By Chuck Ross
According to a number of media reports, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has reopened its investigation of the Nov. 29, 1981, drowning of actress Natalie Wood in the ocean waters just off Catalina Island.
At the time the Sheriff’s Department concluded that Wood, 43, drowned by accident. In the middle of a starless night she had boarded, or tried to board, a dinghy that was attached to the 60-foot yacht on which she had been staying. When the body was found Wood had on a flannel nightgown, a down jacket, and blue wool socks.
It was also reported at the time that although Wood liked to be in boats on the water, she had a deep fear of actually going into the water.
Says the Los Angeles Times in its account, "Sheriff Lee Baca said detectives want to talk to the captain of the boat after learning of comments he recently made about what happened on board. Baca did not provide further details, adding only that the captain ‘made comments worthy of exploring.’ "
The captain’s name is Dennis Davern.
The article continues, "A law enforcement source added that the department recently received a letter from an unidentified ‘third party’ who said the captain had ‘new recollections’ about the case. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing."
Furthermore, that L.A. Times piece notes, "The Sheriff’s Department said it was ‘recently contacted’ with new information about Wood’s death. Producers from CBS’ ’48 Hours,’ who are working on a special segment with Vanity Fair magazine airing Saturday [Nov. 19, 2011], said they contacted the Sheriff’s Department after learning that detectives had new information in the case."
By the way, with the reopening of the Wood investigation CBS moved up its airing of the show from its original Nov. 26 date.
The title of the special edition of the "48 Hours Mystery" show is "Vanity Fair: Hollywood Scandals," and it’s basically a TV version of a special edition of Vanity Fair (VF) that hit newsstands earlier this week, on Wednesday, Nov. 16. TVWeek went out and bought a copy.
This 128-page special edition has, interestingly, Wood on the cover (see below), with Warren Beatty attending the Cannes Film Festival, and the copy on the cover reads, in part, "The best of Vanity Fair: Hollywood. Scandal, Sex and Obsession. 10 classic stories — including the night Natalie Wood drowned."
The article inside, titled "Natalie Wood’s Fatal Voyage," by VF contributing editor Sam Kashner, was originally published in the March 2000 issue of Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the article is not available online at the VF website.
The crux of the long article — details of which we’ll get to in a minute — is an interview with Dennis Davern, who was the captain of the Splendour, the boat that had onboard, the night of Wood’s drowning, her husband, actor Robert Wagner, who was 51, and actor Christopher Walken, then 38. Also onboard were Wood and Davern.
Davern is the the same person the L.A. Sheriff’s Department says it wants to talk to because of his "new recollections."
Here’s what we wonder: The drowning happened 30 years ago next week. Does Davern really have something he just recently remembered? Or perhaps it’s much the same information he’s been peddling for years, including what he told VF in 2000, but the cops are just now willing to really hear it.
So what did Capt. Davern tell VF back in 2000? According to the article’s author, Kashner, what Davern told the magazine is different from what he told the police back in 1981, when the drowning occurred.
First, the setup. Wood was co-starring in a movie, "Brainstorm," with Walken. The VF article, citing Davern, says Wood may have become infatuated with Walken during the making of the movie.
According to the March 2000 article (reprinted in the special VF that just came out this week), "Today, however, Davern tells a different and darker story: "[T]he wine is flowing….R.J. [Wagner] was drinking scotch by then, and I joined him. So we’re sitting there, and Chris and Natalie are giggling and carrying on, the same as before, forgetting that me and R.J. are there…."
" ‘All of a sudden," Davern says, ‘R.J. grabbed a bottle of wine and smashes it right on the table in front of them. Glass goes flying all over. Jesus Christ,’ R.J. says to Christopher, ‘what are you trying to do, f— my wife?’ "
Wood and Walken leave and go to their separate rooms, Davern says. After a few minutes, according to Davern, Wagner says he’s going down to see Wood.
Next, Davern says he hears Wood and Wagner having a ferocious fight, like none he had ever seen or heard them having before. Then, according to the article, Davern says the argument got " ‘so hot and heavy that it got carried out into the cockpit’ at the rear of the yacht. Davern says he next heard ‘the dinghy being untied — you can hear the ropes, the bowline being tugged on.’ "
That’s all Davern says he heard. The fight had stopped and Wagner returned to the part of the yacht where Davern was, Davern says. He adds that the two of them then boozed it up for another couple of hours. At that time Wagner says he was going to check on Wood, Davern says. A few minutes later Wagner returns, saying that Wood in not in her room. Davern says he himself then went looking for Wood and could not find her either.
Next, according to the VF article, "Davern says he then told Wagner that he was going to turn on [the yacht's] floodlights in order to look for [Wood], but Wagner told him not to: ‘Dennis, don’t turn that on.’ Davern then offered to fire up the yacht’s engines and cruise around looking for Wood. According to Davern, Wagner refused. ‘Don’t do that. Let’s think about this. We don’t want to do anything, Dennis, because we don’t want to alert all these people,’ Davern says Wagner told him."
The VF article notes that for a long time Davern was trying to make money by telling his version of what happened, and that he was working on a book.
As noted in the L.A Times article, "The captain, Dennis Davern, co-wrote the book "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour" last year. In the book he described bitter arguments aboard the boat that weekend. In an interview last year on CNN, Davern said he believed the original investigation was woefully incomplete."
The author of the 2000 VF article, Kashner, ends his piece, " ‘I think [Wood] deserves an explanation for her death,’ [Davern] says….He’s married now and raising three young children on a quiet street in a small Florida town, where he paints and restores boats. He named his first child Natasha."
Natasha is a variation of Natalie Wood’s real first name, Natalia.