June 11, 2001 12:00 PM

Watching a 1996 TV documentary about Natalie Wood, Suzanne Finstad was mesmerized by Wood’s daughters Natasha Gregson and Courtney Wagner, who were just 11 and 7 respectively when the film star drowned at age 43 in 1981. “Courtney talked about how much she missed her mommy, how she still had dreams of her and when she’d wake, she’d think, ‘Oh, Mommy’s still here,’ ” says Finstad, 45. “I was crying. I felt as though I wanted to know about Natalie.”

Five years and some 400 interviews later, the author of Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, to be published this month, knows plenty. The outlines of Wood’s sadly abbreviated life, which Finstad compares to “a Russian tragedy,” are Hollywood legend. Pushed into acting at age 5 by her domineering Siberian-born mother Maria, Natalie, nee Natasha Gurdin, became a child star in such films as Miracle on 34th Street. Against the odds, she parlayed her success into adult fame, winning Oscar nominations for performances in Splendor in the Grass and Rebel Without a Cause, all the while leading a turbulent personal life that included affairs with Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper and David Niven Jr., a marriage to agent Richard Gregson (they split in 1971) and two marriages to TV heartthrob (It Takes a Thief, Hart to Hart; Robert “R.J.” Wagner. “She was a Julia Roberts of her era,” Finstad says. “She was on every magazine cover, with every movement chronicled.”

Well, almost every movement. In Natasha, Finstad—the author of five previous books including 1991’s bestselling Sleeping with the Devil, a true-crime chronicle of obsessive love—offers startling new accounts of Wood’s life and death. Among the book’s claims: At 16, Natalie was raped by a “powerful, married movie star”; her mother, thrilled at any connection to the screen idol, hushed up the crime. In 1961, according to friends, Natalie split up with Robert Wagner not because she was having an affair with her Splendor in the Grass costar Warren Beatty (as has been reported)—but because she discovered Wagner in a compromising position with another man. (Wagner denies the incident.)

Most shocking of all is Finstad’s minutely detailed examination of Natalie’s last weekend, which she spent off California’s Catalina Island aboard the Splendour, the family yacht, with husband Wagner, Christopher Walken (her costar in the movie Brainstorm, then shooting) and the boat’s captain Dennis Davern. (Though Davern’s story has dribbled out in accounts given or sold to tabloids, a TV documentary and Vanity Fair, he claims to have saved some details for a book he plans to write.) Ruled accidental, Natalie’s Nov. 29, 1981, death was a chilling fulfillment of her lifelong fear of drowning. Finstad’s account—based on published reports, police records and her own interviews, including several with Natalie’s younger sister Lana Wood, now 55, who said Davern told her things he hadn’t previously revealed—raises troubling questions about the events that night.

Wagner, now 71 and married to actress Jill St. John, declined to talk to Finstad for the book, as did Walken, 58. Finstad says she had several “scattered phone conversations” with Davern, 52. Wagner’s attorney, Larry Stein, insists the book’s revelations regarding Wagner “are uncategorically false.”

In the book, even Finstad warns that Davern’s recollections may be “tainted by his profit motive and riddled with his own inconsistencies.” She doesn’t pretend to know the whole truth. “What really happened on that awful, aberrant night may never be known,” she writes. “In the end, one is left with a sense of overwhelming loss, of tragedy and of mystery.” Our exclusive excerpt begins after Natalie had invited Walken on the Splendour for the weekend following Thanksgiving, allegedly to demonstrate to Wagner that she and her costar were not having an affair.

Though the gregarious couple often brought costars on the boat, more typically the Splendour was a family affair, with Natasha or Courtney inviting chums along to swim and jet-ski with Wagner. Natalie never swam, never jet-skied, and would not participate in anything water-related. If the Splendour was moored, Natalie might take the girls or a guest to shore in the Valiant, the Wagners’ motorized dinghy, but friends say she would never get in it alone at night.

Her sister Lana felt Natalie “seemed odd” that Thanksgiving night, the last time she saw her alive. “Like something was bothering her. Nothing specific.” What would forever haunt Lana was 11-year-old Natasha’s reaction to her mother’s plans. Natasha begged Natalie to stay home, not to go on the boat that weekend. Normally, Natalie would indulge her daughters anything. But in this case, she said no.

Natalie, Wagner, Walken and skipper Dennis Davern set sail for Catalina Island from Los Angeles before noon that Friday, the beginning of a cold, gray weekend so unpleasant Davern suggested they postpone the trip. But Natalie “was out for a wonderful weekend, to entertain her guest,” Davern would say later.

The crossing to Catalina harbingered strange tempests of emotion gathering on the Splendour. “There was a feeling of jealousy going on between R.J. and Christopher,” Davern told a British documentary group in 1999. “And it just kept getting more like that.”

After mooring the Splendour near Avalon, the tourist-populated side of Catalina, Wagner, Natalie and Walken spent Friday evening bar-hopping. Back at the boat, according to Davern, Natalie and Wagner quarreled, and at Natalie’s request Davern took her to spend the night at an Avalon motel. She planned to go home alone the next morning, but changed her mind and returned to the Splendour instead. The foursome sailed to Two Harbors, the remoter side of Catalina, on Saturday.

By early afternoon, the weather turned drizzly and threatening. Around 2:00 p.m., Walken and Natalie decided to go ashore, leaving a note for Wagner, who was napping. The Brainstorm costars drank in the wood-paneled bar at Doug’s Harbor Reef, a tropical-themed restaurant that was the only place to go in desolate, rustic Two Harbors. When Wagner woke up from his nap to find Natalie ashore with Walken, he became agitated, Davern later told journalists. Sometime before 4:00 in the afternoon, Wagner took a water taxi to Two Harbors with Davern. When they found [the pair] at the bar, “Natalie and Chris were having such a good time that I think it started to really upset R.J.,” Davern told the British documentary team. In the memory of waitress Michelle Mileski, who later served the group dinner, “[Natalie] was buzzed, she was screwed up in the afternoon.”

By the time Natalie, Wagner, Walken and Davern sat down for dinner in the adjoining dining room at 7:00 p.m., they were all “inebriated,” according to Doug’s host/manager, Don Whiting. Whiting later told police he “was of the impression that Robert Wagner was a little bit irritated with his wife.”

Mileski felt a “strange” vibration from Wagner directed toward Natalie and Walken. Another waitress told Mileski that “Natalie and Christopher Walken were holding hands under the table kinda deal. There definitely was something going on, the table just felt weird.”

The “eerie” feeling at the Wagners’ table, as Mileski described it, was fueled by alcohol. From 7 to 10 p.m.—as recalled by the two waitresses—the Wagner party consumed two bottles of wine, two bottles of champagne, cocktails sent by fellow diners, daiquiris ordered by Walken, and cognac for Wagner and Davern.

The tension seemed to build to a crescendo around 10 o’clock, when Wagner got up to leave the restaurant. Natalie was reluctant to go back to the Splendour, Davern would say later. Christine Quinn, another waitress, told police Natalie had trouble zipping up her jacket and Mileski observed she had a hard time walking. Whiting noticed Wagner putting his pea coat around Natalie, as if to shroud her from the stares of other diners. “It was sprinkling out, and he put his coat over her head and they walked out,” said Mileski, “and she smacked into this wood tiki pole at the front door.”

Both Mileski and Whiting were so concerned about the Wagner party’s level of intoxication and the slick weather, they made separate calls to dock operator Kurt Craig in the Harbor Patrol office. Mileski recalls, “I said, ‘They’re coming out, they’re screwed up, just keep an eye on them.’ ”

Davern would later say, in the British documentary, “We got back to the boat, and Natalie’s in a giggling state by now, talking with Christopher and being pretty chummy. And it was beginning to upset R.J. to the point where he had to explode.” Walken and Wagner’s statements to the police indicate all four went to the main salon as soon as they returned to the Splendour, where, Davern would say later, Natalie lit candles and he and Wagner drank scotch and wine.

Walken would be the first and only one of the three men to disclose to the police, in the immediate aftermath of Natalie’s drowning, that he and Wagner got into a “small beef” after they got to the salon and that Natalie seemed “disturbed” afterward. Walken elaborated on the “beef” during his second interview with police. According to Duane Rasure, the lead investigator, Walken said “R.J. was…complaining that [Natalie] was away from home too much…. Walken stated he also got involved in this discussion, supporting [Natalie’s] view: that she was an actress, she was an important person; this was her life. [Walken] stepped outside for some air, and when he returned everybody was apologizing…and everything seemed fine.”

In the years that followed, Davern would say that Wagner’s argument with Walken was more heated than at first described. Wagner “took a wine bottle, smashed it on the salon table, and said to Chris, ‘What do you want to do? F— my wife?’ ” Davern said in the British documentary. In Vanity Fair, Davern would recall that Natalie responded, “R.J., I’m not standing for this a minute longer,” and left the salon for the master stateroom, slamming the door. Within 45 to 90 minutes—somewhere between 10:45 and midnight—she was missing.

Shortly after 11 p.m., John Payne, the owner of a boat moored approximately 80 feet from the Splendour, thought he heard a woman crying for help. He awakened his fiancée, Marilyn Wayne, who said she too heard a woman’s voice coming from the ocean: “The cry was, ‘Somebody please help me, I’m drowning,’ over and over.”

Wayne and her 8-year-old son, Anthony, who had a lighted digital watch, both remember the time as exactly 11:05 p.m. Wayne, Anthony and Payne all heard a drunken man or men’s voices from a boat near the Splendour respond to the woman’s pleas, saying mockingly, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll help you,” and “Hold your hat, we’re coming to get you.” Wayne found it puzzling. “When you hear somebody saying, ‘We’re coming over to get you,’ you say, ‘Okay, I guess maybe the person who’s yelling is with that party. But she kept yelling for help.”

While Wayne’s fiancée was downstairs calling the harbormaster, Wayne was on deck “yelling out, ‘Where are you? I’ll come and help you, keep talking…’ ” When no one responded to their call to the harbormaster’s office, Payne and Wayne grew increasingly nervous. “He’d keep yelling up to me, ‘Is she still yelling for help?’ and I’d say ‘Yes, hurry up, call somebody else.’ ”

Payne called Avalon, and was told a helicopter would be sent. When, after about 15 minutes, it failed to arrive, Payne talked his fiancée out of going into the water to look for the source of the cries, pointing out that hypothermia would soon overtake her.

At 11:25 p.m., the woman’s cries stopped. “I didn’t really sleep the rest of the night,” recalls Wayne. “And John was downstairs still on the phone.” Payne would be haunted by unanswered questions. “How is it that the people on her boat—Robert, Christopher—how come they didn’t hear her screaming?”

Wagner did not report Natalie missing until 1:30 a.m. Sunday, when, in a slurred voice, he said: “This is the Splendour, we need help. Somebody’s missing from the boat.”

Awake on his sailboat, Don Whiting, the host/manager at Doug’s Harbor Reef, recognized Wagner’s voice and responded to his call. Sounding heavily intoxicated, Wagner told Whiting, via the ship’s radio, that he thought Natalie was at the bar at Doug’s and asked Whiting to check for her there, and see if the dinghy was at the dock.

Why Wagner waited until 1:30 to ask for help is one of the lingering questions from that fraught night, since all three men—Wagner, Davern and Walken—told police they noticed she was overboard or missing, along with the dinghy, between 10:45 and midnight. Equally mystifying was why Wagner would think that Natalie, who was terrified of dark water and never took the dinghy alone at night, would get into the Valiant by herself in choppy waves; or imagine that she was at the bar, which was closed.

According to Whiting’s notes, Wagner “didn’t want to call the Coast Guard. He arranged that [I] would start a local search.” Whiting felt Wagner “didn’t want all the publicity for a missing wife if she was just hanging out at the bar or something.” Thus, the search for Natalie Wood proceeded at the direction of a restaurant host instructing a campgrounds maintenance man, Paul Wintler, who had also overheard Wagner’s distress call and offered his help. Wintler looked around shore for Natalie, then checked the pier for the Valiant. At around 2 a.m., he went out to the Splendour to talk to Wagner, whom he later described as “drunk and a little panicky.” According to Wintler, Wagner told him that he and Natalie “had a fight,” and he thought she was going to the bar at Doug’s. He asked Wintler to drop him on shore so he could look for her, even though the bar/restaurant—the only public place in Two Harbors—was closed.

Wintler used the Harbor Patrol boat to drop Wagner at the pier and began searching the waters sometime after 2. After about 15 minutes, an “agitated” Wagner flagged down Wintler to take him back to the Splendour. “He was saying, ‘Where is she?’…I can’t answer, and after a while you get tired of that.”

Wagner repeated to Wintler that he believed Natalie was in the dinghy; though strangely, he never mentioned that she was a weak swimmer, that she would not go in the dinghy alone at night, or that she was afraid of water.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m., Whiting and Wintler realized they needed help and, since Wagner did not want them to alert the Coast Guard or Baywatch, awakened local harbormaster Doug Oudin. Oudin took a skiff out to the Splendour, where he found Wagner and Davern “very panicked, especially Wagner. He was distraught. He said, ‘What’re you doing? Do something.’ ” Wagner now told Oudin it was “completely out of character” for Natalie to take the dinghy out at night alone.

Oudin arranged for five little harbor outboards to search. After 45 minutes, he informed Wagner he was “not having any luck” and had no choice but to call the Coast Guard, agreeing not to mention Natalie’s name. Oudin made the call to the Coast Guard at 3:30 a.m. The first call to a Baywatch lifeguard was not made until 5:15 Sunday morning, six hours after Wood disappeared from the boat.

At 5:30 a.m., the night manager and the cook from Doug’s Harbor Reef spotted the dinghy Valiant tangled in kelp inside a small cave at Blue Cavern Point, where it had drifted about one and a quarter miles northeast of the Isthmus pier.

The grim drama reached its nightmarish final act at first light, when Doug Bombard, the owner of Doug’s, joined the search team. As Bombard trolled about a hundred yards off Blue Cavern Point, close to 7:45 a.m., “I saw something red, and that was her down jacket. It ballooned up, and had enough air so it acted as a kind of life preserver. Natalie was hanging underneath the jacket…almost in a standing position, with her face down and her eyes open.”

Underneath the red jacket, Natalie had on a floral print flannel nightgown, no undergarments and blue slipper socks. Roger Smith, the lifeguard who assisted Bombard in lifting her out of the water that morning, was struck by how beautiful she was. “All I remember is her eyes.”

As the public outpouring of grief, shock and gossip began to intensify the next day, Wagner issued a statement through his lawyer:

“Mr. and Mrs. Wagner had dinner last night in a restaurant on the Isthmus, after which they returned to their boat. While Mr. Wagner was in the cabin, Mrs. Wagner apparently went to their stateroom. When Mr. Wagner went to join her, he found that she was not there and that the dinghy was gone.

“Since Mrs. Wagner often took the dinghy out alone, Mr. Wagner was not immediately concerned. However, when she did not return in 10 or 15 minutes, Mr. Wagner took his small cruiser and went to look for her. When this proved unsuccessful, he immediately contacted the Coast Guard, who then continued the search and made the discovery early this morning.”

At a press conference that same day, L.A. coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi disclosed his initial findings on Natalie’s drowning. Dr. Noguchi said Natalie fell from the Splendour, speculating that she was trying to get into the dinghy to “separate herself from the group.” The coroner stated that Natalie was “slightly intoxicated,” revealing that she had .14% alcohol in her system. “There is no evidence of foul play,” he added.

Noguchi’s findings whipped gossip-mongers into a frenzy of speculation, conjuring up sensational scenarios about why Natalie would “storm off” the boat, ranging from a jealous love triangle to a rumor that Natalie had walked in on a tryst between Wagner and Walken.

Wagner went into seclusion, barely getting out of bed. He told Lana he had heard neither Natalie’s splash nor any screams, and begged Lana to believe the drowning was an accident. Lana felt he could not look in her eyes.

Beyond his written statement, Wagner’s only public comments about the events of that weekend were quotes he released the following month, stating that he and Walken had a “friendly political debate” at the restaurant “and continued the discussion” on the Splendour until Natalie went to bed. Wagner also suggested that Natalie slipped into the ocean when she went on deck to secure the dinghy that was banging against the side of the boat.

In 1983, Walken told reporter Barbara Howar that “nobody knows how [Natalie] drowned or what happened, except her.” But Lana says that years later she got a phone call from what she describes as a deeply intoxicated Davern. As he later told Vanity Fair, he claimed to have heard a fight between Natalie and Wagner that began in their cabin and continued on deck.

Lana says that Davern told her then and in subsequent calls that Natalie was in her nightclothes. Shortly thereafter Davern noticed that she had gone overboard, though he did not actually see her tragic slip.

From Lana’s account of the skipper’s confessional, Natalie was in the ocean alongside the boat yelling, while Wagner, still furious, continued the argument from on board the boat. Lana says Davern told her he was panicky and kept saying to Wagner, ” ‘Come on, let’s get her.’ And he said R.J. was in such a foul mood at that point that Dennis then shut up.” Time slipped away, Davern told Lana, “until all the sound stopped.”

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