Natalie Wood — the wide-eyed beauty who grew up in the movies — was gone.
Some speculated that the 43-year-old Hollywood star, wearing a nightgown, knee-high socks and a warm red coat, had stepped off the family yacht one night to catch a dinghy that had started to slip away.
Others wondered whether she had climbed into the small boat to escape the strife. Authorities said her husband, Robert Wagner, and her co-star, Christopher Walken, had been bickering aboard the couple’s 60-foot yacht, Splendour, after dining on Santa Catalina Island.
Wood was not a skilled swimmer, and investigators said she had been sipping champagne and wine. Authorities ruled that it was an accident — that Wood was intoxicated late that Saturday night in November 1981, when she slipped into the ocean and drowned off the coast of Southern California. Early the next morning, Wood was discovered dead, her petite body floating beneath the water.
“It was not a homicide. It was not a suicide. It was an accident,” the coroner told reporters, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The details come from old newspaper clippings that describe the weeks, months and years after Wood’s drowning death but provide little about the moment she disappeared.
In the 36-plus years since, questions swirling around the circumstances of her death have lingered. CBS’s “48 Hours” reported Thursday that as part of an upcoming report “Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water,” the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told the news show it is looking at Wagner, now 87, as a “person of interest.”
“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now,” Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said about Wagner in an interview with “48 Hours.”
“I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared,” Corina said.
A representative for Wagner told The Washington Post on Thursday that the actor would not be providing comment. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately provide a statement to The Post, but Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told the Associated Press that witnesses have given statements that “portray a new sequence of events on the boat that night.”
Still, a sheriff’s spokesman told NBC News that the status of the case remains unchanged — Wagner has always been a person of interest; that does not mean he is a suspect.
Wood had been acting since she was a child. In 1947, she starred as Susan Walker in “Miracle on 34th Street,” launching her into Hollywood royalty. She was nominated for three Academy Awards before she turned 25.
In the months before her death, Wood had been filming, with Walken, the 1983 science-fiction film “Brainstorm.”
Authorities never publicly confirmed what exactly Wagner and Walken argued about that night, but they said during the initial investigation that it had nothing to do with Wood.
“There were no threats. She was not fearful. It did not involve her,” then-Assistant Los Angeles County Coroner Richard Wilson told the Associated Press in early December 1981. “There were no romantic entanglements.”
However, Thomas Noguchi, who was the county coroner at the time, told the Associated Press the disagreement was apparently “the reason she separated herself from the group.”
“Did I blame myself? If I’d been there, I could have done something. I wasn’t, but ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one. Yes, I blamed myself,” Wagner wrote in a 2009 op-ed in the Daily Mail.
“I would have done anything in the world to protect her. Anything. I lost a woman I loved with all my heart, not once but twice, and I will never completely come to terms with that.”
The couple had divorced after five years of marriage in 1962, but they remarried in 1972.
Wagner wrote in detail about the night of Wood’s disappearance in November 1981.
He said in his 2008 memoir, “Pieces of My Heart,” that he had invited Walken to join him and his wife for weekend trip to Catalina to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. On the second day, he said, he woke up from a nap to find that the two had left him to dine on the island.
“I wasn’t angry, just agitated,” he wrote in an excerpt in the Daily Mail. “I called the shore boat and joined them. We had wine with dinner, but we were tipsy rather than drunk. We returned to the salon of the Splendor and had more drinks.”
Chris began talking about his ‘total pursuit of a career’, which he admitted was more important to him than his personal life. He clearly thought Natalie should live like that, too.
I got angry. ‘Why don’t you stay out of her career?’ I said. ‘She’s got enough people telling her what to do without you.’
We got into an argument and I slammed a wine bottle on the table, breaking it into pieces. Natalie got up during the argument and went down from the salon to the master cabin to go to the bathroom.
That, Wagner said, was the last time he saw his wife.
I noticed the dinghy, usually attached to the side, had gone. Even stranger. I wondered if she’d taken it. But she was terrified of dark water and the dinghy’s motor fired up so loudly we would have heard it.
I radioed for the shore boat and went back to the restaurant. Natalie wasn’t there. Neither was the dinghy.
It was about 1:30 a.m. I was scared and confused. The Coast Guard started the search and rescue, crisscrossing the ocean surface with helicopters. Hour after hour — nothing.
At 5:30 a.m., they found the dinghy in an isolated cove. The key was in the off position, the gear was in neutral and the oars were fastened to the side. I didn’t allow myself to contemplate what that meant — it was too unthinkable.
Two hours later, they found my wife. Natalie was wearing a down-filled red jacket, and that helped them spot her.
I remember the morning was sunny. I was standing on the aft deck when Doug Bombard, the harbourmaster, pulled up and got out of his boat.
‘Where is she?’ I asked. Doug looked at me. ‘She’s dead.’
In 2011, investigators with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened Wood’s case, saying they wanted to speak with the boat’s captain.
Someone had reported to police that the captain, Dennis Davern, who had written a book about the incident, had “new recollections” about what had happened, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Davern had previously told CNN that, before Wood disappeared, he heard her arguing with her husband.
“They’d moved their fight outside … you could tell from their animated gestures they were still arguing,” he told CNN, adding that Wagner later came to him, claiming he could not find his wife.
When asked about the renewed investigation, a spokesman for Wagner told the Times that he “trusts they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid.”
Nothing came of it, but in 2012, the coroner’s office amended the cause of death on Wood’s death certificate from drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” according to reports.
After the recent news about Wagner, the Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman told the Associated Press that a new statement from a witness describes sounds, including shouting, coming from the couple’s room on the yacht. Then other witnesses told investigators that they heard a man and a woman arguing at the rear of the boat.
Nishida, the spokeswoman, told the AP that those accounts differ from the ones that were provided at the time of Wood’s disappearance and death.
“Do we have enough to make an arrest at this moment? No,” she told the news service.
Corina, with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, recently told “48 Hours” that he believes Wagner knew more than he has had told them.
“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina said. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”
This story has been updated.