Some celebrities' careers are easily eclipsed by the outrageous scandals surrounding their names. In Robert Wagner’s case it comes down to one single scandal: Natalie Wood’s drowning. We may remember Wagner as the handsome star of TV’s Hart To Hart, but mostly we remember him as the suspicious guy who sat on board drinking while his wife quietly drowned. Here’s a school of fishy facts about Robert Wagner—the star who may have gotten away with murder.
1. He Parents Were Ordinary
It’s hard to imagine two more “un-showbusinessy” jobs than the ones Wagner’s parents had. Phone operator and traveling salesman sound more like sitcom jobs than the type of people who would bring a handsome Hollywood star into the world. But that’s what they were doing in 1930, in Detroit Michigan, when they had baby Robert. You know what they say—humble beginnings make for great endings…
2. His Screen Test Was A Disaster
While still a teenager, Robert Wagner did a screen test for Academy Award-winning director and producer Fred Zinnemann. The screen test won absolutely no praise and got Wagner absolutely nowhere. But it did give Wagner the acting bug, and he went out on his own to find himself an agent. With that, he soon found success, and a contract with 20th Century Fox Studios—but that wasn’t all he found.
3. His Future Wife Was Still A Child
Wagner must’ve thought he had truly arrived as people noticed him strutting around the offices at 20th Century Fox. His alluring presence attracted the attention of a 10-year-old Natalie Wood, who was already a seasoned performer. When Wood saw the teenaged Wagner she turned to her mom and said: “I’m going to marry him one day.” Wrong, Natalie—you’ll marry him twice.
4. He Had A Titanic-Sized Crush
Wagner landed a role in Titanic—no, not that one—in 1953. His co-star was Barbara Stanwyck, and behind the scenes, the pair shared a dark secret. Wagner claimed he had a four-year relationship with the much older megastar. That’s 23 years older, to be exact. The studios couldn’t use this May-December romance to sell Wagner as a leading man, so they paired him with someone much younger instead.
5. The Studio Was His Matchmaker
A few years later, the studio decided that Wagner and Wood would make a cute couple. Wood was eight years younger than Wagner but, surprisingly, she had more experience under her belt as an actor. Wood was a teenager herself at this point and Wagner was her perfect boy next door. But there was something brewing that no one expected came from this publicity date.
6. His Proposal Was Ominous
Robert Wagner had a plan to propose to Natalie Wood by floating an engagement ring in a glass of champagne. While this wasn’t exactly an original idea it was, in hindsight, incredibly ominous. This was the beginning of a relationship that would be focused on water, boats, and anything nautical. But we’ll soon see why this couple should’ve stayed as far away from water as humanly possible.
7. His Wife Had A Dark Fear
Wagner had a love of sailing, which led him to plan a yacht trip in the Florida Keys for his honeymoon. However, there was something strange about this plan: It was a little one-sided. In fact, Wood reported on many occasions that she had an intense fear of dark or deep water. Cue the ominous music.
8. They Created A Media Circus
When two stars as attractive as Wagner and Wood get together, the media goes wild. It got so bad that on a road trip across the country, radio stations broadcast sightings of the Hollywood couple driving down the highway. And what happened next? Crowds lined the streets of every small town they passed through. The public was gaga for Wagner and Wood—but critics? Not so much.
9. They Got Eaten Alive By Cannibals
Okay, it was actually the critics who ate them alive, but the movie was All the Fine Young Cannibals. As much as the Wagners were a media sensation, their first film together, about a young couple whose families force them to marry other people, wasn’t well received. Silver lining? The film inspired the name of the 1980s music group Fine Young Cannibals.
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
10. His Life Wasn’t A Fairy Tale
In spite of the failure of All the Fine Young Cannibals, the lives of Wagner and Wood must’ve looked pretty fairy-tale from the outside: a gorgeous couple always posing aboard yachts. However, the reality was much darker. Their marriage wasn’t great, and they were on the verge of separating. Wood’s star was rising a lot faster and more directly upward compared to Wagner's.
This was hard on Wagner’s ego, but there was something even more troubling that was pulling this couple apart.
11. His Wife Wandered In The Grass
In 1961, Wood began working on Splendor in the Grass, a coming-of-age period film. Her co-star was the notoriously monogamy-challenged Warren Beatty. Rumor has it that Wood and Beatty found their own splendor—not in the grass, but in a bed. This certainly would explain the Wagner/Wood breakup. But there’s another, more scandalous, rumor that could explain it.
12. He Wandered A Little Further
Rumors that Wood cheated with Beatty and caused a separation are more convenient than the other story out there. Wood’s sister Lana claims that one day, Wood arrived unannounced to their Beverly Hills mansion and found a scandalous surprise. Wagner was there in bed, but not with another woman—with a man. Back then, it would’ve been a career-ending story for Wagner.
Either way, Wood just ditched the relationship and kept her mouth shut. And what did Wagner do?
13. He “Straightened” Out His Life
Robert Wagner didn’t waste any time getting remarried after splitting up with Natalie Wood. Perhaps it was to dispel any racy rumors. In 1963, he tied the knot with Marion Marshall Donen, who was famous for her roles in the madcap films of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. A year later, the pair had a daughter, Katie Wagner.
Marriage to Donen seemed to agree with Wagner, but it didn’t agree with his career. It was tanking, and he needed a lifeline.
14. He Was Too Handsome
Robert Wagner complained that because most film roles were anti-hero characters, there weren’t roles for nice guys like him. I think the between-the-lines reading was that he thought he was too handsome for the new, edgier films being made in Hollywood. But what about television? Soon, Wagner got the role of a handsome ex-con in It Takes A Thief.
The show was an immediate hit and Wagner’s career took off.
15. He Dropped A Sinatra
However, not all was well with Wagner. His marriage to Donen had simply hit its expiry date, and the pair divorced in 1971. Next, Wagner briefly dated Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina—going as far as proposing to her. He reportedly loved hanging around at Papa Sinatra’s Palm Springs compound. But something Natalie Wood did caused Wagner to pull an about-face and drop Sinatra like a hot potato.
16. He Reached Out To His Ex
Wagner was, of course, aware that his ex, Natalie Wood, had also remarried, but the news of her divorce sent Wagner into a tizzy. He quickly invited Wood to his Palm Springs home. It’s unclear what Wagner was up to: Friendship? Friends with benefits? Who knows. But what actually happened in Palm Springs surprised everyone.
17. He Rekindled In The Desert
Some major rekindling must have happened at his home in Palm Springs because Wagner and Wood were definitely “on” again. The media-hungry couple chose the 1972 Oscar ceremony to come out publicly as a reunited couple. Wood’s sister says it felt like the whole world felt sentimental about this reconciliation. But then they had to go and tempt fate by getting on a boat.
18. They Took To The Sea
In June 1972, Wagner and Wood set sail on the Queen Elizabeth 2 for an old-fashioned Atlantic crossing. Wagner was on his way to promote a new TV movie he'd made with screen legend Bette Davis. The two stars were in love again, and getting back on the ocean. It should’ve been a happy time—but there were stormy skies ahead.
19. They Suffered At Sea
The trip across the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 was supposed to be a time for Wagner and Wood to further rekindle their romance. Unfortunately, it only rekindled Wood’s fear of water. The first morning into the crossing, huge waves—some up to 70 feet—began to slam against the boat, and they didn’t let go for four days. Maybe Wagner and Wood should have taken it as a sign not to get back together. Instead, they decided to distract themselves another way.
20. They Locked Themselves Up
Once the storm started, the drinking began. Wagner and Wood spent the stormy part of the crossing locked in their room—drinking champagne, eating caviar, and doing what I assume came naturally. They were either indifferent to the huge storm or the opposite—they were acting like it was their last days alive. Whichever the reason, the storm pushed them to a surprising decision.
21. He Rang The Same Wedding Bells Twice
Once Wagner and Wood arrived safely on land in the UK, they decided it was time to retie the knot. Maybe it was the terror of their experience aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 that pushed them forward. It seems, however, that they didn't really learn a lesson from their harrowing experience at sea—check out the venue for their second wedding.
22. They Had Nuptials On The Sea
Wagner and Wood were either water crazy or just plain crazy. Even after their ordeal on the Queen Elizabeth 2, they borrowed a yacht called the Ramblin’ Rose for their second wedding. Guests came on board for the ceremony and then they sailed off near Malibu. Afterward, the couple took off on their second honeymoon, with a destination of California's Catalina Island.
They were blissfully unaware then, but years later, it would become the site of one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries.
23. They Brought On Bad Luck
It’s common knowledge, amongst sailors anyway, that changing the name of a boat is bad luck. Wagner and Wood surely knew this but threw caution to the wind and did it anyway. In 1975, they purchased a boat called Challenger, but weren’t happy with the name. Wood loved a poem by Wordsworth that contained the word “splendor,” so they agreed that that would be the new name of their yacht. But perhaps Wood had a more sinister motive…
24. He Faced Her Infidelity Daily
The name of their boat, Splendour, wasn’t just a reference to a poem. It was much worse than that. As you’ll remember, It was on the set of Splendor in the Grass where Wood had allegedly had an affair with co-star Warren Beatty. Every time Wagner got on the boat, he’d have a visual reminder of her affair with Beatty. But while that was safely in the past, Wood’s jealousy, on the other hand, was firmly in the present.
25. He Had A “Hart” On For His Co-Star
At this point in their lives, the tables had turned. Wood’s career was struggling while Wagner’s was soaring. His TV show Hart to Hart was a huge hit—mostly because of the chemistry between Wagner and his stunning co-star Stefanie Powers. Audiences had trouble believing that they weren’t a real-life couple. And, well, Wood had the same problem.
26. He Got Caught In The Act
One day, Wood packed up two of their kids and headed to the studio to surprise Wagner on the set of his show Hart To Hart. As luck would have it, Wagner was in the middle of filming a love scene with Powers. Wood and the girls walked right in and saw Wagner in a rather compromising position with his co-star. It wasn’t, however, Wood’s reaction that was over the top emotional.
27. His Love Scene Caused Tears
When Wagner’s daughters saw him romancing Powers on the set of Hart to Hart, they burst into tears. It must’ve been some pretty darn good acting—or was it? Maybe even the children could see what was really going on: there was something real about this passion. Wood explained to the kids about daddy’s job, but it could be that she was a little gobsmacked as well. As we’ll see, Wood was quietly planning her revenge.
28. His Wife Wooed A Co-Star
It was official, Wood's career was floundering. But she did manage to get a role in Brainstorm—alongside a cast of Academy Award winners and nominees. The sci-fi film didn’t impress critics, but co-star Christopher Walken impressed Wood. Sister Lana suggests that Wood had a serious infatuation with the Oscar-winning actor. So what did Wood decide to do? Rub it in her husband’s face.
29. They Created A Thanksgiving Disaster
It was Thanksgiving 1981 and Wagner and Wood opted for a little relaxation—sans kids. Wood, probably still jealous of Wagner and his co-star, invited Christopher Walken as a third wheel. It’d be safe to say that TV star Wagner would’ve been more than a bit intimidated by Walken, who’d just scored Oscar gold with The Deer Hunter. So maybe he felt like the third wheel.
And all of this was taking place on board Splendour—the boat named after Wood's affair with Warren Beatty. Sounds like a recipe for a marine disaster.
30. Dinner Was A Little Off
Captain Dennis Davern anchored Splendour near the lovely town of Avalon, California which is on Santa Catalina Island. The three Ws, Wagner, Wood, and Walken, took the dinghy into town to have dinner. Staff at the restaurant noticed that the group was drinking pretty heavily. But there was something else the staff reported that raises a red flag.
31. He Watched His Wife Flirt
While the three Ws were at the restaurant, Wagner couldn’t help but notice something disturbing. Wood and Walken had become quite chummy during the filming of Brainstorm—and the chumminess was carrying on right in the restaurant. Co-star friendships are fairly common, but it’s possible that Wagner saw their intimacy as romantic, and a potential threat to his marriage.
So, when the three partiers got back on the dinghy to go back to the ship, Wagner was sporting a deadly combination: intoxication and jealousy.
32. The Stories Didn't Jibe
Once back aboard Splendour, the only thing we know for sure is that the three actors continued to drink and Davern, the captain of the ship, joined them. We have accounts from Wagner, Walken, and Davern that at times agree with each other and other times go in opposite directions. There’s one thing we do know for sure: Wood would never see the light of day again.
33. His Wife’s Body Was Floating
The next morning, Wood's body was found about one mile from Splendour, floating near the boat’s dinghy. A blood sample revealed that she’d been drinking heavily and there were superficial bruises on her body. At first glance, it appeared to be a straightforward accidental drowning that occurred when Wood was attempting to get on the dinghy from the main boat.
But it turns out there was nothing straightforward about this case. Nothing at all.
34. He Kept His Story Simple
Authorities interviewed Wagner twice—both times were shortly after the drowning. Wagner’s story was simple. He said that Wood went to bed early, and when he went to check on her he couldn't find her in her room. He then noticed that the dinghy was also missing. But it was in the second interview that Wagner remembered a fact that pointed to something more sinister.
35. He Pointed A Finger
Detectives cut Wagner’s first interview short due to his emotional state. In his second interview, a few days later, he told pretty much the same story—with one key difference. He remembered that in the time between Wood going down to her room and Wagner checking on her, something else had occurred: Walken had gone out to the deck for some air.
Was Wagner trying to point the finger away from himself and directly at Walken?
36. Strange Facts Surfaced
While it seemed to be a clear drowning by accidental causes, a few odd facts arose that made people wonder if there wasn’t something else happening. One thing was Wood’s fear of dark water and drowning in general. Why would she be getting on a dinghy in the middle of the night if she was afraid of deep water? But there was something even more disturbing about this investigation.
37. The Coroner Had His Back
The coroner on the case, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, performed an autopsy on Wood's body. He then seemed to go out of his way to downplay anything that would lead people to believe that Wagner—or anyone else—was involved in the drowning. He downplayed the drinking and he downplayed the bruises. But why? Why was the coroner against implicating Wagner?
38. The Coroner Was An Oversharer
Noguchi, the coroner on the Wood/Wagner case, had gotten into trouble on a recent job concerning actor William Holden’s accidental passing. It seems that he had divulged too much info, especially about Holden’s level of inebriation. Noguchi wasn’t going to make that mistake again—not with the even more famous Wagner and Wood.
39. There Were Two Accidents
However, there was an even more bizarre connection between these two cases. William Holden wasn’t a complete stranger to Wagner. In fact, he was the romantic partner of Stefanie Powers—the same woman Wood had been so jealous of before. Doesn't it seem strange that both stars of the hit show Hart to Hart—the ones who had such amazing on-screen chemistry—were both suddenly single due to tragic accidents?
Accidents that happened to have taken place only a couple of weeks apart. What was Wagner doing during all this? Well, he was working on damage control.
40. He Kept His Frenemy Close
In the months following the drowning incident, Robert Wagner seemed intent on keeping the boat’s captain under close watch. Davern stayed at Wagner’s home and said he found it hard to leave. For one thing, the place was highly alarmed. Then, there was another reason: Wagner’s bodyguards kept stopping him at the door. Why was Wagner afraid to let Davern talk? And how far would he go to keep him silent?
41. He Lavished Him With Favors
Davern, who’d never shown any interest in acting, suddenly received offers for roles in commercials and even a small part in Wagner’s Hart To Hart. All were courtesy of his friend Robert Wagner. It’s hard to tell if Wagner was just trying to help his captain and friend or if he was trying to keep him from telling the truth about what happened that night off Catalina Island. But then, Wagner went even further.
42. He Paid For Silence
As if the roles in commercials and TV weren’t enough, Wagner started offering Davern lump sums of money for no obvious reason. Davern’s friends were telling him that Wagner was paying him hush money and if Davern accepted the money, he’d have to keep his mouth shut. But what was it that he knew about Wagner that he wasn’t telling?
43. The Captain Was A Tease
Davern has, on many occasions over the years, teased the media about having certain knowledge about Wood’s mysterious death, and then quickly backtracking and saying he wouldn’t share anything. Could it be that he’s not giving up the info because Wagner’s always finding new ways to make him stop? So if Davern isn’t sharing, what’s Wagner’s version of the events of that night?
44. His Story Changed Again
In Wagner’s 1986 biography, Heart to Heart with Robert Wagner, the actor speculated on what happened that fateful night. He claimed that Wood fell overboard because she was trying to tighten the rope on the dingy. Why was+ she tightening the rope? He says that the noise of the dinghy knocking against the boat was keeping her awake. And what about the argument, Wood’s bruises, and Walken’s flirting?
How can you explain those? Wagner didn’t have to, because the captain finally decided to speak.
45. He Couldn’t Keep Him Quiet
It took years for Captain Davern to finally share his version of the events of that night—and the details were explosive. It goes like this: Once the three actors returned from dinner, the drinking continued. Somehow, in all the merriment, it came out how Wagner felt about Wood and Walken flirting. Wagner smashed a bottle across the table and yelled at Walken, accusing him of trying to take his wife.
Then, Walken bolted for his room, and Wood stormed off to hers. But it wasn’t over yet.
46. They Had An Epic Argument
Davern claimed that he continued drinking with Wagner once Wood and Walken had gone to their separate rooms. Then, Wagner decided to check up on Wood. Davern reports that he heard a fight like he’d never heard before. They were screaming and throwing things around. Davern then heard someone messing with the dinghy lines—like they were trying to untie it. Then, suddenly, Wagner came back—but he didn’t look too good.
47. He Looked Like He’d Been In A Fight
It seems that Captain Davern was too intoxicated to worry about the sounds of someone messing with the dinghy he’d heard —because he forgot all about it. When Wagner returned from checking on Wood, however, he described him as tousled and sweating. He said it looked like he’d been in a fight. The two men drank some more, and then Wagner again went to check on Wood.
48. His Wife Was Missing
It was then that Wagner reported that he couldn't find his wife anywhere on the boat, so Davern offered to check for her as well. He went straight to Walken’s room, in case she’d ended up there. She hadn’t. In fact, she wasn’t on the boat at all. That’s when Davern noticed that the dinghy was missing as well. Wagner and the captain raised the alarm at 1:30 AM.
49. They Couldn’t Find Her Anywhere
Since Wagner and Davern couldn’t locate Wood onboard the boat, Davern had two great suggestions. One was to use the boat’s floodlights to search the water, and the other was to start up the motor and cruise around to find Wood. All reasonable solutions that could’ve saved Wood’s life. And what did Wagner say? Well, it was something he’d live to regret.
50. He Let Her Drown
Robert Wagner’s reaction to Davern’s suggestions was utterly cold-blooded. He shut the captain down, and said that he didn’t want to alert the other boaters around them. As far as the two men knew, Wood was drowning as they spoke. Wagner said that instead of searching for Wood, they should radio for help. This, to me anyway, doesn’t sound like the actions of a distraught husband whose wife is missing.
51. He Raised A Cloud Of Suspicion
Because of Davern’s new testimony, more than 700 people thought that something was fishy about Wood's drowning. In 2011, these 700 people—including Davern himself—signed a petition showing their dissatisfaction with the outcome of the investigation. Something was suspicious about this accident, and most people suspected that Wagner was at the bottom of it.
But what could a petition do? Apparently, a heck of a lot.
52. It Wasn’t An Accident Anymore
After the petition and the captain’s testimony, the coroner finally changed the designation of the accident. The words the coroner used to describe the incident now said that Wood’s passing was due to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” It was a big change from the previous “accidental drowning.” But what about Wagner’s role in it all?
53. He’s A Person Of Interest
After Wood drowned, authorities didn’t immediately consider Wagner a suspect at all. But with the new evidence given by Davern, investigators changed Wagner’s status to “person of interest.” This change happened in 2018, decades after the original drowning. It’s a case that threatens to overshadow Wagner’s career and celebrity, and will continue to do so until the truth finally surfaces.
54. He Rekindled Again
Less than three months after Wood’s body was found floating in the sea, Wagner—on Valentine’s Day, 1982—started dating again. He had known Bond Girl Jill St. John since the 1950s where they’d been contract players at Twentieth Century Fox. But there’s a surprising side to their relationship. What seemed like a surefire case of rebound has turned into a long-term union outlasting all the other relationships of Wagner and St. John combined.
It’s not clear how St. John feels about life on the sea.
55. Was He The Drunken Voice?
On that fateful Thanksgiving in 1981, a couple on a boat anchored near the Splendour, and heard a woman’s voice crying out: “Help me, someone please help me.” The couple then heard the voice of a man say, “Okay honey, we’ll get you.” The couple didn’t do anything about the voices; they thought it was just party people playing around. But it raises questions. Was this man Wagner? And if it was: why didn’t he help his wife?