Exclusive: An Explosive New Biography Reveals the Secret that Almost Destroyed Natalie Wood

This excerpt from ’Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography’ details how the actress covered for husband Robert Wagner’s alleged bisexuality

As I plumbed her past, Natalie Wood’s demons and their origins revealed themselves as if released from a genie’s lamp. Family violence. Alcoholic father. Pathological attachment to her Svengali stage mother. Psychological abuse as a child star. Paranoia. Phobias. Bedroom of storybook dolls she believed were alive and spoke to her. Pimped at 15 to Frank Sinatra. Forced to return an engagement ring to her high school sweetheart, who tried to kill himself afterward. Exploited as a teenager into a sexual liaison with 42-year-old director Nicholas Ray to prove that she could play a “bad” girl in Rebel Without a Cause.

The secret that was buried deepest in Natalie’s closet of skeletons was the shocking end of her fairy-tale first marriage to bobby-socks idol Robert Wagner. To protect his image, Natalie publicly took the fall for their sudden divorce in 1961. She never refuted fan-magazine gossip that their marriage imploded over an alleged affair she had with her costar Warren Beatty while filming Splendor in the Grass.

In time the gossip, patently false, was reported as fact. Only a trusted few knew Natalie’s account, which I was told by three of Natalie’s close friends; her mother’s best friend; and her sister, Lana, that Natalie came upon R.J., as he was known to his confidants, in their Beverly Hills mansion in flagrante with a man. Lana recalled Natalie arriving in hysterics at their parents’ house and shutting herself in her old bedroom. Natalie woke up in a hospital after taking an overdose of sleeping pills, dazed and in shock. [Through representatives, Robert Wagner denied this version of events and any allegations of bisexuality.]

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Frank Sinatra, Wood, and Wagner in 1958. Sinatra had a sexual liaison with Wood when she was 15 and quashed an inquiry into her 1981 drowning. Opposite: A Kiss Before Dying (1956) was Wagner’s favorite role

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

As a self-described dutiful child, Natalie was trained by her mother to keep silent, to not rock the boat. As she got older, she kept her silence, often to protect others, as was Natalie’s way. During her life, in death, and even after her death, no one that I could see had ever protected her—certainly not her mother, the directors who exploited her, the studio executives who looked the other way, the men who abused her, or the sheriff’s detectives and coroner’s examiners investigating her drowning in 1981. In the archive of forgotten facts, hidden truths, and concealed evidence about Natalie Wood, what is most shocking is Robert Wagner’s role in her drowning. The man that Natalie married not once but twice, who would often say, with glass raised, “She takes my breath away,” refused to search for two and a half hours after she went missing from their boat in the waters off Catalina Island.

To understand what happened to her that last night in all of its dark Russian drama, people need to know Natalie’s complete story—from her birth, as Natasha Zakharenko, prophesied, before conception, to become a world-famous beauty by a Gypsy in Harbin, to her death at 43, which Natalie had a premonition would be in dark water, as the same Gypsy had predicted.

Who alive then had not been moved by the tragic breaking news on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1981? All of the major television networks interrupted their holiday programming to report that Natalie’s body had been discovered floating in the ocean off Catalina, where she and Wagner were spending the weekend on their boat with friends. Only later was it mentioned that actor Christopher Walken was their sole guest. News footage taken early that morning shows Wagner braced against the wind in a black double-breasted peacoat with the collar turned up, looking dazed.

After years of rooting around in Natalie’s past, when I more closely examined her drowning, I found red flags everywhere. Accounts of the yacht’s deckhand, Dennis Davern, all include troubling insinuations about Wagner’s role in Natalie’s disappearance from the Splendour. The details are vague, strange, and disturbing: There was a jealous tension from R.J. toward Natalie and Walken that weekend; Natalie requested to return to L.A.; R.J. directed Davern to take Natalie to a motel; R.J. smashed a wine bottle on the second night; the yacht’s dinghy was unaccountably missing; R.J. instructed Davern not to search for Natalie as they drank for over two hours before R.J. radioed for help.

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Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken in the 1983 movie ‘Brainstorm’

Bettmann Archive

There were also gaping holes in coroner Thomas Noguchi’s findings. At a press conference December 1, 1981, just two days after Natalie’s body was discovered, Noguchi announced the autopsy results, stating that her cause of death was “a tragic accident while slightly intoxicated.” But he went on to mention an unexplained “scrape type of bruise on her left cheek” that may have rendered her temporarily unconscious before she hit the water. Noguchi’s theory was that Natalie was trying to get into the dinghy when she slipped and fell before falling into the water, stating, “She was unable to reboard the dinghy or the yacht and tragically perished.”

What an aide of Noguchi did disclose was a “heated” argument between Wagner and Walken before Natalie disappeared, a tip given to Noguchi’s office by a sheriff’s investigator. The argument was disturbing enough that Noguchi told the assembled press that he believed Natalie wanted to get off the boat. When asked by one of the reporters why Natalie would leave the boat in a nightgown, Noguchi replied, “We are going to investigate that.” He intended to do a “psychological autopsy” on Natalie to learn why she felt she had to separate herself from her husband and Walken.

After this disclosure, Noguchi was almost instantly fired by the Board of Supervisors—which was under pressure, he and his lawyer told me, from Frank Sinatra. “I represented Dr. Noguchi then,” says Godfrey Isaac, “and Frank Sinatra got very upset. The letter from Frank Sinatra to the Board of Supervisors is really what triggered them demoting Tom.”

Sinatra’s strong-arm tactics were not surprising. The director Henry Jaglom had told me how Sinatra kept Natalie under surveillance by his “goons” when Jaglom took her out in her mid-20s; a protective, and proprietary, interest that began, I had learned, when Natalie was 15.

natalie wood swimming yacht

Two years after I published Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, Frank Sinatra’s right-hand man of 15 years, George Jacobs, wrote the memoir Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra. Jacobs, who worked for Sinatra from 1953 to 1968, was a silent accomplice to his boss’s sexual assignations. “One affair that, unlike the others, was conducted in top secret was with Natalie Wood,” Jacobs wrote in 2003, “because she was a minor at the time, either 15 or 16, though she didn’t act like it.” According to Jacobs, “Sinatra adored this tiny beauty, but he didn’t want to go the way of Charlie Chaplin or Errol Flynn or, later, Roman Polanski.” Jacobs says he mixed the drinks when Natalie’s “insanely ambitious Russian mother” brought her to Sinatra’s apartment for a cocktail in 1954 and “pushed her on Frank, who needed no pushing.” Sinatra told Jacobs that he had been “taken by” Natalie since Miracle on 34th Street, a film she made when she was eight. Sinatra’s procurer, Natalie’s mother, Maria Gurdin, “had her kid all dolled up,” recalls Jacobs, “total jailbait, in a form-fitting black party dress, and Mr. S went for it in a big way.”

Sinatra’s MO with Natalie was like a playbook for aspiring Humbert Humberts. “Nothing dirty-old-mannish,” his valet boasts, “he was never like that. He played them cuts from his upcoming album, provided career suggestions.” That was the quid pro quo for Gurdin. After cocktails Sinatra arranged for Natalie to return regularly—alone—for “singing lessons.” “Mr. S would send me away when she was there,” says Jacobs. “ ‘I don’t want you to testify,’ he joked. He wanted to be ‘in Like Flynn,’ but he didn’t want to be ruined for it.”

Jacobs observed what I also found. “Mr. S truly cherished her, and whatever went on in private, he was also a father to her more than her own father, very protective.” The 38-year-old Sinatra’s “seduction” of 15-year-old Natalie, tragically, would have been both child molestation and statutory rape. Actor Scott Marlowe told me he had observed signs that she’d been molested. “How do I say this delicately?” he asked. “She was very, very experienced for a very young girl. She knew too much. More than a kid that age should know. She just knew about all the male body parts. And about what to do, how to please, or how to get herself…loved. She knew all those little things. And it was very sad.”

Post-autopsy in late 1981 Sinatra, enraged that Noguchi disclosed at a press conference that Sinatra’s great friend R.J. had a heated altercation with Walken before Natalie disappeared, pressured the Board of Supervisors to fire Noguchi in a scathing letter, insisting that coroners “should be seen and not heard.”

By R.J.’s own description, he had made a career from the favors and good graces of famous friends, names he liked to drop, like Fred Astaire, Clifton Webb, and “Spence” Tracy. According to Jacobs, R.J. ingratiated himself with Sinatra so deeply that Sinatra “always gave him ‘a pass.’” By precipitating Noguchi’s firing, Sinatra shut down the last hope for any of Natalie’s truths to be known in an official investigation of her death.

A month after Natasha was published, Wagner appeared on Larry King Live. King had previously canceled my appearance to promote the book, under pressure from his close friend Wagner. During the interview, King almost immediately brought up “the Natalie Wood episode,” asking his friend, “What did you make of the book that came out? … Did you read it?” “You know, Larry, I didn’t read it,” replied Wagner. “I didn’t read the book. The woman had approached me on doing the book. I’m sorry, she did not approach me on doing the book or my representatives.”

After this contradictory falsehood, Wagner defamed me, saying incoherently, “This book is—you know, this woman has fabricated, you know, those things that are all these things. …And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

After briefly wondering how Wagner knew I “fabricated” anything if he had never read my book, I hired a Beverly Hills lawyer to send Wagner’s attorney Leo Ziffren (brother of R.J.’s lawyer fixer Paul Ziffren) a strongly worded cease-and-desist letter, and I moved on.

Still, the incident disturbed me. I dedicated four years of my life to researching Natasha and interviewed more than 400 people, the majority recorded on tape, documented in 44 pages of annotations. Based on his lawyer’s correspondence with my publisher, and comments made to me by Natalie’s sister and half-sister, Wagner seemed more obsessed with the line in Natasha in which Natalie flees the house after finding him with a man than the implications about his role in her death. For months I had debated whether to disclose the secret of R.J.’s affair, and, if I did, whether to reveal that Wagner’s lover was a man. In the end I followed the advice of Robert Redford, Natalie’s close friend, whom I interviewed. Redford’s suggestion was that of a director: “Ask yourself: How important is it to the story you’re telling?”

Robert Wagner at play, early 1950s. Rumors about his sexuality “were flying” prior to marrying Natalie Wood.

By that guideline the secret was crucial. Walking in on her husband’s affair, in their own home, nearly undid Natalie. The fact that R.J.’s lover was a man—and that she actually saw them being physically intimate—was a shock that almost cost Natalie her life and traumatized her for the remainder of it. I also wanted to clear Natalie’s name from scandal over an affair with Beatty that I was certain she had never had, a scandal I believed Natalie bore to protect R.J. at a time, 1961, when an affair with a man would have damaged his career. Wagner, with his virulent denials of homosexuality in 2001, seemed to me like a man who doth protest too much.

About that time I received what Natalie’s mystical Russian mother might have called “a message from the other side.” The improbable medium, Ruby Jackman, was an elderly retired office cleaner in Central California who enjoyed reading medical journals. Jackman contacted Lana Wood that fall to tell her Jackman might have an unpublished autobiography by Natalie. In the early ’80s a celebrity diet doctor asked Jackman to help clean out his office. To thank her he gave her his old medical journals. Inside them were 100 or so loose pages, both typed and handwritten, from what Jackman believed was the manuscript for Natalie’s autobiography. Jackman had been guarding the pages for 20 years. When she heard about Natasha in 2001, Jackman decided to call Lana because she wanted to know if the manuscript was authentic. Lana asked me to go with her to Jackman’s trailer park to examine the pages. With such a bizarre premise, neither of us expected to find a lost autobiography by Natalie. But we decided we’d enjoy the road trip.

Lana and I sat with Jackman around a cozy Colonial table, where she had laid out the pages for us to read. It was almost immediately obvious to both Lana and me that Natalie had written the pages. A third of the manuscript was entirely handwritten. There was no doubt that it was Natalie’s neat, distinctive handwriting. As we randomly chose pages to read, Lana burst into tears. Her sister had come to life again in her own voice.

The memoir validated all that I had written, and all that I had intuited, in Natasha. Natalie touched upon the “demons” from her past and how as a child she had “always done as [she] was told”; that she had “no real identity”; that she was “terrified of flying”; her romantic illusion from childhood of R.J. as a “magical Prince Charming”; her reliance on her analyst; that she was “scared to death” of water. In her own handwriting, Natalie confirmed that her divorce had nothing to do with Beatty. “There was gossip & speculation that Warren was in some way responsible for the end of the marriage,” she wrote. “It is totally untrue.” She even confirmed the “rift” I disclosed that they had during Splendor in the Grass, writing, “between takes, Warren and I went our separate way.”

After leaving Jackman’s, I did further research on Natalie’s memoir. In my files I found it referenced in The Hollywood Reporter. On July 5, 1966, the trade paper reported that Ladies’ Home Journal had asked Natalie to write a “life story” that summer. Peter Wyden, the name typed on the first page of the memoir, was an executive editor for the magazine at the time. I faxed a few pages of the memoir to Anthony Costello, Natalie’s personal secretary in 1966. Not only did Costello remember Natalie writing her life story by hand that summer, he had typed the pages for her. Natalie eventually backed out, fearing that by writing candidly about psychotherapy and other personal problems, she would reveal more than society could handle in the ’60s.

Natalie wrote that she “wanted to set the record straight” about why she and R.J. divorced. “I have suffered in silence from gossip about my walking away from my marriage to go with Warren. … But Warren had nothing to do with it. We began our relationship after, not before, my marriage ended.” The kindhearted Natalie continued to protect R.J., alluding to but not revealing the sexual betrayal that shattered her. “It is too painful for me to recall in print the incident that led to the final break-up,” she wrote. “It was more than a final straw, it was reality crushing the fragile web of romantic fantasies with sledgehammer force.”

She is more specific in another passage, stating exactly why she related to the titular character she played in Inside Daisy Clover. “Daisy becomes a movie star, falls in love with a handsome actor who is attracted to other men, and she discovers this flaw on her honeymoon. After her marriage and career go haywire, Daisy finds deep inside herself a resourceful and dependable human being.” Natalie, in effect, would have outed R.J. Natalie was alluding to the traumatic night at the Beverly Hills mansion, her intended dream house with R.J., when she said that she opened a door to look for R.J. and saw him intertwined with a man. Or as her mother, Gurdin, told her neighbor and closest friend, Jeanne Hyatt, the next morning, “She caught him in the act.” Lana was 15 when Natalie arrived at the house that night in June 1961, bleeding from a crystal glass she’d crushed in her hand and nearly berserk. Lana affirmed to me what Hyatt called “that horrid thing” that Natalie had seen. “To hear that he could be that way is one thing,” Hyatt said to me, “but to see it in action is another.” Natalie, Lana told me, shut herself in her old bedroom, where their mother found her in a coma from an overdose of sleeping pills. “The poor little thing,” recalled Hyatt, who heard every detail from Gurdin. “I would still say that she was in such shock over that, that she took the pills to go to sleep not to commit suicide. Of course, in that state she could have overdosed without even realizing it.”

I first heard about the real reason Natalie divorced R.J., from Robert Hyatt, Jeanne’s son. He and Natalie were close friends as child actors on Miracle on 34th Street, played teenage siblings on a TV series, and shared confidences, like a real brother and sister, ever after. Hyatt told me he learned about the secret at his mother’s house the night it happened.

The first time he told me, Hyatt turned off my tape recorder, wrote one line on a piece of paper and slid it across the table. He’d printed, “NATALIE SAW WAGNER HAVING SEX WITH THE BUTLER.” When I asked him why he wrote it on a piece of paper, Hyatt told me he was afraid that Wagner would “screw him around.” The same fear that half of Hollywood, and deckhand Davern, seemed to share.

After further reassurance, Hyatt said I could turn the recorder back on. He went on to say, “I was awakened in the middle of the night with a phone call from Natalie’s mother. And she was freaking out. She called up to tell my mother, but I answered the phone, and it was late at night so Marie just started telling me everything. … She had been telling me for years when Natalie married Wagner that ‘no good will come of this, it will be trouble.’ And she was right. Twice.” The secret was so deeply buried, and so traumatizing, it was several years, Lana told me, before Natalie could discuss it with her.

“Why it didn’t totally destroy her—it was close, I’ll tell you,” Natalie’s closest childhood friend, Mary Ann Brooks, confided to me. “I didn’t think she was going to pull out of it. … She never got over it. Never.” Mary Ann, one of the few people that Natalie trusted with the secret, told me that rumors about R.J.’s bisexuality “were flying” before they married. R.J. would deny them. “Oh, Mary Ann,” she recalled Natalie telling her. “All these people are just jealous of us.”

After she had found R.J. with the butler, Mary Ann said of Natalie, “She went through, ‘It’s my fault. What’s wrong with me?’ I said, ‘Honey, you have to accept now. He lied to you.’ She even tried to protect him. Her life was just a disaster. Catastrophic levels. Her whole world went—her private world, her professional world, everything. It was just like somebody dropped a bomb.”

After I published Natasha, supporting details emerged. Lana recalled that the butler was named Cavendish. Hedda Hopper mentioned Cavendish by name as the butler in an article about the newlywed Wagners, three years before Natalie found him with R.J. “He brings them breakfast in bed,” wrote Hopper. The Wagners’ butler, just as Robert Hyatt described him to me, was an older, English gentleman. Hyatt said his name was David Cavendish. A syndicated columnist writing about the couple’s marriage in 1958 also brought up David Cavendish, describing him, ironically, as Natalie and R.J.’s “English man-about-the-house.”

Lana told me recently that Cavendish lived with R.J. in a bachelor apartment in Beverly Hills before he married Natalie. “R.J. had him living with him as his ‘valet,’ his ‘man,’” Hyatt told me. “Natalie was questioning why he had that guy before they got married. She was trying to get rid of him.”

I even found movie magazines from the ’50s with fan-girl articles about the young Wagner that include a peculiar mention of his live-in butler. For a Photoplay article in 1953, the dapper 23-year-old actor posed for photographs outside his “first bachelor apartment,” an elegant Colonial fourplex. Per the magazine, Wagner’s friend, actor Dan Dailey, suggested he rent the apartment below his. Dailey, an older song-and-dance man from MGM musicals of the ’40s, lived in a one-bedroom with his “houseboy.”

Perhaps the most on-point validation of R.J.’s secret was an interview in my own archive with Irving Brecher, a screenwriter from the golden age of Hollywood. Brecher directed Wagner in Sail a Crooked Ship, the film that the actor was completing when Natalie said she walked in on him with the English houseman. I listened to that tape again 20 years later. Throughout the interview, Brecher, who told me he liked Wagner and enjoyed working with him, seemed preoccupied with the couple’s marriage in 1961 and Natalie’s apparent unhappiness. Brecher kept circling back to something that was nagging him. “And I’m just wondering,” he said thoughtfully, “whether, for any reason, Bob was involved in any homosexuality?” I told Brecher I had heard rumors he was bisexual. “Well, I think that you may be on to something,” he said. “And I’m not accusing him, but it’s quite possible.”

Brecher measured his words carefully. “I only saw one thing,” he told me. “And I—Jesus. It’s not an awful thing I saw. But once I did see him with another actor, in a very—in a house, and I happened to walk in the room. And they weren’t doing anything serious, but one of them was fondling the other’s butt.” This happened, Brecher said, around June 1961—the same month that Natalie took an overdose of sleeping pills and went into a coma.

Brecher’s account suggests that R.J. took risks with his trysts. “It was in a private house,” Brecher recalled. “They were guests in the house on the way out to dinner.” The actor who was fondling or being fondled by Wagner was “reasonably” well-known, the director said. “Nothing was made of it, [so] there was no embarrassment.”

Still the image had lingered in Brecher’s mind since 1961. Wagner’s sexual betrayal of Natalie in their first marriage is the dark cloud that looms over the story of a long weekend that began with Natalie using Walken to provoke an already jealous, angry R.J. and ended with Natalie in the sea with no one to save her.

In his 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart, Wagner reveals a violent, frightening dark side that was spinning out of control when he was in an earlier love triangle with Natalie. Like Walken, R.J.’s 1961 rival was Natalie’s costar, a younger, more successful actor. She was separated from Wagner, devastated by his affair with a man, but she had not filed for divorce. “Then Warren came into the picture,” Wagner angrily recalls. “That summer, when I read about them as the hot young couple around town, I wanted to kill that son of a bitch. Life magazine was calling Beatty ‘the most exciting American male in movies.’ My last four or five pictures had been flops. I was hanging around outside his house with a gun, hoping he would walk out. I not only wanted to kill him, I was prepared to kill him. Everything was coming to an end—my marriage, my career, the life I had built. I remember thinking that if I couldn’t kill Beatty, maybe I should kill myself. It was either flip out or flip the page: I chose the latter.”

The parallels in 1961 to the night on the Splendour in 1981 are eerie. Wagner had been hearing gossip from the set of Brainstorm, a sci-fi thriller starring Natalie and Walken, that the two were having an affair. Walken was Hollywood’s new, brash leading man in 1981, an Academy Award winner two years earlier for The Deer Hunter. Wagner “sold soap,” as he derisively described his TV career. R.J.’s visceral response to that dynamic in 1961 had been to kill the rival who was threatening “the life [he] had built.” More recently, Wagner offered an even more disturbing insight into his psyche. In a long video interview in 2011 with Alan K. Rode, the host of an annual Palm Springs film festival, he said that his favorite role was in the 1956 film noir A Kiss Before Dying, based on the 1953 novel by Lawrence Roman. In the movie’s most famous scene, Wagner’s character, Bud, who has discovered his pregnant fiancée might be disinherited, lures her to the roof of a building, pushes her to her death, and tries to make it look like suicide. The movie poster is of a young Wagner as he pushes Joanne Woodward off a building. The poster was released July 20, 1956, the day of Natalie’s first date with Wagner, also her 18th birthday.

Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

Wagner first heard about the novel from his sister, who read an excerpt prior to its publication. She told R.J. that he reminded her of Bud, a charming, amoral sociopath who would stop at nothing to get ahead. “That character, I never thought of him as a villain, really,” Wagner says in his strangely candid 2011 interview with Rode. “I mean, he was just tryin’ to keep it goin’, to get ahead. I never played him as a guy who was a killer or anything like that. He was in love with her, and it was just too much pressure for him. I mean, he only had one way to get out.” R.J., 23 in 1953 and under contract to Fox, was so obsessed with playing Bud, he persuaded studio chief Darryl Zanuck to buy the film rights for him before the book was published and took it to producer Robert Jacks himself to set it up.

The film was notable for another reason. The dark, suave Robert Quarry, who would become a cult figure in the 1970s for his film portrayals of the vampire Count Yorga, played one of Bud’s victims. Quarry, a distinguished stage actor, was several years older than Wagner. “R.J. was such a pretty boy that it was hard to take him seriously in those days,” Quarry said. In his last years Quarry, who was gay, shared confidences in an interview with writer-producer-director Tim Sullivan. “Everyone knew Wagner was a hypocrite. He’d play the dreamy straight boy for the teenage girls.” Quarry recounted to Sullivan how R.J. would stroll off the set, put his arm around whichever young actress the studio was promoting as his girlfriend, and pose for photographers like a man in love.

By the end of filming on A Kiss Before Dying, that actress would be Natalie Wood.

Adapted from Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography, by permission of Penguin Random House