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Natalie Wood: A drowning tragedy revisited

"The things which I have seen I now can see no more."

This is how William Wordsworth ends the first stanza of his Ode: Intimations of Immortality, a poem that a young Natalie Wood is forced, by a cruel English teacher, to read aloud and analyze in the 1961 movie Splendor in the Grass.

Wordsworth laments the loss of his childhood ability to apprehend the world with the "radiance" engendered by innocence. The anniversary of Wood's death this month occasions one, in turn, to contemplate the tragic passing of "a glory from the earth."

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On Tuesday, it will be exactly 30 years since Wood drowned, beside her yacht, Splendor, off the shore of Santa Catalina Island, Calif.

Her death was ruled an accident, but earlier this month, the case was officially re-opened by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The skipper of the yacht, Dennis Davern, has come forward with a new version of what transpired that night between Wood, her husband, Robert Wagner and their guest, actor Christopher Walken.

Wagner is not a suspect, but Davern is nothing if not determined – the author, with Marti Rulli, of 2009's Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendor, appeared on the Today show on Nov. 18 and bluntly stated he believed Wagner to be responsible.

People and Vanity Fair, in a special new Hollywood scandals issue, have picked up his story, and the conjecture is flying.

One can almost hear TV's genius coroner Quincy – modelled after coroner Thomas Noguchi, who ruled Wood's death an accident – barking, "It's murder, Sam!" to his faithful assistant.

The story of Wood's death is incredible. On-board with her handsome co-star (in Brainstorm) and her husband, she drank, fought with Wagner, slipped into a heavy jacket and clambered down the side of the boat to sit in the dinghy moored beside it. She did all this in spite of a lifelong horror of water and with no conceivable plans to join an early-morning dinghy regatta.

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Her bruised body was discovered a mile away: She is thought to have survived five hours in the cold, dark sea.

OJ's gloves look even more comically small in the context of this ridiculous, well-ventilated (with obvious half-truths and untruths) story.

Davern and Rulli (and an aural witness, who heard Wood cry out that night and heard a man's laconic reply) are at long last filling in the blanks. We have heard of a bottle broken in anger, of a violent quarrel; of toxic sexual jealousy, a cover-up and a death threat (to the skipper).

But why is all of this information emerging now? Why are we suddenly looking at Wagner – always a meticulously inoffensive figure in his beige haberdashery and deep beige tan – and wondering if this blandly handsome man could kill?

His explanation has always been banal enough to be plausible: He claims his wife was trying to stop the dinghy from slapping the side of the boat, because it was keeping her awake.

As to what kept her from making a short step to the ship's ladder and saving her life, we will never know.

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Is it Wood's death alone that is creating such pop nostalgia for "the splendour in the grass" the "glory in the flower" – for the radiant beauties of our own childhoods?

Currently, Marilyn Monroe is the subject of yet another biopic, starring, preposterously, Michelle Williams; Grace Kelly is being feted in an exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; and Elizabeth Taylor also makes a splash in the December Vanity Fair, in full Cleopatra regalia.

Each of these women was an on-screen miracle (briefly, watch Wood gently gamboling with James Dean and Sal Mineo in the screen tests for Rebel Without a Cause (1955); or flaring with gorgeous fury in Gypsy) and each was an off-screen brawler, so to speak. Madly sexual, they drank too much and lived too hard – 43 when she died, a hardened Wood was already grimly taking each year to task, according to her sister Lana.

It is quite possible that an inebriated Wood just wanted to get away from it all, using the bizarre logic alcohol provides.

But it is hard to think of her, so frightened and cold, so completely alone.

"When I saw you," James Dean tells Wood in Rebel, "the sun was shining and it was nice and all that stuff."

And then he thought he'd better – given how fleeting beauty is – "live it up." He did – as did Mineo and Wood, three perfect intimations of immortal beauty – of, to refer back to the great Romantic poet, "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

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