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'I'd Gotten Access To What's Called The Murder Book': Author Revisits Hollywood Star Natalie Wood's Life And Death

Actress Natalie Wood had a fear of water long before her tragic drowning. An updated biography is delving into her life and death.

By Stephanie Gomulka
Natalie Wood G

Natalie Wood was a movie star whose storied career and staying power as an actress set her apart as a unique talent in the world of cinema.  

“She was a major, major movie star on the same tier as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe,” Susan Finstad, the author of “Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography,” told Oxygen.com.

Wood, who started acting at the age of 5, received three Oscar nominations within a single decade and had leading roles in iconic films like “Miracle on 34th Street,” “West Side Story,” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” 

Yet her esteemed and decorated career has at times been eclipsed by her tragic death. 

Wood, 43, was found dead in the water off Santa Catalina Island in November 1981 during a getaway on the yacht Splendour with her husband, Robert Wagner, actor Christopher Walken, and the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern. Her death was initially ruled an accidental drowning, but later reclassified as “suspicious."

The updates in the investigation of Wood's death and accruing more details about her "technicolor" life since the book came out in 2001 pushed Finstad to revisit to the biography, she said. 

“I wanted to sort of illuminate what I wasn’t able to write about in the first book and then to also incorporate all of the new material that I've discovered since then," Finstad added. 

Wood tragically had a deep-seated fear of the water, according to Finstad. 

“[Wood’s mother Maria] saw a gypsy psychic who prophesized for her,” Finstad said. “One was that her second child was going to be a beauty famous throughout the world and that [Maria] should beware of dark water because she would drown.” 

Despite the so-called prophecy being meant for Maria, “Natalie’s mother inculcated this into little Natasha, which was her nickname as a child," Finstad said. 

“[Natalie] was so terrified by this she was afraid to even take a bath and wash her hair in the bathtub … because she thought it was her fate to drown,” Finstad said. “I found a couple of interviews that she’d done on television shows maybe in her 30s or 40s where she actually mentioned this and said she had this fear of dark water.” 

The case was reopened in 2011 prompted by witnesses coming forward claiming to have more information, officials told the Los Angeles Times. The next year, her cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”  

Investigators with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department have been working with Finstad, she said.

"I provided them with a lot of tapes of people that I interviewed for the first book," Finstad said. 

Finstad obtained a case file from detectives which she refers to as a "murder book." It includes reports from officers along with photographs of Wood and the yacht Splendour. No one has been charged in connection to Wood's death.

A family claims to have heard "a woman crying for help" soon after 11 p.m. the night before Wood was found on November 28th, according to Finstad's Natalie Wood biography. The family — an engaged couple named John Payne and Marilyn Wayne along with Wayne’s son — reached out to the authorities in the city Avalon for help. The family asserted the calls for help from the water stopped around 11:25 p.m. They also contacted investigators after they learned Wood drowned, according to Finstad’s book.  

It’s estimated Wood went missing close to midnight and died around that time, according to a new coroner's report released in 2013. Wagner called in his wife missing at 1:30 a.m., per the report. 

A volunteer intern who was present for Wood's autopsy, Dr. Michael Franco, is another possible witness Finstad points to.

“He is convinced that what he saw during the autopsy was proof of a homicide,” Finstad told Oxygen.com.  

In particular, striations on Wood's thigh and shin were in the opposite direction of somebody trying to get onto the boat Franco alleged, according to Finstad’s book.  

Unexplained bruising on the actress' arm, knee, and left wrist could have happened prior to her entering the water, officials said following the amended coroner's report. However, the cause of those injuries and if Natalie went into the water on her own could not be determined by the coroner.

The original coroner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, initially concluded Wood slipped and fell into the water. Dr. Noguchi also theorized her level of intoxication played a role.  

In 2018, the sheriff’s department announced an update in the case: They named her husband, Robert Wagner, a “person of interest" because he was the last known person to see her alive. The case is a suspicious death investigation, Sheriff Department Lieutenant John Corina said at a press conference. 

Wagner has repeatedly denied any involvement in his wife’s death. 

"We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven't been able to prove that this was an accident, either," Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Detective Robert Hernandez told CBS News’ “48 Hours” in 2018. “The ultimate problem is we don't know how she ended up in the water." 

No charges have been filed in the case. 

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