Actor Robert Wagner became a household name in 1968 playing a convict sprung from prison in TV’s It Takes a Thief. Fifty years later, he’s a wanted man again — only this time, it’s in real life; he’s been named a “person of interest” in the 1981 death of his wife, screen goddess Natalie Wood. “We want to talk to Robert,” says LA County Sheriff’s Department Lt. John Corina. “What he told the original investigators [doesn’t] add up to what we found.” The 88-year-old star has refused to speak with police since the day after Natalie’s funeral, when he dispassionately answered questions about how his two-time wife perished in the freezing waters off Catalina Island.
The couple had argued aboard their yacht, Splendour, before Natalie vanished. The death was ruled an accident two weeks later, and the case was closed. But since the investigation was reopened in 2011, more than 100 new witnesses have come forward and 150 new clues have been uncovered. “We’re closer to understanding what happened,” says Corina, adding that Robert’s original story makes “absolutely no sense.”
Robert may not be talking to the cops — but he has exclusively opened up to Closer Weekly. In a never-before-published 2014 interview, he shared his feelings about his late wife. “I have many, many memories of her,” he said. “She was such a special lady to me and everyone in the family.” That includes their shared children. “She is Natasha Wagner and Courtney Wagner’s mother and Katie Wagner’s stepmother,” says Robert of Natalie. “Everyone still has a lot of love for her.”
But as investigators piece together the new evidence and come ever closer to solving the case, a very different picture has emerged of Robert and Natalie’s two marriages — and her death. The LA coroner’s office has changed the manner on her death certificate from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Questions remain. “Was she unconscious and then placed in the water?” Corina asks. “Or did she accidentally fall into the water and nobody helped her?” The answers could be coming soon.
Robert with Natalie and his daughter Katie.
“A minute can change anything,” Robert wrote in his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart of the first time he saw Natalie. They passed in a Twentieth Century Fox Studios hallway in 1949, when he was an 18-year-old aspiring actor and she was the 10-year-old star of such hits as Miracle on 34th Street. “We didn’t speak, but I smiled. Later, Natalie told her mom she would marry me. She did — twice.” The first time was Dec. 28, 1957. “It was all kind of last-minute,” Natalie’s stunt double and friend Faye Mayo tells Closer. “When she and R.J. [Robert’s nickname] were first married, she was divinely happy.”
The bliss didn’t last long. One of the new witnesses in the case was a then 12-year-old boy whose family lived next door to Robert and Natalie during their first marriage. He remembers her pounding on their door in a panic late one night. “Natalie was so afraid of Robert,” says Corina. “She was yelling, ‘He’s going to kill me!’ and looking for help.” The neighbors temporarily took her in. The situation worsened when Natalie played the love interest of legendary lothario Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass, and rumors of an affair began to swirl.
Warren and Natalie.
“I wanted to kill that son of a bitch,” says Robert, who was also jealous of Warren’s professional success. “I was hanging around outside his house with a gun. I was prepared to kill him.” Robert didn’t act on it, and Natalie divorced him in April 1962. Each married other people and had children — her daughter Natasha and his Katie — but when their second marriages both ended, fate brought them back together. “We remarried in 1972 on a boat off Catalina Island,” recalls Robert. “[Frank] Sinatra’s ‘The Second Time Around’ was on the stereo. My feeling for the next nine years was of gratitude. I spent every waking hour somewhere between contentment and jubilation.”
Not everyone was overjoyed. At a family dinner party when Natalie announced she’d remarry Robert, her younger sister Lana Wood (who played James Bond girl Plenty O’Toole in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever), asked her why. Remembers Lana, “She looked down and said, ‘Sometimes it’s better to be with the devil you know.'” Robert and Natalie had a daughter, Courtney, together in 1974, but after putting her career on the back burner for a few years to focus on her family, Natalie started booking major studio movies like Brainstorm, a sci-fi thriller she shot in North Carolina in 1981.
Natalie and her sister Lana.
Meanwhile, Robert — who was back in LA filming TV’s Hart to Hart — grew jealous of Natalie’s bond with her leading man, Christopher Walken, a recent Oscar winner for The Deer Hunter. Says Robert, “Natalie was being emotionally unfaithful.” Still, the couple invited Christopher to spend Thanksgiving weekend with them aboard the Splendour, docked near Catalina. The weather was stormy, and the mood grew even darker on Black Friday. “Robert had been drinking all day and night and then suddenly wanted to move the boat to a more desolate part of the island,” says Marti Rulli, who co-wrote Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour with the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern.
Natalie — who couldn’t swim and had a lifelong fear of water — was afraid to move the boat in such bad weather, and she flew into a rage. A new witness, who was on a nearby boat, described the incident to police: “Natalie appeared to be the aggressor [and] intoxicated,” says Det. Ralph Hernandez, a colleague of Corina’s. “At one point, Robert walked away, and she fell down on one knee,” perhaps causing some of the bruises later found on her body. “Natalie was so mad, she packed her bag and asked Dennis to take her to shore,” says Rulli. They rented two rooms at a hotel, but Natalie spent the night crying on Davern’s shoulder and pouring out her heart. “She said, ‘If this continues, I will divorce him,'” reports Rulli. “‘I cannot live like this.'”
In the morning, more sober heads prevailed, and Natalie and Davern returned to the boat, where she cooked breakfast for Robert. “She decided, ‘Let’s see if we can smooth over everything,'” says Davern. Natalie agreed to move the boat, but after another day of drinking, Robert awoke from a nap to discover she and Christopher had ditched him and gone ashore to a bar. When Robert arrived, Natalie and Christopher laughingly ignored him, and “Chris began talking about his ‘total pursuit of a career,’ which he admitted was more important than his personal life,” Robert says. “He clearly thought Natalie should live like that, too.”
Robert did not agree, and after the trio drunkenly made their way back to the Splendour, “I got angry. ‘Why the f–k don’t you stay out of her career?’ I said,” Robert recalls. “I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table, and broke it to pieces.” According to Corina, Robert yelled, “What are you trying to do, f–k my wife?” At this point, Davern says, “Natalie said, ‘I cannot take this anymore,’ and went to her room.” Christopher also retreated to his quarters, and Davern went to the bridge. Soon he heard a violent argument from Natalie and Robert’s room and knocked on the door. “Robert had this crazed look on his face and I said, ‘Is everything OK, boss?’ And he said, ‘Go away,'” says Davern. “He looked so angry, I was worried about my own safety.”
Robert in 2013.
While Robert claims, “the last time I saw my wife, she was fixing her hair at a little vanity in the bathroom,” Davern says the couple took their fight to the deck, and two new witnesses back him up, saying they saw and heard the squabble. “They’re very credible,” notes Corina. “They have no reason to lie. There was arguing… and then silence. Nobody heard a splash. Nobody heard anything.” But, Corina says, “I don’t think she got into the water by herself.” The argument ended at midnight. Ten minutes later, Davern went to the couple’s cabin.
“Robert was crying and saying, ‘Natalie’s gone, she’s missing,'” reports Corina. Strangely, Robert didn’t report her missing until 1:30 a.m., after downing scotch with Davern. Robert didn’t want to alert authorities, fearing the bad publicity. Finally, he called the Coast Guard but asked Davern not to use a spotlight to search for her. Natalie’s body was found around 8 a.m., about a mile from the boat, and the boat’s dinghy was recovered in a nearby cave. She was wearing a parka, a nightgown, and socks. Robert has a theory about what happened. “She heard the dinghy banging against the side and got up to retire it,” he says, noting she had drunk seven or eight glasses of wine and taken the opioid Darvon.
Natalie before her death.
“She slipped on the swim step on the stern, hit the step on the way down, and was either stunned or knocked unconscious and rolled into the water. The loose dinghy floated away.” Corina says the story “doesn’t make sense. It’s not that big a boat. Nobody heard the dinghy start up [or] take off.” Adds Lana, “She wouldn’t do it — in a nightgown? She didn’t even get the mail in a nightgown.” The initial ruling of accidental drowning belies the fact that bruises were found on Natalie’s body consistent with an assault. “I can’t say who caused the injuries,” says Corina. “But we know the last person with her was Mr. Wagner.”
The case went cold for two decades until it was reopened, prompting the new witnesses to come forward. Christopher (who is not a person of interest) has been re-interviewed by police, but “what he told us was in confidence, at least for now,” says Corina. Time may be running out. The statute of limitations has expired on any possible charge except murder, and Robert is under no legal obligation to speak. “We’re doing our last shot here, seeing if anybody else comes forward,” says Corina. “When the tips all dry up, we move on to the next case.”
Robert and Natalie.
Whether the mystery of her death is ever solved, Natalie’s memory lives on. “Not a single day passes when I don’t wish Natalie was here,” says Lana. As for Robert, he’s sticking to his story: “I blame myself,” he confesses. “Why wasn’t I there? I would have done anything to protect her. Anything. I would have given my life for hers, because that’s the way we were.”
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