Nearly 40 years later, the drowning death of Natalie Wood remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring mysteries. Now, two new projects — Suzanne Finstad’s revised Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography and HBO’s upcoming documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (produced by daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner) — offer conflicting explanations of what happened aboard Natalie and husband Robert Wagner’s boat Splendour on November 29, 1981.
“When you string all the facts together from all the sources and follow the trail of evidence, it’s clear she was having a fight with Robert on the deck of the boat, and at the end of the fight, she went overboard,” Finstad tells Closer. The author cites new interviews with a number of sources, including a woman who was dating Dennis Davern, the captain on board the Splendour that fateful night.
“Dennis said, ‘Don’t believe everything you read — everyone’s been paid off,’ ” Finstad claims the woman told her, adding that the argument between Robert and Natalie “came to blows.” Finstad also quotes Vidal Herrera, who took photos of Natalie’s body for the LA coroner’s office, as saying Natalie had significant head wounds.
In addition, Dr. Michael Franco, who was an intern in the coroner’s office at the time, says he saw bruises on Natalie’s thighs and shins that indicated her death “wasn’t an accident. Somebody pushed her.” Interestingly, Finstad says Frank Sinatra, a close friend of Natalie and Robert’s, put pressure on the office to wrap up the probe prematurely because it reflected poorly on the couple.
After coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled Natalie’s death an accidental drowning and said she was intoxicated at the time of her death, “Sinatra pressured the L.A. Board of Supervisors to fire Noguchi in a scathing letter insisting coroners ‘should be seen and not heard,’” says Finstad. Frank also helped shut down a psychological autopsy “that would’ve been the last, best hope for any of Natalie’s truths to be known in an official investigation of her death,” says Finstad.
In the documentary, Robert confesses he had an angry altercation aboard the Splendour the night of Natalie’s death with her Brainstorm costar Christopher Walken about the prospect of her acting more often. “He said, ‘I think it’s important she works,’ and I said, ‘I think it’s important you stay out of our life,’” recalls Robert, who admits he was “a little high” on wine at the time. “I picked up the bottle and smashed it on the table.”
Robert says Natalie fled the ugly scene, first retiring to their bedroom and then going up to the ship’s deck, perhaps to tie up a dinghy that was hitting against the side of the boat. “It was a slight mist, and the assumption was she slipped and hit her head and rolled into the water,” he says. “But there’s always conjecture about someone who’s very famous [and dies].”
As for being named “a person of interest” as part of a reopened investigation in 2011, Robert maintains, “I don’t pay much attention to it, because they’re not going to redefine me. I know who I am.” To this day, Robert denies all wrongdoings relating to Natalie’s death. In any case, questions linger. “How can you not want to know more?” Finstad asks. “You want to know what happened to this beautiful soul so she can rest in peace.”
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