On a crisp November day nearly 40 years ago, four adults went boating off the coast of Los Angeles. Only three came back alive. Beloved Hollywood star Natalie Wood was discovered the next morning floating in the shallow surf off Santa Catalina Island wearing a flannel nightgown, socks, and a down jacket.
In the decades since she was found, a slew of questions have arisen: Was the drowning an accident, as authorities initially suspected? Or was there foul play involved?
For the first time ever, Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was just 11 years old at the time, is opening up about her mother’s storied life, successful acting career, and mysterious death. In the new HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (available to stream May 5), Gregson Wagner offers intimate details about her family’s life, both before and after the tragic incident. Here’s everything you need to know about Wood before watching What Remains Behind.
Natalie Wood amassed a trio of Oscar nominations before the age of 25.
Wood was the epitome of old-school Hollywood glamour, a child actor who rose to become a bonafide movie star. She began her career at the age of 5 and, ten years later, earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress as James Dean’s love interest in Rebel Without a Cause. She also landed leading roles Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story, Splendor In The Grass, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
In 1981, Wood went on a weekend trip to Catalina.
She was with her actor husband, Robert Wagner, aboard his 55-foot yacht, Splendour. Accompanying them was the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern, and actor Christopher Walken, who was in L.A. at the time filming the sci-fi movie Brainstorm with Wood.
How did she die?
Wagner reportedly told authorities at the time that when he went to bed, Wood was not on the yacht. He said he believed she took off in a small boat by herself, according to The Los Angeles Times. When he couldn’t find her, he contacted the Harbor Patrol. Her body was discovered the next morning floating in the water a mile away from the yacht. The dinghy was located on a nearby beach.
After a two-week investigation, Wood’s death was ruled an accident.
Still, rumors swirled that something more sinister occurred. Walken, Davern, and Wagner all gave conflicting statements, and it was unclear why Wood, who was reportedly scared of deep water, would take a dinghy by herself. According to Rolling Stone, the coroner’s original report noted that Wood’s blood-alcohol level showed she had been drinking, and her toxicology results reportedly found traces of painkillers and motion sickness pills. The report “surmised that she may have slipped and fallen overboard,” according to the magazine.
Police reopened her case in 2011.
“Recently, sheriff’s homicide investigators were contacted by persons who stated they had additional information about the Natalie Wood Wagner drowning. Due to the additional information, Sheriff’s homicide bureau has decided to take another look at the case,” the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.
The following year, a coroner amended Wood’s autopsy conclusion from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other determined factors.”
Wagner was named a “person of interest” in 2018.
Wood dated celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Michael Caine and David Niven Jr., and she was married to Wagner twice. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators named him a person of interest in Wood’s death in 2018, stating that details of his account “don’t add up to what we’ve found.”
Lieutenant John Corina told reporters during a press conference: “I think, before, we were all believing this story that she must have gotten in a dinghy and tried to go into town in her nightgown, in her socks, by herself when it is raining out and the seas are really rough—you can’t even see at midnight—which made absolutely no sense if you really think about it.”
In a 48 Hours special released the same year, Detective Ralph Hernandez said the autopsy results revealed what appeared to be new bruises on Wood’s body. “She looked like the victim of an assault…We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident either. The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”
However, Gregson Wagner maintains that her stepfather,is innocent. In her new memoir More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, Gregson Wagner writes, “My mother no longer has a voice of her own but I do and this is what I know…[Wagner] loved Natalie ‘more than love.’ No one in my world questioned my dad’s love for my mom or his utter despair at her loss.”
HBO’s Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind offers new insight into the tragedy.
According to Deadline, the documentary shows “stunningly intimate and private, never-before seen—even by Gregson Wagner—footage of the [family’s] grief, particularly Robert Wagner’s” at the funeral and at home following Wood’s death. It also contains “a lot of home movies, some very famous stars at parties there over the years, and interviews with many in her life,” according to Deadline.
That includes Wagner, now 90, who wearily revisits the details of the night Wood died. “I never have gone back to the island,” he says in the documentary. “I see it once in a while. You know how sometimes it’s so clear you can see it? Or when I’m taking off from LAX and they turn to the south, and you fly by the island. I look down at the isthmus and think all of the great times we had there. It’s just so ironic [it ended the way it did].”
The footage is touching, writes CNN entertainment reporter Brian Lowry, but Wood’s death remains the “elephant in the documentary.” Even Wagner’s on-camera interview is “less an interview than a defense attorney’s brief, allowing for his admissions that he had argued with Walken (who had been urging Wood to keep working) and drank too much that night,” Lowry says.
During an appearance on Good Morning America, Gregson Wagner said she hopes the film can redefine Wood’s legacy outside her death. “I’m hoping with the documentary we can focus on her life,” Gregson Wagner said. “I think if she were alive today she’d be on the forefront of equal pay for women, she’d be on the forefront fighting for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. She was so ahead of her time in many ways.”