Natasha Gregson Wagner was 11 when her mother, the legendary Hollywood actress Natalie Wood, drowned. For 39 years, rumours have surrounded what happened. Now she's made a documentary in which – for the first time – her 90-year-old stepfather, Robert Wagner, recalls that fateful night.
To tell her story well, Natasha Gregson Wagner knew that one man's testimony would matter above all others, and after several hours of talking to him in front of the cameras set up at her home in Los Angeles, she didn't have what she needed.
That man was the actor Robert Wagner, the man she has called "Daddy Wagner" for as long as she can remember, the man who still, at the age of 90, calls her every day on the phone and the man who, ever since she was 11, has been dogged by claims that one terrible night 39 years ago, in a drunken rage off the coast of southern California, he killed her mother, the actress Natalie Wood.
"I promise you," Wood said that day, "I am going to be OK." Natasha never saw her mother alive again.
For years Gregson Wagner, 49, shied away from confronting the allegations against her stepfather, even as a resurgence of public interest and a reopening of the police investigation into the case made it clear that others were much less convinced of his innocence than she was.
Becoming a parent herself was part of why she decided to take a stand now. "For my daughter's sake, I want the legacy of my mum's career and the speculation about her death to be clarified. I don't want that burden to fall on my daughter's shoulders," she says.
That led to her producing and fronting Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, a new HBO documentary that attempts to establish the family's perspective as the mainstream view of what happened.
"I have a narrative of my dad and my mom and the night she died that isn't the same narrative that a lot of other people have thought about," she says, speaking from the 100-year-old lakeside log cabin in Michigan where she, her husband, Barry Watson, an actor, and their daughter, Clover, 8, are waiting out the pandemic.
She is dressed for the countryside in a faded plaid shirt, but also wearing a delicate blue lapis butterfly necklace that her mother left her in her will.
As a child, she didn't want to think about her mother's death at all. "It was too painful," she writes in a memoir, More Than Love, published to coincide with the film. "I didn't care how she died. I just cared that she died. I put up a wall against analysing or discussing it with anyone. It was too devastating."
In time she made peace with it and accepted the coroner's verdict: that one half of one of the most famous couples in America had simply drowned in a dreadful accident at the age of 43.
Many other people, including her mother's younger sister, Lana, have never found the same closure.
When Gregson Wagner began work on What Remains Behind, she and the film's director, Laurent Bouzereau, agreed that the goal had to be to reclaim her mother from the mystery surrounding her death.
The Wood that they evoke, through previously unseen home movies and photographs as well as diary entries, archive footage and interviews with friends outside and within the film business, including Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Elliott Gould, is a Hollywood trailblazer who found her greatest delight away from her work.
A generation of cinemagoers grew up with Wood, from her breakthrough as an eight-year-old in Miracle on 34th Street, to teenage parts in Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers to challenging lead roles in landmark Sixties films including Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story.
Off screen, the former child sensation became a "powerhouse" mature woman, breaking down barriers by arguing for equal pay for women, fighting the restrictions of studio contracts and championing the careers of edgy young actors, directors and writers.
"One of her boyfriends called her a brick doll's house, and she was," says Gregson Wagner, whose birth father was Wood's second husband, the late English film producer, agent and screenwriter Richard Gregson. If her mother had been alive today "she'd be doing a lot", her daughter thinks.
She would have been an "amazing producer", a writer and director. She'd have a series on Netflix, like Jane Fonda. "She would've loved email and Instagram and cellphones, because she wanted to always be in touch with everybody. She probably would've been a huge fan of Botox."
Gregson Wagner didn't want the film to be a "love letter", she told Bouzereau. "I don't want this to be a puff piece. I want to tackle all the confusion and misguidedness about the night that she died."
To do that, they needed her beloved Daddy Wagner, who had never given an interview about her mother's death before. "We both knew that if that interview did not deliver, we didn't have a movie," says Bouzereau.
They filmed the conversation between Gregson Wagner and her stepfather over two days at her home, where Wagner is a regular guest anyway. Her husband and Clover were at the cabin in Michigan, so for three nights it was just the two of them in the house. Her feelings, preparing for the interview, were complicated. "I'm protective of him, and I was asking him to step outside his comfort zone. And yet I knew that we had to ask these questions."
Within the family (which has been estranged from Lana Wood for decades), the night that Natalie Wood died "is not something that has been a taboo topic". Gregson Wagner has had previous conversations about it with Wagner formally, in a therapist's office, and casually, in the car. "There is that saying, 'You're as sick as your secrets.' We don't have secrets in my family."
Even so, the first day of the interview failed to achieve the required emotional intensity.
Afterwards they ordered a takeaway dinner and had a glass of wine together to relax. Stepfather and daughter were both exhausted. "I put him to bed," she says. "He was under the covers and getting ready to go to sleep and I was just saying that I felt like the next day I needed to push him a little bit further. My dad is a glass half-full kind of guy. And I was like, 'We need to talk about the parts of our lives where the glass has been half-empty.' Then the next morning, we started and everything was different. My dad went to those places."
Natalie Wood's body was found at around 7.30am on November 29, 1981. She was floating face down in the shallow surf 180 metres off Blue Cavern Point on Catalina Island, wearing only a nightgown, a red down jacket and blue socks. She had last been seen the previous night, about 1.5km away, aboard Splendour, the 18m yacht that she and Wagner owned. The yacht's inflatable dinghy had washed up near her, the ignition key switched to "off", the gear stick in neutral and the oars up in a locked position.
A few days later, Thomas Noguchi, the chief medical examiner-coroner for the county of Los Angeles, informed reporters that he had found no evidence of foul play. Wood's blood alcohol level indicated that she may have been "slightly intoxicated". She had also taken a sleeping pill. "Much recreational drinking" had gone on that night between the four people on Splendour: Wood, Wagner, the vessel's deckhand, Dennis Davern, and Wood's latest co-star, Christopher Walken. There had been a "nonviolent argument" between Wagner and Walken, the coroner added.
"Growing up, seeing the tabloids in the grocery store, I somehow learnt to shut that noise out."
He suggested that Wood had probably slipped while trying to board the dinghy and tumbled into the water. He did not explain why she might have been trying to escape the yacht in the first place. Superficial bruising on her arms, legs and one cheek could have been caused by her fall. "It was not a homicide. It was not a suicide. It was an accident," he concluded. The verdict did nothing to quell the speculation, which was further inflamed by later reports that Wagner had been jealous of Walken (who declined to speak to Bouzereau) and smashed a bottle of wine during an angry conversation with him earlier that night.
In 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reopened the investigation, citing new evidence, following a petition organised by Marti Rulli, who had just co-authored a book with Davern, in which Splendour's deckhand claimed that he initially lied to police in 1981 to cover up a supposed fight between Wood and Wagner that night. Duane Rasure, the original county sheriff's homicide bureau officer on the case, stated that he believed that "Dennis Davern is exaggerating this whole incident to sell his book".
In 2013 coroner's officials changed the cause of death from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and other undetermined factors". (Gregson Wagner says that the wording change only reflects "regulations… that weren't in effect when my mother died".)
Then in 2018 police appealed for fresh leads on a Sunday night TV special. In it, Lieutenant John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said of Wood, "She got in the water somehow, and I don't think she got in the water by herself." He confirmed that, as the last person to see her alive, Wagner was a "person of interest" in the case, a term for someone believed to possess information that would help investigators but who is not necessarily a suspect.
Others have been less circumspect.
Lana Wood, 74, has outlined her suspicions of Wagner in TV appearances, at the CrimeCon true crime conference and as a guest in a 12-part podcast about her sister's death. "She has literally accused my dad of killing my mum, when that's the farthest thing from the truth," Gregson Wagner says in the documentary (in which Lana also declined to appear).
Suzanne Finstad, a true crime writer turned celebrity biographer, interviewed around 400 people for her biography Natasha: the Biography of Natalie Wood (Natasha is what Wood was called as a child). Published in 2001, it claimed that when she was 15, Wood's mother had pimped her to Frank Sinatra, and that she was then drugged and raped by an unnamed Hollywood star when she was 16. In an updated edition, published this year, Finstad stated that Wood's death was "not an accident" and that the police investigation at the time was "almost non-existent". She holds Wagner, Walken and Davern accountable for Wood's drowning, which she calls "a Chekhovian tragedy with no resolution short of a confession". She also alleged that Wagner and Wood's first marriage ended after she caught him "in flagrante with a man", their English butler, David Cavendish.
Gregson Wagner has no appetite for any of this and you can understand why. Daddy Wagner came into her life when she was barely one year old "and stayed there", she writes in More Than Love. "To me, he was this sun-kissed man who seemed to radiate warmth." He still is. Her face breaks into a huge smile when she talks about him, how even at 90, "The man drinks tequila; he smokes marijuana. He'll drink anybody under the table and he'll get up the next morning and go play golf at 6.30."
To even consider that outsiders might have a sharper perspective on him than she does strikes her as preposterous. "Growing up, seeing the tabloids in the grocery store, I somehow learnt to shut that noise out. All the information is hearsay and gossip."
Apart from the few days that he spent bed-bound with grief in the immediate aftermath of Wood's death (until the family's nanny, Willie Mae, ordered him to get up because Natasha and her younger sister, Courtney, were worried that he was going to die too), Daddy Wagner has been a rock throughout her life. When her first marriage collapsed in 2008, he moved in with her in Malibu. When she remarried in 2014, he and Barry's father were both ordained so that they could conduct the service.
I ask about the butler and she bursts out laughing. She has never heard Finstad's allegation mentioned before. "It just amazes me how low she'll go. I've known my dad for almost 50 years. He's the straightest man. He's always had many gay friends, but that's just the most ridiculous thing. In all my mum's papers and everything that I have read, their first marriage clearly broke up because her career was on the up, my dad's was on the down. My dad was drinking a lot. There was never a third party, certainly not a man."
Gregson Wagner does not remember Lana being close to the family when her mother was alive. She has had no contact with her aunt since the early Nineties.
Ralph Hernandez, a murder detective working on the stalled investigation into Wood's death, has called Lana "the one family member willing to cooperate".
"I am sorry for the frustration Lana feels over not being able to point her finger at a bad guy responsible for my mum's death," writes Gregson Wagner. "But sometimes there are no bad guys. Accidents happen."
When they found the body, "Everything just went out from under me," Wagner tells his stepdaughter.
When Lana was born, Natalie had already acted with Orson Welles in Tomorrow Is Forever and was on her way to becoming a star. Their parents, Maria and Nikolai Gurdin, were poor Russian immigrants whose families had fled the revolution when they were children. Natalie made her screen debut at four. A film company had come to Santa Rosa, California, where the family was living. "They needed a little girl to drop an ice cream and cry," she later recalled. Soon Maria, on her way to becoming one of Hollywood's arch stage mothers, had moved the Gurdins to Los Angeles to organise her tiny daughter's career. Before long Natalie – with a new screen name – was the main breadwinner.
By the time she was 12 she was also driving the family Chevrolet because her father, who drank heavily, was too ill to take the wheel and her highly strung mother was too anxious.
Four years later, in 1955, she disregarded her parents' orders and went for the part of Judy, the heroine in Rebel Without a Cause. During the audition process she became intimately involved with the 44-year-old director, Nicholas Ray, who liked to rehearse in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont hotel. She was, as The New Yorker put it, "a #MeToo victim decades before the phrase gained notoriety". She also had a fling with her co-star Dennis Hopper and became close friends with James Dean, who died in a car crash weeks before the film's release.
Robert Wagner, though, had long been her teenage screen crush. He was handsome, eight years older than her and a potential leading man of the future at 20th Century Fox. She and Wagner had their first date in 1956 and they married the following year.
The Los Angeles Times called them "the most photographed, talked about, envied couple since Wally Simpson and Edward VIII". They honeymooned in Florida and in California, aboard Wagner's boat, just off Catalina Island. The marriage did not last.
By 25 Wood had been nominated for three Oscars and taken on her studio boss, Jack Warner, to win the right to choose at least one film a year for herself. She was also deeply unhappy. Addressing the collapse of her marriage in an unpublished 1966 article for a women's magazine, Wood wrote, "How to separate reality from illusion when you have been trapped in make-believe all your life?"
She entered psychoanalysis, had a relationship with Warren Beatty, battled for equal pay with her male co-stars on The Great Race, and overdosed on sleeping pills (it wasn't a true suicide attempt, the late playwright Mart Crowley says in the film, because she banged on his door so he could raise the alarm). Then she married Gregson, had Natasha, and soon found herself single again.
Making the documentary, the biggest revelation for Gregson Wagner was discovering just how fragile her mother had been. She remembered her as "omnipotent" and "in control of everything", but that stability only arrived after she was born, when she got back together with Wagner.
Wagner and Wood remarried at sea in 1972, aboard a boat called Ramblin' Rose, and spent their honeymoon on Catalina Island. "It was like two parts of the same whole coming together again," says Mia Farrow.
Gregson Wagner's younger sister, Courtney, arrived in 1974. "For my mother, having children was a chance to give her daughters the childhood that she had missed." The family home in Beverly Hills was full of animals (dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice and birds) but also Hollywood royalty (Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jimmy Stewart).
"I must've known that my parents were movie stars but it didn't feel like an alienating awareness. They were very approachable. And nobody in those days really acted the way movie stars act now. There were no private planes, or if the planes were private they weren't Gulfstreams. It wasn't so opulent."
Making the film, Natasha realised, "I did not dream this life. This was my childhood. I didn't make this magical person up."
There were formal evening parties that the girls could attend until bedtime, with nuts in silver bowls and cups full of cigarettes, and informal gatherings around the swimming pool in the daytime. "We were in the water all the time, at our house, whenever we went on vacation. We were always in the pool with her," says Gregson Wagner. Her mother would sometimes jump off the diving board and could swim from one end of the pool to the other, but she was not a confident swimmer and dreaded being out of her depth.
It didn't put Wood off the ocean though. In 1975 the Wagners bought Splendour and from then on many holidays and weekends were spent on board. When Thanksgiving weekend came round in 1981 and Wood asked her children and her stepdaughter, Katie Wagner, if they wanted to come to Catalina with her, Wagner and Walken, the lead actor in her new film, Brainstorm, they all said no.
Gregson Wagner had a sleepover to go to instead. And the weather was terrible. She suffered badly from separation anxiety and asked her parents not to go. Her mother, wearing a pale angora sweater, hugged her.
"I know you don't want me to go," she said. "But I promise you I am going to be OK."
She never saw her alive again.
I watch the documentary with my 11-year-old daughter. Afterwards, Rosie says to me that she had been thinking how sad it would be to grow up worrying that you would forget what your mother had really been like.
"I have never been afraid of that," Gregson Wagner says. "I think my relationship with my mum was so indelibly stamped onto me as a child that I would be incapable of forgetting her. Many of those memories are deeply etched into my mind, maybe because I started therapy at the age of 11, so I was constantly pulling out the strands and trying to figure out where she ended and I began."
She acted, with roles in High Fidelity and the David Lynch film, Lost Highway, but let it go when she had Clover. She thinks she might write more now.
On the second day of her interview with Daddy Wagner they both wept. The exchange is quietly devastating to watch. As Wagner describes the moment when he was told that they had found his wife's body, the great solid crag of his face starts to crumble. His voice rises. "Everything just went out from under me." With an effort he looks at his stepdaughter as his chest begins to heave. "That night's gone through my mind so many times. As you can imagine."
They agree that Wood probably slipped after she went out to retie the dinghy that her daughter recalls "used to drive her crazy", slapping against the side of the boat at night. "She was so sensitive to noise." How does Wagner feel about being called a "person of interest", she asks. "I don't pay very much attention to it, because they're not going to redefine me," he replies. "I know who I am."
She takes a deep breath. "But it's important to me, Daddy, that people think of you the way I know that you are. And 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 mum."
"That's true," he says. "I would have. We all would have."
The sensation after they wrapped was one of liberation she says, an "inner euphoria". "I feel like we climbed a mountain. We got to the top and it felt good."
Daddy Wagner "doesn't ever talk about what the toll is that the episode has taken on him", she says. "I think he's a healthy enough person to know that my mum would have wanted him to move on with his life, and find love and be close to us. He's somebody who has had tragedy in his life and incredible joy, and he focuses on the joyful part. His pain is not diminished, but he's found a spot for it."
For Gregson Wagner too, the whole process of making the film and writing the memoir was "incredibly cathartic and healing". Through doing it she realised, "I did not dream this life. This was my childhood. I didn't make this magical person up. She was real."
Written by: Ben Hoyle
© The Times of London