I’m frightened to death of the water,” Natalie Wood once said. ”I can swim a little bit, but I’m afraid of water that is dark.” The 43-year-old actress’ fear was tragically justified on Nov. 29, 1981, when her body was discovered floating in a cove at Catalina Island, Calif.
It was a horrifying end for one of Hollywood’s most enduring and surprising stars: America had fallen in love with 8-year-old Natalie (born Natasha Gurdin) in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, then watched her mature in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and in 1961’s West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass. Nominated for three Oscars, the doe-eyed Wood turned herself from the cute girl next door into a sly, sexy, talented actress.
Rumors started circulating soon after her drowning. The facts were sketchy: Wood had spent the evening with husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, her costar in Brainstorm, the movie she was then filming. After dinner on Catalina Island, the trio set sail on Wagner and Wood’s yacht, the Splendour. An argument ensued, and around midnight Wood — in nightgown, down jacket, and socks — stormed off and apparently slipped while boarding a dinghy tied to the yacht. She was legally intoxicated at the time of her death, which was ruled accidental, but questions lingered about the quarrel, her motive for leaving the yacht (the coroner later speculated she may have been simply securing the dinghy), and her cries for help, which reportedly were heard on a nearby boat.
The tragedy ended a celebrated second-chance romance. Wood’s first marriage to Wagner lasted from 1957 to 1962. When their second marriages both failed, the couple renewed vows in 1972 — ironically, on a boat. After cutting back on work for the next decade to raise three kids, Wood saw Brainstorm as her comeback. When she died she had nearly completed the sci-fi film, which was released in 1983 to middling reviews and box office.
Wagner married actress Jill St. John in 1990, and Walken refused to discuss Wood’s death until this year, when he told The New York Times: ”It all sounds so mysterious, but it wasn’t. She was small…(The dinghy) was slippery. She fell. She hit her head. She went into the water. That’s what happened.”
Time Capsule: November 29, 1981
Fitness was in, with Olivia Newton-John’s ”Physical” topping the pop charts and Richard Simmons’ Never-Say-Diet the No. 1 bestseller. Time Bandits captured movie box offices, while Dallas ruled the tube.