|Friends: Dennis Davern and Natalie Wood aboard the Splendour.|
As I told in "Goodbye Natalie Goodbye Splendour," I didn't really know much about Natalie Wood before I saw her in her classic movie "Gypsy." After I had applied eyeliner and lipstick, teased my hair, and dressed in tight Capri pants and ruffled blouse in hopes of looking a little older so I could buy a ticket along with my young teenage friends, this 10 year-old at the time was thrilled when no one asked questions at the Cherry Hill Mall ticket box office. When Natalie made "Gypsy," ratings weren’t yet attached to films, but theaters rarely allowed kids to see grown-up themed movies, and "Gypsy" was considered one of them. But I was in! I was going to see a powerful movie--my first "adult movie" and it was my first chance to see Natalie on the big screen. My knees shook and I dropped popcorn all the way to my seat! I wouldn't see other classics Natalie had already made, like "Rebel Without a Cause" and "West Side Story" until after seeing "Gypsy."
My older sister-in-law, Marcia, who lived in our home at the time was a huge Liz Taylor fan and Marcia subscribed to all the Hollywood fan magazines. I had seen photographs of Natalie in one of Marcia's magazines and had remarked just about a month before "Gypsy" of how stunningly beautiful Natalie Wood is, and I told Marcia I never thought I would ever see a more beautiful face for all of my time. I haven't.
Marcia and I would debate: who is prettier, Liz or Natalie? Liz's violet eyes and pretty face aside, in my opinion there is still no contest. Natalie wins. Although Marilyn Monroe was beautiful, too, no one mesmerized me as Natalie did. Of course I was very young and impressionable but there was something more involved, something unexplainable, but palpable as if I was somehow, someway connected to this beautiful actress on the magazine pages and up on that huge screen acting her heart out in "Gypsy." Best way to explain it is to say I felt an instant sisterhood with Natalie that I absolutely realized was a wishful-thinking figment of my imagination, yet it existed. I'm sure it existed for other Natalie fans as well.
Thus, after "Gypsy," I left the movie theater hooked. Hooked on Natalie Wood.
I then elected Natalie my favorite actress for all time, and that has never changed, although I think there are many wonderful actresses since, but there has yet to be another "Natalie Wood" and there never will be. I still hadn't had a favorite actor when I saw "Gypsy." That choice wouldn't come until three years later when I was finally a real teenager and saw "Sweet Bird of Youth" starring Paul Newman. From that movie on, I also never thought I'd see a more handsome face as Paul's, and same as with Natalie, I haven't. He could also act. Guess I'm fairly loyal to choices I make like that.
I did my best to see all Natalie Wood movies after "Gypsy." "Sex and the Single Girl" wowed me but "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" in 1969 proved that Natalie was a trendsetter and an actress for all time. But, that was also a time in her personal life when things were changing. I LOVED Natalie's movies simply because Natalie starred in them, but also because she seemed real up there on the screen. Her talent not only prevailed, but her very existence somehow transfixed you.
I rarely read fan magazines back in the day, but whenever I saw an article or something in the papers about Natalie Wood, I read every word. It was as if I was rooting for her, and I didn't even know why. I had always hoped to read a fan article telling of the marriage between Natalie Wood and Paul Newman (you can call that childhood match-making I guess). Of course they never marry each other but I hadn't even known at the time of "Gypsy" that Natalie had been married to actor Robert Wagner, known as RJ, and was divorcing him. I had never heard of him. Their marriage and divorce had occurred before I was old enough to care much about Hollywood lore.
I had occasionally followed news about Natalie's personal life (her relationship with Warren Beatty, her marriage and divorce to Richard Gregson, etc.) but never in an obsessed way...just in a continuing rooting sort of way. I remember feeling happy for her when she gave birth to her first daughter, Natasha. Natalie lived abroad then, and I simply felt happy for her. Then, I didn't really hear much about Natalie for several years before seeing her radiant face on the cover of a magazine holding her second daughter, Courtney. It was then, in that article, that I had learned Natalie remarried Robert Wagner in 1972 and was looking forward to living happily ever after. That was pretty much the gist of the article. Wagner looked like a wholesome, likeable guy in the photos I saw of him with Natalie after that. I still felt happy for her. What I would later learn about Wagner taught that a picture doesn't necessarily tell a true story
There are no other celebrities I had ever felt such a "connection" with other than Natalie, let alone to take the time to root for them in their personal lives, but I'd always found myself rooting for Natalie. Natalie had many adoring fans...fans who knew a lot more about her than I did, yet I felt that palpable feeling that went beyond details and factoids about the actress. Destiny is one of those superstitious things many people don't even believe in, but on the morning of November 29, 1981, fate would bring Natalie and me together forever.
By that time, I had learned so much more about Natalie. I had learned of how superstitious she was, how diviner things meant something to her. I had known about her fear of water and of drowning, and I had known her in a way I'd never thought possible. When my close friend, Dennis Davern, started working for Natalie and RJ in 1975 as their yacht caretaker ("Captain") I asked him a lot of questions. I was stunned he was working for my childhood idolized actress. I still adored Natalie and to hear all of Dennis's anecdotes about spending weekend after weekend with her, she as his "sidekick" (or he as hers) aboard their yacht, I realized how homogenized the world must be becoming, yet I admit, I was still somewhat star struck. As real as Natalie had always seemed to me, she became even more real in the mid-70's. I had even been planning a trip to California to meet her.
Dennis had traveled from the East Coast to CA and had told Natalie about his family and friends back East, and many traveled to L.A. and had met the Wagners through Dennis. Dennis had given me the yacht phone number and the Wagner home phone number in case I ever needed to call him, as that's where he spent most of his time while working for the Wagners. I admit, there were several times I wanted to dial the Wagner home in hopes Natalie might answer and chat with me for a few minutes. But, I knew better to bother anyone out of pure fan-hood. One night, when I absolutely really did have to call, it was RJ who answered. He pleasantly told me I could reach Dennis at the yacht. They had trusted Dennis that much. He had become like a family member to the Wagner family. When he had worked some charters for various other stars, I hardly asked a question, but I liked hearing about Natalie, and was always happy to hear reports of her happy life. Sometimes she got mad at Dennis, too, but she would get happy with him again fast enough. Dennis always said she was the most spectacular, professional, and most beautiful woman he could ever meet, because none other existed like her.
But I started learning some things about Natalie's family (blood family, that is) that I thought was strange. For instance, how RJ didn't want Natalie's relatives aboard the boat. I wondered if it was all as "happy ever after" as I wanted to believe for Natalie. I heard about how RJ drank heavily, and about how it concerned Dennis, but all in all, the Wagner family seemed to be living the dream life with their three daughters (Natasha from Natalie's previous marriage, Katie from Wagner's previous marriage, and their daughter together, Courtney).
On the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend of 1981 when I heard that Natalie had been found dead in a cove off Catalina Island, my stomach twisted into a ball of pain for all involved. My sympathy was tenfold for her loved ones, and my heart ached for Dennis because I knew firsthand how fond Dennis was of Natalie. My first thought was that a boating accident had occurred, and without immediate details being aired, I could only wait to hear more with the rest of the world. When I didn't hear from Dennis within 48 hours, and learned that neither had his mother or brother heard from him (yes, we were and are that close that a phone call was totally expected in the wake of such a tragedy), I knew immediately that something "was not right."
Now, a person at that point and time, out of respect, probably should not come out and say, "Something isn't right here," but I remember that I did say it. It wouldn't be until decades later that I would learn many of Natalie's fans had felt and said the same thing, and they weren't in the position of expecting a phone call from Dennis, so many things about Natalie's death glared suspicious from day one, for many people. How professionally trained detectives did not see what so many other average people "saw" will forever escape my comprehension, but that's a story for another day.
It's strange, but from the day Natalie was found lifeless, I felt something that can only be described as a "blanket of obligation" that had fallen over me. Even back in 1981, I knew it was not only for Natalie but for all of her fans who knew her as I had "known her." Natalie had that magical quality only few people possess. Sure, maybe some younger people from newer generations may not understand it, but for all of us from back in the day when Natalie lit up the world (she did!) well, we do understand it.
For the people who told me I could never accomplish anything for Natalie, and/or who had negative comments about my book, asking questions such as, What gives her the right to write a bio about a woman she never knew?... I respond only by saying that I had every right to write about Natalie, and I had every right to investigate her death. I did not write a bio. I wrote a journal. Not only did I have the right to do so, I also knew that I was the ONLY PERSON who could give the story the truth and comprehension it deserved, and I felt OBLIGATED to do so. That is NOT a pompous statement: it is a fact. Dennis was going to take his witness account of what led to Natalie's death to his grave because he was such a torn man after Natalie's death. The right thing to do had eaten away at him, destroying him in a way many people would never be able to understand, but I was there--helping to bring my friend Dennis "back to life." I didn't think he would ever make it. So, not only was I in a position to help Natalie, I was in a position to help my friend. I wanted to accomplish BOTH.
As for "knowing Natalie," well, I knew her well. Natalie possessed what's known today, and very scarce still, as the "X-factor" -- her glorious talent aside, she transcended time: she looked at YOU when she worked, not at a camera. She saw YOU while you were watching her. It's in her films and in her photographs. Thus, you saw her, too...you "knew" Natalie. Her emotion spoke to YOU. In interviews and in public, no one has ever appeared more honest and giving of herself than actress Natalie Wood. She WANTED you to KNOW HER. She invited you to KNOW HER. Thus, we KNEW HER. Within Natalie's inner circle, many who deserted her memory after death, no one was ever more understanding and giving than Natalie was to those she respected and loved. As a mother, she loved her children with the truest mother-heart ever. As a daughter, she honored her parents. As a sister, she wanted nothing but the best of happiness and ease for her family. She was one of the most unaffected female stars ever, despite she is at the top of that heap. And her life was not easy. She worked since leaving toddlerhood. She WORKED. Being an actress in films is not an easy job. It's before-sunrise hours to burning the midnight oil on most scheduled days to stay within a film's budget, and Natalie was pure professional, not one of those conceited, needy actresses we've all heard about. Natalie worked her entire life. At one point, she could have given it all up. Her desire was to be a wife and mother, yes, as she loved her home life, but her creative side also tugged at her and she wanted to explore her talents. She was dedicated to her fans. She was to debut on stage in Anastasia but she had been robbed of that opportunity after inviting her co-star in "Brainstorm," Christopher Waken, for a cruise upon the family yacht. She had been robbed of motherhood. She had been stolen from her loving family and circle of friends, and from her fans. Stolen by a jealous rage.
I have no doubt that Natalie would still be starring in movies to this day, and that she would be an Academy Award winner. Acting was her life within her wonderful life.
So, for anyone who ever wants to say I didn't know Natalie, or that her fans, didn't "really know" Natalie, they are wrong. Natalie did not personally know her fans, but she sure gave her all for them. She was always caring and appreciative of her fans but maybe she didn't know how much we all really cared about her. We ALL wanted the truth of Natalie's legacy to be known. We ALL wanted Natalie to receive justice. So many of us signed the petition started by attorney Vincent DeLuca, who also "knew" Natalie. The petition and my "appeal package" went together and ended up in the hands of two VERY WORTHY and DEDICATED homicide detectives. Natalie's death is classified no longer as an accident because of all the dedication for Natalie. She may never have believed how many people were rooting for her, but I'm sure she would be honored and pleased.
There were times my agent or business people would tell me to not mention how much I admired Natalie Wood, that I might come off as an obsessed fan, as if my search for her justice wasn't related to the big issue of how celebrities are handled with kid gloves in scenarios that would put everyday, ordinary people away for life. I was never "obsessed" with Natalie, but I sure was obsessed with justice for her, and I was completely objective when preparing the package for the reopening of her case plea. I included people that I otherwise preferred to not include, but I also wanted and needed for the professionals to weed them as well, so I was THAT objective! And, the professionals DID weed them!
That's how I felt when that "blanket" had covered me... a blanket of obligation to get to the truth about Natalie's death. I was never going to buy that she had drunk too much and fell off a yacht. I knew her too well!!!! I also knew my friend Dennis too well. I knew he would tell me what he knew as soon as he could. Even if it had taken decades, I knew I would learn the truth about Natalie's death, and believe me, I worked for that truth as well. I worked from before sunrise to after midnight on many nights of many years, just as Natalie had in her many films she left for our enjoyment. When I had watched Natalie up on that movie screen in "Gypsy," who would've ever thought that I would one day be the person to uncover the truth about her mysterious death? It took a long time, but I got there. I got there for Natalie, for Dennis, and for every average person who would not have been saved by celebrity privilege the way it went down the weekend Natalie lost her life. After GNGS was published, there was still more work to be done, but by that time there was a vigor I could not escape. For those who ever asked "why bother?" I simply suggest they consider how they would feel if such a bizarre death happened in their own family: would they then be so cavalier about someone who wanted to help get to the truth? In my endeavors, thankfully, after GNGS was published, finally there was a lot of help. Thank you to all of Natalie's fans who have helped me. Your support for truth and justice for Natalie's legacy, as her case continues, is always and forever appreciated by this person who fought hard for her, with NO regrets.
I wish Natalie had survived the sinister weekend of November 1981 to be able to celebrate her 75th.