Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour
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by Marti Rulli
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: GOODBYE NATALIE, GOODBYE SPLENDOUR is the long-awaited, detailed account of events that led to the mysterious death of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood off the coast of Catalina Island on November 28, 1981. It is a story told by a haunted witness to that fateful evening: Dennis Davern, the young captain of Splendour, the yacht belonging to Wood and husband Robert Wagner. Davern initially backed up Wagner's version of that evening's events through a signed statement prepared by attorneys. But Davern's guilt over failing Natalie tormented him. Davern reached out to his old friend Marti Rulli, and little by little, at his own emotional pace, he revealed the details of his years in Wood's employ, of the fateful weekend that Natalie died, and of the events following her death that prevented him from telling the whole story--until now.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: November 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [843 KB]
Reading time: 355-497 min.
Sunday, November 29, 1981
Just past dawn, off the coast of Santa Catalina Island's Blue Cavern Point, a search helicopter pilot noticed a small red "bubble" of color in the gray ocean, eerily conspicuous yet forlornly small, a silent signal to tragedy. The pilot swooped in for a closer look, then immediately radioed the sighting, ending a brief but grim search for the missing legendary film star Natalie Wood.
The chilly morning intensified the despair felt by those who had been looking for the forty-three-year-old actress, wife, and mother. Early risers amongst the holiday weekend boaters worried because helicopters normally did not hover above the coves and circle the moorings of the Island at this early hour. Natalie Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, and their boat captain, Dennis Davern, had been waiting aboard the Wagners' yacht, Splendour, for word from the search crews since 1:30 a.m. when Wagner had announced over Splendour's radio, "Someone is missing from our boat."
Splendour had been moored since Saturday afternoon at Two Harbors at Catalina Island's Isthmus--the quiet western part of the island where Doug's Harbor Reef was the lone restaurant. Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Dennis Davern, and Wood's co-star, actor Christopher Walken--the Wagners' guest, on break from filming Brainstorm with Natalie Wood--had dined at the restaurant Saturday evening before returning to Splendour. Soon after donning her flannel nightgown and removing some of her jewelry, Natalie went missing, along with the Wagners' thirteen-foot, motorized dinghy, Valiant.
Paul Miller, who would later draft a report on Wood's death, was moored near Splendour. Don Whiting, the Harbor Reef restaurant manager, along with Miller, had heard Wagner's vague distress call. Whiting returned the call and agreed to help with Wagner's request for a low-key search. Whiting set out by boat with his friend, restaurant cook Bill Coleman, to look for Natalie.
An island campground worker, Paul Wintler, also picked up on the call, and cruised to Splendour to help. He returned to the island with Wagner, but there was no sign of Natalie in the dark beach area, and the restaurant was closed. Wintler took Wagner back to Splendour.
Upon learning of the situation shortly after 2:00 a.m., Doug Bombard, owner of Doug's Harbor Reef, drove to the harbormaster's house and explained the trouble. Harbormaster Doug Oudin followed Bombard back to the pier, where he started up Patrol Boat 10 and cruised to Splendour.
Oudin strongly suggested to a drunken Wagner that a call be placed to the Coast Guard. Wagner reluctantly agreed. Oudin returned to his Two Harbors office and placed an official call. The Coast Guard responded at 3:25 a.m., but a fully equipped, professional search could not be launched until 6:00 a.m., approximately seven hours after Natalie disappeared.
Oudin cruised Patrol Boat 6 back to Splendour. Wagner and Davern, both drunk, met Oudin at the stern. Oudin let them know a search effort was underway. Wagner told Oudin that Natalie was dressed in her nightgown.
Just as darkness lifted, the missing dinghy was discovered nestled in kelp in a cove about a mile from where Splendour was moored. It was empty, its oars in place, its engine in neutral, and its ignition key in the off position.
About a half hour later, the helicopter pilot spotted the "red bubble." Doug Bombard--also searching by boat--was nearest to the reported sighting. He cruised toward Blue Cavern Point to investigate. His heart sank at the sight of a woman wearing a red jacket that held her afloat in a virtually upright position. The woman's head was tilted forward, her face submerged in the water, with only her dark hair visible on the water's surface.
Bombard had been ordered by lifeguard Roger Smith not to touch the body because homicide might be involved.
Natalie's eyes were fixed and open. She was dressed in only the red down jacket, a flannel nightgown, and blue wool socks--a bedtime outfit adorned by a bracelet, four rings, and a necklace.
Smith reported the recovery of the body. He also notified the homicide division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The details Bombard and Smith knew thus far only distorted the already out-of-focus view. If Natalie left her yacht willingly, why was she in nightclothes? If she left in the dinghy, how had she fallen out of it? Why was the dinghy key in the off position? What possible explanation could account for Natalie Wood's dead body, dressed in a wet nightgown, now on the floor of a boat and on its way back to the island for official identification?
Robert Wagner declined to view his wife's body when a small group of officials boarded Splendour to inform him of the grim discovery. Wagner dropped his head, and with emotion and drama, cried out, "She's gone, she's gone, oh, God, she's gone. Why?"
Dennis Davern embraced Robert Wagner, as if to keep him from falling over.
"Will you please identify her for me, Dennis? I can't, I just can't," Wagner pleaded. The extraordinary request seemed to deepen everyone's compassion for Wagner, but no one considered, even briefly, that the terrible task of identifying Natalie Wood's body would haunt Dennis for the rest of his life.
When Christopher Walken came out of his stateroom and saw the strange entourage on board, he stopped short of asking questions. He put his hand over his brow and moaned, "Oh no, oh no."
With sympathy, authorities complied when Wagner insisted on escaping the island. A shore patrol boat cruised Wagner, Walken, and Davern to the nearby island where Natalie's body waited. An official led Davern to Natalie. Wagner and Walken were quickly escorted to a waiting helicopter provided by the authorities.
A distraught and despondent Wagner, heading home to the quiet security of his bedroom on tree-lined Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, saw that he would be detained as he stepped out of the chopper in Newport, back on the mainland. Just fifty feet from the landing pad stood Detective Duane Rasure from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Rasure wanted answers.
Rasure's "What happened?" drew faltering responses: "a pleasure cruise....rough seas...she's gone...we don't know...." Wagner's distress left Rasure calculating the man's obvious grief and despair as a "two-plus-two" case--the easy answer equaling pure accident. Because Wagner appeared so unstable, Rasure decided that he would get back to him. He excused Wagner and Walken after getting their brief, corresponding answers.
Wagner headed home to contact attorneys--the proficient, expensive kind who could take over: one for himself and one for his boat captain.
Detective Rasure flew to the island to talk with the captain.
Davern had just left the decompression chamber, used on the island by divers, where Natalie's body lay on a cold metal table with her red down jacket placed across her chest. Devastated by the sight of Natalie, bruised and dead, Davern was in no mood for Rasure. Rasure pressed Davern further than he had Wagner, but Davern's responses to Rasure's questions invariably echoed Wagner's. Rasure had no reason to suspect that Wagner and Davern might have contrived the similarities.
Rasure asked Davern if he had spent Friday night on the island in Avalon with Natalie. Davern defensively gave two different answers before claiming, "I want to talk with R.J. or see my attorney before answering any questions."
* * * *
That unthinkable Sunday, just three days after Thanksgiving, brought the start of the holiday season to a tearful juncture as fans grieved for an American sweetheart. We thought about little Susan Walker, Miracle on 34th Street's young character who had launched Natalie Wood's world fame. We pictured Natalie Wood as Maria, dancing and in love in West Side Story. We wondered how the Natalie Wood could possibly have come to such a frightful end.
Natalie's loved ones suddenly were faced with an endless tragedy, for the circumstances surrounding her death were far too questionable ever to allow them true closure. The night Natalie Wood died, a mystery was born--and it would produce a ripple effect for decades to come.
* * * *
When network television interrupted regular programming throughout the afternoon and evening of November 29, 1981, to report that Natalie Wood had drowned, I was, like most people, stunned and saddened by the news. I was taunted by the scant details, the conflicting reports, and the lack of an explanation for this tragedy. And although I didn't know it at the time, I--a person remotely connected to the tragedy--was about to embark on a quest for truth that would change my life.