It’s been 40 years since Natalie Wood died in mysterious circumstances off the coast of Santa Catalina Island in California. The actor was 43 years old at the time. For decades, her death was deemed an accident. But 10 years ago, authorities reopened the case, suggesting for the first time that pieces of the puzzle were missing.
Lana Wood, Natalie Wood’s younger sister, conducts her own probe into her sibling’s death in a new memoir, Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood, released on Tuesday (9 November) by HarperCollins. “Telling this story is the bravest thing I will ever do,” she writes. “It’s the best way I can think of to honour Natalie’s legacy, tell the unvarnished story of our lives, and uncover the truth behind [the night of her death].”
Born on 20 July 1938, Natalie Wood began acting as a child. She earned a first Academy Award nomination as a teenager in the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category, for the 1955 drama Rebel Without a Cause. Two more nominations followed, both for Best Actress in a Leading Role: one in 1962 for the period drama Splendor in the Grass, and one in 1964 for the romantic comedy-drama Love with the Proper Stranger.
At the time of her death in 1981, Natalie Wood was on a yacht with her then-husband, actor Robert Wagner, as well as Christopher Walken and the boat’s skipper. Her body was found on 29 November off the coast of Catalina Island. Thomas Noguchi, then the chief medical examiner for the County of Los Angeles, deemed her death to have been the result of an accidental drowning.
For years, speculation kept swirling as to the circumstances of Wood’s death. In 2011, investigators reopened the case. The following year, the actor’s death certificate was amended to list her cause of death as “drowning and other undetermined factors”. In 2018, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant John Corina told CBS’s 48 Hours of Wagner: “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now. I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
Wagner has never been considered a suspect in Wood’s death. He has never faced charges and has denied any involvement. In 2018, his publicist and a sheriff’s spokeswoman told The Associated Press that detectives hadn’t contacted Wagner for more than five years.
Speaking to CBS Mornings on Tuesday (9 November), Lana Wood says she doesn’t believe the case of her sister’s death will ever be fully resolved. “Hers is a story that should have ended in joy,” she writes in her memoir. “The truth is it actually had no ending at all. Like so many other enduring mysteries, it will be talked about, speculated about, written about, and replayed dozens of times to come. After all, it’s Hollywood.”