We all know of the tragic end of Natalie Wood’s life. On November 29, 1981, at 7:30 A.M., the body of the beautiful, 43-year-old movie star—whose peak career spanned from her pigtailed child-star turn in Miracle on 34th Street to her portrayal, at 17, of a teenage “bad girl” in Rebel Without a Cause and her aching roles, at 23, in Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story—was found floating in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Catalina Island. She was discovered far away from the yacht upon which she and her husband, Robert Wagner, and their friend Christopher Walken had been cruising, with stopovers in Avalon and no small amount of drinking and fighting.
Within a few days the death was ruled “accidental” by Los Angeles’s then coroner, Thomas Noguchi. At first Wagner claimed Wood slipped, and the case was swiftly closed. Wagner amended that scenario in 1986, saying that Wood (who could barely swim and who was deeply afraid of “dark water”) had gotten out of bed and, in the dead of night, despite there being three strong men aboard (Wagner, Walken, and the captain, Dennis Davern), fallen into the sea while trying to pull up the dinghy that was banging against the side of the boat.
On the Case
Over the years since, many new developments (including the revelation that Wood had left the boat at around 11 P.M. but Wagner and Davern had not sounded the alarm until 1:30 A.M.) and much shoe-leather reporting have made that initial ruling more improbable and the dinghy-silencing scenario almost ludicrous. (Wagner has repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with Wood’s death and, so far, no charges have ever been filed against the actor, who is now 90.)
A good share of this reporting was done by author Suzanne Finstad. Her 2001 biography, Natasha, cautiously left the question of Wood’s cause of death open-ended, even though she seemed to know better. Finstad’s abiding refrain was that Wood, a world-class pleaser at the mercy of a dictatorial stage-mother-on-steroids, never had an advocate and was tragically vulnerable and in emotional pain for much of her life. That leitmotif compelled the author to keep digging into the truth about her subject’s death. (Air Mail’s own Sam Kashner, in writing for Vanity Fair in 2000, “cracked Davern open,” Finstad says.)
New developments and reporting have made the dinghy-silencing scenario almost ludicrous.
The Wood case’s official reopening in 2011 and its most startling turn—a reclassification in early February 2018, with Wood’s death termed “suspicious” and Wagner named as the only “person of interest”—were significantly influenced by Finstad’s sleuthing. A woman who dated Davern remembers him saying, “Everyone’s been paid off, bribed off, threatened.” Thanks to oversharing from a genial, lazy lead investigator on the case, Finstad learned there was something called a “murder book”—boxes of work product from the investigation. She quickly discovered that there had been basically “no investigation”—phone messages were unreturned, interviews incomplete. Then there was the woman who, with her boyfriend, had been on the adjacent boat on the night of Wood’s death and had heard Wood scream, “Somebody please help me, I’m drowning!” The authorities didn’t seem to want to hear that inconvenient fact, Finstad gathered.
Finstad talked to me about all this in a phone conversation the other day, just before a new edition of her book, now titled Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography, went on sale. The book’s new chapters reveal a source whom Finstad persuaded to come forward after 40 years of silence: a general-practice doctor named Michael Franco, who had been an intern in the L.A. coroner’s office in 1981. Franco told Finstad that the striations he saw on Wood’s body had been intentionally ignored by his higher-ups, whose public pronouncements were that Wood was trying to get back into the dinghy from the water, when, in fact, the striations “were in the opposite direction of somebody trying to get onto a boat. It was almost like somebody being pushed off,” he said—“forcefully.” When he mentioned the striations to Noguchi, Franco said, the coroner “hesitantly stopped what he was doing” and, after a silence, said, “Some things are best left unsaid.” Franco’s strong opinion: “Natalie Wood’s death wasn’t an accident…. She was pushed off of whatever it was she was holding onto.”
Finstad first approached the long-silent doctor by making an appointment with him, as a patient. She disclosed the Nifty Girl Detective ingenuity she had to employ while investigating this covered-up case. And covered up it’s been: in an incident that closes her book’s new chapters, the pro-Wagner sentiment that colored the case from the beginning is stunningly brought home with a description of Wood’s own agent, Guy McElwaine, telling Lana Wood (who always believed her older sister’s death was not an accident) that even though Wagner confided to McElwaine what had happened on the boat that night, McElwaine refused to disclose the conversation to Lana because “I don’t want R.J. [Wagner] hurt.”
Aside from exploring the details surrounding the 2018 reclassification of the case—facts pointing increasingly to what many people have come to assume—the book’s new pages, and my interview with Finstad, revealed something arguably more shocking and timely about Natalie Wood: like the Harvey Weinstein victims only now getting justice, Wood was violently raped by a powerful industry man and threatened with death if she revealed the crime—“If you tell anyone [about the rape],” Wood was told, “it’ll be the last thing you do.” (Even Weinstein, sentenced Wednesday to 23 years in prison, tended to stop short of death threats, though Salma Hayek said in 2017 that Weinstein threatened to kill her. It was also recently revealed that, when erroneously told that Jennifer Aniston had accused him of groping her, Weinstein said she “should be killed.”)
Like the Weinstein victims before her, Wood was violently raped by a powerful industry man.
Though Finstad mentioned this incident in the 2001 version of her book, that 16-years-before-#MeToo date of its publication resulted in a naïve, or breezily forgiving, reception to the revelation, which Finstad obtained from five sources, including Dennis Hopper. The alleged rapist of this already famous teenager was a highly regarded star, then in the early days of what would become a widely admired, more than 65-year-long marriage. Wood, Finstad says, “was terrified of him.” (When asked why she has not named the mysterious movie star, Finstad says, “The facts [of the rape] are there. We wanted this to be about Natalie.”)
It should come as no surprise that Rose McGowan, one of the first Weinstein victims to come to light, signed on to narrate the audiobook of Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography. McGowan recorded it two weeks ago, texting Finstad during breaks in the emotional reading.
Behind the Deep Blue Sea
The sad saga of Natalie Wood’s #MeToo victimization doesn’t end there, Finstad tells me. A year before Wood was raped by the movie star, she was “pimped by her mother,” Maria Gurdin, “to Frank Sinatra.” A milder version of this account appeared in the first edition of her book—“I wrote that her mother,” who wanted Wood to be a star at any cost, “brought her to Sinatra to try to advance her career,” Finstad says. Now she’s calling it what it is: Wood’s own mother arranged for Sinatra to have sex with her.
Finstad says, “It isn’t just shocking that [Sinatra] would have sex with a 15-year-old”—this was revealed by Sinatra’s valet, George Jacobs, in his own 2003 tell-all, and confirmed by a fiancé of Wood’s, the actor Scott Marlowe—but that “it wasn’t just overlooked by the victim’s mother but fostered by her.” Finstad continues, “Sinatra said he had been taken with Natalie since he’d seen Miracle on 34th Street.” Wood was eight years old in that movie.
Now she’s calling it what it is: Wood’s own mother arranged for Sinatra to have sex with her.
Wood’s sexual relationship with Sinatra was “one of the traumatic secrets she carried with her,” Finstad says. “Scott could tell very clearly, when they were intimate, that she knew things a young girl that age shouldn’t know,” Finstad says of Marlowe, to whom Wood was engaged at 18. “It was pretty obvious to him that she had either been abused or sexually exploited at a young age.” Another young actor, Robert Hyatt—who treated Wood like a sister—“noticed that after she was seeing Sinatra for a while, she matured in a way that was sad and discernible,” Finstad says. “No one was looking out for her! Her dad was probably clueless—he was drinking and completely emasculated by his wife. He was no match to Maria. So Natalie was like a waif in the wind.”
Finstad found that Sinatra, out of his sense of protectiveness or possessiveness, had Wood followed for many years. He even had Lana Wood followed—such was his way. And, irony of ironies, when Thomas Noguchi announced that he would conduct a “psychological autopsy” on Wood to figure out why it would have been that Natalie wanted to get off the boat that night, it was Sinatra whose angry letter to the coroner’s office helped remove Noguchi from his position. It worked. The dismissal of Noguchi, which cast doubt over his work just when he was beginning to question the original scenario, helped Wagner. “That’s when everything”—the whole investigation—“shut down,” Finstad says. (Noguchi has never publicly commented on the case, though Finstad interviewed Noguchi and his lawyer.)
Now, almost 40 years later, Finstad says, “I am hopeful that Dr. Franco”—the witness she found—“will be pivotal” to the case, helping to bolster the testimony of Davern, who, according to Finstad, mentioned to several people that Wagner “pushed Natalie in the water.” Davern’s “behavior was so mercurial,” Finstad says, “that he has not been a reliable witness.”
“No one advocated for Natalie—in her life or for decades after her death,” Finstad says. Which is why she wrote her new book and why McGowan narrated it. “We have to advocate for Natalie now.”
Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge