Was Robert Wagner Telling the Truth When He said Natalie Wood’s Death Was a Tragic Accident That Shattered Him?

In a statement today by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Lieutenant John Corina told 48 Hours that thirty-seven years after Natalie Wood’s drowning, her husband at the time, Robert Wagner is finally a “person of interest”.

Let’s get real; wasn’t Wagner always a person of interest — the person of interest? Anyone who’s followed the Wood story at any point in time would likely say yes; what with the differing accounts of what happened the night of November 29, 1981, her death always rang suspicious. A quick recounting of Natalie Wood’s last evening; out to dinner with her husband and Christopher Walken (with whom she was filming Brainstorm); the trio drank heavily and then returned to the Splendour, the yacht they’d been boating on near Catalina. Sometime late at night, Wood went overboard and drowned; her body was found the following morning. Though Wagner has previously claimed he and Walken got into an argument over Wood’s career, during which time his wife went missing, Wagner later admitted (in his memoir, Pieces of My Heart) that he’d had an argument with his wife before she disappeared. Additionally, while boat captain, Dennis Davern initially supported Wagner’s claim that his wife was trying to untie a dinghy and fell overboard, Davern later said that Wagner and Wood had argued before she disappeared, and that was what caused Wood’s death.

Police have never been able to prove Wood’s drowning was accidental, nor did they have evidence of a homicide, though an autopsy found multiple bruises and abrasians over her body, and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective, Ralph Hernandez said “She looked like the victim of assault“.

In 2013, Natalie’s sister, Lana went to police with information she claimed to have gotten from the Splendour’s captain — Lana said Davern told her that Robert Wagner accidentally pushed Wood overboard, and then refused to help her out, saying “Leave her there. Teach her a lesson.” And with a boat full of drunk people — Wagner’s blood alcohol level was reported at 0.14%; Wood had consumed medication (painkiller and motion sickness pills) that likely amplified the effect of alcohol she had consumed — perhaps what we’re hearing is a version of the truth. If Wagner and Wood were tipsy and arguing, and he did accidentally knock her overboard, it’s entirely possible he was being callous and didn’t realize how ill-equipped his wife was to get out of the water.

In this clip from an upcoming episode of 48 Hours, Davern outright states that Wagner was with his wife “up until the moment she went in the water”, and it is that declaration (along with witnesses alleging they heard Wagner and Wood fighting) that apparently prompted the Lieutenant Corina to label the now 87 year old Wagner a person of interest.

While Wagner’s story has changed over the years, as to where he was when Wood disappeared and what he was doing, claiming that either she was trying to get away from his fighting with Walken, or trying to tie a dinghy, the statement Wagner made about her death shattering him rings true. If Davern’s account is indeed the truth, if Wagner assaulted her and knocked Natalie Wood overboard, and both men left her to drown, I don’t know how either Wagner or Davern have lived with themselves all these years.

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been writing about the entertainment industry for ​over eight years, and is the ​Editor-in-Chief at Oohlo, where she muses over television, movies, and pop culture. Previous Senior News Editor at Pajiba, and published at BUST.

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  • Nadiney

    Did he know of her fear of water when he left her there? I would argue if he did, even drunk, it…could be classified as a kind of guilt beyond, just drunkenly missing the signs. ‘Teach her a lesson’, in the context of her phobia, just hits a very bad note for me.

    • *shudder*
      Ugh, I’d forgotten about that. Beyond callous.