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It’s been 40 years since the death of Hollywood icon Natalie Wood, and her sister, actress Lana Wood, is ready to speak out.
In her upcoming memoir, Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood (Dey Street Books, Nov. 9), Lana offers an account of the life and death of Natalie, while detailing new information from those directly involved in the investigation of Wood’s death.
After going missing from her family’s yacht, Splendour, Natalie Wood was found floating in the water wearing a red down jacket and flannel nightgown. She was pronounced dead at the age of 43 in 1981; however, the circumstances surrounding her death have remained a mystery.
Though Wood’s death was ruled an accident at the time following a two-week investigation, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation in 2011. The coroner amended the cause of her death to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Her husband, actor Robert Wagner, was eventually named a person of interest, with officials confirming he was the last person to be with the actress before her disappearance. During a 2018 press conference, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department stated that Wagner has refused to speak with investigators. In 2018, the case was reclassified as being a “suspicious circumstances death.”
In Little Sister, Lana addresses myths and misconceptions surrounding her sister’s death and shares secrets she’s held on to for years.
In a passage from the upcoming memoir shared below, Lana reveals that she was contacted by a secretary who discovered manuscript pages from an unfinished memoir Wood began writing in 1966. Lana recalls reading the section about Natalie’s divorce from Wagner in 1962. Despite speculation that Warren Beatty was the cause of their divorce, Lana writes that Natalie pointed to the emotional impact of an “unnamed betrayal” by Wagner (“R.J.”) in her manuscript. The secretary who reached out to Lana also contacted Wagner about the pages, and he allegedly sent a friend to review them. Lana also writes that according to the secretary, she overheard Wagner’s friend informing him in a phone call, “I don’t see anything in it that should be a problem for you.”
Read an excerpt from Little Sister below.
A woman I’d never heard of contacted me with a bizarre story: She’d worked for a doctor for many years, and when he retired and emptied his office, he told her to do whatever she wanted with his mountains of files, paperwork, and medical journals. “Whatever she wanted” translated to stacking it in huge piles in a storage facility and avoiding it for years, until her husband understandably begged her to sort through it and get rid of as much as she possibly could.
She was weeks into that process when she came across several handwritten pages she didn’t recognize. It was only as she read through them that she realized, to her utter amazement, that she was looking at the unfinished memoir of one of her former employer’s patients, Natalie Wood.
She contacted me to ask if I’d like a copy of it. Uh, yes, I most certainly would! Natalie’s life, in her own writing, in her own words? What an unbelievable, unexpected treasure! I invited Suzanne to join me, and the two of us drove a long way to the trailer where the woman lived. She seemed very nice and very sincere, and I remember her asking me shortly after we arrived if I happened to know a man named Gavin Lambert.
I did. Gavin Lambert wrote the book and the screenplay of Inside Daisy Clover, a movie Natalie made with Robert Redford in the 1960s. Natalie, Gavin, and Mart Crowley had become close friends, and R.J. had kind of “inherited” Gavin after Natalie’s death.
“Why do you ask?”
She explained that as soon as she realized she was in possession of Natalie Wood’s original, unfinished autobiography, she’d contacted “Mr. Wagner’s people,” assuming he’d love to have it. “Mr. Wagner” immediately sent “Mr. Lambert” to see the manuscript. “Mr. Lambert” read it right then and there; called “Mr. Wagner” from the woman’s trailer; told him, “I don’t see anything in it that should be a problem for you”; and left without it.
She was surprised that “Mr. Wagner” wouldn’t want to keep something so personal of his late wife’s — if not for himself, at least for their daughters.
I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but it did make me sad. R.J. had long since moved on — he was remarried, his life was moving forward — but still, those were Natalie’s words. They were an amazing way of keeping Natalie’s memory alive — a way, weirdly, of hearing from Natalie.
And then she handed me a copy of Natalie’s unfinished memoir. Up until that moment I’d held this fear that the document wouldn’t actually be Natalie’s at all, but any skepticism I was still holding on to vanished the instant I saw the pages.
It wasn’t just the fact that I knew Natalie’s handwriting as well as I knew my own, and this was most definitely hers. It was also the fact that the content was indisputably her “voice,” her phrasing, her heart.
It was kind. It was discreet. And it was as fiercely protective as she was.
For example, she’d started writing it in 1966. She’d moved on from R.J. after their divorce in 1962, but it was understandably still a pivotal event in her life and one she needed to write about. She could so easily have gone into detail and told the true, sensational story of walking in on an intimate encounter between R.J. and his butler. She didn’t.
Instead, she gently let Warren Beatty off the hook, after years of whispers that he was the cause of Natalie and R.J.’s divorce, and focused on the emotional impact of R.J.’s unnamed betrayal of her:
“I have suffered in silence from gossip of my walking away from my marriage to go with Warren…but Warren had nothing to do with it. We began our relationship after, not before, my marriage ended…. It is too painful for me to recall in print the incident that led to the final break-up…so shattering, it destroyed the relationship…. It was more than a final straw, it was reality crushing the fragile web of romantic fantasies with sledgehammer force.”
I shed many, many tears over passages about me — how close we were, as sisters and friends and companions, and how much she loved me. At some point as I was reading it for the very first time, it hit me yet again, this time with total clarity: If the situation were reversed, if I had suddenly died without her knowing how or why, she would have moved heaven and earth to get to the bottom of it and see to it that she got justice for me. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do the same for her, no matter how long it took.
And now that I had Marti, Dennis, and Suzanne in my corner, I was starting to feel as if there might be a distant light at the end of this very dark, twisted tunnel after all.
In the meantime, though, life had to go on, and it wasn’t getting easier.
From Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood by Lana Wood, published by Dey Street Books. Copyright © 2021 by Lana Wood. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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