Guest Author - Kathie LoMonaco
Last weekend marked the anniversary of the death of one of our most beloved icons, Natalie Wood. Still to this day, twenty-nine years later, the mystery of her tragic death on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981 has never been solved. Just as blaring a mystery is why there wasn’t a more thorough investigation into her sudden, inexplicable demise.
Even a homeless, nameless person would have been given more respect than was given to the beautiful, unforgettable, cinema star, Natalie, as far as formally questioning all who were on-board that night in a concerted effort to discover exactly what took place that fateful day in November, 1981 when Natalie suddenly was seen on deck with her husband, Robert Wagner one minute, according to the former Skipper of the yacht, Dennis Davern, and gone the next moment.
What makes this scenario particularly suspect is that, after an alleged drunken tirade by Wagner minutes before in their stateroom (I elaborate a little more on this later on), Davern claims immediately following that ruckus in their bedroom he spotted Wagner on deck with Natalie - then, turned away for a moment, only to turn back and see Wagner now standing alone on deck with Natalie inexplicably gone from the boat. Later on, according to Davern, he found one of Natalie’s earrings on the floor in a corner of their stateroom (bedroom). The violent ruckus, the drunken tirade, one earring found on the floor in a far corner of the bedroom, a missing Natalie, paint a suspicious picture of a possible crime that has been kept under wraps all these years. Such incriminating evidence -- completely disregarded.
Once Natalie’s body was found floating off Catalina inlet the next morning, the book infers Wagner high-tailed it back to the mainland - after declining to view Natalie’s body. Anyone I know would have wanted to see their loved one - one last time. Maybe he didn’t want to see the bruises that were all over her body. To my knowledge, water doesn’t cause bruising, at least not the bruising that Davern has described. Wagner had sent Davern to identify his wife’s body. Is that what a loving husband would do? You be the judge.
Natalie was Mother to Natasha, Courtney and step-Mother to her stepdaughter, Kate. She was wife to Robert Wagner, the man who, according to the Skipper of their yacht, ‘Splendour’, allegedly stalled for hours before finally calling police when Natalie first went missing off the boat on that fateful night.
I had an opportunity to read the former Skipper’s book, that he, together with Marti Rulli, published entitled “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour”. One year ago I planned on writing a book review, so this is a day late and a dollar short. There were some issues that came up around the time I had planned this undertaking and I’m sorry to say it was not accomplished. Having said that, this particular article is not a book review, but some random thoughts mixed in with insights and information gleaned from others that knew her, were involved in the case, and/or were there that dreadful night as well from reading the book. I still would like to express my apologies to Marti Rulli (and Mr. Davern)on some unforeseen circumstances.
The first thing I would like to get out of the way immediately is that first and foremost, Natalie did not die from drowning -- that is a misconception. The Coroner’s report showed that she died from overexposure. Simply put, she was in frigid waters and because she was in the water for hours, she developed ‘hypothermia’. If Wagner had called the proper authorities the moment she went missing, she might be here today. There are hours unaccounted for.
Even more bizarre is that, according to EZGeography.com, a woman whose own boat was anchored close to the Splendour, claims she heard a woman yelling for help that same night, who she came to believe was Natalie. She also said she knew Natalie, that she had once been introduced to her. She said she also heard a voice yelling back to the woman who was crying out that they were coming to her aid. This woman even entertained the thought of jumping into the water and swimming to Natalie (even going so far as to discuss the situation with her husband before deciding against it). I believe when she heard the voice that yelled back to the ’woman in the water’, saying 'hold on' they were coming to help her, she then changed her mind assuming she was going to be rescued. This is information gleaned from Rulli's book.
Okay, secondly, when I read that Natalie died in a ‘boating accident’, to me that denotes that a boat (the dinghy) was directly involved in her demise. Not according to the Skipper’s book. He claims he himself tied the dinghy to the side of the Splendour, and, therefore it could not have been banging against the boat. Should you purchase the book, I assure you the last quarter of the book will knock your socks off.
My thinking is - what would this Skipper have to gain by telling what happened now, almost 30 years after the tragedy. Had he wanted to capitalize on it, he certainly had the opportunity to do so in the earlier years when it first happened -- when Natalie was an icon in Hollywood, as well as her husband, Robert Wagner. So, it does not add up that he would wait twenty-nine years and then spin a story to get headlines all these years later. It is said that when you have had a traumatic experience it sometimes takes years before you remember all the pieces of the puzzle and finally put them together to get the whole picture. I personally feel this is what has happened in Davern’s case. Just my opinion but it makes the most sense of all the speculation.
In years gone by, everyone knew who Natalie Wood was. Today she would be 73 years of age, and many of the younger generation do not recognize the name of Natalie Wood, sad to say. So, my point is - if this Skipper had wanted to make money or have fame, twenty-nine years ago would have been the time to do it. And, he didn’t. He never did any interviews that I‘m aware of, certainly none for money. He was never paid by any of the Hollywood gossip magazines. He was devastated at the time, shell-shocked. If anything, he avoided the spotlight and stayed to himself. Add to that the information given to us in his book, among which he stated that when he ultimately joined Wagner at the Wagner-Wood home after Natalie’s death, from that point on Wagner always had someone escorting Davern pretty much wherever he went.
For Davern, he saw it as a way for Wagner to keep tabs on him, while, I believe, also acting as a sort of an intimidation tactic. From what I could glean from the book, Wagner started treating Davern less and less as the good friend he was formerly considered to be and treated as - and moreso as possibly a threat or a liability (can anyone say ‘hostile witness’?) as the months passed, but apparently still felt the need to keep Davern close. They say you ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’. In the book Davern felt that Wagner was, in my words, keeping a tight reign on Davern lest Davern possibly decide to take matters into his own hands and go to the police and divulge what he had heard and witnessed that weekend on the yacht.
Davern also claims in the book that he heard loud yelling coming from the stateroom and what sounded like something or someone being thrown, tossed around. I am not using words verbatim but trying to describe the scene the way it came across in the book. I somehow got the distinct feeling that Davern, while he wanted so badly to question Wagner on the boat at the time, felt such a conflict in confronting his own boss on his boss’ own boat about his own wife. Certainly he would be fired at the very least - but worse than that, he might have been scared that he might meet the same fate - and been silenced if it looked like he was going to be a ‘loose end‘ and ultimately divulge what he experienced. Back then Wagner had tremendous clout in Hollywood. He knew a lot of influential people. Still does.
Wasn’t Natalie owed a full investigation in the form of a Grand Jury to ascertain whether or not she was a victim of foul play? There apparently were witnesses who could have shed light on what happened - but they were never questioned - at least not in a formal, official capacity that I‘m aware of. Davern and Rulli write in the book that one of the investigating officers actually bragged that he took or had a picture of Natalie taken as she lie dead in a make-shift morgue on Catalina Island. How perverse.
That detective should have been reprimanded and much worse, but all these injustices went by the boards. WHY??? - especially when the Los Angeles coroner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, “pressed for a deeper investigation into Natalie Wood’s death”, according to EZGeography.com. He also pointed out that there were “unexplained marks and bruises on her body.”
There is ONE very important factor that I feel has been overlooked. In Rulli and Davern’s book, just preceding the stateroom ruckus that Davern heard, he says, through Rulli, that Natalie, just before going to her room for the night, was so upset with Wagner for causing a violent scene earlier with Walken, Davern and Natalie onboard the ship, which culminated in his slamming a bottle down as they were all talking and drinking together, causing glass to fly everywhere around them, - that she told Davern she would be consulting her lawyer as soon as they arrived back home.
I hope the case for Natalie’s long-unsolved, suspicious death is re-opened; Then maybe she can rest in peace. The book has been a catalyst of sorts - enough to pour salt on old, unhealed wounds (make that 'sea salt')- and speaking for myself, when I think about Natalie being found floating upright clad in her flannel nightgown in choppy, ice cold, shark-infested waters - battered and bruised, it is so shocking and sickening, it makes me want to cry -it's so inconceivable.
Natalie, you are still missed - and will never be forgotten.