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Natalie Wood’s death remains a mystery

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

More Than Love Natasha Gregson Wagner

Simon & Schuster, pp.304, 20

Are all children of famous parents told they must have a book in them? Since Allegra Huston’s wonderful memoir Love Child in 2009, standards have been slipping. More Than Love is by a minor actress whose only claim to fame is that she is the daughter of Natalie Wood and won’t ever let you forget it.

The book begins with Natasha Gregson Wagner waking up on 29 November 1981 and hearing a voice on the radio saying that Natalie Wood’s body had been found in the sea off Catalina Island. Suddenly the house was full of people and there were mobs of cameramen outside. Robert Wagner (who she always calls Daddy, though he was not her father) came home and told her and her half-sister Courtney that their mother had died but that he was there for them always. Then he took himself to bed, where he stayed for a week. When he finally emerged, he went off to film another series of Hart to Hart and came back with a new girlfriend, the actor Jill St John, whom he would eventually marry.

Natasha was 11 at the time, and had not been on the boat, so she only knew what Wagner told her. He, Wood and a friend, the actor Christopher Walken, had sailed over to Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California, on their boat Splendor (named after Wood’s best film, Splendor in the Grass). They anchored and stayed up late drinking. Eventually Natalie said she was going to bed, and that was the last time anyone saw her alive. The inquest concluded that she probably went down the yacht steps to tie up the dinghy and somehow fell into the water. The verdict was accidental death.

Up to that point Natasha claims she had an idyllic childhood. But she does admit that from about the age of eight she noticed her mother’s drinking and became very anxious about her, so much so that she developed all sorts of OCD rituals to keep her safe. When the couple went out to eat, which they did almost every night, she would phone the restaurant to check on Natalie — she knew half a dozen restaurant numbers by heart. So of course when her mother died she felt she was to blame: she had not been sufficiently vigilant.

Wagner sent her to a child psychiatrist, as Hollywood parents are wont to do, and she has been in therapy more or less ever since. She had a series of boyfriends, often the children of famous actors, and eventually married and produced a child in her forties. She had a minor acting career but now lives quietly with her husband Barry and daughter Clover.

But once in a while, usually on the anniversary of Wood’s death, the media descend. Natasha claims she’s never talked about her mother’s death and was always happy to accept the account that Wagner gave at the inquest.

In 2011, however, her aunt Lana (Natalie’s older sister) gave an interview saying she had never believed Wagner’s version of events. Someone got up a petition and persuaded the Los Angeles sheriff’s department to reopen the case. They came up with a new witness — or rather an old witness with a completely new version of his inquest evidence. This was Dennis Davern, the deckhand who was on board the night Wood disappeared. He now said that he’d overheard a big fight between husband and wife, with Wagner shouting at Wood to get off the boat.

At this point (apparently not before) Natasha read the inquest evidence and found that, after Natalie had gone to bed, the two men had a row and Wagner smashed a bottle on the table and told Walken to ‘stay out of her life!’ Walken then went to bed, as did Wagner a short time later —and was shocked to find Wood not there. He returned to the deck and noticed that the dinghy was missing. He called the coastguard, and they found the dinghy floating in a cove with its engine switched off; then, a couple of hours later, discovered Wood’s body, in a nightdress and parka and socks. Wagner’s first reaction was to drive to his therapist, and then home to tell the children.

Anyway, the police failed to find any substantial new evidence, and the case was again closed.

Natasha devotes many paragraphs to lambasting the press, and people such as her aunt Lana who cash in on private tragedy. But lo and behold, in recent years she has published a book of photographs of her mother, auctioned some of her possessions and even launched a perfume called Natalie. And now she has written this book, and is co-producing an HBO documentary about Wood’s life. Let’s hope it’s more interesting than this dismal effort. Of course we must feel sorry for anyone who loses their mother at 11, but not for 300 pages.

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