Natalie Wood, a child star-turned-Hollywood icon, was known for her energy on the screen and behind it. Her love life was as famous as her star-studded career, and it was a terrible shock when she died at the age of 43 on a trip with her husband Robert Wagner.
Wood and Wagner were joined on their yacht, Splendour, by Wood’s Brainstorm co-star and close friend, Christopher Walken. Wood died in an apparent accident during this trip, and Wagner has been suspected of murdering her. Amid rumours of an affair and jealous row, Walken’s account remains an important piece of this cold case – but the star insists that there is no mystery and Wood clearly slipped and drowned while alone.
Natalie Wood first won fame aged eight with her role in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. In adulthood, she scored Academy Award nominations for her performances in Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and Love with the Proper Stranger, as well as appearing in iconic musical West Side Story.
She married fellow actor Robert Wagner in 1957, when she was 19 and he was 27. The couple divorced in 1962, and both remarried – only for them to reunite and marry one another a second time in 1972. The second wedding took place on their boat, the Ramblin’ Rose, near Paradise Cove in Malibu.
Wood and Wagner’s daughter, Courtney, was born in 1972; Wood had one other child, Natasha, born in 1970 from her previous marriage to writer and producer Richard Gregson. Natasha (who later became an actress) would later adopt the name Natasha Gregson Wagner, and was raised by Wagner and Jill St. John following her mother’s death.
In 1981, Wood was cast in the sci-fi movie Brainstorm, in which she plays a scientist named Karen Brace. It was to be her last ever film, and she featured alongside Christopher Walken, who played her on-screen estranged husband. Walken (a former circus lion tamer and dancer) was a hot property in Hollywood at the time, having won the 1979 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Deer Hunter.
Walken and Wood bonded during production. In 2021, Wood’s sibling Lana Wood released an investigative biography entitled Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood. Lana wrote that Natalie “adored working with Chris Walken, and was encouraged to be playing the love interest of an actor who was five years younger than she was.”
At Wagner’s thanksgiving party just before the infamous boat trip, there appeared to be a strange dynamic between Natalie, Walken and Wagner. Lana observed a “subtle undercurrent of sullenness about [Wagner], an occasional flicker of tension, especially when Christopher Walken put in a brief appearance.” According to Lana, Natalie had recently made a passing comment about potentially divorcing Wagner a second time.
On November 27, 1981, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken set out from Marina del Rey on a yacht trip. Their vessel was the Splendour, which was owned by Wagner. They were accompanied by Captain Dennis Davern. Notably absent from the journey was Christopher Walken’s wife, Georgianne.
The weather was cold and wet, and the mood on-board the yacht was reportedly no sunnier. According to Lieutenant John Corina, who worked on the case, Wagner felt that “Natalie was paying way more attention to Christopher Walken than she was paying attention to him.”
The trio disembarked at Avalon on Catalina Island and began drinking heavily. “It just kept getting more tense,” Captain Davern would later comment. “The jealousy was under the surface until there was so much drinking that it started to come out and it was obvious.”
That evening, they returned to the boat, and a witness on a nearby vessel claimed they overheard Wagner and Wood in a drunken argument. Wagner wanted to move the boat, but Wood was concerned that it was too dark and the weather too dangerous.
At the end of the row, Wood insisted that Davern escort her to a hotel in Avalon for the night, leaving Wagner and Walken alone on the boat. Davern has said that Wood told him she wanted to divorce Wagner.
Nevertheless, Davern and Wood returned to the boat the next day. The following evening, all four of them went out drinking. “When R.J. [Wagner] and I walked into the restaurant, and he saw Natalie and Christopher sitting at the bar laughing and having a wonderful time, he started to really, really heat up,” Davern has said.
The party then returned to the ship at about 10.30pm, with the restaurant manager warning the harbourmaster in advance of how intoxicated the celebrity visitors were. Another fight broke out that night, although accounts differ as to what happened. Davern claims that Wagner, seeing Wood and Walken giggling together, smashed a bottle of wine in a sudden fit of rage.
Wagner himself has admitted to getting into an argument that night and smashing a wine bottle. However, he claims that he and Walken had been bickering about politics, and that this particular row was about Wood’s career, not jealousy. According to Davern, Wagner yelled, ‘”What are you tryin’ to do, f*** my wife?”‘ At this, Davern says, Wood declared ‘”I cannot take this,”‘ and walked away to her room. Walken also left and returned to his bedroom.
Davern claims Wagner followed Wood to her bedroom and he overheard a violent fight. He knocked on the door and Wagner answered with a “crazed look”, telling him to “Go away.” Davern says that the fight then moved to the back of the boat. Two witnesses moored nearby also claim to have overheard this fight, which came to a sudden stop.
Davern returned to the stateroom where Wagner would join him, ten minutes later, saying: “Natalie’s gone. She’s missing.” He also pointed out that the boat’s dinghy was missing. The pair searched the ship, but then opened a bottle of scotch whiskey and spent about an hour drinking together. It is unclear whether Walken was awake, around or aware of Wood’s disappearance at that point.
At 1.30am, they sought help from locals in Avalon and eventually contacted the Coast Guard – though Davern reports that Wagner was “reluctant” to do so. Many have questioned the idea that Wood would voluntarily leave the safety of the yacht at night. Despite the couple’s frequent boat trips, Wood had confessed to one journalist: “I’ve always been terrified, still am, of water, dark water, sea water.”
Her body was found only a mile away from the yacht, with the inflatable dinghy beached nearby. She was found with bruises and an abrasion on her cheek. Her death was ruled a case of accidental drowning and hypothermia, with the judge suggesting she may have slipped while trying to re-board the dinghy.
Christopher Walken agreed entirely with the drowning theory in the few public comments he has given. He insists to this day that he went to bed and saw nothing of Wood’s fight or disappearance. He responded curtly when questioned by People Magazine in 1986 on Wood’s death, saying: “I don’t know what happened. She slipped and fell in the water. I was in bed then. It was a terrible thing. Look, we’re in a conversation I won’t have. It’s a f***ing bore.”
Walken elaborated on the drowning theory in 1997, and suggested she fell from the yacht while trying to move the dinghy, hit her head and then drowned. “Anybody there saw the logistics — of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining — and would know exactly what happened,” he told Playboy Magazine.
“What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone,” he added. “She had gone to bed before us, and her room was at the back. 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,” he said. “She had told me she couldn’t swim; in fact, they had to cut a swimming scene from [Brainstorm]. She was probably half asleep, and she was wearing a coat.” Walken has made no mention of a jealous fight, the smashing of a wine bottle, or any affair between him and Wood.
No one was arrested in connection with the case, and Wagner was cleared of involvement during a 2022 investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The case remains unsolved, though Wood’s cause of death was amended to “drowning and other undetermined factors” in 2012.
Meanwhile, Josh Donen – the stepson of Wagner and a close friend of Natalie – doubts that Wood ever had an affair with Walken. However, he has noted that Walken represented a life for which Wood yearned.
“She was anxious about going on the boat because she felt compromised,” he has reflected on their final conversations. “She loved the life she had, and she loved the work. And she knew she couldn’t do both, fully.”
“These two men represented both sides of that argument,” he added. “Chris was, in her mind, a free spirit, an artist, and RJ [Wagner] was a responsible husband and father. And I said to her that I thought it was important she go on the boat because it would give her an opportunity to work through all of this. Silly me.”