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My mother Natalie Wood and the mystery of the night she died

Almost 40 years after the tragic accident, Natasha Gregson Wagner tells Donal Lynch about the reopening of the case into her mum's death and the shadow of grief that has marked her adult life


Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Natasha Gregson Wagner

Natasha Gregson Wagner

Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, and daughters (from left) Katie Wagner, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Courtney Wagner

Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, and daughters (from left) Katie Wagner, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Courtney Wagner

Wood alongside James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause

Wood alongside James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause

Natalie Wood with Elvis Presley

Natalie Wood with Elvis Presley

Wood with Richard Beymer in West Side Story

Wood with Richard Beymer in West Side Story

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Natasha Gregson Wagner was 11-years-old and sleeping at her friend's house when she heard the news on the radio. "The body of actress Natalie Wood has been found off the coast of Catalina Island." She thought she might be dreaming. Her mother could not be dead. But the announcer repeated the words "accident" and "drowned".

Together with her friend's mother, they tried to call the boat on which Natalie was sailing with her husband - Natasha's stepfather, Robert Wagner - but there was no reply. Natasha was driven home to the family mansion in LA where she waited, silently praying that there had been a mistake.

Eventually, she heard the front door close and it was Robert, whom she called 'Daddy Wagner'. His face was "ashen" and his eyes "haunted, devoid of any light", she recalls. She knew then, finally, that it was true. Her little sister, Courtney, asked her when mommy would be coming back. At the funeral, which was attended by Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Fred Astaire, Robert cradled Natasha's head in his hands. It was a heartbreaking portrait of grief.

Precisely what happened to Natalie has never been clear. In life, she was one of the biggest stars of her era. She had transitioned from the child star of Miracle on 34th Street to become a genuine movie icon. She was Maria in West Side Story and James Dean's love interest in Rebel Without a Cause. By the time she was 25, she had won four Academy Award nominations.

It was perhaps inevitable then that the scrutiny around the circumstances of her death - on November 29, 1981 -would be almost frenzied. It has become Hollywood's most enduring mystery.

A few facts are undisputed. She had been in the midst of filming the movie Brainstorm when she took the boating trip with Wagner and her co-star on the film, Christopher Walken; at the time, Wagner was starring in the hit TV series Hart to Hart with Stefanie Powers.

Robert Wagner said he had gone to bed on the boat and she had stayed up. Her body was found in the water about a mile from the boat, with a small dinghy nearby. She was found dressed for bed in a long nightgown and socks, but wearing a red down jacket over her nightclothes.

The autopsy report revealed that she had bruises on her body and arms, as well as an abrasion on her left cheek, but there was no indication as to how or when the injuries occurred.

The man who had driven the boat for the three stars, Dennis Davern, said that he heard Wagner and Wood arguing, and while Wagner denied that at the time, he subsequently admitted in his memoir, Pieces of My Heart, that they had quarrelled.

The LA County Coroner ruled the cause of her death to be accidental drowning and hypothermia, but Wood's sister Lana expressed doubts, alleging that Wood could not swim and had been "terrified" of water all her life, and that she would never have left the yacht on her own by dinghy. Two witnesses who were on a nearby boat stated they had heard a woman scream for help during the night. But the case was closed.

And yet, over the years, the mystery seemed to deepen.

Wagner and Wood had a tumultuous relationship. They had married and divorced and then remarried after she divorced her second husband. People wondered if the fieriness of their relationship had spilled over into that fateful night.

In 2009, Davern co-wrote a book in which he speculated that Wagner had pushed Natalie overboard. He alleged that Wood had been flirting with Walken, that Wagner was jealous and enraged, and that Wagner had prevented Davern from turning on the search lights and notifying authorities after Wood's disappearance.

In 2011, the case was sensationally reopened and the following year, Natalie's death certificate was changed from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors".

In January 2013, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office made a 10-page addendum to Wood's autopsy report, which stated Wood might have sustained some of the bruises on her body before she went into the water, but this could not be definitively determined.

In 2018, Robert Wagner was named a "person of interest" in the case, which remains open. This means he is not a suspect or under arrest, but police would like to speak to him.

According to Ralph Hernandez, the detective who led the investigation, Wagner has not talked to the police since 1981. "I think that Wagner holds the key," Detective Hernandez told The New York Times. "It's really only up to him at this point."

Natasha says that she and Robert have spoken at length about what happened that night and she is fully convinced that he has no further information.

"We went over in detail what happened in her last few hours, but the truth is that she was alone when she died," she tells me. The timing of the reopening of the case was terrible, she says: she was pregnant with her daughter.

"It came out of nowhere. Immediately I was reassured by our family publicist, by our attorney and by Robert that this was all a master plan to drum up publicity for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Denis (Davern) had a book which he was looking for publicity for, but I tried not to let it bother me.

"It's very easy when you develop a protective emotional muscle to utilise that muscle around things that are, in the end, facetious. I am lucky that I have been able to do it. My stepdad had to hire a criminal attorney. I've never had any contact with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department."

Natasha Gregson Wagner has now written a book called More Than Love, which tells the story of growing up as the child of a film star and aims to draw a line under the suspicions around Wagner. She's protective of him and dismissive of Davern and Natalie's sister - Natasha's aunt - Lana, who has said that Natalie left Wagner because of a marital betrayal, before going back to him.

"I have never given any credence to them because I know where they come from. It has been so upsetting for me because I love my stepfather and I don't want him to be maligned in any way. I haven't been in touch with my aunt since my grandmother died in 1997 or something, but she has always wanted money from my stepdad, from my mom when she was alive, from my sister and me when we turned 18 - she would request it from us. The shows that she goes on, they get paid to go on them. She changed her name to Wood. So I think that says a lot."

Apart from the defence of Wagner, the book is also replete with tender anecdotes about Natalie. Natasha still cherishes the 11 years she had with her mother. Natalie had her in 1972 when she was still married to Natasha's father, the British film producer and writer Richard Gregson.

"People would imagine it's difficult to grow up with a mom who was like this screen goddess, but she never acted that way around me," Natasha recalls.

"Her image was like a goddess, but in our home, she was tender and tangible and available. She didn't wear a lot of make-up. I'm sure she wasn't excited at being a mom every day, but she was happy to see us in the morning.

"She was always so thrilled to show me things for the first time. I remember clearly her taking me to The Nutcracker ballet and you could just see the joy shining out of her; she really wanted me to have that experience. She was very much living life with us like a normal family."

Natalie was known to have mental health troubles, a legacy perhaps of child stardom, an alcoholic father and a Svengali stage mother, who it was said, arranged for her then 15-year-old daughter to be seduced by Frank Sinatra.

"I knew about her suicide attempt," Natasha says, "I had spoken about it with my stepfather and my godfather, Mark Crowley, but to me, she had seemed so stable as a parent. I can't relate that (the suicide attempt) to the woman I knew.

"I think in the same way that I'm a very different woman now than I was in my 20s, I think she had changed a lot.

"I believe she had a bittersweet childhood. In a lot of ways, she loved acting and being around adults, but she missed just being a kid. I'm sure being a child star took its toll on her, but the way she made lemons into lemonade and in the same way that mothering my daughter healed me, I think that mothering Courtney and me healed my mom. In the Fifties, she was in therapy and supported her friends through their own problems.

"She created a nucleus of people around her, including a lot of gay men and others who felt marginalised, and my memory is that everyone was always talking about their feelings and their emotions."

Wagner became Natasha's legal guardian after Natalie died and she says it was difficult for her when he remarried - he began dating former Bond girl Jill St John just months after Natalie's death and married her in 1990. Despite this, he was supportive of her grieving process.

"Pretty shortly after my mom died, my Daddy Wagner put me in therapy with an amazing woman named Naomi and I saw her until I went to college," Natasha explains. "I was also in therapy with various people after that just so I had a safe place to express my feelings and mourning."

She remained close to her father Richard Gregson, who later wrote of the difficult decision he took to let Wagner continue to care for Natasha - ultimately Gregson felt it would be less of an upheaval for the girl to stay with Wagner who had been her stepfather up to then.

In adulthood, Natasha became an actress, and had roles in the hit TV series Ally McBeal, as well as the movie High Fidelity.

"In my 20s, I tended to be cast a lot as a lost waif, which I'm sure I was in real life," she recalls. "Becoming a woman and having the gravity of a woman was very hard for me because I was, at an emotional level, still so childlike. Even in the body and the way I looked, I'm tiny and thin, and I just didn't have that weight. I'm sure behind my back, people compared me to (Natalie), but I never felt it was a shadow over me."

She says that the loss of her mother shaped the relationships she formed with men. For much of the 1990s, she went out with Josh Evans, who is the son of the actress Ali McGraw and Robert Evans, producer of The Godfather, Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. After that, she was married to DV DeVincentis, who had written the screenplay for High Fidelity. They divorced in 2008.

"I think, in adult life, I was always looking for a mother," she says. "Often I would choose very maternal men, who would mother me, but it would get confusing because after a certain amount of time, I would want to grow up, so to speak, within the relationship. By the time that happened, the dynamic would have been established where I was the child and they were the parent and it would cause a lot of trouble and problems."

In 2010, she began seeing fellow actor Barry Watson, who had parts in the soap, Days of Our Lives, and Baywatch.

"It wasn't until I met him that things came together for me," she says. "After my first marriage ended, I did a lot of work, and processed a lot of grief and worked on getting to the next step."

They had a child together, a daughter named Clover Clementyne, in 2012 (in true Covid-era interview form, she charmingly walks in while Natasha and I are speaking).

"On my wedding day and when my daughter was born, I felt my mother's loss most keenly," Natasha tells me. "When my daughter sees a butterfly, she thinks that's my mother. We saw one the other day and she said 'oh look mommy, there's grandma Natalie'. She asks me things like what would she do with me, would she be friends with Kiki, who is my mother-in-law, so her spirit is still with us."

The book comes at something of a watermark moment in her life. She will be 50 later this year. Her father Richard Gregson died from Parkinson's disease last year. And next year, it will be 40 years since her mother's death.

"I've written it because I didn't want there to be any burden on my own daughter's shoulders. She is my mother's only grandchild, so it's important that she knows what happened. I also was ready to be public with my own grief. I didn't feel I needed to protect myself in the same way I had years ago."

She still speaks daily to Robert Wagner, who lives in Aspen, Colorado. Whether the book and the documentary on her mother, which she has produced, bring more scrutiny on him or draw a line under the case, remains to be seen, but her loyalty to him seems absolute.

"I'm very protective of Daddy Wagner and I know my mother would never want him to have to endure these slings and arrows. He is a wonderful man."

More Than Love by Natasha Gregson Wagner, published by Simon & Shuster, £20

Belfast Telegraph