Natalie Wood’s 1981 drowning death has remained one of Hollywood’s great mysteries for four decades.
But her sister Lana Wood believes there is one person to blame for the “West Side Story” actress’ death: Natalie’s husband, Robert Wagner.
“I don’t believe it was premeditated,” Lana, 75, told The Post. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he did it: Of course he did!”
Now, she has written “Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood” (Dey Street Books), out Tuesday. The book — part memoir, part true-crime investigation using new evidence dug up by homicide detectives — aims to dispel the myths and illuminate the facts surrounding Natalie’s tragic death.
In it, Lana also alleges that actor Kirk Douglas sexually assaulted a teenage Natalie — confirming one of Hollywood’s oldest rumors.
According to the book, their mother, Maria, had dropped 16-year-old Natalie at the Chateau Marmont to meet Douglas, a very important actor at the time.
Lana was asleep in the car when Natalie finally came back, disheveled and upset, whispering angrily at their mother. But Natalie later told her what had happened: Maria had arranged a meeting with Kirk Douglas, who sexually assaulted Natalie.
“I knocked on the door Mom told me to go to, and next thing I knew, Kirk Douglas was ushering me into his suite,” Natalie told her, Lana writes in the book.
Then Natalie began to cry before murmuring softly, “He hurt me, Lana … It was like an out-of-body experience. I was terrified. I was confused.”
“That really affected her entire life — how she looked at things and how she perceived things,” Lana recalled. But Natalie did nothing about it, “because of my mom telling her that she’d ruin her career, she’d never work again.”
After that, “Natalie was so guarded … And she really mistrusted men after that.”
Which makes Lana’s allegations about Natalie’s death all the more heartbreaking.
Lana woke up in her Los Angeles home the morning of Nov. 29, 1981, to a ringing phone — followed by a blood-curdling scream.
The 35-year-old leapt out of bed, found her wailing mother on the floor and took the phone away from her.
“I’m so sorry, Lana. I just heard about Natalie,” said her friend on the other line.
Natalie was, at that moment, supposed to be on a yacht with her actor husband, Robert Wagner, and her friend and current co-star Christopher Walken.
“They found her body this morning,” the friend explained. “Washed up on shore on Catalina [Island].”
At first, Lana didn’t believe it. Then she turned on the TV. According to breaking news, Natalie had disappeared from the yacht during the night, supposedly taking a dinghy to — her husband would later say — “party hop.” Her dead body was found floating in the water the next morning, in a nightgown, socks and a down jacket.
According to “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” a 2020 documentary made by Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, the manager of a mainland restaurant where Natalie, Wagner, Walken and the yacht’s skipper, Dennis Davern, had dined the night before was worried they were all too intoxicated to make it back to the yacht. (Wood’s toxicology report revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.14 percent.) But they did make it back, after 10:30 p.m. In the documentary, Wagner says he and Walken got into an argument, but both thought Natalie was safe on the boat.
They went looking for her just after 11 p.m. and apparently discovered the dinghy missing.
“None of the things that [Wagner, Walken or the yacht’s skipper] said or that the police said at that time rang true to me,” Wood told The Post from her home in Los Angeles.
“The things that they were saying that Natalie did” — that the nightgown-wearing actress had taken the yacht’s dinghy to “party hop” among the boats parked in the harbor — “they might as well have been saying that she was trying to fly to another planet. They were totally out of character.”
The Post attempted to reach a representative for Wagner, but received no response.
Over the next few months, she tried to get more answers from Wagner — but he swiftly cut Lana out of his life, telling her to only contact him through his lawyer. She tried not to read too much into his strange behavior.
But 10 years after Natalie’s death, she received a phone call out of the blue from Dennis Davern, the yacht’s skipper.
“I didn’t tell the cops everything,” he said between tears. “Not even close.”
In 2011 the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case after Davern‘s 2009 book, “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” revealed he had heard the married couple arguing before Natalie’s disappearance. That year, the coroner changed the cause of death to “drowning and other undetermined factors” after reevaluating the case details, including that Natalie’s body appeared to have fresh bruises when it was initially found. Police reclassified the case as “suspicious” and, in 2018, named Wagner, now 91, a “person of interest.” The case remains open.
“It isn’t for my sake, it’s for Natalie’s,” Lana said of the book. “I felt like nobody was watching over Natalie. Nobody was trying to, you know, stand up for her … She would have done the same for me.”
Natalie Wood was born in 1938 in San Francisco, the oldest child of Russian immigrants. A fortune teller told her mother, Maria, that she would give birth to a famous actress, and Maria did her best to manifest that prediction. By the time Lana was born, in 1946, 8-year-old Natalie was already a movie star, acting alongside Orson Welles in “Tomorrow Is Forever” and filming “Miracle on 34th Street.”
“I basically grew up on her sets,” Lana said, adding that her mother would drag baby Lana to watch Natalie work. Lana nabbed her first film role when she was 7, playing a younger version of her sister’s character in the Western “The Searchers.”
Lana never felt shy around Natalie’s Hollywood friends like Dennis Hopper and Tab Hunter, who would often come over and swim, or her boyfriends like hotel heir Nicky Hilton. One day, Natalie’s quiet “Rebel Without a Cause” co-star James Dean came by, and Lana ambushed him.
“I turned off all the lights and shone a flashlight on the wall and moved it quickly up and down so it looked like it was dancing — I thought it looked like a stylish movie, and I wanted to show him,” she said. “Poor Jimmy Dean sat through it and then told [me] it was wonderful.”
But Robert — “R.J.” — Wagner was different. The 26-year-old actor, who had starred in “Prince Valiant” and “A Kiss Before Dying,” began dating Natalie when the actress was 18, and he never even uttered a “hello” to 10-year-old Lana.
“I remember him walking down the hall past my room and that he had very blue eyes,” she said. “Other than that, I felt absolutely nothing towards him.”
In 1957, “When they got married the first time, I cried loudly throughout the entire ceremony,” Lana said. Afterward, Natalie went over and put her arm around Lana, asking her what was wrong. “I said, ‘I just lost you.’ And you know what? I was right. I did.”
Lana continued to see Natalie — even living with her and R.J. at one point when tensions with her mother reached a boiling point — yet she noticed that her sister’s new husband mostly stayed out of her way. Still, she was shocked in 1962 when Natalie showed up at their parents’ house, distraught and with a bleeding hand.
Natalie told her family she had walked in on Wagner “in a compromising position” with his butler and was so “enraged that she squeezed the glass she was holding until it shattered and cut her,” Lana writes.
The couple divorced, with the press blaming the breakup on Natalie’s affair with her “Splendor in the Grass” co-star Warren Beatty. Lana said that her sister didn’t begin dating Beatty until after she and Wagner had split.
Natalie went on to marry producer Richard Gregson and give birth to their daughter, Natasha; Wagner wed actress Marion Marshall, with whom he had daughter Katie. But 10 years later, both newly single, Natalie and Wagner announced they were getting married to each other a second time.
When Lana expressed confusion about their reunion — given that Wagner had cheated on her sister with a man, their mother glibly parroted, “He’s cured” of homosexual tendencies.
Pushed by Lana on the matter, Natalie told her: “Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”
“I would have really liked to hear, ‘I love him dearly and I can’t live without him,’ something like that,” Lana said. “But to give me a quote about devils? It really didn’t sit well.”
Natalie and Wagner’s daughter, Courtney, was born in 1974, and after making such hits as “Gypsy,” “West Side Story” and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” Wood had largely disappeared from the big screen. In 1981, she was making the sci-fi movie “Brainstorm” with Walken, and the two had become pals.
He was on the boat the night she died, but has never spoken publicly about her death. (Lana told The Post that Walken has spoken with the detectives currently working on the case, under the condition that his remarks would never be made public.)
Lana told The Post that she doesn’t believe Natalie and Walken ever slept together, but that they were close and had great chemistry. “Everybody flirts on sets.”
After Natalie’s death, according to the book, Wagner began to treat Lana with outright hostility. He would invite her daughter and mother to dinner and exclude her. He ragged on Lana to the press after she sold some of Natalie’s clothes, and had his lawyer draw up a statement for Lana to sign, relinquishing any and all further claims against Natalie’s estate.
Lana — a sometime actress who was Bond girl Plenty O’Toole in “Diamonds Are Forever” — had been employed behind the scenes in film production but after her sister’s death, she couldn’t find any work. Eventually, Rowland Perkins, president of the Creative Artists Agency, called her and told her that Wagner had gotten her blacklisted in the industry.
“I have no idea [why he would blacklist me] other than it came back to me that he considers me a loose cannon,” Lana told The Post.
She started selling dolls and got a job as a salesperson for Sprint. She and her young daughter moved in with Maria, who was living in one of Natalie’s old condos. Then Wagner kicked her out, explaining he was the rightful owner.
“He was trying to make sure and sink me, but he wasn’t able to,” Lana said. “He didn’t ruin me.”
In the early 1990s, Dennis Davern began calling her, talking about Natalie and Wagner’s troubled relationship. He told Lana — and would write in a 2011 testimonial — that he overheard Wagner accuse Walken of wanting to “f–k” Natalie. He claimed that the married couple had a fight out on the boat’s deck right before she went missing and that Wagner prevented him from putting out a call to shore for a missing person.
In 2009, Davern collaborated on a book about the incident, which exposed several inconsistencies in witness testimonials and holes in the investigation.
For one, Wagner had told police that his wife probably tried to take the dinghy out when she drowned, but Davern said Natalie couldn’t operate the dinghy. Plus, she couldn’t swim and had a severe phobia of dark water — due to that prophecy her mother had received from a fortune teller, who not only told her she would have a famous daughter, but also that her daughter would drown.
Wagner had also said that Natalie had probably taken the dinghy out to go party hopping, yet the actress was wearing her nightgown and slippers.
In 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case, interviewing other key witnesses, whom the original detectives never bothered pursuing. The book mentions one woman who talked to the press shortly after Wood’s death — after trying to contact the police several times — then received a threatening note saying, “If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know.”
A coroner found that Natalie had fresh bruises on her body that didn’t look like they were from the boat but from a person.
Lana writes in her book that she believes Wagner and Natalie had an “alcohol-fueled argument” that “escalated into a physical confrontation” and that Wagner “delivered a blow to the left side of Natalie’s face that knocked her unconscious.”
“I believe,” she writes, “that suddenly, panic-stricken when he realized what he’d done, R.J. made the fatal decision to put Natalie in the water to avoid being held responsible for what had happened.”
The book speculates that Wagner sent Davern — who had come up to intervene — to look for the “missing” Natalie “to give himself time to untie the dinghy.” Davern said in his testimonial that Wagner did tell him not to turn the searchlights on or to call the authorities until two hours later, and Lana writes that she believes that he did this to “[cover] up the fact that, in a drunken, jealous, rage-filled moment, he’d ended the life of Natalie Wood.”
Still, Lana said that she didn’t write the book to bring down her brother-in-law.
“Wagner is not going to jail. He’s not going to be arrested. He’s not going to admit anything,” Lana explained. “All I can do is attempt to have people understand the truth, and to show Natalie as she really was.”