In 1981, when Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Island under mysterious circumstances, the tabloids erupted in headlines that hinted at foul play.
The actress, husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken were aboard the Wagner yacht, Splendour, that November night.
After drinking and arguing for hours, Wood and Walken retired to their staterooms and Wagner remained topside with the pilot. Sometime later, Wagner went to the master stateroom to check on Wood and found she wasn’t there. The dinghy, which had been tied beside the boat, was also missing.
Walken notified the authorities and a search began. The dinghy was soon discovered in a Catalina cove. Shortly before dawn, the body of the 43-year-old actress was found floating face down in open sea; her parka kept her afloat.
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office decided that Wood had died accidentally, “possibly attempting to board the dinghy and had fallen into the water, striking her face.” Still, the rumors continued: Was it murder?
“It was so tragic that she died that awful way,” recalls writer Gavin Lambert, a Wood friend for 16 years and author of the just-published “Natalie Wood,” a thorough, albeit partisan, account of her remarkable life.
Because she died amid a blizzard of tabloid headlines, the real Natalie Wood was lost, Lambert says. “Nobody remembered Natalie as a person or as an actress. What happened? Was she having an affair with Walken? That was one reason I decided to write a book about Natalie.”
Remembering her final nightThe biography chronicles everything: her Russian heritage; her money-grabbing mother; life as a child star; affairs with Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and others; the storybook marriage to Wagner resulting in divorce and remarriage; the tragic finale.
Lambert writes that on the afternoon before her death, Wood and Walken awoke from naps before Wagner, and the pair went ashore in the dinghy and drank for a couple of hours in a Catalina restaurant.
They were not having an affair, according to the author. “This was Natalie’s ‘going for danger’ personality taking over again, an act of clear provocation to R.J. (Wagner), and a response to Walken’s ’sense of mischief,”’ he states in the book.
Wagner later joined them for more drinks and a dinner with wine. All were quite drunk when they returned to the Splendour at 10 p.m., Lambert writes.
During more drinking on board, Wagner complained that his wife spent too much time on her acting career at the expense of their children, Lambert reports. Against his better judgment, Walken sided with Wood, advising her husband to “let Natalie do what she wanted to do.”
They argued into the night.
Lambert’s book also examines Wood’s first hit as a mature actress — 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” Contrary to popular notion, the author reports her casting did not lead to a romance with co-star James Dean.
“Like many people, she was fascinated by his charm; he had this magnetic quality on the screen and in life,” Lambert says. “They got on very well, they liked each other a lot.”
He added that both Dean and “Rebel” director Nicholas Ray, with whom Wood had an affair, were instrumental in renewing her passion for acting after a diet of meaningless roles in such mindless movies as “Chicken Every Sunday, “Dear Brat” and “Father Was a Fullback.”
Lambert, 79, first met Wood when he came to Hollywood as an assistant to Ray, after making his mark as a film critic in England. He has remained here, writing biographies (George Cukor, Norma Shearer), screenplays (”The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” “Sons and Lovers”) and novels.
In the early 1960s, Lambert wrote the novel and screenplay “Inside Daisy Clover,” which concerned the rise of a young actress in 1930s Hollywood. Wood read the book and telephoned the author: “I’d kill for that part.” He assured her she was his first choice.
Wagner gave Lambert full cooperation for the book, telling his friends to share their memories as well. Without that help, the book would not have been complete, the author concedes.
Love and lossWood and Wagner married young and moved into a “movie star” house in 1957. They divorced in 1963. The breakup came when she was in deep internal trouble with her family, Lambert said. With parents like hers, “they don’t really love you, they exploit you.”
Wood’s mother controlled her daughter’s career and personal life from her start in films at age 5 and appropriated much of Wood’s earnings. Lambert described Natalie’s father as a passive alcoholic who went along with whatever his wife demanded.
Torn between the unrelenting grasp of her mother and her newfound freedom with her career and Wagner, Wood wanted counseling. Wagner objected, feeling that seeking outside help would be a reflection on him. The conflict contributed to the separation.
After the divorce, Wagner married actress Marion Marshall and Wood married British TV producer Richard Gregson. Yet Natalie and R.J. remained cordial when they met socially.
After each encounter, the vibes between them grew, Wagner said. Then one night both attended a party without their spouses. He spied her alone across a crowded room, and they talked all evening. It was a rainy night, and he suggested driving her home.
Lambert continues the story: “They arrived at her house, and he said, ’I guess I shouldn’t come in.’ She agreed and said goodnight. He told me, ’I drove the car a little bit down the street, and I stopped the car and I burst into tears.’ A friend who was staying at the house told me that Natalie sat down in her living room and burst into tears.”
Two divorces later, they were remarried in 1972.
Wagner, who has been married to Jill St. John since 1990, said he has not read “Natalie Wood” and probably wouldn’t “for quite a long time. I’m not emotionally ready for it right now.”
“I understand that,” Lambert says. “This (the drowning) was a terrible trauma in his life. He felt that there may have been some way for him to stop her. I think he probably will always feel that.”