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IMAGE: Natalie Wood
Wally Fong  /  AP
Natalie Wood, seen in 1979, drowned in 1981, but the circumstances of her death are being investigated anew.
By AP National Writer
updated 11/18/2011 2:57:50 PM ET 2011-11-18T19:57:50

As Robert Wagner remembers it, there was drinking the last night of Natalie Wood's life and some arguing, but nothing that explained why she was found dead the following morning.

"Nobody knows," Wagner wrote in his best-selling memoir "Pieces of My Heart," published in 2008.

The circumstances of her death remain one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries and continue to create renewed intrigue, with homicide detectives unexpectedly reopening the case Thursday that had long been classified as a tragic accident. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the renewed inquiry was prompted by unspecified new information about Wood's case.

A Los Angeles County sheriff's detective, Lt. John Corina, told reporters Friday that Robert Wagner is not a suspect in his Oscar-nominated wife's nighttime demise in the chilly waters off Southern California on Nov. 29, 1981. Wood drowned after spending several hours drinking on Catalina Island and a yacht with Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken and the ship's captain, Dennis Davern.

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Story: Police: Robert Wagner not a suspect in Wood's death

Davern, skipper of the Splendour, told NBC's "Today" show on Friday that he made mistakes by not telling the truth about events leading to the Thanksgiving weekend death and had urged Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators to reopen the case. Davern has said for years that the official account of Wood's disappearance was not what really happened.

In his book, Wagner recalls tension between himself and Wood and Walken in the day leading up to her death. She was a bad swimmer and was afraid of the water, but she argued with Wagner when he suggested they move their boat, the Splendour, closer to shore. During their last dinner, there was "quite a bit of wine," but Wagner said no one was "anywhere near drunk," only tipsy.

Wagner said he became "pissed off" when Walken began advocating the "total pursuit of a career" and hinting that Wood should feel the same. Wagner cursed at him and told him to mind his own business, slamming a wine bottle so hard it broke. By this time, Wood had already left the meal and gone to the lower part of the boat, to the master cabin. She did not storm out, Wagner recalled, but simply left.

"The last time I saw my wife she was fixing her hair at a little vanity in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris Walken," he wrote. "I saw her shut the door. She was going to bed."

Natalie Wood death probe to be reopened

Wagner continued arguing with Walken, a fight that Wagner thought could have become physical, but didn't. Walken went to bed and Wagner stayed up for a while with Davern before himself deciding to turn in.

"I went below, and Natalie wasn't there," he wrote. "Strange. I went back up on the deck and looked around for her and noticed the dinghy was gone. Stranger. I remember wondering if she'd taken the dinghy because of the argument, and then I thought, No way, because she was terrified of dark water, and besides that, the dinghy fired up loudly, and we would have heard it, whether we were in the salon or on deck."

He speculated that she might have driven the dinghy to a cove and the engine died. The dinghy was found in a cove the following morning at 5:30 a.m., but Wood wasn't on it.

Slideshow: Natalie Wood's life in pictures (on this page)

"We had just run out of options, but I didn't allow myself to actually contemplate what that meant — it was too unthinkable," he wrote.

Two hours later her body was found in the water, with bruises on her arms and legs.

My knees went out; everything went away from me," Wagner wrote of his reaction. "Soon afterward, a helicopter came and took us to the mainland."

Wagner says he still doesn't know what happened. He thinks she might have gotten up to refasten the dinghy, then slipped and fell in the water, the dinghy drifting away.

"But it's all conjecture," he wrote. "Nobody knows."

"Yes, I blamed myself. Natalie would have felt the same way had it happened to me. Why wasn't I there? Why wasn't I watching? I would have done anything in the world to make her life better or protect her. Anything. I would have given my life for hers, because that's the way we were."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 'Multiple' credible tips led to reopening case

Photos: Natalie Wood

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  1. Child star

    Natalie Wood started her career as a child actor and went on to adult stardom. She wasn't yet 10 when she starred in the Christmas classic, "A Miracle on 34th Street," in 1947. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Lovely ingenue

    Wood, seen here in 1955, moved easily from child acting to more adult roles. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rebels

    One of Wood's most famous roles came in 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause," in which she starred with James Dean. She was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role. ( Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Hollywood love story

    Wood was just 18 when she began dating 25-year-old Robert Wagner. The two wed a year later, in 1957, and starred together in the box-office flop "All the Fine Young Cannibals" in 1959. A 1980s band took its name from the film. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. I've just met a girl named Maria

    Wood and Richard Beymer played star-crossed lovers in 1961's "West Side Story." The film won 10 Oscars, but the two stars did not receive individual acting awards. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Hollywood royalty

    Wood and notorious womanizer Warren Beatty, co-stars in 1961's "Splendour in the Grass," attended the Oscars together that year. Their relationship did not last long. (William Lovelace / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Screen star

    Wood snagged a second to relax in her dressing room in 1962. At the height of her fame, she rivaled legend Liz Taylor for magazine cover appearances. (William Lovelace / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Race' time

    Wood holds a parasol in a scene from 1965's "The Great Race." (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Golden night.

    Wood and Paul Newman received Golden Globes in 1966 for World Favorite Actor and Actress. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Second time around

    Wood and Wagner divorced in 1962, and she married British producer Richard Gregson and had a daughter. But Wood and Gregson split in 1972 and she and Wagner remarried and had a daughter of their own. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Seventies style

    Once her daughters were born, Wood, seen here in 1975, moved into semi-retirement from acting, and would only make four more films. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Family affair

    Wagner, Wood and their daughter Courtney (held by Wood) and her daughter Natasha arrive in London in 1976. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. With Sir Laurence

    Wagner and Wood appeared with Sir Laurence Olivier on his 1976 show, "Laurence Olivier Presents," which adapted famous plays for television. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. On the red carpet

    Wagner, sporting a rare mustache, and Wood made for a glamorous couple at the 1979 Oscars. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Final film

    Christopher Walken and Wood starred together in 1983's "Brainstorm," the film they were working on when she died in 1981. Walken was on Wood and Wagner's yacht the night she drowned. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Sorrow and Splendour

    Wood died after an evening on the 55-foot-yacht Splendour that she and Wagner owned, named for her 1961 hit "Splendour in the Grass." She was found wearing a down jacket over a nightgown. There had reportedly been an argument between the couple that night. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A lost mother

    Wagner comforts the couple's daughter, Courtney at her mother's funeral. Courtney was just 7 and Natasha Gregson 11 when Natalie Wood drowned. (Paul Harris / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rest in peace

    Wood is buried in the quiet Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, an urban oasis just steps away from busy UCLA. The mystery of her death has never been fully explained. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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