when they were teens and even refused to let her in the door at a school assembly because she was late. A friend informed him he had just turned away "Natalie Wood, the movie star."

He said that, down the road, he could talk to her about the "nonsense and distortion of what it is to be a movie star. She said, 'no matter how silly it may seem, fans do have this feeling about you that you have to respect—but never let it overwhelm you.'"

Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, Golden Globes
Max B. Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images

After her 1962 divorce from Wagner, Wood started intense psychoanalysis, later quipping that her therapy bills were "at least the equal of the annual defense budget of most Central American nations."

According to Warren G. Harris' Natalie and R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, an unexpected visit in 1966 from Beatty, who wanted her to be in Bonnie and Clyde with him (she famously turned down the role that went to Faye Dunaway), sent her into a tailspin and she took a handful of barbiturates. After her stomach had been pumped at a Hollywood hospital, she told her sister Lana that at the time she hadn't wanted to live anymore.

"Now," she added, "I do."

Natalie Wood, Richard Gregson
Ron Galella/WireImage

Wood married British producer and theater agent Richard Gregson in 1969, with Redford attending as best man. The couple welcomed daughter Natasha (now known as Natasha Gregson Wagner) on Sept. 29, 1970.

Meanwhile, Wagner married Marion Marshall, the mother of his daughter Kate, in 1963.

How Did Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner Get Back Together?

Wood and Wagner had seen each other occasionally since splitting up, but they reconnected at a dinner party that each attended alone in 1970. Wood was six months pregnant with Natasha. Wagner was newly separated.

He trailed Wood home in his car to make sure she got back safely, after which they sat together and she asked if he was happy. "And he said, 'I'm happy you're having a baby,'" she recalled, per Harris' book. He sent flowers the next day.

In the summer of 1971, Wood and Gregson amicably separated. She and Wagner started talking on the phone regularly and then he invited her to his home in Palm Desert, Calif., in January 1972.

And that was that. They pleasantly shocked the world by attending the Oscars together that April, after which they flew to New York and hopped on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail to England.

As fate would have it, their passage was delayed a few days due to a violent storm in the Atlantic, one that had both of them thinking that their happy reunion might end up being awfully short. Because there was no internet then, reporters awaiting the late ship were stunned to see Wagner and Wood debark together.

"Timing is everything in life," Wagner told a reporter, not bothering to clarify that he and Wood did not meet by chance on the ship. "It just happened, and as a result we've been very happy and had a lovable, enjoyable time, despite the freak storm."

Asked if they would be getting remarried, the actor said probably, but not anytime soon. He later recalled that he was broke at the time, shelling out money for his divorce, getting sued over a business deal gone wrong and having issues with the IRS. But Wood was flush and didn't want to wait.

Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood
Tom Wargacki/WireImage

They married each other again three months later, on July 16, 1972. Only a few friends and family members, including their respective daughters, were in attendance at the ceremony, which took place aboard a 55-foot yacht called the Ramblin' Rose, anchored off of Malibu's Paradise Cove. (According to Warren Harris' book, Wagner got so mad at his sister-in-law Lana's husband for selling some wedding pictures to a tabloid that he gave Lana the cold shoulder for years, even after she was divorced.)

The newly re-wedded spent their honeymoon cruising up and down the coast, also making a visit to Catalina.

Wood reflected on their second go-round, "When R.J. and I were married [the first time] we were like two children acting out a studio script. We deliberately hid our weaknesses from each other. Now we found that we could really talk to each other. We were not afraid to be ourselves. But we realized that we needed those years apart to reach that understanding."

This time they settled in for the long haul, setting up house in Beverly Hills with his-and-hers Mercedes and welcoming daughter Courtney Wagner in 1974.

Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Courtney Wagner
Ron Galella/WireImage

Wood told People in 1976 that she considered herself partially retired. "Work doesn't play the same role in my life it used to," said the three-time Oscar nominee. "If a woman decides to get married and have children, other parts of her life are just going to have to be put aside." She also said at the time that she and Wagner wanted one more child. In the meantime, she and some of her Beverly Hills pals had started flipping houses on the side.

"I can type. I can write. I can teach," she said. "I think I'm a fair wife and an exceptional mother. And that's what I want right now."

A friend of the couple's, playwright Mart Crowley, also told People, "Once people expected Nat and R.J.'s place to be the last word in the American dream, a doll's house with dolls living in it. Now they confront whatever problems exist and deal with them. They've learned to believe in themselves."

Natalie Wood
CBS News

But five years later, Natalie Wood was gone.

An outpouring of tributes from Wood's fellow Hollywood stars poured in after her body was found, from James Stewart and Fred MacMurray, both of whom had played her father onscreen, to more recent co-stars such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice's Robert Culp and Peeper's Michael Caine.

"She was a great family woman, which I've noticed is quite rare in America," Caine told the Los Angeles Times. "She was devoted to her husband and her children. This is a dreadful loss for them."

"We were so in love and we had everything, and in a second it was gone," Wagner told CBS Sunday Morning in 2008. "I wasn't there. I wasn't there for her and that's always within me."

"I remember her laugh, I remember her smell," Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was 11 when her mom died, told Good Morning America in 2013. "And she was really into being a mom."

"My mom and I were so close, but I was also starting to want a little more independence," the actress recalled. "I felt like maybe part of it was my fault, so I felt really guilty, like I should have been a better daughter." She called Wagner "the greatest," someone who had been both mother and father to her since Wood died. Asked about the boat captain's insinuation that her stepfather had something to do with her mother's death, she called him "somebody that I can't even dignify with a response because he's so undignified...I think it was an accident."

Gregson Wagner launched a crisp, citrusy fragrance called Natalie in her mother's honor in 2016.

"Any way that I can feel connected to my mom is a wonderful feeling to me," she told Town & Country. "I'm touched that people find it interesting that I resemble her. All my life, way before I even did this fragrance, people would come up to me and say, 'You remind me so much of this actress named Natalie Wood.' So it's something that I'm proud of and I'm happy if it makes somebody else feel happy. I'm happy to be that conduit."

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But while Gregson Wagner said that she didn't spend time over-thinking about the unanswered questions from the night she lost her mom, the quest continued for others.

Davern, the Splendour's captain, told 48 Hours in 2018 that Wagner seemed jealous of Walken and, as the Deer Hunter star giggled with his wife, Wagner smashed a wine bottle on the table, prompting Walken and Wood to go back to their respective rooms. Wagner and Wood had a fight, the sound carrying from one end of the boat to the other, Davern said, recalling, "They carried on and carried on—and then it was quiet."

Lt. Carino and Detective Ralph Hernandez said there were two new witnesses who could corroborate Davern's story.

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"Anybody there saw the logistics—of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining—and would know exactly what happened," Walken told Playboy in 1997, one of the rare times he ever discussed that evening. "You hear about things happening to people—they slip in the bathtub, fall down the stairs, step off the curb in London because they think that the cars come the other way—and they die. You feel you want to die making an effort at something; you don't want to die in some unnecessary way."

Duane Rasure, the since-retired Sheriff's detective-sergeant who first worked the case in the 1980s, told 48 Hours in 2011 he still got questions about it.

And while he admitted there were still questions he couldn't answer, there was one he could. When people asked if Robert Wagner killed Natalie Wood, his answer was, "No. No, she fell off the boat and drowned accidentally. If it was suspicious I would've worked the case as a murder. I didn't have any suspicion that anybody had injured, or killed or drowned her."

Rasure stood by his investigation "completely," he said. "The poor lady drowned."

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Where Is Robert Wagner Now?

In 2013, Wagner's attorney Blair Berk said in a statement to E! News, "Mr. Wagner has fully cooperated over the last 30 years in the investigation of the accidental drowning of his wife in 1981. Mr. Wagner has been interviewed on multiple occasions by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and answered every single question asked of him by detectives during those interviews. After 30 years, neither Mr. Wagner nor his daughters have any new information to add to this latest investigation, which was unfortunately prompted by those seeking to exploit and sensationalize the 30th anniversary of the death of his wife and their mother."

There's been too much chatter for Wagner to comment every time Wood's death is back in the news, but he wrote in his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart, "Yes, I blamed myself. Natalie would have felt the same way had it happened to me. Why wasn't I there? Why wasn't I watching?"

Reminiscing about happier times in December 2017, Wagner told the Express that life with Wood "was different the second time around because we realized that we had a very special and marvelous love for each other. It was very fortunate that we found each other again."

The actor did sit down with stepdaughter Natasha to discuss that tragic night and how their family got through it for the 2020 HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which the actress hoped could help her mother rest more peacefully.

"Everything just went out from under me," Wagner recalled of being told Wood's body had been found. "We were all stunned, everybody. That night's gone through my mind so many times. You can imagine."

Gregson Wagner, who never suspected her stepfather of anything nefarious, told Vanity Fair about coming together to have that talk for the cameras, "I wasn't really concerned with disproving these outlandish theories, I was more just wanting to have the kind of conversation that he and I have had in the past about other things, but on camera. I wanted him to feel safe enough to unfold, like a flower, and be honest, and show his humanity."

(Originally published Feb. 3, 2018, at 6 a.m. PT)