Almost 40 Years After Natalie Wood’s Mysterious Death, Her Daughter Shed New Light On The Case

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Natasha Gregson Wagner has long been haunted by the death of her mother, Natalie Wood. For almost four decades, the distraught daughter of the Hollywood legend has refused to talk about the drowning incident that killed her mother, or the accusations her stepfather Robert Wagner faced as a result. However, in 2020, Gregson Wagner decided to tackle the rumors head-on.

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Wood’s death has been the subject of morbid fascination for some years. The Hollywood actress lost her life at the age of 43 when she drowned while on a yachting trip off California’s Catalina Island in November 1981. Shortly after the tragedy, her death was described as “accidental” but that ruling has since been changed.

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In 2012 Los Angeles County’s Chief Coroner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, officially changed Wood’s cause of death. It had previously been put down to accidental drowning and hypothermia. However, Sathyavagiswaran amended Wood’s death certificate to state she’d passed as a result of “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

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Among these “undetermined factors” alluded to on Wood’s death certificate was the fact that it wasn’t clear how the actress has come to be in the water that night. There were traces of alcohol and medication in her bloodstream that could have played a part in her demise, but it’s not certain exactly what led to Wood’s death.

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The uncertain circumstances surrounding Wood’s untimely death have given rise to some speculation over the years. And as part of this, suspicion has fallen on her husband Wagner, who was on the yacht at the time of her death. It has been alleged that Wagner and Wood had an argument the night that she died, and even that her demise could have been a result of a lover’s jealousy.

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Wood and Wagner’s relationship could have been the storyline of one of the Hollywood films they used to star in. Wood had embarked on her acting career as a child, starring in Miracle on 34th Street at the age of eight in 1947. Wagner, meanwhile, established himself as a Hollywood’s leading man throughout the 1950s.

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It’s fair to say that Wood came of age in front of the camera. She transitioned from child star to leading lady as a teenager, when she earned an Academy Award nomination for her role in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. By the time Wood was 18, she was already a major star.

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At the time, Wood was signed to Warner Brothers, and the studio had every intention of taking advantage of her stardom. With that in mind, they helped to arrange a date between the actress and Wagner in 1956, on Wood’s 18th birthday as a publicity stunt. However, the pair discovered a genuine attraction.

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Wood had, in fact, harbored a crush for Wagner from a young age after she first crossed paths with the actor on a studio visit. In 1976 she revealed to People, “I was 10 and he was 18 when I first saw him walking down the hall at 20 Century Fox… I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m going to marry him.’”

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It seems that Wood had indeed predicted the future. Wagner later proposed to the actress by dropping a diamond ring in her glass of champagne. So, one year after their first date, the pair married on December 28, 1957. They both shared a love of sailing and would honeymoon on a yacht in the Florida Keys, despite Wood’s confessed fear of deep water.

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But the fairy tale was not to last for Wood and Wagner. They separated after almost four years of marriage, before divorcing in April 1962. Like most of their romance, Wood and Wagner’s split was the subject of much media attention. And it was rumored that their relationship faltered as a result of infidelity.

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Both Wood and Wagner went on to remarry. Wagner tied the knot with Marion Marshall in 1963 and the couple welcomed their daughter named Katie in 1964. Wood, meanwhile, went on to marry producer Richard Gregson, with whom she had a daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner in 1970.

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Neither of the new marriages lasted. Wagner divorced from Marshall in 1971 and Wood split with Gregson that same year. Their divorce was finalized in April 1972 by which time Wood and Wagner had rekindled their romance. They married for a second time in July 1972, just months after Wood had divorced.

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At this time, Wood took a step back from acting as Wagner embarked on a successful TV career, earning $10,000 an episode or his role on It Takes a Thief. The couple welcomed their daughter Courtney in 1974. And, with the children from their previous marriages, they formed one of Hollywood’s most famous families of the time.

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However, yet again, the good times only lasted so long for Wood and Wagner. Nine years after their reunion, the couple took an ill-fated trip on their yacht, Splendour, on Thanksgiving weekend 1981. Wood and Wagner were joined on their voyage by their captain Dennis Davern and the actor Christopher Walken, Wood’s co-star in the upcoming movie Brainstorm.

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Accounts of what happened on the night of November 28, 1981, vary. However, what is known for sure is that Wood lost her life after drowning. Her body was subsequently recovered a mile from the boat the following morning. She was found on a beach alongside an inflatable dinghy.

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Following Wood’s untimely death, Davern came forward to allege that she and Wagner had argued prior to her going missing from the boat. It has also been claimed that Wagner was jealous of his wife’s relationship with her co-star Walken. As a result, tempers reportedly flared, with Wagner even smashing a bottle in frustration.

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In the years after Wood’s death, Wagner himself admitted that he argued with his wife prior to her death. But according to his account, she went off to her cabin following the row. It was only later that night that Wagner realized Wood wasn’t there, and it was then that he alerted the authorities to her disappearance.

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Wood and the other passengers onboard Splendour had been drinking before tragedy struck. An autopsy found that the actress had a blood alcohol content of 0.14 percent. There were also traces of a painkiller and motion-sickness medication found in her system, which may have increased the effects of alcohol.

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However, that wasn’t the only discovery made at the autopsy. Wood was also found to have bruises to her arms and body, as well as a scrape on her left cheek. However, it was never determined how the actress had sustained the injuries. As a result, there’s been much speculation over the nature of Wood’s death.

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While Wood’s passing has become the subject of mindless gossip, for those close to the star it had very real implications. For Wood’s daughters, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Courtney Wagner, the night their mother drowned would change their life. And while Gregson Wagner was just 11 at the time Wood’s death, she remembers the fallout well.

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In fact, it would take years for Gregson Wagner and the rest of her family to rebuild their lives following Wood’s death. This included coming to terms with what may, or may not have happened, onboard the Splendour that fateful night. So, ultimately, they had to accept the fact that they may never know for sure.

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However, while Gregson Wagner could accept that she may never fully get full closure on her mother’s death, it seemed that others could not. Both Davern, and Wood’s sister, Lana Wood, have continued to point a finger of suspicion towards Wagner and the part he may have played in his wife’s death. But he has always maintained his innocence.

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One of the theories put forward to explain Wood’s tragic death suggests she had fallen into the water while trying to secure one of Splendour’s dinghies. However, some believed that the actress had lost her life fleeing from an argument with Wagner. And he himself has acknowledged that no one knows the truth.

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In 2018 the focus returned to Wagner after he was named as a “person of interest” in the investigation into Wood’s death. The case had been reopened some years earlier in 2011 after Davern claimed he had lied to investigators during the first investigation. Furthermore, in 2012, a coroner changed Wood’s cause of death from accidental to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

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Wagner continues to deny he had anything to do with Wood’s death. But in his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart: A Life the actor admitted he sometimes blamed himself for his wife’s passing. Wagner wrote, “If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t see her… I didn’t hear anything. But ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one, and she was my loved one.”

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Given the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death, it seemed that Wagner was distressed that he couldn’t save his wife. And his predicament must have been made all the worse when suspicion fell on him. However, he could always rely on his family for support — including his daughters, Courtney and Katie, and stepdaughter Gregson Wagner, who he raised after Wood passed.

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Gregson Wagner, in particular, has admitted to feeling protective of Wagner in light of the accusations he has faced over the years. In April 2020, she told People, “It’s outrageous and completely unacceptable that others have created this narrative about my dad and the night my mom died… I know that if my mom had been in any kind of distress he would have given his life for her. I know that as well as I know my name.”

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But not only has Gregson Wagner publicly defended her stepfather herself, in May 2020 she gave him the opportunity to have his say on Wood’s death. She sat down with Wagner as part of Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, an HBO documentary that explores the late star’s legacy.

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In one candid conversation from the documentary, Gregson Wagner asked her stepfather about the night of Wood’s death. In response, a 90-year-old Wagner revealed how he’d enjoyed a final dinner with his wife and her co-star Walken, during which he’d drank “a few glasses of vino.” However, that night, the conversation on the yacht took a heated turn.

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According to Wagner’s account, he and Wood had been discussing her career over dinner, weighing up whether she should continue to act or spend more time as a mother. As they talked, the drink flowed, and Wagner recalled popping the cork on another bottle of wine before Wood went off to bed.

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Wagner then said that he stayed up talking to Walken, but felt annoyed when his fellow actor chimed in with his thoughts on what Wood should do next. Walken reportedly told Wagner that Wood should continue to act on account of her amazing talents. However, it seems that Wagner didn’t take kindly to his companion’s input.

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While chatting to his stepdaughter, Wagner claimed he responded to Walken’s suggestion by angrily telling him to keep his nose out of his and Wood’s business. He also admitted to “smashing a wine bottle.” However, Wagner claimed that he and Walken ultimately settled their disagreement.

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After Walken went to bed, Wagner claimed that he and Davern cleaned up the broken glass from the wine bottle off the floor. Wagner said he then retired downstairs, only to find that Wood wasn’t there. As a result, he claimed he alerted the coast guard. Her body was subsequently found the following morning.

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In Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, Wagner also opened up about the moment he learned of his wife’s fate. With a quiver in his voice, he said, “Everything just went out from under me… We were all stunned, everybody. That night’s gone through my mind so many times. You can imagine.”

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Not only did Wagner have to deal with Wood’s sudden death himself, but he also had to break the sad news to his daughters. To do so, the actor sought the advice of a therapist. The tragedy would inevitably have a long-lasting impact on the family, but Gregson Wagner maintained a close relationship with her stepfather.

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And by addressing her mother’s death head-on with Wagner, Gregson Wagner managed to build on their bond even further. Speaking of her candid conversation with her stepfather in April 2020 Gregson Warner told Vanity Fair, “I’m really glad we did it. It was definitely exhausting.

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Gregson Wagner added, “He and I were both pretty wiped out by the end of those two days — yet we were also kind of euphoric too because we thought we had gone through something really difficult together…  We were just taking the truth and putting it into the light and it sort of empowered us, I think, in a way.”

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In producing Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind Gregson Wagner told Vanity Fair that she “wasn’t really concerned with disproving… outlandish theories” surrounding her mother’s death. However, she did want to put some of the accusations about Wagner to rest.

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Most of all, Gregson Wagner hoped that her new documentary on Wood would shine a light on her mother’s life and work, which has often been overshadowed by her tragic death. In an interview with People in May 2020 Gregson Wagner said, “I know she… wanted the documentary to be made, and this is how she wants to be remembered.”

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