Natalie Wood: Reopening a 30-Year-Old Mystery
I first heard the news on this morning’s Paul and Al Show on WHJY-FM radio during my morning commute. Then I saw a link from The Drudge Report to a Los Angeles Times article saying that the criminal investigation into Natalie Wood’s 1981 death has been reopened by police.
Wood, 43, was boating off the island on Thanksgiving weekend 1981 with her husband, Robert Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken and others when she somehow went overboard and died. Officials at the time ruled her death an accident, but there has been much speculation since over whether there was more to the story.
Sheriff Lee Baca said detectives want to talk to the captain of the boat after learning of comments he recently made about what happened on board. Baca did not provide further details, adding only that the captain “made comments worthy of exploring.”
A law enforcement source added that the department recently received a letter from an unidentified “third party” who said the captain had “new recollections” about the case. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.
Color me skeptical, but obviously the police have enough doubts that they’re giving it another look.
Even though Wood did most of her work—including some of her best—before I was born, she was my favorite actress when I was growing up. Coming from someone who is not easily starstruck, that’s saying something. She was that rarest of Hollywood creatures, a child star (Miracle on 34th Street et al.) who also enjoyed success in her teens (Rebel without a Cause et al.) and into adulthood. I first saw her in a television airing of West Side Story, which I enjoyed even though Wood didn’t do her own singing (not an uncommon occurrence in musical films at that time). But my favorite among her movies is Inside Daisy Clover, released the year after I was born. I still laugh remembering the fabulous final scene in which Wood’s Daisy, having been repeatedly interrupted in her attempts to commit suicide by putting her head into a gas oven, finally cranks up the gas on all the burners, leaves the house, and walks down the beach as the house explodes behind her. I realize it doesn’t sound funny, but you have to see it to appreciate it.
I vividly recall where and when I heard about Wood’s death. I was a junior in high school, working a part-time weekend job in the medical records department of a local hospital. It was a Saturday morning and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a shelf, filing laboratory reports, when the radio announced Wood’s drowning death. I was very sad; she was just a couple of years older than my mother (and, it feels odd to point out, four years younger than I am now). Not that I found her death to be any more tragic than any other, but people in their 40s aren’t supposed to die, and there is something about seeing people on the big screen (or, in my case, on the small screen in films made for the big screen) that makes them seem immortal.
But the bigger story in Wood’s death, independent of the celebrity angle, is that her accidental death might not have been an accident after all. If that’s the case, then there is a killer out there who has gone unpunished, which is a grave injustice regardless of who the victim is.