It seems Hollywood is where the most unique relationships are born. You have epic romances that transcend time to become legends and then you have catastrophic couples whose union proved only worth tabloid headlines. One such unique love story is that of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Tinseltown stars of the 50s.
Although Wood and Wagner were celebrities in their own right, they were best known for their relationship, and eventually, its sad and mysterious end. While Wood had a successful acting career right from the early age of 4 and graced the big screen many times, Wagner was comparatively a late bloomer and most successful on the small screen.
The two stars’ love story began in 1956 when they met for the second time. So far, their story seems much like any other from Hollywood – two celebrities who are famous and successful meet, sparks fly, and sometime later, they walk down the aisle. Wood and Wagner’s story is typical in this way, but it’s also so much more. For one, the duo would get married twice.
While Wood and Wagner fared well as actors in their own spheres, it seemed fans were keener on their romance than their performances. Unfortunately, their love story is not the memory that most have of the couple today; instead, the story of how Wood drowned at the age of 43 surrounding mysterious circumstances is what most look back on.
Let’s go over Wood and Wagner’s careers, personal lives, and relationship together.
How They Met
Natalie Wood – born as Natalia Zakharenko – was a child actor and started working from the early age of 4; her first film was the 1943 drama Happy Land. The actor’s early steps into Hollywood were mostly due to the efforts of her mother Maria, who dreamed of being a performer herself. Natalie’s parents were Russian immigrants who struggled with difficult circumstances, and her mother transferred her ambition to her.
On the other hand, Robert Wagner’s ambition was all his own. The actor, who was better known as R.J. among friends and family, dreamed of being on stage from a young age. When Wagner was 19, he started working in Hollywood in uncredited minor roles. His beginning was less than ideal, but Wagner didn’t let that dissuade him. He believed he could work his way to the top, which he did. He scored a leading role in the 1953 adventure film Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, which marked the beginning of his career in the big league. Although Wagner would go on to act in 40 Hollywood films, he was most successful on the small screen.
Natalie Wood came across Robert Wagner at the hall at 20th Century Fox, when she was only 10. Wagner was 18 at the time, and he made quite an impression on Wood. In a 1976 interview with People magazine, Wood said she was so enamored with Wagner that she told her mother she was going to marry him.
The next time the two crossed paths, Wood was 18 and the attraction was mutual. Their first meeting was set up by the studio. Wood was a loved face fresh from the success of the 1955 American drama Rebel Without a Cause, and Wagner was a faring moderately, having delivered acceptable performances in a couple of Westerns.
Wood and Wagner hit it off instantly and their whirlwind romance ended in marriage in December 1957, after Wagner pulled off the classic ring-in-a-champagne-flute proposal with a pearl and diamond beauty. Their honeymoon was spent on a yacht since both of them enjoyed being on the water. But Wood always spoke of a fear of deep water.
Little did the actor know, she would one day have to face the fear, and she would lose. Natalie Wood died in 1981 from drowning in the waters just off Santa Catalina Island in California. The actor was on a yacht with Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken when she went missing in the middle of the night. Her body was discovered the next morning. The coroner ruled her cause of death as accidental drowning and hypothermia. The whole plot seemed off to everyone but the lack of evidence meant the case would be closed. In 2012, the case was reopened and the cause of death was changed to drowning and other undetermined factors.
Continue watching to know which facts came to light that the case was reopened, and why authorities believed the case of Wood’s death was not as simple as it was made to be. Before we continue, please take a second to hit the like button if you’re enjoying this video and subscribe to Facts Verse for more such videos.
For a while, all seemed well in the glitzy life of the newlyweds, and fans were obsessing over the details. Media attention was at an all-time high for the duo; it seemed as though marriage got them more fame than years of hardship on- and off-screen. The publicity was not something new for Wood, who was used to the limelight from an early age.
Wood’s celebrity status further rose after marriage with the success of her films Marjorie Morningstar, Splendor in the Grass, and Gypsy. But on the personal front, things were not faring well for the star. Wagner and Wood’s marriage was heading for the woods. Wood graciously took the blame on herself, saying Wagner was doing well but she was unsure about where she was.
The couple separated in 1961, with rumors of Wood’s extramarital affair and Wagner’s extramarital escapades with another man. Wood was allegedly having an affair with Warren Beaty, her co-star from Splendor in the Grass. She was also said to be shaken after walking in on Wagner getting up close and personal with another man. Wagner denied said rumors of homosexuality, and even Wood stayed quiet.
After separation, Wood went through a hard time and sought therapy as often as five times a week. In terms of her love life, Wood dated Beaty, British actor Michael Caine, and British film producer and actor David Niven Jr. Eventually, almost four years after her separation from Wagner, she started dating British film producer Richard Gregson, whom she married after three years of courtship. Wood had a daughter, Natasha, with Gregson in 1970. The following year, the couple separated after Wood overheard an inappropriate conversation between Gregson and his secretary, as per accounts by Suzanne Finstad in Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood.
In the meantime, Wagner reconnected with his old friend Marion Marshall while shooting in Europe. The two dated for more than two years and eventually tie the knot in 1963. They welcomed their daughter Katie the following year. The family of five – counting Katie and two children from Marshall’s previous marriage – lived together till the couple separated in 1970.
Immediately after his separation from Marshall, Wagner was engaged with Tina Sinatra – a relationship that lasted almost two years. When things ended with Sinatra, Wagner reunited with Wood, who claimed the two had parted ways and led separate lives but they never stopped loving each other. When Wood decided to get back with Wagner, it was only three months since her second divorce. Friends and family told her to slow down but it was pointless.
Recounting her decision to reunite with Wagner in an interview with People magazine, Wood said both of them were in shock. The couple met up at Wagner’s house in Palm Springs and discussed their previous marriages. Wood believed Wagner had matured into a man, and the break had done them well. They made their reunion public at the 1972 Academy Awards and remarried the same year.
On the work front, their roles had reversed. Wood had semi-retired from films after her first pregnancy in 1970, saying work no longer played such a big role in her life as her husband and children. Wagner, on the other hand, was soaring high with the success of The Pink Panther and Harper. While films never worked out for the actor, television was another story altogether. Wagner was drawing a whopping $10,000 per episode on ABC’s It Takes a Thief.
Wood and Wagner welcomed their daughter Courtney in 1974 to complete their family, which included children from previous marriages.
During 1981, Wood was shooting for the 1983 science fiction flick Brainstorm. During a production break in November, Wood – along with husband Wagner and co-star Walken – was touring Catalina Island on Wagner’s Yacht Splendor. On November 29, Wood’s body was recovered in the water about 1 mile from the yacht, with a dinghy beached nearby. As per Wagner’s statement, she wasn’t in bed when he went to sleep. The autopsy revealed bruises on the body’s arms and legs with an abrasion on the left cheek.
The yacht’s captain Dennis Davern stated that Wagner and Wood fought that night. Wagner initially denied the claims but later conceded in his memoir Pieces of My Heart. The coroner ruled Wood’s death as a case of accidental drowning and hypothermia. Given the alcohol content in Wood’s body, the coroner estimated she slipped while trying to reboard the dinghy.
The story didn’t make sense – Wood was afraid of deep water, why would she put herself at risk, especially when drunk? Even her sister said the story didn’t add up because there’s no way Wood would have left the yacht alone on a dinghy when she was afraid and couldn’t even swim. What made the whole thing sketchier was that two witnesses on a boat nearby confirmed they had heard a woman scream for help.
Still, the case was closed. It was only in 2011 when the yacht’s captain Davern publicly accepted he had lied in his testimony that it was reopened. He said that Wagner and Wood argued that night because Wood was allegedly flirting with Walken and Wagner was insecure. He even added that they realized Wood had disappeared in the middle of the night, but Wagner wouldn’t let Denver switch on the searchlights and look for her. What’s worse, Wagner didn’t allow Davern to call the authorities.
The plot then thickened further in 2012 when the coroner changed the cause of death to drowning and ‘other undetermined factors’. A doctor, who was an intern when Wood’s body was studied, even reviewed the autopsy report and reported that the bruises were consistent with someone who was thrown off the boat. He even said he had pointed this out during the original examination and investigation, but the coroner then acted strangely and seemed to be covering up. Finally, in 2018, Wagner was named a ‘person of interest’ in the case of Wood’s death. While Wagner denies any involvement, Davern and Wood’s sister remain firm that he is to blame.
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s story is a confusing one riddled with intrigue that came to an end with Wood’s death. Almost 40 years later, people still wonder what went down that night. The case’s reopening has done little to assuage the outrage of fans who believe Wood was murdered since it’s too late – if Wagner is even found guilty, the 90-year old has already lived a full life these last four decades.
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