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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In Memory of Natalie Wood

 "At night, when the sky is full of stars and the sea is still, you get the wonderful sensation that you are floating in space."
- Natalie Wood

WELL, I THINK you all may have guessed that today I would be writing about Natalie. :) Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of her drowning off Santa Catalina Island. About two weeks ago her case was reopened by the L.A Police Department, sparking a lot of new interest in Natalie and her drowning. 

Natalie's biggest fear in life with was water, especially dark water. A few weeks before her death she was quoted as saying, "I've been terrified of water, and yet it seems I'm forced to go in it in every movie I make." (She's right, too - Splendor in the Grass, Sex and the Single Girl, The Great Race...just to name a few, and some of which involved her trying to drown herself or saving someone else who was drowning). 

Her fear of water stemmed from her mother. Her mother, who went by various names like "Mud" or "Maria", was a very fabricated woman who believed that she was descended from royalty (the Romanovs - a picture of them hung over Natalie's crib in their 1930s San Francisco apartment), believed wholeheartedly in gypsy folklore and black magic, and was obsessed with making Natalie into a star (so much so, she totally abandoned Natalie's other two sisters, Olga and Lana). Thanks to her mother's insane habits, Natalie suffered a lot of tragedy in her life and her childhood was really wretched away from her. But likely the biggest mistake Mud ever made was telling Natalie, from the time she was a baby, that she was going to have a death by drowning. 

This was a fear Mud possessed, and she easily passed it onto a young Natalie, who didn't even want her hair to be washed in the sink for fear of having her head submerged in the water. This fear was intensified during the making of "The Green Promise," a 1949 movie in which there was a scene where an eleven year old Natalie is supposed to cross a creaky bridge in a awful thunderstorm. The bridge was eventually supposed to collapse and send Natalie into the water, but she was supposed to be quickly fished out afterwards. During the actual filming, the bridge collapsed prematurely and she was sent into the dark water with wind blowing from the machine in every direction. She held onto the edge of bridge while the cameras kept rolling, as the director requested them to be (he was getting "good footage" for the scene). Natalie nearly drowned, and she broke her left wrist due to the accident. Her mother was afraid of doctors and being blacklisted by the studio, so she never took it to get set in a cast and it grew back deformed. Natalie, pressured to be perfect by her mother, was disgusted by this deformation and always covered her wrist with a thick bracelet while in public. She called it "The Badge."

Her fear for water never faded, though. Apparently on the set of "The Star", in which she played Bette Davis's daughter - this was about a year so later - they called for an impromptu scene for Natalie to jump in water and swim a selection. She apparently started crying and howling so loud, "you could hear her all the way in Catalina," and Bette intervened by saying if they had "wanted a swimmer, they should've gotten Johnny Weissmuller!"

She would marry Robert Wagner twice. The second time around, he introduced her to boating and she discovered she could find inside of her a kind of affection for the water. However, she liked it best when she was inside a yacht and away from the actual water. She and RJ even married the second time on a boat. It wasn't long before they bought one of their own, calling it the "Splendour", after the 1961 movie she'd made with Warren Beatty, Splendor in the Grass.

Natalie, RJ, and her two daughters, Natasha and Courtney, spent a lot of time on the Splendor. I'm currently reading the book "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour" a book focusing on her drowning written by Marti Rulli with the help of Dennis Davern, the skipper on the Splendour who is the cause for the recent reopening of her case. The book does a good job of depicting regular days on the Splendour: with Natalie sitting on her windowseat, nicknamed "Natalie's perch," sifting through scripts she had been offered, sketching pictures of her daughters, and dancing to Bobby Darrin while RJ and her daughters splashed around in the water she was sure to avoid. 

A number of celebrities would visit this boat and spend weekends there. The boat was Natalie and RJ's pride and joy, and they liked taking their friends on trips in it.

In the latter part of 1981, Natalie was working on what she hoped would be her "comeback film", a sci-fi flick costarring Christopher Walken entitled, "Brainstorm." The shooting was being done in North Carolina and she was nearly done when Thanksgiving rolled around. She went back to California to spend Thanksgiving with her family - Thanksgiving dinner was spent at sister Lana's house - and so did Chris Walken. RJ, Natalie, and Walken made plans to spend the weekend following Thanksgiving on the 
Splendour, taking a trip to Natalie's favorite vacation spot: Catalina Island.

The weekend was ill fated from the start. Natalie's eleven year old daughter, Natasha, begged her mother not to go on the boating trip for she was afraid something would happen to her - an eerie foretelling that would unfortunately come true. Natalie loved her daughters very much and almost submitted to staying, but the others told her that her daughters needed to learn they couldn't always get what they wanted, etc., and not to spoil them. So they went: Natalie, RJ, Christoper Walken, and the skipper, Dennis Davern, for a weekend on the Splendour.

The weekend was a stormy one from the start. Natalie and RJ began getting into arguments over moving the boat to a particular location, whereas beef began to accumulate between RJ and Christoper over Natalie's career. Walken was encouraging Natalie to devote more time to her career. Rumor has it RJ was also spited because he was suspicious of Natalie and Walken having an affair, but there is no evidence to prove that this is true. Natalie and RJ argued the night of Friday, the 27th. That night Natalie spent at a hotel. But by the next morning Natalie was in a better mood, back on the boat, and cooking Spanish eggs for the group.

Saturday, the 28th wasn't much better than the day before. That night the group went out for dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef, a beachy cafe in Avalon, city on the mainland. This was where Natalie had her last meal and where the trouble would begin. The three of them got a table with Dennis Davern back at the boat. During the course of the evening, Natalie would happily sign autographs and take pictures with fans. One witness even walked in the women's bathroom and found Natalie braiding and combing the hair of a young girl. 

During this night, the three also drank excessively and were pretty much drunk by the time they returned to the boat, stumbling across the dock. Once they settled back inside, Walken and RJ picked up a fight. The argument's exact source is not known but it was likely over Natalie's career or so. RJ - and he would admit to this - took a liquor bottle and smashed it. Natalie got up and retired to her stateroom. Walken and RJ settled a truce and RJ retreated to the stateroom he shared with Natalie. Davern now strongly insists that he and Natalie fought in that stateroom, nearly violent fighting, and that is what Davern attributes to Natalie's death.

The rest of the night is fuzzy, and here is where the different stories seem to come into play. RJ remembers going into Natalie's room later and not finding her. In his autobiography, he claims that he suspected she took the dinghy out "which she often did at night", but when she had still not "returned" an hour later he became nervous because he knew Natalie was "scared of water." He totally contradicts himself within a few sentences. It's obvious to many however that Natalie, someone so afraid of water, would not have taken a little boat out into dark water in the middle of the dark night.

The most common explanation was that the dinghy was noisily hitting the side of the boat as it often did, and Natalie shuffled out to try and tie it up. Apparently when she did, she fell out of the boat, hitting her head and becoming unconscious. But there are so many things to contradict this story, too. She couldn't have been completely unconscious because the Wayne family, on a nearby boat, swore that they heard the shouts of, "Help me, I'm drowning, I'm drowning!". They tried to respond to the shouts but were unsuccessful in getting a response.

RJ would wait a full four hours before alerting the Coast Guard, and the official search for his wife did not begin until about six or so the morning of November 29th, nearly a full seven hours after she'd first disappeared. Her body was found in the "White Cove" of Catalina. Her eyes were open, she was floating upright, held afloat by a red down jacket that she wore. Underneath she wore a nightgown and socks. She wore four rings, the tag necklace she always wore, and a bracelet: but not "The Badge", the one that she always wore when going into public, which meant she had not intended to be going into public. There were some twenty bruises on her body. The dinghy was found before her, switched off and silent with scratch marks on the sides of the tiny boat. 

The case of her death was closed ten days later after brief questing with the three other parties on the boat that night. Now it is reopened, due to Dennis Davern, who claims he has the real truth of what happened to Natalie that night, and insists he lied to investigators thirty years ago.

Honestly, I don't think anyone really knows what happened that night but Natalie. The whole event and the way it unfolded is eerie and so suspicious: especially considering this was Natalie's very worst fear, what her mother had predicted she would die from. Each story contradicts each other. In the book I am currently reading, the author claims Dennis Davern was very close to the Wagners and did minuscule tasks for them all the time: so he certainly wouldn't have minded tying up the dinghy if had been banging against the boat that night. Also, the dinghy would have been quite loud and everyone on the boat would have heard it motoring up, so how could RJ's first reaction be that his hydrophobic wife had taken out the little boat to the mainland?

The only thing I can say to it all, is that I hope with the reopening of her case justice will be served for her and her story.

I think if Natalie hadn't drowned that night, she would still be with us. I think, perhaps, that she would have made a comeback movie, whether it was "Brainstorm" or another film. I think that maybe she would eventually have won the Oscar, or at least an honorary one. It's a big injustice I think that she never did, for she was nominated three times! Maybe she would have even written an autobiography, for she was starting to when she died. She had only just finished the first chapter.

Her life was left uncompleted, taken by her greatest fear, and I think that's honestly one of the very worst things that can happen to a person. (Well, obviously, you'd think death would be one of the worst things!). 

Why do I love Natalie, and what I do I remember most about her? On this thirtieth anniversary of her death, I remember:

05. What a wonderful actress she was, and the awesome movies she made and the characters she portrayed.
04. The energy she put into the art she preformed. She once said, "If I didn't believe in what I'm doing, I'd rather go to work in a dime store."
03. Her gorgeousness.
02. Her wonderful sense of humor.
01. Her love for her family and her daughters.
00. Her kind personality and her passion for life.

Now, as if I haven't already written enough and congratulations if you're still here with me, some photos. Natalie must've been one of the most photogenic people EVER. I have not seen a single bad photo of her, and there are so many wonderfully awesome photos of her too. It's hard to just pick a few, ever!

"You know what I want? I want yesterday..."

Just a small selection of the favorite Natalie pictures I have saved on my computer. Seriously, she had the best photos EVER.

If you'd like to check it out, here is the video I made for her on this particular day.


That's all for today. I'll probably be back tomorrow, because it's Lucy and Desi's wedding anniversary. :P



Dani said...

Nice text, I like that you took the time to write it, as Natalie deserves to be remembered.
About the untying of the dinghy, I don't know if you've reached this part of the book yet, but they say that the dinghy was tied by 2 ropes, so if Natalie was adjusting one of them, the dinghy would be secured by the other. So, if she fell in the water, the dinghy would stay by the yacht. And that's just another hole in the theory Wagner created.
I watched your video yesterday (even left you a comment there) and I thought it was beautiful. I like the clips that you chose and also the song. You did a good job.

Samantha said...

Wow! As a new follower of yours, I was so excited to read this entire post! I hardly knew any of these things about Natalie Wood except that she was an incredible actress. It truly is SO sad that her life ended the way it did, especially since she had so much left to give the world. Thank you for posting this!

Rianna said...

Dani: Yeah, thanks, it did take me a while to write all of it. She certainly DOES deserve to be remembered! I haven't reached that part of the book yet, but I understand what you mean. So yet another hole... I get more and more dubious about Robert Wagner as time goes by. Thanks for your comment on the video :) And I'm really glad you liked the song and clips! Thanks!

Samantha: Firstly, thanks so much for following me! :) I agree completely with you, she had so much left to give to the world and it really is sad. You're welcome, I'm really glad you liked this post! :)

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