Natalie Wood’s death has been the subject of a criminal investigation and rampant speculation about what happened to her for nearly 40 years. Now speculation will begin anew with the release of HBO’s documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which explores Wood’s “public life and private persona through personal interviews with those closest to her, including husband Robert J. Wagner, who speaks on-camera about Wood’s death for the first time,” according to the HBO press release.
Here is what you need to know about Wood’s death.
1. Natalie Wood Died November 29, 1981
The weekend after Thanksgiving in 1981, Wood took a trip out to Catalina Island, a popular vacation spot off the coast of Los Angeles, California. She and husband Wagner owned a yacht called The Splendour and they invited her recent co-star Christopher Walken to join them. Captain Dennis Davern was also there.
The weekend was stormy. Wood’s friend Delphine Mann says in the documentary that it was “pouring rain the entire Thanksgiving” and because of that, several friends of the couple declined to go on the trip, Mann included (she was also celebrating her son’s birthday that weekend).
On the second night of the trip, Saturday, November, 28, Wagner, Wood, and Walken had dinner on the island and then came back to the boat. Wagner and Walken started arguing about Wood’s family versus her career, which Mann also said was a struggle Wood was dealing with in her life because she loved her children and loved her work, but it was hard to balance them.
According to Wagner, Wood went below deck when the men started arguing. At one point, Wagner became so angry that he smashed a wine bottle on the deck and told Walken to mind his own business. They eventually worked things out and Walken went below, then Wagner and Davern cleaned up the broken glass. When Wagner went below, he couldn’t find Wood.
“I went to the end of the boat and the dinghy was gone and I came back up and said to Dennis, ‘Natalie’s not here, she’s taken off, I guess in the dinghy,’ … nobody heard anything. I didn’t hear anything, we would’ve heard it if the dinghy had fired up,” says Wagner. “So I called the shore boat … but the shore boat came back and they said she didn’t go ashore. It was then that we called the Coast Guard. We waited for a while. God, it seemed like forever.
“They were looking for her. This man that I knew and your mother knew, Doug Bombard, took care of Catalina at that time … he said we found her and I said is she OK? and he said she’s dead. And everything just went out from under me.”
2. The Initial Cause of Death Was Accidental Drowning
Wood’s body was found floating near the dinghy in a cove near the island. She was wearing a long nightgown, socks, and a coat. The initial cause of death was ruled an accidental drowning by the Los Angeles County Coroner because Wood couldn’t swim and had been drinking.
Her blood alcohol content was 0.14 percent and there were traces of a motion-sickness pill and a painkiller in her bloodstream. The coroner believed Wood to have died around midnight, shortly after she entered the water, according to the Los Angeles Times.
There were two witnesses who claim to have heard a woman’s cries for help that night. According to the Washington Post, Marilyn Wayne and an unidentified friend heard a woman calling for help around 11:45 p.m. that night. She said the cries for help stopped around 12:10 a.m. Wayne said she and her friend did not try to help the woman they heard because they heard people on another boat calling out “We’re coming to get you” several times.
3. But the Cause of Death Was Later Changed
In 2011, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case after Captain Davern told NBC News that he lied in his initial statement to the authorities.
“I made some terrible decisions and mistakes. I did lie on a report several years ago … We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her. I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, we’re not going to notify anybody right now.'”
When asked if he thought Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death, he said, “I would say so, yes.”
When the case was reopened, Wood’s cause of death was changed from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” due to the bruises on her right forearm, left wrist, and right knee, a scratch on her neck and a scrape on her forehead. They were included in the original report, but the coroner then said that they were caused by falling off the yacht and struggling to get into the rubbery dinghy, which had scratch marks on it consistent with someone struggling to pulls themselves into it.
Additionally, Roger Smith, the L.A. County rescue boat captain who pulled Wood’s body from the water, told the L.A. Times that he did not receive a call to look for her until 5 a.m.
“There’s no question in my mind that he just delayed calling for us,” Smith said, referring to Wagner.
In 2018, 48 Hours broadcast a special about Natalie Wood’s death and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department told them that Wagner was now a “person of interest” in her death after reopening the investigation in 2011.
“We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either,” said Detective Ralph Hernandez. “The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”
4. Her Funeral Was a Who’s-Who of Hollywood
Wood is buried in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Over 100 people attended, with actors Hope Lange and Roddy McDowell and screenwriter Tommy Thompson giving eulogies. Honorary pallbearers included Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, and Laurence Olivier, who flew from London to attend the funeral, according to the New York Times. Also in attendance were actor Richard Benjamin and directors Elia Kazan and Herb Ross.
“It is downright joyous to think that one pretty individual accomplished so much beauty in so few decades,” said McDowell, adding, “She found not only a way to put life into her art but art into her life. She has given us a slice of life and serenity.”
“Early this afternoon, private guards made sure cameras kept their distance, and they did as the family left for the funeral. The services were simple and they were private. Cameras continued to respect requests to stay at a distance. At Robert Wagner’s side were his daughters and stepdaughter … a musician played a simple melody on a balalaika,” said the NBC news report on the funeral.
5. She Left Behind Two Young Daughters and Several Stepchildren
Wood had a daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, with her second husband, Richard Gregson, but they split soon after Natasha’s birth and she soon remarried her first husband, Robert Wagner, with whom she had daughter, Courtney Wagner. Wood was also a stepmother to Wagner’s daughter Katie from his marriage to Marion Marshall. She was also close to Wagner’s stepsons, Peter and Joshua, who were Marshall’s sons from her marriage to Stanley Donen. Joshua, in particular, appears several times in the documentary about Wood.
In the documentary, Courtney says of her mother’s death, “The day my mom died, our entire world was shattered and our family has never been the same … It was like the instant that my mom passed away, it was like the air in the balloon that was our life, it just — the party was over.”
But the documentary makes it clear that neither Natasha nor Courtney think their father (Natasha was legally adopted by Wagner) was responsible for their mother’s death.
“It’s important to me, daddy, that people think of you the way that I know that you are. It bothers me that anyone would ever think that you would be involved in what happened to her because you would have given your life for my mom,” says Gregson Wagner.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind airs Tuesday, May 5 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and HBO Latino. It will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 6 at noon ET on HBO and HBO Latino; on May 6 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO2, on May 10 at 11:30 a.m. ET on HBO and HBO Latino, and Monday, May 11 at 1:30 p.m. ET on HBO.