Natalie Wood’s Death: Murder or Accident?

Natalie Wood, MGM photoshoot | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

When people hear the name Natalie Wood they think of the young actress who starred in Gypsy, Splendor in the Grass, and West Side Story.1 What they don’t think about is her very mysterious death. She died at the young age of 43 in November of 1981. She drowned while away for the weekend on a boat trip to Santa Catalina Island with her husband Robert Wagner, their co-star Christopher Walken, and the boat’s captain Dennis Davern. There were many facts that could have played a part in her death, but despite many suspicions and questions regarding her death, her case was closed after only ten days when coroner Thomas T. Noguchi ruled her death an accident.2

Natalie Wood had been in the spotlight since she was about five years old. She was born Natasha Gurdin, but her name was changed to flow better in the Hollywood industry.3 Her stardom grew from there. She became very successful and was nominated and received many awards in her career. She was also a mother of two children, one from her husband Robert Wagner. She was loved by many and talked about all the time. She was known to be a nice caring person who never let the fame get to her head.4  Due to the extent of her fame it was a shock to everyone when she came up dead so unexpectedly.5 

Natalie Wood, In London | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

When her death first went public, the media spun the incident in various ways giving the public the impression that her death was a suicide or an accident.6 The night before when Robert Wagner noticed his wife was missing he wasn’t concerned, and he waited 15 minutes until he finally decided to go look for her on the boat. When he couldn’t find her, he alerted the authorities. It is questioned why he waited so long to alert the authorities of his wife’s disappearance.7 When they found her body at 8:00 am November 29th, she was clothed only in a nightgown and socks, and it was about a mile away from the boat, and a small dingy was found by a nearby beach. It was first thought she attempted to get on the dingy and things didn’t go as planned.8

Upon investigation by the coroner Thomas T. Noguchi, he found she had a blood alcohol level of 0.14%, which is higher than the legal level to drive while intoxicated in California. He also found traces of two different medications — a painkiller and a motion sickness medication. These could have been affected by the amount of alcohol in her system.9 After only investigating for ten days he ruled her death accidental.10 He claimed that she must have been intoxicated and slipped off the dingy hitting her head and causing her to fall, dying of hypothermia and drowning.11 

Natalie Wood’s case was reopened in November of 2011 because the captain of the boat of the boat on the night of her death came forward and admitted that he lied while being questioned during the initial investigation.12 He was specifically told to stay quiet by Robert Wagner’s family about anything that he knew involving her death.13 He admitted that Natalie and her husband Robert had a very big argument before she went missing that night. Robert had reportedly been very jealous because he believed his wife Natalie was flirting with their co-worker Christopher Walken who was also on the boat that night. This provided evidence that could have made him as a person of interest in the case.14 Despite denying any involvement in his late wife’s death, Robert Wagner was named a person of interest on February 1, 2018.15

Natalie Wood and husband Robert Wagner, at Academy awards dinner | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Upon more investigation after her case had been reopened, the Los Angeles chief coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran amended her death certificate and declared her cause of death suspicious or “drowning and other undetermined factors”.  In the newly amended document he stated that how she ended up in the water that night was “not clearly established.” This new conclusion was due to the new evidence that had emerged such as suspicious bruises on Natalie’s body and marks across her cheek.16 

These unknown marks on Natalie’s body are thought to have been from the argument she had earlier that night with her husband Robert Wagner. This was never a proven theory, but many people believed this and that he had more involvement in her death that was claimed by him.17

The evidence piled up against Robert Wagner, and these findings brought more questions. Things being questioned were why would Natalie leave the boat so late at night on a remote part of the island? Why was she not wearing shoes on the wet deck of the boat? Why was she only dressed in a nightgown? What kind of husband would not be terrified if his wife went missing from a boat in the middle of the night, especially knowing she was afraid of the water and could not swim well? He even proposed his own theory as to what he thought could have happened to his late wife. He suggested that she was dressed that way because the dingy was banging up against the boat and woke her up. She decided to go out and try to secure it on her own, he said, but fatally slipped, falling in and hitting her head before drowning. These questions and comments only brought more attention to Robert being a person of interest in this case.18

As the coroner re-evaluated Natalie’s body, he found several factors that contributed to their final conclusion. Since there were many questions about the coroner’s findings, it is likely this was why they had a different corner inspect her body the second time. Coroners look at are the specific markings on the victim’s body and piece together if it correlates with what they think happened when the victim died. Everything always leaves a trace as to what happened.19 The coroner considered all of these things, and then concluded her death was suspicious. He had a great amount of evidence from examining her body that led to this conclusion, and the marks and bruises did not correlate with her accidentally falling off the boat or the dingy.20

Another theory that remains is that her death truly was an accident. Forensic pathologist Michael Hunter also played a part in examining her body. He found that some of the bruises on her body could have been caused because of traces of the drug synthroid, which would have made her more susceptible to bruising. This was never fully proven, but it is another theory that people have chosen to believe.21 

Natalie Woods gravesite, located at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Natalie’s body currently rests at West Wood Memorial Park, and as of 2018, nobody has been charged with her death. It remains unknown how she ended up in the water that night, or what caused the unknown marking on her body, though her case still remains open and is being investigated.22 The question still being asked is whether Robert Wagner had more involvement in her death than what he claims? Or was Natalie Woods death truly a horrible accident that happened that night on the boat? It may always remain a great mystery as to what happened to late Hollywood star Natalie Wood.

  1. Lana Wood, Natalie: A Memoir About Natalie Wood by Her Sister (New York: Putnam’s, 1984), 4-7.
  2. Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern, Goodbye Natalie. Goodbye Splendour (New York: Open Road Integrated Media LLC, 2014), 25.
  3. Lana Wood, Natalie: A Memoir About Natalie Wood by Her Sister (New York: Putnam’s, 1984), 4.
  4. Frederic Raphael, “Famous actresses I have known: a memoir, featuring Faye Dunaway’s cigarettes, NatalieWood as Zelda Fitzgerald, and more,” Commentary Inc, (2015), 5.
  5. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  6. Frederic Raphael, “Famous actresses I have known: a memoir, featuring Faye Dunaway’s cigarettes, NatalieWood as Zelda Fitzgerald, and more,” Commentary Inc (2015), 5.
  7. Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern, Goodbye Natalie. Goodbye Splendour (New York: Open Road Integrated Media LLC, 2014), 24.
  8. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  9. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  10. Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern, Goodbye Natalie. Goodbye Splendour (New York: Open Road Integrated Media LLC, 2014), 25.
  11. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  12. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  13. Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern, Goodbye Natalie. Goodbye Splendour (New York: Open Road Integrated Media LLC, 2014), 1.
  14. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  15. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Robert Wagner.”
  16. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  17. Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern, Goodbye Natalie. Goodbye Splendour (New York: Open Road Integrated Media LLC, 2014), 25.
  18. Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern, Goodbye Natalie. Goodbye Splendour, (New York: Open Road Integrated Media LLC, 2014), 25.
  19. Kevin Haggerty, “Postmortem: HowMedical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths Stefan Timmermans,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology (2007), 288-290.
  20. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  21. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
  22. Wikipedia, 2018, s.v. “Natalie Wood.”
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17 Comments

  • Saucy. That is what I would use to describe this article. I like how there is an air of uncertainty around what happened. I think that it is indeed suspicious that she had marks that would suggest a fight with Robert. I also think that his theory was interesting and perhaps a little too convenient. I wish she were still alive as she was very talented.

  • I remember earlier this year hearing about the case being re-opened. The facts simply do not add up in the way they were presented back when it was first investigated. More so, the celebrity victim only helps fuel theories, and makes the case a prime “48 Hour Mystery” episode. What does Walken know? What is Wagner hiding? What else does the captain know? I feel that since it’s Hollywood, we’ll never really know what happened to Mrs. Woods. Regardless, this is a great article on the topic, and the open-ended ending leaves room for a follow up should new evidence come up.

  • This is a very informative article. The author did a great job of talking about both sides of the argument. After carefully considering both sides, I think that Natalie’s death was not an accident. All of the details do not really add up, and it is definitely possible that her husband was jealous. How could he not worry that his wife went missing?? There was no other place she could have gone, they were on a boat. The husband definitely looks guilty to me.

  • Natalie Wood was an award winning actress who deserved much recognition for her career. Her life was cut short and abruptly; her unexpected death brought out an impact in the film industry. I find it unerving that it is unknown how she passed and why these theories are not further investigated. I believe that anyone who died so suddendly deserves a complete and thorough investigation. It being reopened and still with nobody to blame for her death is a frustration that lingers for those who know about this young actress. This article was very well written and informative; definitely an interesting read for those who don’t know about Natalie Wood.

  • I absolutely loved this mystery story! The author did an amazing job keeping that mysterious tone and keeping me on the edge of my seat wanting an answer. It’s so strange how her death was never solved and it makes me wonder who actually did it. She was very beautiful and it’s a shame to have read how young she died. I have never heard of Natalie Wood before but now after reading this article, I want to really read more on her story.

  • I remember watch a movie with her in it but not the name, I just remember that I liked her character and how she carried herself. I didn’t even know about if they were question if it was an accident or murder, or that that reopened her case. I hope that they follow the evidence and everything to figure out what actually happened and get justice for Natalie Wood and her family.

  • I remember watching Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and being so captivated by the way she carried herself throughout the movie. I never knew about the events leading to her tragic death, or the fact that her case reopened. I hope that Natalie Wood and her family get the justice they deserve. I could only imagine what they’re going through.

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