Lana Wood, Natalie’s Little Sister, Has Plenty to Say

How about no devils?” Lana Wood said on the phone recently, recounting a presentation she gave at CrimeCon in June.

Her sister, Natalie Wood, had left her first husband, Robert Wagner, after a marital betrayal, Lana says she told her. But Natalie decided, in 1972, to go back to him — because “sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

Nine years later, Natalie would die under suspicious circumstances. Her body was found floating off Catalina Island in California near a boat on which she, Mr. Wagner and Christopher Walken had spent the evening. Also on board was the skipper, Dennis Davern.

At the time, Ms. Wood’s death was ruled an accident and the case was closed.

But in 2011, the investigation was reopened by the Los Angeles Police Department after Mr. Davern said he heard Ms. Wood and Mr. Wagner arguing earlier in the evening. After re-evaluating the case details, the coroner changed the cause of Ms. Wood’s death to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Since then, more witnesses have emerged that have led the police to reclassify Ms. Wood’s death as “suspicious” and to consider Mr. Wagner, now 89, as “a person of interest.” The Los Angeles Police Department did not offer specifics about the witnesses’ identities or statements.

According to Ralph Hernandez, the lead homicide detective, Mr. Wagner has not talked to the police since 1981. “I think that Wagner holds the key,” Detective Hernandez said in a phone interview. “It’s really only up to him at this point.”

Whether Mr. Wagner can be charged with a crime isn’t clear. Because of the statute of limitations on lesser crimes, murder is the only one that could be considered, Detective Hernandez said.

At the CrimeCon presentation, in New Orleans, Ms. Wood stressed that though “there may be a statute of limitations on a crime, there is not one on the truth.” Detective Hernandez said that the revised coroner’s report states that Natalie appeared to be a victim of assault and battery, and that the coroner could not rule out that she had died before she hit the water. “Robert Wagner maintains her death was an accident. How was she accidentally assaulted?” Ms. Wood asked the crowd at CrimeCon.

A few months before, she sat for a steak salad and a long talk at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where she lives with her three grandchildren, whom she is raising with her son-in law. (Her daughter, Evan, died in 2017 of heart failure.)

“I think the truth about Natalie’s murder is very important to other women,” Ms. Wood said. As a veteran of Hollywood herself, she watched the #MeToo era unfold with excitement, tinged with weariness. Her advocacy for Natalie in the media for 38 years has left her particularly alert to men’s abuses.

Still a dazzler at 73, Lana was dressed smartly in black pants and black sweater, with an engaging manner. “You need to speak up to fraternal Hollywood,” she said, “and also understand the price that is paid for that type of life. Natalie paid dearly — with her life. Nothing was done about that.”

Natalie had always been the protective older sister to Lana, eight years younger. She left her entire wardrobe to Lana in her will: rooms full of the clothing she’d armed herself with for decades. Natalie subscribed to the notion that clothing was armor, especially in predatory Hollywood.

CreditEarl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

In a 2008 memoir, “Pieces of My Heart,” which portrays Lana in a largely unfavorable light, Mr. Wagner made an issue of her selling the clothing at a secondhand store. Lana said the will had stipulated that whatever she didn’t want should be sold.

From the late 1950s right up to before Natalie’s death in 1981, the Wood sisters could be seen arm in arm all around town, in high spirits and beautiful clothes. While Natalie expressed everything through the deep pools of her brown eyes, topping her outfits off with the perfect sunglasses, Lana’s most expressive feature was her voice. She became as adept at using it, both to sing and to stand up for herself.

“Natalie was always very careful to present herself as a movie star,” she said. “I simply didn’t care. I wore what I liked to.”

Natalie also left behind the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death, however, and now their roles are reversed. As Lana fielded texts from her granddaughter during lunch (“I always want to correct her grammar”), she continued: “Protecting Natalie, that’s what I really feel I have to do now. If it’s not me, it’s not going to happen.

“As far as the difference between us,” Lana said, “Natalie was very cautious about what she said. I never thought about that. It isn’t that I didn’t have a filter — I did — but if things go wrong, I tell someone about it.” Her eyes welled when she described her sister’s terror before a rare unscripted interview on “The Merv Griffin Show.” Lana told her to just be herself. Natalie replied, “‘I’m just going to pretend I’m you!’”

According to Detective Hernandez, Lana has been indispensable and credible.

“She is the one family member willing to cooperate in the investigation,” he said. “We work for the victim’s family. So we consider Lana Natalie Wood’s family and that’s who we’re working for, to try and find out the truth about what happened to her sister. The case is going to stay open until we find out the truth of what happened.”

Mr. Wagner’s publicist, Alan Nierob, declined to make his client available for comment on his relationship with Lana, or the case.


CreditJack Albin/Getty Images

Lana is estranged from her nieces, Natasha Wagner and Courtney Gregson Wagner, but was contacted in January by Laurent Bouzereau, the director of an HBO documentary about Natalie Wood, which Natasha Wagner helped produce. Mr. Bouzereau asked her to participate, and Lana refused, writing a note to Mr. Bouzereau in which she asked him to let Natasha “know that I completely understand she also wishes to keep her pain and her family’s at a minimum.”

But as far as Lana is concerned, the notion that Natalie accidentally drowned after getting into a dinghy, alone, on a stormy night is preposterous. “Let’s be truthful about who she was and how she was,” she said. “I am not making judgments. I am not supposing. I’m not doing any of those things. I’m simply looking at facts. Natalie didn’t swim. Her fear of dark water was deeply ingrained.”

At CrimeCon Lana discussed another detail. “Natalie would not go anywhere not fully made-up, wearing something terrific,” she said. “She certainly would not get into a dinghy in her nightgown by herself. She would get dressed, put on full makeup and have Dennis Davern take her ashore to stay in a motel on Catalina, which is exactly what she did the night before, when she wanted to leave.”


Credit Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The tale of Natalie and Lana Wood begins in post-World War II Los Angeles, where the sisters were led by their determined Russian immigrant mother, Maria, to the gates of Hollywood, to be raised almost entirely by the studio system there.

Natalie, the accommodating oldest child, rose to stardom beginning at age 5, while Lana’s first scene, as an infant alongside 8-year-old Natalie in “Driftwood,” went to the cutting-room floor. Lana would spend the coming years on Natalie’s movie sets traipsing after Maria and Natalie or left at home with her father, Nick Zakharenko, who preferred to drink and read surrounded by his portraits of the Romanovs.

In 1954, after Natalie had starred in “Rebel Without a Cause,” with Lana spending many nights on the set sleeping with a pillow and a blanket that Maria had packed as shoots ran late; after the terror of watching Natalie’s character raise her arms to signal the beginning of the race that would almost send James Dean’s character over the cliff; after all that, Natalie was summoned one night to an audition at a Los Angeles hotel.

She was 16 years old. When Natalie finally emerged, she was in hysterics, destroyed. She had been raped by another actor over twice her age, she told her mother and sister.

From her pillow and blanket in the back seat of the family car, Lana witnessed her mother hushing Natalie into secrecy. They filed no report.

Instead, Lana, said, Maria nudged Lana forward. Within the year, John Huston cast her along with Natalie and John Wayne in “The Searchers.’” From there Lana was rushed from role to role, her screen fathers flickering past her — Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Walter Matthau. Maria waited in the wings just as she had done for Natalie: to be educated by tutors on set, provided by the studio, taught to bathe, dress and comport herself by studio wardrobe women, attending school only when it didn’t interfere.

But at 14, Lana ran away from home. She didn’t want to be groomed by Maria to follow Natalie’s yellow brick road, she said now, but rather to be a normal unscripted teenager. She turned to her sister for protection. Natalie was fierce. She threatened to never speak to Maria again if Lana was dragged to one more audition. And thus Lana was excused from Hollywood.

But her time there taught her a few lessons. Along with Natalie, Lana had come to feel the sheer joy of being a glorious clotheshorse out and about: trying this on and that, stepping through doors exhilarated by a drape of sumptuous fabric caressing her shoulders, encircling her hips.

“I love a terrific jacket,” Lana said. “I just counted how many I have two weeks ago. I have 79 of them!” Her favorite designers are Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. “Because there’s always something lovely there, but then there’s a little edge too.”

In 1962, Lana was 16, living on her own in an apartment in Westwood, spending her weekends at Natalie’s, where her older sister was living with Warren Beatty. If Mr. Beatty stepped out of line, Lana would call him on it pronto, she said.

In the afternoons after school, Lana got a job as a model and shop girl at the clothing boutique Jax, where she was surrounded not only by smart clothing but also a women’s wear credo so forward-thinking it might as well have been another planet.

Jax was owned by the former Los Angeles Angels shortstop Jack Hanson. He left baseball to reinvent sportswear for women, advancing the cigarette pant by moving the zipper from the side to the back — not just for comfort but to flatter the rear end. The garment became a staple for Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

Mr. Hanson teamed up with the avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich, who had removed the boning in women’s bathing suits in the 1950s to free the body, because, as he wrote in his design manifesto, “the only respect you can give to a woman is to make her a human being, a totally emancipated women.”

Mr. Gernreich was out to “to cure society of its sexual hangups,” designing clothing for women to “take our minds off how we look and concentrate on really important matters in the world.” Lana was enthralled.

She modeled for a year at Jax, while picking clothes up off the floor for clients like Susan Hayward. Then one day Steve McQueen’s wife, Neile, popped in to the store and convinced Lana it was time to get back to acting.

But Lana feared the burdens of celebrity. “I wasn’t acting to become anything other than an actor,” she said. “That was it! I love getting the script. I love doing the part, but when they say ‘it’s a wrap’ at the end of the day, I want to just go wherever it is I want to go.”

She recalled marching downtown and getting herself “informally deputized’ by the county’s animal commissioner, “so I could keep an eye on the shelters and come up with a plan to improve them.”

Another thing Lana loved to do was go home and write. (Putnam published her memoir, “Natalie,” in 1984. In his own memoir, Mr. Wagner called it “ridiculous.”)

At 18 Lana took a different tack, becoming one of Judy Garland’s protectors while the star was on tour in Australia. “It was a major responsibility,” she writes in “Natalie”: “I was the only other female in her entourage of six. I was pretty much left to handle Judy alone. They would send me to her room when she wasn’t there and say go through all her clothing, anything that’s sharp, that she could hurt herself with — remove! All the things I’d heard about her, that she was pathologically insecure, unstable and one of the most delightful people you’d ever want to know were absolutely true.” And yet, she writes:” “I had never seen her perform and was captured by her magic.”

That magical motion of singing, that lifting of the spirit, was something Lana had always loved to do herself and still does. “I sing all the time, everywhere,” she said during lunch. “When I was in high school, I remember singing an entire song in a classroom unbidden. I walked in singing it. The bell rang. I didn’t care. I wasn’t done, so I completed the song.”

When she arrived in 1965 on the director Mark Rydell’s set of “The Long Hot Summer,” Lana recalled, “he took one look at me and said, ‘What can I get for you?’ I said a tambourine. So, in he came the next morning with a tambourine. I took it everywhere I went. Sometimes I’d play it in the car.”

On Tuesday nights Lana would use it onstage while singing with the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, an act of the soon-to-be-renowned producer Michael Lloyd.

“The first thing you need to know about Lana is she’s just a great girl,” Mr. Lloyd said in a phone interview. “Period. She had a great voice. It’s unique, a lot of personality and you know she put it all out there. I should’ve cut it!


CreditMondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

By the time Lana was 19, she was starring with Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal in “Peyton Place;” shot by Federico Fellini’s photographer with a leopard by her side — and, she said, begged by Sergio Leone to relocate to Rome and sign a contract with him; pursued by Alain Delon across the continents; nagged by Dennis Hopper to accept a lead role in “Easy Rider.”

“Oh boy! I wanted none of that!” she said.

It wasn’t long before the call came from Playboy asking her to pose. She wore her boyfriend’s cat in her lap in one shot and her bridesmaid’s dress from Natalie’s wedding in another, assuring her sister that the photos were very tasteful. “I’m sure they’re very yummy,” Natalie said.

“I said to myself, ‘Why did I do semi-nudes?’” Lana said. “I’m saying something to the world that I don’t want to say. ‘Look at me! I’m so pretty,’ is not what I want to say to the world!”

She tracked down Hugh Hefner’s home phone number and asked him to kill the photos. “We finally got down to talking about the poetry that I was writing and he said, ‘Well, could we publish that along with the photos?’” Lana recalled. “I said O.K.! That would be O.K.”

Next she was cast as a Bond girl, Plenty O’Toole, alongside Sean Connery in “Diamonds Are Forever.”

“I wanted my Bond Girl to be liked,” Lana said. “I want to be liked with my flaws because that’s the one thing that means something to me. Perfection is who you are, whoever that is. That’s your perfection.”


CreditSunset Boulevard/Corbis, via Getty Images

Her costume designer was Donfeld, who also did the original “Wonder Woman” and gave her an “emotional class” in the character. In Plenty’s last scene, she is thrown through a high hotel window into a swimming pool below, which Lana accomplished without a stunt double, she said, plummeting from a towering platform on full display for an enormous crowd of gamblers on the Vegas Strip, wearing less than she had in Playboy.

When you are playing a character, the first thing that happens is you are affected by the clothing,” Lana said. “It’s very powerful. Your entire persona changes for that period of time. It carries you over, and it can follow you into your personal life.”

Modeling jobs for designers filled gaps between acting. In 1968 Bob Mackie hired Lana to walk snaking through dozens of tables for his packed “best sellers” luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, modeling gowns he had designed for Judy Garland.

Then there was the renowned photographer Guy Webster, who often shot from his skateboard. “Guy liked to undo my hair by spritzing me with a water bottle to return me to my natural look,” Lana said. One afternoon, after a shoot in the late ’60s, a beautiful woman with long dark hair appeared.

“She’s a witch,” Mr. Webster told her.


“Yes, she is — just let her stand with you for a little while.”

“So I stood there next to her,” Lana said, “and all of a sudden tears were streaming down her cheeks. She walked away from me. Guy went and talked to her then came back and said, ‘She sees you surrounded by death.’”


CreditRon Galella/Ron Galella Collection, via Getty Images

The morning that Natalie’s body was found adrift off Catalina Island, Lana writes in her memoir, “I went upstairs and washed my hair in the bathroom sink. I hadn’t used the sink for this purpose for many years, not since Natalie and I were children.”

She later opened a condolence note from Donfeld: a sketch of a dress he had designed for Natalie for her final film, “Brainstorm.” On the back Donfeld had written, “Natalie thought you hung the moon.”

After lunch, outside the restaurant, with a light rain misting the air, Lana appeared petite even in her black high-heeled boots. Her grandson texted to ask if she was on her way home yet and why she had picked a restaurant — the Palm — so far from the house.

“No matter what it is. I talk to my grandkids all the time when they say they don’t want to do this or that, that it’s not important. I say, ‘You don’t understand that even though you feel like a pebble, you’re leaving ripples and you don’t know where those ripples will go and you at least must try and do something!’”

Lana said she has started a new memoir.

“I want to leave behind something that helps something,” she said. “I don’t care how small it is as long as I’ve accomplished something that might someday make a difference. I don’t want to be thought of as, ‘Oh my, wasn’t she pretty.’ No. No.”

Valeriya Safronova contributed reporting.

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