In 1962, Natalie Wood was the second-highest-paid actress in the world – just behind Elizabeth Taylor. Her Hollywood legacy includes roles in the films ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ (1947), ‘West Side Story’ (1961), and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955) which earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Sadly, her notable acting career if often overlooked as her death is one shrouded in mystery and speculation. This is the life of a child star turned legend who died under very tragic (and mysterious) circumstances.
10. Pushed Into The Spotlight
Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, she was raised in San Francisco, California, to Russian immigrant parents. A few weeks before her 5th birthday, she was pushed into the spotlight by her stage mother, Maria Zakharenko, who had become obsessed with her pursuing a successful acting career. Before she fell pregnant, a fortune teller in China had told Maria that her second daughter was destined to be a huge star. Wood later said during adulthood, “I’d been told to act and simply acted without questioning.”
Living through her daughter, Maria forced Wood’s career forward no matter what it took. When Wood was unable to cry on command for a scene, her mother pulled the wings off a butterfly and unsurprisingly the tears came. Maria later boasted of her daughter, “God created her but I invented her.” By the age of 9-years-old, after Wood’s role in ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ she was the main breadwinner for her family. (SOURCE)
9. Phobia Of Water
The fortune teller her mother had met in China prior to her birth also predicted that Wood would die in a drowning accident. Since her mother repeated this, Wood has always suffered from a phobia of water and even struggled with washing her own hair.
Aged 10-years-old, she was filming a scene for the 1949 film ‘The Green Promise’ and the script called for her to cross a bridge. The crew had rigged the bridge so that once she reached the other side it would collapse into the raging river below. She then suffered her worst fear – the bridge collapsed early and threw her into the water. Instead of helping the petrified young actress, director William D. Russell told the crew, “Keep the cameras rolling” as Wood struggled with a broken wrist.
Later aged 14-years-old, whilst filming ‘The Star’ with Bette Davis in 1952, the script was changed and she was ordered to hump off the back of a boat. Wood became hysterical but was told either to jump or lose her role. (SOURCE)
8. Teenage Troubles
As a young Hollywood actress in the 1950s, Wood was vulnerable to older men in the industry. In ‘Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood,’ author Suzanne Finstad writes that Wood was raped by a “prominent, married actor-producer” but was warned never to mention the name of her attacker. At the age of 15-years-old, she was also romantically linked to Frank Sinatra.
When director Nicholas Ray was searching for a female lead in his film ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Later in an interview, Wood revealed that she was involved in a car crash with her boyfriend at the time, actor Dennis Hopper, and Ray had come to visit her in hospital. She revealed the doctor called her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent.” She then yelled at Ray, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent!
Despite her relationship with Hopper, 16-year-old Wood engaged in a sexual relationship with 43-year-old Ray and the two would spend nights together hidden away at a Chateau Marmont bungalow. (SOURCE)
7. Doomed Marriages
On her 18th birthday, she went on a date with the 26-year-old actor Robert Wagner (pictured above) which was arranged through the studio they both worked for. One year later, they were married and their high-profile marriage featured on the cover of many magazines.
The partnership only lasted five years and Wood revealed in an interview, “My marriage collapsed (one) weekend. It’s too painful for me to recall in print the incidents that led to the final breakup. It was more than the final straw. It was reality crushing the fragile web of romantic fantasies with sledgehammer force.” According to her sister, Lana Wood, Wagner had been having an affair with a man. She claimed, “(Natalie) said she caught him with someone. And that someone was another man.”
In 1969, she married producer Richard Gregson but they separated two years later after she overheard an inappropriate phone conversation between Gregson and his secretary. In 1972, Wood and Wagner began to date again and they remarried the same year – sealing her future fate. (SOURCE)
6. Struggling For Big Roles
Wood’s greatest roles that won her critical acclaim were as Judy in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Deanie in ‘Splendor in the Grass’, and Maria in ‘West Side Story’. Despite such praise, she was always a supporting actress allowing for her male co-stars to outshine her. As author Rebecca Sullivan, who penned the biography ‘Natalie Wood’, writes, “Hollywood never really gave her the chance to be at the centre of her own narrative.”
Wood moved from the big screen to TV movie roles. Six years before her death, journalist Thomas Thompson wrote, “Hers was the familiar Hollywood story: Stardom, marriage, divorce, then downhill on Seconals, sycophants and depression.” Wood turned instead to motherhood and dedicated the later years of her life to raising her two daughters – Natasha and Courtney. (SOURCE)
5. The Mysterious Death of a Star
On November 28th, 1981, during a break filming ‘Brainstorm’; Wood, Wagner, actor Christopher Walker and the boat’s captain Dennis Davern all set sail for a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island. What happened next is still undetermined. Around 8am the following morning, the body of Wood was recovered from the water and her death was explained as an accidental drowning. Her body was bruised and there was also an abrasion to her cheek.
In a 1997 interview with Playboy magazine, Walken said, “What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone. A dinghy was bouncing against the side of the boat, and I think she went out to move it. There was a ski ramp that was partially in the water. It was slippery – I had walked on it myself. She had told me she couldn’t swim. She was probably half asleep, and she was wearing a coat.” Wood’s death has always been suspicious as to why the actress – with a known phobia of water – would attempt to board a dinghy in the middle of the night. (SOURCE)
Days after Wood’s death she was laid to rest at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Mourners included Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, and Gene Kelly alongside her Wood’s two daughters – Courtney, 7, and Natasha, 11. Aged 43-years-old, she was buried in a white casket covered in white flowers laid by her family.
At the funeral, her close friend journalist Thomas Thompson said, “Someday critics are going to realize that many of her films were not only good, but were remarkable testaments of both a certain time and a certain social condition in America.” Actor Roddy McDowell also added, “She found not only a way to put life into her art, but art into her life. She has given us a slice of life and serenity.”Wagner was not in attendance at the funeral. Grieving the death of his wife, he was under doctor’s orders to rest and did not accept the invitation. (SOURCE)
3. Key Witness Threatened
On the night Wood was last seen alive, witness Marilyn Wayne was on a boat 50 feet away when she overheard Wood cry for help. In a police statement, she said, “A woman’s voice, crying for help from drowning awakened me. ‘Help me, someone please help me, I’m drowning.’ Alarmed, I called out to my son, who also heard the cries, and looked at his new digital watch: it was just minutes after 11:00 P.M.”
Wayne called harbour control but they failed to answer. She added, “(I heard) a man’s voice slurred, and in aggravated tone, say something to the effect of, ‘Oh, hold on, we’re coming to get you,’ and not long after, the cries for help subsided, but we heard the cries for up to 15 minutes.”
Also in her statement, Wayne said she had been threatened. She told police, “I had a box designed for clients to drop off their messages through a slot in the front. The boxes were opened in the back, labeled by broker name on each end. Three days after Natalie died, I found a scribbled message on a torn piece of paper in my box that read, ‘If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know.'” (SOURCE)
2. The Captain Speaks Out
There are only three people who really know what happened on the night of Wood’s death. Wagner, Walken and the boat’s Captain – Dennis Davern. In 2012, Davern told HLN’s Nancy Grace Friday that the tension on the boat was because Wagner had been jealous of Wood and her co-star Walken. He said, “(On that night) the jealousy was just getting so intense, he picked up the bottle of wine and smashed it right in front of Natalie and Christopher on the coffee table.”
He continued, “The arguing went on onto the upper deck and moments later everything became silent so I thought that was going to be the end of it. (Later) I went to the upper deck and Wagner was just standing there and he said that Natalie was missing and would I go search the boat.” After searching the boat, Wood was nowhere to be seen and Davern suggested turning on the searchlight to see if Natalie could be seen in the water. However, Wagner refused for the searchlight to be turned on. By the time they had called the coast
1. Robert Wagner Becomes A ‘Person Of Interest’
In 2012, Wood’s death certificate was amended from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Now, Los Angeles police were interested in Wagner’s exact involvement in the death of Wood. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant John Corina told 48 Hours, “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now. I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
They had also become suspicious as he had repeatedly changed his story about the exact events of the night. According to Wagner’s own memoirs, which were published in 2008, it was himself and Walken who had been arguing on the boat. Wagner recalls going to bed then waking only to realize that both Wood and dinghy were missing.
Since the case has been reopened Wagner has not been interviewed again and he has always denied any involvement in Wood’s death. (SOURCE)