PCA Commentary: The Shadow of Natalie Wood

In 1981 the world tragically lost Hollywood icon Natalie Wood. Over thirty years later the public still wants to know what really happened.

On November 29th, 1981 the world mourned the loss of Natalie Wood.  One of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Natalie Wood’s death off the coast of Santa Catalina Island quickly became the subject of gossip and rumors.  The official statement was that Natalie died of an accidental drowning.  But just how did Natalie, who it was well known had a fear of water, end up in the ocean that fateful night?  Stories of a heated argument between Natalie and husband Robert Wagner on the evening of her death soon surfaced and soon the mystery about what happened to Natalie Wood began to deepen.  Was it an accident, or was it manslaughter?  Only four people were present on the Splendour that night: Natalie, Robert Wagner, Christopher Walken and the boat’s captain Dennis Davern.  When things began to get tense between Wood and Wagner, Walken wisely went to his cabin.  It would take nearly three decades for Davern to say anything.  Wagner isn’t talking.  Natalie ended up in the water and it’s far too late for her to ever tell her story.  But last year, as the result of new information revealed by Davern, the LAPD reopened the thirty year old case, bringing new interest to Natalie’s mysterious death and Robert Wagner became “a person of interest.”  However, after months of investigation, the LAPD closed the case again stating that they found no new evidence, and that Wagner was not a suspect in Natalie’s death.  Many believed that this would close the case until last week when Natalie Wood’s death made headlines again.   The LA Coroner’s office officially changed her cause of death from “accidental” to “undetermined.”  Once again the mystery of Natalie Wood’s tragic death continues to deepen.  Are we closer to finding out the truth, or will the true fate of that night be left to float forever in the waves of the Pacific Ocean?

Although it is a story that will puzzle us for years to come, I am not here to write about the mystery surrounding Natalie Wood’s death.  Everything that can be said has already been written.  The theories are in the press, and documented in books and interviews.  It doesn’t matter what I think really happened that night.  Instead I want to talk about the impact that the continuous investigation and media attention around Natalie’s death has had on the people she left behind.  The public may watch with ghoulish curiosity, but it is Natalie’s family and friends that continue to suffer and, as a result, become the latest victims of this horrible event.

Natalie Wood’s younger sister, and friend of PCA, Lana Wood.

News about Natalie Wood always hits a bit close to home because I am an acquaintance of Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana.  Following in her sister’s footsteps, Lana Wood also became a notable actress in movies and television in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with her most famous role as Bond girl Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds are Forever.  I won’t say that I know Lana extremely well.  I speak to her maybe once or twice a year amd send her a Christmas card every year.  I can’t offer any real insight into Lana Wood’s thoughts or feelings, nor have I spoken to her about the most recent development in Natalie’s case.  However, Lana Wood is one of the dearest women I have ever interviewed and I simply adore her. She holds a special place in my heart for opening my eyes to a reality of the pop culture journey so often ignored by the audience.  While our icons and idols fascinate us, they are very real to the people close to their lives.

An early photo of Natalie and Lana Wood as children: ““Natalie was more like my Mom than my Mom was because when I would get in trouble I would go to Natalie. If I needed advice I went to Natalie.”

I met Lana in 2009 at an autograph show in Toronto.  Although I was only at the show to do press, I was quickly recruited by the organizer to assist Lana with anything she needed over the weekend.  Now even before I met Lana, I was told by our mutual friend Carol Summers, who was taking care of Lana’s affairs for the show, that I shouldn’t discuss Natalie’s death during our interview.  She explained that two months earlier, Dennis Davern had released his book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, which would eventually get the ball rolling again for a new investigation into Natalie’s death.  Watching out for Lana’s interests, Carol reminded me that it was obviously a sensitive topic and Lana had just been featured on an episode of 20/20 talking about this painful moment in her family history all over again.  Now I had no intention of talking to Lana about Natalie’s death because it just seemed like a terrible thing to do.  To expect Lana to talk about this seemed insensitive, negative and unnecessary, and we had so much more to talk about.

Lana followed Natalie into the movie business, with her debut role as Natalie’s co-star in John Ford’s 1956 western “The Searchers” with John Wayne.

Over the weekend I fell in love with Lana Wood.  Kind, vibrant, enthusiastic and high energy, Lana had such a positive attitude about everything.   I enjoyed sitting with her and just talking about anything and everything.  Lana entertained me with stories about growing up in Hollywood, her career in film and television and, of course, we talked about Natalie.  Eight years younger then Natalie, Lana looked up to her glamorous and talented older sister and Natalie was obviously an important influence on Lana.  In fact, Lana’s first role was portraying Natalie’s character, Debbie Edwards, as a child in John Ford’s 1955 western The Searchers, alongside John Wayne and Jeffery Hunter.  But while Natalie was a major Hollywood star to the rest of the world, to Lana she was just her big sister.  When James Dean came to the house to pick Natalie up during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, Lana didn’t think of him as anything more then a boy who was there to pick up her sister, and she and a friend entertained the future screen legend while Natalie got ready.  As a teenager, when Lana had a falling out with her mother and ran away from home, it was Natalie, who by that time was married to Wagner that took Lana in.  Lana said to me “Natalie was more like my Mom than my Mom was because when I would get in trouble I would go to Natalie.  If I needed advice I went to Natalie.”  Of course, Lana and Natalie didn’t always have a smooth relationship, and like all siblings they fought.  But as Lana also explained, many of the battles between she and Natalie were due to their often domineering mother.  Lana explained “All families have fights but unfortunately what we realized, many many years later, right before Natalie passed away,was that my Mom was the big instigator because she felt if she could separate us, she could control us.  If we banded together too much she’d be out of the picture.  So it was a little unfortunate and it dawned on us [as late as it did] and we sat talking about it into the wee hours of the morning because we were astounded that we had this epiphany.”  For me, listening about the relationship between Natalie and Lana Wood was more real, and more endearing, then trying to unravel the details of Natalie’s death.  Unfortunately, other people didn’t feel the same way.

During my time with Lana Wood, I was amazed at how an insensitive public fel that they had the right to discuss the loss of her sister with her.  However, to my astonishment, Lana handled it like a pro.

But throughout the day, as people trickled into the autograph show to meet Lana and have her sign photographs, only one topic seemed to be on their minds.  The death of Natalie Wood.  As people approached us they would be greeted warmly by Lana, who is just a naturally giving and kind person.  But to my horror, each and every single individual who came up to the table would eventually bring up the mystery surrounded Natalie’s death. They would usually ease into it gently, first talking about some of the movies Lana made, then moving on to asking about what it was like growing up with Natalie.  But eventually they would turn the subject o that dreadful night in 1981, and would dissect the case over and over again in front of Lana.  She would put on a pleasant smile, and just simply agree with whatever they would say, but would never add any information or details about the case.  Actually, Lana was really saying nothing much at all, and instead just allowed the people say whatever they wanted and agree with their feeble conclusions. I was shocked, and disgusted, that so many people would ignorantly force Lana Wood to listen, once again, to the details of her sister’s mysterious death.  Lana would maintain her sweet disposition and her eyes would continue to sparkle, but that only proved to me just how good of an actress Lana Wood really is.  There was a sadness in the air, as Lana smiled and agreed, but added nothing.  Having become quite protective of Lana by this point, I was beginning to get very defensive about the constant barrage of sensitive questions by the people coming to Lana’s table.  I mean, who comes up to someone who is essentially a stranger, and begins to talk about their sister’s death?  It is a despicable and thoughtless thing to do.  But there lies the problem.  To the public, Natalie and Lana Wood aren’t strangers.  With Lana and Natalie being in the public sphere, for some reason it seemed like a fair topic of conversation, and although tactless, these people didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.

Lana Wood would open my eyes by saying possibly the most important things anybody has ever said to me about the relationship between celebrities and the public: “I shared Natalie with the world for my whole life, but to them she was just a star. To me she was my sister. They just don’t understand.”

Finally one man who approached the table made me hit my breaking point.  He came up to Lana and, thrusting his hand out to her, looked her intensely in the eyes and bluntly said “Hello.  It is so nice to meet you and I want to say how sorry I am about your sister.”  I was horrified how this asshat was talking about Natalie’s death as if it had only occurred a week ago, and nonchalantly addressed it as if he was talking about stubbing his toe.  He didn’t bother to create any sort of buffer at all.  He just went for the kill.  Lana politely thanked him, but I shot the man daggers.  I wanted to yell at him for his lack of sensitivity, and connect my fist to his mouth.  Lana seemed to be not nearly as bothered as I was, but I had had quite enough of the insensitivity of the public and, most of all, I needed to know that Lana was alright.  When the man finally left the table I turned to Lana and I said “I’m really starting to get uncomfortable with all the questions about Natalie’s death.”  I had a hard time saying the word ‘death’ to her.  Even as a professional writer, and someone who had gained Lana’s trust, I still didn’t feel that I had the right to talk about it.  “Are you alright with this,” I continued.  “Is there something I can do to help stop this?”

That’s when Lana Wood said something to me that would change the way I looked at celebrities forever.  Lana’s eyes got deep and sad, and she said “I’m okay.  I’ve been dealing with this for thirty years and I’ve heard it all.  Everyone is always going to be curious about this, and they are always going to want to know.  I shared Natalie with the world for my whole life, but to them she was just a star.  To me she was my sister.  They just don’t understand.”

While we read the headlines with a ghoulish curiosity, each Hollywood tragedy brings a real life horror to the lives of the friends and family that are left behind. In the case of Natalie Wood, bringing her mysterious death back to the forefront again is like reopening an old an painful wound.

Every time we open a newspaper or magazine and we read about a Hollywood tragedy, or of a star’s death, or even a tabloid scandal, we seem to forget that the celebrity behind the headline is a real person.  They live and breathe, they have wishes and desires, have good days and bad days, and has loves and hates. When seeing them on the two dimensional screen, it is easy to forget that they are flesh and blood, with real emotions and feelings.  They have a real life outside of the public sphere.  But more so, each and every celebrity is part of somebody’s family.  They are a son or a daughter, a mother or father, a sister or brother, a niece or nephew or someone’s best friend.  The emotional tie that binds them with the people in their life is stronger then anything even the most devoted fan can ever understand.  But the public seems to have a morbid fascination with the downfalls of stars, and the tragedies in their lives.  The worse the situation, the more invested the public becomes.  But what we don’t do enough of is ask ourselves “How would we feel if someone we loved were going through this.”  Because it is so simple these days to access information about celebrities, we have an arrogant notion that we have an understanding of their situation, and a right to everything about their private life.  But the truth is that we will never know the whole story, and we will never understand all the details and, no matter how important they are to us, we can never understand the true feelings that go along with every Hollywood tragedy.  These dramas are not made up by a clever writer to be played out on the Hollywood screen for our entertainment.  These are real, and they are terrible, and the pain passes along from the celebrity to the people who love them.

Lana with Robert Wagner and Natalie before the tragedy. In her latest statement Lana has said “I will not be speaking to the press or making any comment on the investigation. Please do not ask.”

When the investigation into Natalie’s death was reopened last year, Lana made the media rounds, and she handled herself as a pro.  Although Lana’s feelings about what she feels happened that night has been well documented, once again Lana did what she always does.  She answered questions in a matter of fact fashion, but made no accusations toward Robert Wagner.  Speaking to media outlets as diverse as Piers Morgan and TMZ, Lana came across as being strong, well spoken and authoritative.  However, she was not able to hide the sadness in her heart from the cameras.  A few weeks after the media frenzy had died down and the press had turned its attention to the next Hollywood headline, I called Lana just to find out how she was doing.  We spoke very briefly, and while I still did not want to talk about what had happened, Lana relayed one thing to me. Having the case thrown into the spotlight all over again had been very hard on her.  As a result it didn’t surprise me this weekend when Lana wrote on her facebook page “I will not be speaking to the press or making any comment on the investigation. Please do not ask.”  It seems that Lana Wood has, at long last, finally hit her breaking point.  The deep and painful wound of Natalie’s death has been ripped open once again by the press, the media and the public .  Now Lana must mend those wounds all over again.

We probably will never know the truth about what happened to Natalie Wood, and perhaps it is time that we allow the media frenzy to end, and allow her loved ones to find some peace.

Natalie Wood’s life ended thirty one years ago.  We’ll never know what happened on that night  but one thing is certain.  Natalie Wood should have never died, and she is missed very much.  But the hurt continues, perhaps not for Natalie, but for the others who whose life she touched.  Lana will never escape the shadow of her sister’s death.  Natalie’s daughter Natasha was only eleven when Natalie died, and had to grew up without a mother.  Robert Wagner lives with the burden of knowing what happened that night.  He may never reveal the truth, but the darkness in his soul and the guilt he carries will be his eternal prison.

It is time to let those who knew her and loved her to find their own peace.  The media and public need to respect the memory of Natalie Wood, and allow her family and friends to come to terms, once again, with her tragic death.  We will probably never know the truth of what happened that drizzly night on The Splendour.  So perhaps it’s the right time to let the media frenzy surrounding this case, come to an end, once and for all.

  1. Anny’s avatar

    You are so kind Sam. Thank you for the article. Lana sounds like a sweet person.

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