Natalie Wood
As Los Angeles police reopen Wood's case, details from friends and family reveal a lifelong connection to and fear of the ocean, ending with the actress's tragic death by drowning. Reuters

Long before Natalie Wood's tragic death by drowning, the 43-year-old star of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause had a lifelong, often unsettling relationship with water, including a childhood fear of drowning and living many significant moments of her life at sea.

The case of Wood's mysterious drowning in 1981, while the actress was on a yacht with husband Robert Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken, has long been one shrouded in Hollywood mystery. Following the death of fellow Rebel star James Dean, her death led some to become proponents of the Rebel Without a Cause Curse.

Others, such as Wood's sister Lara and the yacht's captain, Dennis Davern, have long urged Los Angeles police to re-open the case, with some questioning Walken's involvement and Davern openly stating he believed Wood's husband was involved in her drowning. Davern's own book on the actress's death helped trigger a re-opening of the case by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Revelations by Lara Wood, other family members and widower Wagner, however, paint another picture of Natalie Wood's relationship with her husband and the mystery of a movie curse that has surrounded her death: The fact that Wood, who was intoxicated when she died and was believed to have fallen into the ocean while at Isthmus Cove, had felt connected to water, and a watery grave, for most of her life.

That moment changed my life.

Some of Wood's connection to water was closely linked to her marriage to actor Robert Wagner, and their stormy relationship over two decades. This relationship came into sharp focus as the Wood case was first investigated in 1981.

In one section of Wagner's 2008 memoir, Pieces of Heart, the actor recalled the moment when he first fell in love with Wood, whom he married in 1957, divorced in 1962, and re-married in 1972.

I remember the instant I fell in love with her, Wagner wrote. One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life.

The couple also reunited on a boat. Following a massive storm while traveling from New York to London on the Queen Elizabeth II, the couple announced their plans to remarry, and did so aboard a friend's yacht off Saint Catalina Island in 1972, off the coast of Southern California. Isthmus Cove, where Wood died, is part of Catalina.

According to Wagner, their sea-side reunion served both to renew their love and to revitalize their love of the ocean. They bought a 60-foot boat called The Splendor, after one of Natalie Wood's films, and the actor recalled his wife sending him a note on Easter a year after the wedding, writing: Dearest, here's to smooth sailing for us from now on!

Dark Water: A Premonition Comes True

This picture of Wood's love for the ocean however, doesn't jibe with friends' and family members' memories. Those closest to the actress in the drowning case point instead to a lifelong and well-documented fear of the ocean, and of the water in general.

Natalie Wood was so terrified of swimming that she wouldn't even go into her own swimming pool, which came with the actress' home. She avoided water except in her interactions with Wagner. She hated the water, hated it, Lana Wood said of Natalie.

Even more chilling, however, given the way Wood died, is what sister Lana told TMZ this week in an interview about her sister's drowning.

Dark water held a special sway over the actress, because her mother had told her she would die by drowning, and by dark water. According to Wood's sister, her mother had told them this from a young age, and had scared Natalie Wood enough that she avoided going into deep dark water ever since.

Lana Wood, also an actress, best known for the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, says that the idea that Natalie would get into a dinghy after harboring such a life-long fear never made sense to her. Initial investigations into Wood's death had posited that the West Side Story actress had attempted to board the dinghy alone while drunk, falling into the water and striking her head.

Leave her there, teach her a lesson.

Despite the strange circumstances of Natalie Wood's death, her sister says that she still refuses to believe Robert Wagner, whom she calls R.J., was directly involved in the drowning, dismissing the possibility that he killed his wife over her close relationship to Christopher Walken.

I can't ever believe that R.J. would purposely do something to hurt her, Lana Wood, 65, said when the case was re-opened.

In the emotional interview however, Wood did say that she believed Wagner may have been in a drunken fight with Natalie Wood that ended in an accidental drowning, and she says she is certain Wagner did much to cover up the details of her sister's death.

She also said that Capt. Davern told her he had moved to get the West Side Story actress out of the water, but Wagner had forbidden him, saying: Leave her there, teach her a lesson.

As Los Angeles police investigate Natalie Wood's death, those on the re-opened case have said Robert Wagner will not be a murder suspect, and that they are still viewing the case as an accidental drowning. Sister Lana Wood's insights into the actress's lifelong fear of water, however, and her mother's premonition that she would drown in dark water, make the case all the more mysterious, and Wagner's insistence that Wood loved the ocean, all the more troubling.