Monday, November 28, 2011
30 Years ago tonight, near 11 PM Pacific time, Natalie Wood's greatest fear would be realized
A few minutes after 11:00 PM on November 28th, 1981, a woman moored near the Wagner family yacht, Splendour, heard a woman's cries for help. "Help me, I'm drowning" was the desperate plea that carried through the dark of night for about 20 minutes. Around 11:30 PM that night, Dennis Davern, after overhearing a terrible argument aboard the Splendour between Natalie and her husband, was told that Natalie was missing from the yacht. Frantically, he searched for her on board, and then was told to do nothing more than that to try to find her.
Just hours before, Natalie had been dining at Doug's Harbor Reef along with her co-star in Brainstorm, Christopher Walken, her husband, Robert Wagner, and her friend and boat captain, Dennis Davern. When the party of four returned to the Splendour, Natalie was prepared to socialize a bit before retiring. Within minutes of having opened a bottle of wine, the evening was interupted by her angry husband who picked up the wine bottle and smashed it onto the coffee table.
A shaken and frightened Christopher went to his cabin and a mortified Natalie went to her stateroom. She was followed by her husband, and a loud and rageful argument transpired. Within approximately 15 minutes, Natalie was in the ocean, the deep dark water she had feared all of her life. Not until over four hours later was the Coast Guard called to begin a professional search for Natalie.
Earlier that evening, at Doug's Restaurant, Natalie had used the rest room, and her husband had sent a waitress in to check on what was taking Natalie so long. (She had been brushing the hair of a young girl, a restaurant patron.) When Natalie was missing from their yacht, her husband waited over two hours to "mention it" to the Island workers, and then over two more hours to agree with the harbormaster that a professional call should be made to the Coast Guard.
Natalie and her husband had always entertained their co-stars aboard their yacht. When Natalie filmed "The Last Married Couple in America" with co-star George Segal, he was a recurring guest aboard the Splendour. Segal was not a threat to Natalie's husband. So, what was different when Natalie had simply wanted to entertain her co-star in Brainstorm? Christopher Walken was hot on the Hollywood scene. He was young, handsome, personable, funny, quirky, and he had just won an Oscar for "The Deer Hunter." He was someone in Natalie's league, as Natalie was a three-time Academy Award nominee, as well as a Golden Globe winner. Was her husband not only threatened by Walken's charm, or by his career as well? Walken was not yet a household name, but it was "in the air" that he would be. Regardless, Natalie was doing what she and her husband had always done with their yacht: they entertained their colleagues upon it.
She must have had faith that her husband realized this was no different than the many times he had had his talented, beautiful female co-stars on board. But Natalie was wrong.
In an interview with the late Tom Snyder, not long before her death, Natalie explained how she wanted a wonderful home life, that she wanted to balance her creativity and career with being a dedicated mother. Brainstorm gave her the opportunity to work with Oscar winners, Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher, as well as with Cliff Robertson. She felt in good company, and all the talk of a rumored affair between her and Walken was nothing but rumors, and maybe that was why she felt confident enough to invite her co-star for a pleasure cruise, to pass the time before wrapping up some leftover studio work for Brainstorm the next week.
Natalie suffered a terrifying death, not only experiencing her greatest fear, but also left to float and be carried by the sea currents, helpless in her jacket that may have prevented her from gaining direction because of its buoyancy. For however long she remained alive in the ocean, while floating, one can only imagine the fear, her thoughts of her daughters, and her hope that at any minute she might hear the engine of a rescue boat. A rescue boat that came too late.
For 30 years, the Natalie Wood case has been ignored. Now it is reopened. I hope Natalie Wood receives the justice, or at least the voice, she deserves.