Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko July 20, 1938, in San Francisco. Her Russian immigrant parents changed her name to Natasha Gurdin in an attempt to Americanize it. She starred in her first movie at age 4, and shortly thereafter her name changed again to Natalie Wood. At age 9, she played the role of Susan Walker in the 1947 Christmas classic "Miracle on 34th Street" and became a household name.
By the time she was 18, Wood starred in more than 30 movies, including "Rebel Without a Cause" and "West Side Story" to name a few. She received several Academy Award nominations during her career but never won one. At 19, she married actor Robert Wagner. They divorced in 1961, married other people, had children, and then remarried in 1972, and had a daughter.
Natalie Wood was beloved by many in Hollywood. She put her career on hold for a period for marriage and children and many admired her for doing so. Upon her death, she left behind two daughters, ages 7 and 12, as well as a stepdaughter, husband, mother and sister. But while she was a movie star, she was also a young wife and mother whose life ended tragically in a potentially preventable drowning.
In 1981, Wood and Wagner spent the Thanksgiving weekend on their 55-foot cabin cruiser yacht named The Splendor, anchored off Catalina Island in southern California. They were joined by actor Christopher Walken, with whom Wood was working on the movie "Brainstorm."
The boat anchored near the town of Avalon, off Catalina Island, but was moved to Isthmus Cove Nov. 28, due to rough waters. At approximately 4 p.m., the actors and the boat's captain and one-man crew left the yacht on a dinghy and made their way back to Catalina for dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef Restaurant. Several people witnessed them consume a significant amount of alcohol until about 10 p.m.
Conflicting reports about what happened that night begin after the quartet returned to the yacht. One report said Wagner and Walken had a loud argument, and that Wood was trying to leave the yacht when she somehow slipped and fell in the cold ocean water. Another report said Wood was attempting to secure a dinghy banging against the hull of the yacht and her cabin wall when she accidentally slipped and fell overboard sometime between 10:45-11:30 p.m.
Later, a woman on a nearby yacht reported to police that she'd heard a woman yelling for help at approximately 11:05 p.m. She did not investigate the cries for help but did note that the yelling stopped at approximately 11:25 p.m. Wagner reportedly noticed the dinghy was gone and guessed Wood had gone back into town. At 1:30 a.m., he called the restaurant where they'd dined and asked if his wife was there.
Many speculated there was a delay in mounting a search and rescue team because Wagner either did not understand his wife was actually missing and could be in significant danger, or because he was concerned about negative publicity damaging his career. The harbormaster reportedly spent more than 45 minutes trying to convince Wagner to allow him to call in the Coast Guard to search for his wife.
At daybreak, the dinghy was found in a small cove about one mile from the yacht. Wood's body was discovered about 100 yards away.
Pathophysiology of Drowning
The pathophysiologic processes in drowning are asphyxia and hypoxemia, which lead to respiratory failure, metabolic acidosis and organ failure. Hypothermia and cardiac arrest may play a role in drowning, especially in cold water. Wood had water in her lungs, which would classify her as a "wet drowning." Hypothermia occurs when a person's core body temperature falls below 95º F (35º C).
Because she apparently had such a sudden lowering of her body temperature, Wood likely experienced acute hypothermia. As the body's temperature falls below 95º F, a person's heart rate, ventilatory drive, blood pressure, and cerebral and peripheral blood flow all begin to decrease. The reduced peripheral blood flow shunts the warm blood to the core of the body. Skeletal muscles begin to shiver in an attempt to produce heat, and these can become rather violent in nature. This eventually ceases and the muscles become stiff as the core temperature drops below 90º F.
Because of the decreased cardiac output and increased oxygen deficit caused by shivering, peripheral cellular hypoxia develops with increased lactic acid production and eventual metabolic acidosis in the periphery. Atrial fibrillation and bradycardia can occur once the body temperate falls below 90º F. When the body temperature falls below 82º F, any physical stimulation can cause ventricular tachycarda.
Wood's Cause of Death
Hypothermia likely would have rendered Wood unconscious before her face slipped underwater. She would have been exhausted from hypothermia and the alcohol and prescription drugs in her system.
When found, Wood was wearing a flannel nightgown, knee socks and a heavy red down coat. Rescuers also noted foam coming out of her mouth, numerous bruises to her legs and arms and cloudy eyes.
The coroner theorized Wood somehow fell from the dinghy into the very cold waters in the harbor. Once she fell in, she attempted to climb into the dinghy, the coroner hypothesized the coat she was wearing would have weighed her down considerably. It was estimated the coat, having absorbed water, would have weighed between 30-40 lbs. It would have been virtually impossible for her to remove the coat while hanging onto the dinghy.
Timeline of Natalie Wood's Disappearance (All times PST)
Sat., Nov. 28, 1981
4 p.m. Wagner, Wood, Walken and Davern drink at the bar in Doug's Harbor Reef restaurant in Two Harbors on Catalina Island
5 p.m. Quartet moved to the dining room for dinner
10 p.m. Party returns to Wagner and Wood's yacht, the Splendor
10:45 p.m.-12 a.m. Time during which Wood is believed to have gone missing
11:05 p.m. Time woman on yacht 80 yards away from the Splendor tells police she heard a woman screaming
11:25 p.m. Time woman on nearby yacht says the woman's screams stopped.
Sun., Nov. 29, 1981
1:30 a.m. Wagner calls the restaurant and asks the manager if Wood is there
2:30 a.m. Restaurant manager alerts harbormaster that Wood is missing
2:45 a.m. Harbormaster meets with Wagner on the Splendor
3:25 a.m. Wagner concedes the Coast Guard should be called in
5:30 a.m. Splendor's dingh found about one mile from the yacht with oars inside and scratch marks on one side
7:45 a.m. Wood's body found about 100 yards from dinghy
8:00 a.m. City of Los Angeles coroner is called
Table 2: Natalie Wood's Autopsy Results
54ºF water temperature at time of death
Abrasion on L cheek, facial scratches
Bruises on both legs, L arm
Etoh level .14 percent; cyclivine, darvocet present
Substantial amount of ocean water in lungs
McQuillan, K. et al. (2001). Trauma nursing: From resuscitation through rehabilitation (3rd ed.). W.B. Saunders Co.: Philadelphia.
Moore, E.E., et al. (2003). Trauma (5th ed.). J.B. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins: Philadelphia.
Cynthia Blank-Reid is a trauma clinical nurse specialist at Temple University Hospital and a clinical adjunct associate professor at Drexel University College of Nursing, both in Philadelphia.