It’s nearly impossible to make it through the holiday season without thinking about Natalie Wood, the brunette beauty whose on-screen vulnerability is perhaps rivaled only by Marilyn Monroe’s. One reason is that her film Miracle on 34th Street, a much-loved 1947 comedy about a court trial of Kris Kringle, is a TV viewing staple in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It features a thoroughly winning performance by 9-year-old Natalie as a cynical little girl who comes to believe in Santa, a character which in less naturally-talented hands might have been cloying. She’d become one of the very few child actors, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Jodie Foster, to mature into a popular leading lady. Wood became a top box office star with hit films such as West Side Story and Gypsy. She received Academy Award nominations for her work in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, 1961’s Splendor in the Grass and 1964’s Love With the Proper Stranger.
The other reason is decidedly less cheerful. Each November 29 marks the anniversary of Natalie’s drowning death off the coast of Santa Catalina Island in 1981. Along with Marilyn’s death, Natalie’s remains one of Hollywood’s most discussed “unsolved mysteries.” In fact, Thomas Noguchi, a former L.A. medical examiner, wrote about the murky circumstances surrounding both deaths in his notorious 1983 memoir Coroner. Wood had apparently been at sea on her small yacht with Robert Wagner, who was her first and third husband, and Christopher Walken, her costar in the sci-fi epic Brainstorm. No one knows exactly what happened, other than Natalie had alcohol in her system and had apparently been trying to retie the yacht’s dinghy to prevent in from banging against the side of the boat. Regardless, speculation that Wagner and Walken know more than they’ve revealed to authorities continues to this day.
Besides the mystery of her demise, Wood, who had worked only sporadically during the 1970s so she could devote more time to being a mother to her daughters Natasha and Courtney, was looking forward to future projects that might have changed the course of her career. After completing Brainstorm, she had planned to make her stage debut in a revival of Anastasia and star in a romantic drama opposite recent Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton.
Mart Crowley (left), author of the landmark play The Boys in the Band, is well regarded as one of Hollywood’s great raconteurs and it’s with good reason. The man knows how to spin a yarn. Crowley departed small-town Vicksburg, Miss., for the alluring lights of show business. While working for Elia Kazan on the director’s 1961 tale of an ill-fated romance, Splendor in the Grass, Crowley befriended the film’s beautiful leading lady, Natalie Wood. The beloved screen star asked the young gay man to work as her assistant. Crowley and Wood would not only have a professional relationship but become each other’s confidant. Through Wood, Crowley would become a regular in the Hollywood party scene, frolicking with iconic figures such as Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, and Jane Fonda at Roddy McDowall’s beach house. Wood would even become crucial in Crowley seeing his seminal gay-themed play produced in 1968. It was a close relationship that would last until Wood’s premature, mysterious death while on the yacht she owned with husband Robert Wagner and with Christopher Walken, her final costar, in the sci-fi film Brainstorm.
Crowley’s unlikely path to success is celebrated in Making the Boys, a fascinating documentary from director Crayton Robey. A few years ago I chatted with Mart about his film. By coincidence it was around the 30th anniversary of Natalie’s death and an investigation into had just been relaunched and was being covered by many news outlets. Naturally, we discussed this quite a bit. Mart also opened up about his close friendship with Wood, discusses her domineering mother, and vehemently disputes the claim by the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern, that Wagner was responsible for his wife’s death.
What are your thoughts on this investigation into Natalie’s death 30 years later?
Mart Crowley: I think it’s ridiculous. It’s obscene to suggest that R.J. [Wagner] could have harmed her. There isn’t a human being on the face of the earth that he worshiped and adored more than Natalie. He was besotted with her, and she with him in her own way. People outside of show business don’t understand that when you’re doing a film or play you sort of become like a barnacle. You gravitate onto somebody and the two of you just yada-yada about the project until everyone around you feels either left out or bored to death. They say, “For God’s sake, don’t talk about that anymore.” Natalie formed that sort of association, as I did too, on every project. You just talk about it morning, noon, and night, whether you’re sexually involved or not, you’re just constantly talking about it. When I was doing Hart to Hart with R.J. and not her, we’d constantly talk about how to make the script better. That was the same with Chris [Walken] and her about Brainstorm.
In Making the Boys you recall something Natalie’s mother [Maria Gurdin] said at her funeral. She told you that if you’d been on the boat, her daughter would still be alive. How did you react to hearing that?
I couldn’t have been too stunned, because Maria was capable of cutting anyone off at the knees or the ankles or the balls or wherever. She’d go for the jugular. We’re getting higher and higher on the anatomy. [Laughs] She’d eat your brain. It didn’t matter. She was just the stage mother of stage mothers. Rose Hovick [immortalized in the musical Gypsy, in which Wood starred in 1962] paled beside Maria Gurdin. Talk about pushing her girl … that’s why Natalie identified so with the character of Gypsy.
So what do you think happened the night Natalie drowned?
I think everything that was reported was true. They’d been drinking all day. She was 5’2″ and weighed 95 pounds. It didn’t take more than a thimble of something to make her drunk. I don’t know how she got through drinking all that champagne and wine without throwing up. They were all drunk out of their minds. If we don’t know anything else from AA, we know that you’re not the same person when you’re drunk. Your inhibitions change and loosen. You become hostile and aggressive. If R.J. was being shut out of the conversation, I know he resented it and acted out. I’d seen them argue before. She wouldn’t stand for it. I can hear her, based on other times, say, “I am not taking it. I’m not standing this and am not going to take this. I’m going to bed, good night.” Off she would go and leave them. Whether R.J. followed her into the stateroom, I don’t know.
They keep talking about this yacht like it was the Onassis yacht. It was 60 feet long and really just a deep-sea fishing boat. There was one stateroom and it wasn’t that big; it was a small bedroom with a queen-size bed. It was in the aft. Then Dennis had a cabin and Christopher had a cabin in the front of the boat. It was a roiling sea. 48 Hours presents it as a calm sea with the moon shining on the water and voices drifting across. No! It was roiling and they were tossing and turning and Chris was seasick. He’d stayed in his cabin practically the whole time taking Dramamine. I just think that all the drinking and them talking about Brainstorm and giggling and having their private things pissed R.J. off and he overreacted and said things he wouldn’t have normally, because he’s not that kind of person.
At that point Chris got up and left the room and she did too. Now, whether R.J. got up and followed her into the stateroom, I don’t know. He went up to the bridge with Dennis. Then after a while they didn’t hear a word from her and thought she’d just gone to sleep. He went downstairs to see if she was OK and she wasn’t there. Then he opened up the back doors and saw the dinghy was gone. He thought she’d taken the dinghy and left in a huff. There was no reason to believe she was dead. Who jumps to the conclusion that when someone has left the boat or house, that they’re dead? That’s why they didn’t call the police immediately. The last thing in the world they thought was that she was dead.
What about the stories that Natalie was terrified of water and wouldn’t have gone out alone?
I don’t know where all these stories came from. She was terrified of dark water, that’s true, but she loved being on the water or near the water or she wouldn’t even have had a boat. She found it tranquil and loved the peace and the seclusion from the public. She liked being on it, she just didn’t like being in the water. She could drive the dinghy. Many times she got in the dinghy and went to shore to go shopping. She didn’t need Dennis to take her anywhere. The fact that he refers to himself sometimes as her bodyguard is ludicrous. I mean, she could have beaten up someone to protect him. [Laughs] I think it’s just sensational and speculative and opportunistic. I think it’s obscene of Dennis. He and this woman [writer Marti Rulli] comes along and manipulated him, writing this stuff, saying you’re going to cooperate. They did an interview with Geraldo Rivera where they went off camera but were still miked. Marti is saying to him, “Tell them! Tell them he pushed her over. We can make millions off this.” And the timing of this! Why did he change his story three times over the course of 30 years? The third and last time it just happened to magically coincide with the 30th anniversary of her death. I think he’s out to make money. He never had money. He was always in trouble. Long before Natalie had the accident on the boat, Dennis was not together. He was the quintessential hungover hippie from the ’70s into the ’80s. R.J. got him out of jail and got the law off his tail more than once. R.J. had been a terribly loyal friend. He’d given him a place to live. He was practically homeless. He looks like he’s trying to milk this story for money.
Watch a clip from 1962’s Gypsy, which must have really hit close to home for Natalie.