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“She was one of the film world’s most valuable assets and most popular citizens,” wrote Robert Osborne, now host of Turner Classic Movies, in his front-page 1981 story in The Hollywood Reporter on the Thanksgiving-weekend drowning death of Natalie Wood. Though only 43, Wood had been acting for nearly four decades. She was 4 when she appeared briefly in 1943’s Happy Land and 7 when she made Tomorrow Is Forever with Orson Welles (who said Wood was a natural actress — “so good, she was terrifying”), and at 8 she co-starred in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street.
As a teenager and young adult, she made Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and Love With the Proper Stranger — all three brought her Oscar nominations. Plus, she headlined West Side Story. She even had a brief romance with Elvis Presley, about whom she said, “He can sing, but he can’t do much else.”
Her career had taken a major drop-off by the time she’d sailed to Catalina for a long weekend with actor-husband Robert Wagner, then 51, aboard their 60-foot yacht, The Splendor. Along for the cruise was Christopher Walken, with whom she was making the sci-fi thriller Brainstorm. What happened that night remains a mystery.
The three had been drinking. There was an argument between Wood and Wagner. One explanation is Wood fell into the harbor when attempting to secure the ship’s dinghy. Her flannel nightgown, wool socks and down-filled jacket might have weighed her down. Tabloids spun theories, but after multiple investigations, the cause of death was ruled “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Adding to the tragedy was her lifelong fear of water. In his memoir, director Elia Kazan revealed that Wood had confided to him that she had “a terror of water, particularly dark water, and of being helpless in it.”
She left behind step-daughter Katie, then 17, and daughters Natasha, 11, and Courtney, 7, and was buried on Dec. 2, 1981, in a white coffin at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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