- The circumstances surrounding actress Natalie Wood’s 1981 death have long been mysterious.
- In “Little Sister,” Lana Wood presents a possible culprit: Natalie’s husband, actor Robert Wagner.
- “It would mean everything to Natalie” if her case was finally resolved, Lana told Insider.
Actress Lana Wood has always believed actor Robert Wagner played a role in the mysterious death of her sister and his wife, actress Natalie Wood.
“I’ve always thought so and I chose not to say anything,” Lana told Insider. “I just felt it was best to keep my mouth shut.”
But now, 40 years after Natalie drowned off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, Lana is doubling down on her accusations against Wagner, which she first began making publicly back in 2018 — and this time, she’s not holding back.
The former “Bond Girl,” now 75, is diving back into one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved cases — and the trenches of her own personal heartbreak — in a new memoir, “Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood,” telling Insider the book is meant to set the record straight on the life and death of her beloved older sister.
“There had been so much said about Natalie; some things blatantly untrue and mean,” Lana said. “Nobody was portraying her accurately.”
“And suddenly it dawned on me that instead of just saying, ‘oh, that’s nonsense,’ I needed to have Natalie’s back.”
A death in ‘dark waters’
The Oscar-nominated Natalie Wood, who starred in Hollywood hits like “West Side Story” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” was 43 when her body was found floating in the ocean off Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend, 1981. She had been vacationing on a yacht with her husband, Robert [RJ] Wagner, her “Brainstorm” co-star and friend Christopher Walken, and the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern.
Her initial cause of death was ruled an accidental drowning. Wood’s blood alcohol content was 0.14% and Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi suggested the actress may have slipped into the freezing water while trying to tie up the vessel’s dinghy.
But from the start, Lana was skeptical of the proposed explanation. According to Lana, Natalie had a lifelong fear of “dark waters” and never would have attempted to re-board the dinghy on her own in the middle of the night.
For 10 years, Lana said she lived in anguish, plagued by unanswered questions about her sister’s death, as Natalie’s husband, actor Robert Wagner, refused to provide details about Natalie’s final night.
In “Little Sister,” Lana alleges that following the death, Wagner cut out Lana completely, “blacklisting” her from the entertainment industry and trashing her in the press.
A representative for Wagner did not immediately respond to Lana’s allegations.
Despite the strife between the in-laws, Lana said for years she refrained from openly blaming Wagner for Natalie’s death, in hopes that a relationship could be salvaged with Natalie’s two daughters.
Following Natalie’s death, her two daughters, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Courtney Wagner continued to be raised by Robert Wagner — Courtney’s father and Natasha’s stepfather.
“RJ was the only parent they had left. They had nobody,” Lana told Insider. “If I was being overly vehement and pointing a finger back then, I was doing nothing but hurting the kids.”
Lana said she was constantly worried about how the girls, who were 11 and 7 when their mother died, were coping with the grief. But she had no contact with her nieces.
“I just felt it was best to keep my mouth shut and perhaps I could see them, perhaps I could talk to them again,” she said. “It was hope. That was all.”
Both of Natalie’s daughters, now 51 and 47, have long stood by Wagner when it comes to speculation around their mother’s death. In her 2020 book, “More Than Love,” Natasha discussed her ongoing faith in Wagner’s innocence.
“The circumstances of exactly how Natalie Wood ended up in the water will never be clearly established because she was alone when she died. And so I focus on the things I do know, that as certain as I am that the earth is round, my father [Wagner] would never have harmed my mother or failed to save her if he knew she was in danger,” she wrote.
Representatives for both Natasha and Courtney did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
But even back then, there was another reason Lana resisted accusing Wagner publicly: She wanted to believe her brother-in-law, whom she had known since she was nine, was innocent.
“I don’t hate RJ. I’ve known him all my life,” she told Insider. “It was my feeble hope that perhaps it was true that it was an accident.”
“But I was kidding myself,” she added.
A break in the case
In 1992, more than a decade after Natalie’s death, the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern, contacted Lana, confessing he hadn’t told police everything he knew about that fateful night. He alleged the holiday had been tense from the start and remembered Wagner expressing anger about Natalie inviting Walken on the trip.
The captain also told Lana that he heard Wagner and Natalie fighting at the back of the boat before learning Natalie had gone missing. According to Davern’s own 2006 memoir, the captain said Wagner instructed him to go searching for Natalie, but told him not to radio for help, out of concern that the publicity might “tarnish his image.”
Davern did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Davern’s admissions to Lana came around the same time that she gained access to the original police report, sparking her own investigation into the incident. According to Lana, she was struck by a number of concerning elements, including reports that Wagner had been interviewed by authorities for less than 10 minutes in the immediate aftermath of Natalie’s death and witness statements that appeared to have been dismissed by the initial investigators.
“Things like that have been absolutely haunting me forever,” she said.
In 2009, a crowdsourced petition, spurred by Davern’s new revelations and Lana’s amateur sleuthing, called for a new investigation into Natalie’s death.
Two years later, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened Natalie’s case, citing “additional information,” and in 2018, detectives labeled her death “suspicious,” for the first time. But the most critical development came later that year when authorities officially named Wagner a “person of interest” in Natalie’s death. In “Little Sister,” Lana describes her less-than-enthusiastic response to the pivotal update.
“I kept waiting to feel excitement, or surprise, or relief,” 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.”
A detective for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told Insider that Natalie’s death is still considered suspicious, given the remaining unanswered questions.
“Her husband at the time, Robert Wagner, is the last known person to be with Ms. Woods [sic] prior to her death, and Investigators would like to interview him,” Detective Ralph Hernandez said in a statement. “The goal of the investigation is to confirm the truth of how she ended up in the water, thus providing the manner of her death.”
The case will remain open until it is solved, he added.
Coming to her own conclusion
Few consequential updates in the case have come in the years since, and Lana acknowledged it’s likely she’ll never see her sister’s case resolved.
“I don’t know that it will,” she said. “I love surprises. I love if things go the right way, but I just seriously don’t know.”
“I just wish he had the capacity to simply tell the truth,” she said of Wagner. “I think he’s a coward and I have no respect for him.”
The seeming stall in Natalie’s reopened case hasn’t stopped Lana from conceiving her own version of what she believes happened on the back of the Splendour that fateful night.
“I believe … RJ delivered a blow to the left side of Natalie’s face that knocked her unconscious,” Wood writes, citing the bruises and cut found on Natalie that were recorded by the LA Coroner’s office.
“I believe that, suddenly panic-stricken when he realized what he’d done, RJ made the fatal decision to put Natalie in the water to avoid being held responsible for what had happened,” she wrote in the memoir. “I believe that everything he did afterward … was all about covering up … the drunken, jealous, rage-filled moment.”
A representative for Wagner did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment regarding Lana’s accusations. The 91-year-old has previously denied wrongdoing in Natalie’s death.
Keeping Natalie’s memory alive
The resurgence of interest in Natalie’s death in recent years has been both challenging and gratifying. “I don’t want Natalie forgotten,” Lana said.
Her memoir comes nearly two years after Natalie’s daughter, Natasha, produced an HBO documentary honoring her mother called “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.” In the hour-long film, Natasha sits across from her stepfather, whom she calls “Daddy Wagner,” and discusses the events of November 29, 1981, in an effort to dispel rumors that Wagner played a role in her death.
The film rubbed Lana the wrong way and partially inspired her to publish her own interpretation of events, she said.
“It was nice that Natasha wanted to do that. But all Natasha knows is what RJ told her about it,” she said. “So that upset me.”
Lana told Insider she doesn’t think there’s much hope left for a possible reunion between her and Natalie’s daughters.
“If there is, that’s beyond wonderful,” she said. “If there isn’t, that’s the way it’s been for some time now.”
But she hopes that this new book will help keep the memory of Natalie — “not simply as a movie star, but as a person who had a full life” — alive. And perhaps even bring about some long-sought-after peace.
“It would mean everything to Natalie” if her case was finally resolved, Lana said. “She could rest.”