Lana Wood pens book on ‘suspicious’ mystery drowning

November 9, 2021
"Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood," by Lana Wood.
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We’ll likely never know with certainty what actually happened the night Hollywood actress Natalie Wood drowned at 43.

We know several key facts, of course: Wood vanished from her yacht, the Splendour, during a visit to Catalina Island with husband Robert Wagner and friend Christopher Walken. Her body was found the morning of Nov. 29, 1981, in the water off the island. “Coroner to the stars” Dr. Thomas Noguchi called her death an “accidental drowning,” and police closed the case two weeks later.

While her drowning was indeed once considered an accident, investigators reopened the case in 2011 and later labeled it “suspicious” in 2018.

But how did we get from point A to point B? And points C through H, and I through Z? Follow all the twists and turns of this head-scratching case in new book “Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood” (Dey Street Books, 239 pp., out now), written by Wood’s sister, Lana Wood.

(Disclaimer: The book relies predominantly on Lana Wood’s interpretation of events with the help of the original police report and other testimonials; it is in no way a definitive account of what happened.)

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Lana Wood, Robert Wagner never fond of each other

The book tries to capture the romance between Natalie Wood and Wagner – married not once, but twice, even after allegations that he cheated on her. Natalie Wood said at the time: “Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Lana Wood – an actress in her own right, and a film producer – and Wagner never liked each other, though she felt it was “too trivial to even mention” to Natalie. Lana Wood “held on to (her) suspicions” after the second wedding, but was going to try to trust Wagner, for her sister’s sake.

But after Natalie Wood’s death, Wagner wanted nothing to do with her sister. So much so that she alleges he blacklisted her from the entertainment industry, making it impossible for her to work even behind the scenes. Natalie Wood’s friend and assistant Mart Crowley later told Lana, “I don’t know what he did or didn’t do, Lana. But I do know he thinks you’re a loose cannon.”

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Lana Wood accuses Kirk Douglas of sexually assaulting Natalie Wood

Apart from the drowning, the book highlights other moments in the sisters’ lives – including an ugly tale of alleged sexual abuse.

For decades, it’s been one of Hollywood‘s darkest rumors: A teenage Natalie Wood was sexually assaulted by a top movie star more than twice her age when she met with him at a hotel in Los Angeles.

Wood’s younger sister identifies the long-suspected assailant: Kirk Douglas.

“I remember that Natalie looked especially beautiful when Mom and I dropped her off that night at the Chateau Marmont entrance,” Lana Wood writes, alleging that the incident happened in the summer of 1955, around the time Natalie Wood was filming “The Searchers.” The meeting had been arranged by their mother, Maria Zakharenko, who thought that “many doors might be thrown open for her, with just a nod of his famous, handsome head on her behalf,” according to Lana Wood.

Natalie Wood did not discuss with her what happened until both were adults and Natalie, after describing being brought into Douglas’ suite, told her sister, “And, uh … he hurt me, Lana.”

Douglas died last year at 103. His son, actor Michael Douglas, said in a statement issued through his publicist: “May they both rest in peace.”

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The stories trickle in – including from Natalie Wood herself

Though at the time Natalie Wood’s death was determined to be an “accidental drowning,” emerging details began to paint another picture. Chief among them: Wood was afraid of water.

Dennis Davern, the skipper on the yacht, opened up to Lana Wood more than a decade later and explained that he didn’t tell the police everything he could have. Around this time, Lana Wood also gained access to the initial police report and found elements confusing. For example: Why did Davern identify Natalie Wood’s body and not Wagner? Why did Davern and Wood share a hotel room the night before she died?

Writers began contacting Lana Wood about Natalie to try and piece together books about her. One writer even found an unfinished memoir from Natalie herself, which included a lot of love for Lana – fueling her own desire to get justice for her sister.

Davern ultimately revealed the trip was tense from the beginning, and that Wagner was unhappy Wood had invited “Brainstorm” co-star and friend Walken along for the trip. He also heard Wagner and Wood fighting at the back of the boat before learning that Wood was missing and that he needed to go look for her. But Wagner instructed him to not to radio for help. He was worried “bringing attention to the situation might tarnish his image.”

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Now what?

Investigators reopened the case in 2011 and later labeled Natalie Wood’s death “suspicious” in 2018, with incremental updates in between. The pivotal moment came when Wagner, in 2018, was deemed a “person of interest” in Wood’s death. (Wagner is still alive at 91.) 

“I kept waiting to feel excitement, or surprise, or relief,” Lana Wood writes. “It didn’t happen … ‘Person of interest’ was progress, but ‘not a suspect’ meant there was still a long way to go before maybe, finally, (Wagner) would be properly interrogated.”

Wood has her own theory about what happened that night – that Wagner allegedly knocked Wood unconscious, panicked and put her in the water. She knows she’s portrayed as a “crazy aunt” who needs to let it go, but she still wants to find out why her sister died – “most of all, for Natalie.”

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online and receive confidential support.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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