Natalie Wood’s Death: Murder or Accident?

Natalie Wood, MGM photoshoot | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
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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This Post Has 68 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Even if I’ve never heard about Natalie Wood’s death, it is suspicious and illogical that her case was closed in such a short time and claimed it was an accident. I believe that there’s something wrong with her husband since he did told the captain to not mentioned about his and his wife’s argument to the police. On the other hand, perhaps it is just an accident since she does has high amount of alcohol in her blood. She may have gotten the bruise from her husband during an argument, stormed off in her night gown and fell into the water. Since there are no sufficient evidences, her death may forever remain a mystery.

  2. Avatar

    I had never heard of Natalie Woods until I came across this article. After reading the article through, I personally think that she was murdered by her husband because of rage and jealousy. Robert was probably jealous of how close Natalie was to her co-worker and to see them flirting while on the boat, most likely gave her husband an incentive to do it. But he knew that if he was going to do it, he had to make it seem like it was an accident so they wouldn’t think it was him. It saddens me that even to this day, the rightful accused of this murder hasn’t been arrested because to me, that’s robbing Natalie’s peace.

  3. Stephanie Cerda

    I’ve heard about Natalie Wood’s death several times. What’s interesting is how much the stories changed. Wagner changed his stories a bunch of times and gave.a new one every once almost every time he was questioned.Clearly, he didn’t even know what to say, just that he was covering something up. It’s sad that her and her family never received any real closure, especially after her death was so public. Since Natalie did have a fear of water since a young age, it doesn’t make sense to think of her going on a boat, at night, by herself. A lot of things don’t make sense when it comes to her death. She died young which makes you wonder what she would’ve accomplished since she was already so successful.

  4. Avatar

    This article is very well organized and detailed. I had never heard of this case until just now reading this article. It is very sad how so many cases have gone unsolved because that leaves the victims and their families left with no justice served. I hope todays investigators can someday revisit this case and look at the evidence again to hopefully come up with a solid story and a possible conviction to bring justice to Natalie Woods.

  5. Avatar

    I never really knew who Natalie Wood was before reading this article, but now I’m very curious as to how she died. I find it interesting that she had so many marks and bruises on her body considering that they decided the cause of death was drowning and/or hypothermia. I wonder if the husband really did commit the murder, but if so, why would he do that simply because she was flirting with her co-star? I understand that she shouldn’t have been doing that, but simply talking flirtatiously doesn’t seem to justify murder (not that anything does).

  6. Avatar

    Honestly that’s a very valid point, what kind of husband wouldn’t be terrified about his wife’s disappearance or at least be immensely concerned as to how he lost her? It makes him seem super suspicious as if he did have something to with her death and that Wagner’s only matter of interest was how to save himself instead of getting an explanation for what had happened. Guerra even mentioned a motive he could’ve used which was his jealousy between Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken leading up to the argument Wagner had with her. Maybe he acted out of irrationality and convicted something that he had (hopefully) regretted. It’s unfortunate not knowing the overall cause of her death.

  7. Avatar

    As a West Side Story fan, I knew about Natalie Woods and the circumstances of her tragic death. However, I did not know about her husband being a suspect of interest in her murder. After reading the article, I do think he was more involved in the murder than it seems, mainly because if he hadn’t been involved, he would have notified authorities sooner. The whole case was not investigated thoroughly, which is why it had to be reopened in the first place. If the authorities had looked into Robert Wagner more seriously, they would’ve been able to prove whether or not he was actually involved in her murder with more than just worn out evidence.

  8. Avatar

    Personally, I think the husband had something to hide in this. Otherwise, why would he tell the captain of the boat to not say a word, if he didn’t have anything to hide? I have heard of the movie Westside Story before as it is relatively famous and so I was intrigued by the article. It is disappointing that the actual cause of death is still not known, even over 35 years later.

  9. Avatar

    In every murder case the first suspect is always the husband so I’m surprised they didn’t question him more when she first died. It makes sense why they closed her case so fast though because it really did look like a freak accident. I’m not quite sure if I believe the husband did it or not because honestly things like that happen and people are always fast to point the finger at the husband.

  10. Avatar

    Ive never heard of Natalie Woods before reading this article. Ive always loved crime related stories because I find it interesting on how they find things out or how the murders happened. Reading this I believe that her husband did do it because he was jealous, he didn’t stay quiet and she was alone in a nightgown and socks. I find it interesting that they just closed the case but I guess it makes sense since they didn’t have evidence. Overall this was an interesting and well written article.

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