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New York – Natalie Wood was 22 years old in June 1961 and months away from superstardom with the release of two of her finest films, the musical ‘West Side Story’ and the period drama ‘Splendour In The Grass’, with Warren Beatty.
She had also realised a childhood dream of marrying the handsome star Robert Wagner and the pair had become one of Hollywood’s golden couples, holding court in a white Beverly Hills mansion lavishly converted to resemble an Ancient Greek palace.
Then, waking one night in their opulent king-size bed, Wood found Wagner missing.
Terrified since childhood of being alone in the dark, she went to look for him, only to find the heartthrob in flagrante with someone else.
Its author, Suzanne Finstad, says Wagner’s “sexual betrayal” of Wood not only destroyed their first marriage but was the “dark cloud” that loomed over their remarriage and her mysterious death in 1981. She drowned during a drunken and chaotic cruise off the Californian coast.
Finstad suggests that if Wood, who was then 43, hadn’t been devastated by Wagner’s disloyalty two decades earlier, she wouldn’t have tried to make him jealous of their friend and fellow star Christopher Walken, provoking a drunken row that ended with the actress left floundering in the sea at night with nobody to save her.
Finstad’s exhaustive 2001 biography of Wood, in which she revealed new evidence suggesting the death wasn’t accidental, provided the impetus for Los Angeles police to reopen their investigation of the case in 2011.
In 2012, the city coroner changed the official cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors”.
Wagner, now 90, has denied any involvement in her death. But in 2018 he was named as a “person of interest” by the police, as they reclassified Wood’s death as “suspicious”.
Both Wood’s sister Lana, a former Bond Girl (in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’), and the yacht’s skipper Dennis Davern — the only other person on board during the trip — now claim Wagner murdered Wood.
Finstad has just updated her book, including further evidence that the original investigation was a sham and that Wagner, who was best known in the UK for starring with Stefanie Powers in the TV detective series ‘Hart To Hart’, may have been responsible for his wife’s death.
Wood was one of Hollywood’s most radiant stars but left one of its darkest mysteries. The on-screen character for which she is best remembered, the pure and virginal Maria in ‘West Side Story’, was far removed from her immensely troubled real life.
After winning a starring role at the age of eight in ‘Miracle On 34th Street’, she had earned three Oscar nominations before she was 25.
Some have portrayed the diminutive Wood as manipulative, self-centred and cripplingly insecure, so sexually precocious that she had had a long string of lovers by her mid-teens.
Finstad, who quotes the judgment of Wood’s friend Robert Redford that she was a “good soul”, lays much of the blame on her violent, alcoholic father and — in particular — a ferociously ambitious mother who threw Natalie at much older men who could help her career.
She reportedly had an affair with 38-year-old Frank Sinatra when she was 15; and, a year older, was “forced” into a sexual relationship with the 43-year-old director Nicholas Ray to prove she could play a “bad girl” in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’.
But the “secret that was buried deepest in Natalie’s closet of skeletons”, says Finstad, was the “shocking end” of her “fairy-tale” first marriage to Wagner, on whom she’d had a crush since childhood.
Wood, too, questioned the butler’s presence and urged Wagner to dispense with him. Instead, Cavendish moved to their new home, a small maisonette in Beverly Hills. The famous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that Cavendish “brings them breakfast in bed”.
In their second year of marriage, announcing that they wanted to ‘live like stars’, they splashed out on a snow-white mansion in the heart of Beverly Hills, buying each other matching Jaguars to park outside.