The Last Hours of Natalie Wood

  • Share
  • Read Later

"It was not a homicide . . . not a suicide. It was an accident.

The only important thing . . . is that . Natalie is gone. All the rest is ghoulish nonsense." Paul Ziffren, Natalie Wood's lawyer, spoke as a grieving friend about the national fascination with her death. In a matter of hours, shock turned to pity and then to conjecture. Exactly why did Natalie Wood die? When a gorgeous movie star full of wine stumbles off a quarter-million-dollar yacht in her nightgown and drowns, while her actor-husband sits oblivious with her film co-star a few yards away, people will talk. And wonder.

Wood, 43, acted in her first movie when she was four, and though the critical praise was niggardly, she always had work. Brainstorm was her 46th movie, and her role required only three more days of filming. On a weekend hiatus, Wood, Husband Robert Wagner (star of TV's Hart to Hart) and her leading man — sallow and rangy Christopher Walken, 38 — headed for the sea. They relaxed aboard the Wagners' 60-ft. yacht Splendour, moored in a cove off Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles from the Los Angeles shore. On Saturday afternoon they motored the 100 yds. to the island in a 10-ft. dinghy. They had drinks and dinner at an island restaurant, and six hours later — after four bottles of wine and two of champagne — the Wagners, Walken and the boat's captain, all giddy, returned to the Splendour.

Here accounts diverge. Los Angeles County Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi says that Walken and Wagner, 51, had "nonviolent" but "heated discussions." However, Los Angeles County Homicide Detective Roy Hamilton says:

"There was no indication that there was any argument. I think [Noguchi] was juicing it up a little bit."

Around midnight, Wood left the two men in the boat's main cabin and went to her stateroom. Some time later, dressed in socks, nightgown and a down jacket, she stepped out on deck. The air was cool (mid-50s) and stunningly clear after the day's rainstorms. She untied the rubber dinghy from the stern and then, according to Noguchi, fell from the Splendour into the 63° F water, bruising her left cheek as she tumbled overboard.

"It was not a homicide," says Noguchi. "It was not a suicide. It was an accident." His autopsy revealed that she had drunk "seven or eight" glasses of wine. There were about a dozen craft near by. Aboard one was Marilyn Wayne, a Beverly Hills commodities broker, who says she was anchored just 100 yds. from the Wagners. At about midnight, she says, "I could hear someone saying, 'Help me! Somebody help me!' " She claims the cries lasted for more than 15 min. and that from somewhere in the darkness came the answer: "Take it easy. We'll be over to get you." Why didn't Wayne try to help? Says she: "It was laid back. There was no urgency or immediacy in their shouts."

By 1:30 a.m., Wagner had become worried about his wife and radioed the harbor master. The call was answered instead by Don Whiting, night manager of the restaurant they had left three hours earlier. Whiting launched a search, and at 3:26, the Coast Guard was called in. Soon after dawn, a guardsman spotted Wood's body a mile down current from the yacht and 200 yds. from shore. The empty dinghy, loaded with lifejackets, was not far away, bobbing in the waves.

According to one theory, Wood intended to go off in the dinghy, to be alone and breathe the brisk Pacific night. Whiting spent the night after the accident aboard the Splendour and struck upon an alternative theory: maybe Wood, kept awake by the sound of Valiant banging against the hull in the breeze, slipped overboard while trying to move the dinghy to the yacht's leeward side.

Wood's death was touched by sad irony. She and Wagner were married on a boat off Catalina. But for Wood, the good life at sea must have held some menace. "I'm frightened to death of the water," she said in a recent interview. "I can swim a little bit, but I'm afraid of water that is dark."

Early Sunday morning, with the numbed purposefulness of the bereaved, Wagner took a helicopter back to the mainland, rushing ahead of the news to tell his three daughters, the eldest age 17, of their mother's death. Three days later, as a balalaika dirge played, the family and 60 friends buried her.