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
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 kingsize 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.
And it wasn’t another woman. It was David Cavendish, Wagner’s English butler, according to a startling new biography of the troubled star.
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.
She also reveals the contents of Wood’s never-published memoir, in which she made clear the real reason for the end of her first marriage to Wagner. 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.
She had also realised a childhood dream of marrying the handsome star Robert Wagner and the pair (above) 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 kingsize bed, Wood found Wagner missing
Arrestingly beautiful, the sultry Russian-American actress, born Natalia Zakharenko, played the love interest for James Dean, Steve McQueen and Christopher Plummer.
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.
Around the same time, Wood told friends she was violently raped by a famous film star — not named by Finstad — after he invited her to Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel to read for a role.
Her mother, Maria, was simply delighted that she had become so close to such a powerful industry figure. Given such an ugly history, perhaps it’s not surprising that, even as a star, Wood had a bedroom filled with 47 dolls that she believed were alive and spoke to her.
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. Their studio, Warner Bros, obligingly pushed them together by arranging a first date on her 18th birthday.
Wagner was eight years older than her and single. Wood had a brief relationship with Elvis Presley, but Wagner stole her heart and they were married in December 1957, despite her mother’s reservations.
There were rumours, which he has always strenuously denied, that Wagner was gay or bisexual. In his 2008 memoir, Wagner claimed to have had affairs with a long string of A-listers, from Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor to Anita Ekberg, Joan Collins and Barbara Stanwyck, among many others.
The actor Robert Quarry, who was gay, once told an interviewer: ‘Everyone knew Wagner was a hypocrite. He would play the dreamy straight boy for the teenage girls.’
Quarry, who appeared with him in the 1956 film A Kiss Before Dying (in which, ironically, Wagner played a man who pushes his fiancee to her death from the roof of a building), said the ‘pretty boy’ star would come off set and put his arm around whichever young actress the studio was promoting as his girlfriend, posing for photographers like a man in love.
Wood heard the rumours that Wagner was bisexual but told a friend: ‘All these people are just jealous of us.’
Of course, in 1961 any such revelations would have destroyed his career. And yet, says Finstad, his decision to have a live-in butler struck observers at the time as odd.
Wagner had employed David Cavendish before he married Wood and the butler’s presence in the actor’s tiny two-bedroom flat had made Wood’s mother instantly suspicious.
Her ‘protective antennae went up’ when she was greeted by Cavendish, a much older ‘swishy’ man with an English accent, a friend told Finstad. 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’.
Another commentator described him as the couple’s ‘English man-about-the-house’.
A Hollywood fan magazine at the time called him a ‘bona fide’ butler with ‘all sorts of movie-star credentials and references’, but added that ‘in that apartment, it was like keeping a polar bear in a broom closet’.
A friend of Wood would homophobically complain, even in her presence, about the ‘f*****’ keeping house for them. Another friend said he was ‘creepy’, describing an elderly, t h i n m a n w i t h grey hair and a habit of pulling up his trousers so high that one could see the shape of his testicles.
However, Wood was undeterred, determined to live the ‘fairy-tale’ romance she had imagined as a child with the ‘handsome prince she’d fantasised about at 11’ when she stuck a photograph of Wagner above her bed.
She made a ‘romantic pact’ with Wagner — possibly driven by her terror of being alone — never to be separated.
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.
They paid a film art director and a celebrity designer to turn it into a ‘Greek Revival masterpiece’ with gold rococo in the master bedroom, a sunken bath and ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ Greek statues. But their profligate spending and determination to live it up with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh caught up with them, says Finstad.
They had to make savings, and friends said they argued most bitterly about dispensing with the butler — Wood kept suggesting it but Wagner wouldn’t countenance the idea. In her 2001 book, Finstad was vague about the details of Wood’s discovery of Wagner in a ‘compromising position with another man’.
The couple separated the same month and divorced the following year. Since then, the biographer has seen Wood’s handwritten manuscript for an unfinished memoir. In it, Wood refuted rumours that the marriage ended because she was having an onset affair with Warren Beatty (the affair started after she separated from Wagner).
Although she said it was ‘too painful’ to recall exactly what caused their break-up, ‘it was more than a final straw, it was reality crushing the fragile web of romantic fantasies with sledgehammer force’. However, she revealed more in a passage about why she so related to Daisy Clover, the character she played in the 1965 film Inside Daisy Clover.
‘Daisy becomes a movie star, falls in love with a handsome man who is attracted to other men, and she discovers this flaw on her honeymoon,’ she wrote.
Finstad says she was told by three of Wood’s close friends, by her mother’s best friend and by her sister Lana that the actress ‘opened a door’ while looking for Wagner that night in their home and found him ‘intertwined’ with his butler. Lana recalled that his name was David Cavendish.
Wood — who had been looking forward to an imminent holiday in Italy with Wagner, her first ever trip abroad — became hysterical, smashing a crystal glass in her hand and fleeing in her nightgown to a neighbour’s house, from where she phoned her mother.
Wagner’s fierce jealousy over Beatty would be repeated 20 years later, says Finstad, over another younger and more acclaimed Hollywood star, Christopher Walken. That said, one might ask who was jealous of whom, given what happened at a restaurant on Santa Cantalina island earlier in the evening of Wood’s last fateful night in 1981 — and later the same evening on their 60ft yacht, the Splendour, above
Lana, who was 15, remembers Natalie arriving at their parents’ home that night, her hand bleeding, sobbing that her marriage was over. She shut herself in a bedroom and accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills, her parents rushing her to hospital to have her stomach pumped.
She hid away for a week, losing 10lb from stress. Friends told Finstad that Wood never got over it, and it ‘came close to destroying her’.
However, she believes Wood was happy to be blamed for breaking up the marriage because she wanted to protect Wagner.
In his 2008 memoir, the actor claimed that in 1961 he became so jealous of Warren Beatty — not only a far more successful actor but then squiring his estranged wife — he started waiting outside Beatty’s house with a gun and was ‘prepared to kill him’.
Wood was briefly married to the British producer Richard Gregson, from 1969 to 1972, but left him after she discovered that he has having an affair with his secretary. In 1972 she remarried Wagner, who had remained ‘the symbol of a dream she hoped to recapture’, ignoring the misgivings of family and friends who remembered how the first marriage ended.
Wood reassured them that Wagner had changed after having ‘analysis’ in Europe.
Wagner’s fierce jealousy over Beatty would be repeated 20 years later, says Finstad, over another younger and more acclaimed Hollywood star, Christopher Walken.
That said, one might ask who was jealous of whom, given what happened at a restaurant on Santa Cantalina island earlier in the evening of Wood’s last fateful night in 1981 — and later the same evening on their 60ft yacht, the Splendour.
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’
Staff recalled a very strained and ‘eerie’ atmosphere in the restaurant as Wagner, Wood and the younger Walken, who rose to fame in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, continued to drink heavily as they had all day, consuming ‘massive quantities of alcohol’.
Wagner was aware of rumours that the pair were having an affair while making the sci-fi film Brainstorm.
While a waitress said Wood and Walken were holding hands under the table, the manager — who was gay — saw the two male actors touching each other in a way that he ‘recognised as flirting’.
Walken, now 76, has been married to Georgianne Thon since 1969 but has hinted that he is bisexual.
Back on the boat, an argument broke out that, according to skipper Dennis Davern, culminated in Wagner smashing a wine bottle on the table and shouting at the Deerhunter star: ‘What do you want to do? F*** my wife?’
Wood walked off to bed in disgust at her husband. An hour later, she was reported missing along with the boat’s dinghy.
She was found floating face-up a mile away the next morning, with unexplained bruises on her body and arms.
The three men on board initially said they’d assumed she had rowed back to shore.
However, two people on a nearby boat insisted they heard a woman screaming for help from the water during the night but had been unable to locate her.
Dennis Davern later claimed Wagner had stopped him looking for Wood or calling for help, telling the skipper that it would ‘teach her a lesson’.
It is alleged that Wagner — who, like Walken, has said almost nothing about that night — didn’t call for help for more than two hours.
At Wood’s funeral, her coffin, decorated with a thousand gardenias, was carried by Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, David Niven, Fred Astaire and the director Elia Kazan.
A fairy-tale ending, at least, for a starry-eyed actress whose Prince Charming had feet of clay.
Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography, by Suzanne Finstad, is published by Broadway Books, £20.