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Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour
By Marti Rulli, Dennis Davern
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Martin Rulli, Dennis Davern
All rights reserved.
August 17, 1983, 11:30 p.m., Pacific Time. Nearly two years after Natalie Wood's death, Dennis Davern sat on the edge of the bed in Splendour's master stateroom—formerly Natalie's room—and painfully relived, perhaps for the thousandth time, the day he had identified her body. Dreading sleep, he filled a glass with scotch—a nightly ritual in which both he and Robert Wagner (known as R.J.) had indulged, often together, since Natalie's funeral.
Dennis feared sleep without the booze that usually helped to muffle his recurring dreams of Natalie's face—alive and dead—as raging thoughts tortured him with the knowledge that nearly two years before, on November 29, 1981, he, Dennis Davern, the proud and conscientious skipper of Splendour, had made a terrible, terrible mistake.
Dennis's memories suspended him in a time warp he could not escape. He continually visualized Natalie sitting in her wheelhouse settee—"Natalie's perch" they had called it—creating her needlepoint pillows or reading her scripts. He had long ago cleared Splendour of Natalie's personal belongings: her oriental face mirror, her music box, her beautifully stitched pillows, and her earring found in the corner of the stateroom that matched the pieces-of-gold chain she had given him the night before she died—the chain he still wore around his neck. Even with the yacht cleared, Natalie still filled the space around him.
Natalie had turned her husband's sport-fishing boat into a haven, a home on the sea that had received many of the most celebrated people of the entertainment industry. Dennis recalled how Natalie had poured herself into decorating the yacht's interior in a blue color scheme, tastefully caught in the fabrics and wallpaper. The exception to the blue motif was the master stateroom, where Dennis now slept, still surrounded by Natalie's subtle peach and soothing earth-toned choices. For him, those colors were anything but soothing; they were just another reminder of the tragedy in which Dennis had played an unwilling part.
Dennis refilled his scotch glass and carried it to the open rear deck. The still night was a stark contrast to the night when Natalie had met her death through her greatest lifelong fear—deep, dark water.
Dennis was approaching a breaking point. For nearly two years, he had held a secret inside him—a horrible secret that he wished to God he did not know. The very keeping of it went against everything he knew was right, yet at the crucial moment he could have revealed what he knew, his fear and confusion in the midst of an unbearable tragedy had immobilized him. Keeping the secret had seemed not only the right thing but the only thing to do. The secret now churned inside him like a living thing that clawed desperately for a way out.
He paced the deck, then rushed back to the stateroom and randomly pulled open a drawer. Pencil drawings of Natalie's two young girls, which Dennis had deliberately kept on board, transported him to a long-ago cruise when Natalie had sketched her daughters, Natasha and Courtney. Dennis lay on the bed, motionless, and recalled another time:
There's Natalie, nestled into her settee in the wheelhouse—a stack of unread scripts beside her, with one in her lap. She's rubbing her dark eyes. She takes a sip of Pouilly-Fuissé, her favorite wine.
Dennis struggled to focus on the memory, but tonight the scotch failed him. Dennis closed his eyes against hot tears—tears that no longer took him by surprise.
* * *
Same night, different coast, 2:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time. From a sound sleep, my eyes sprang open. Ironically, within a minute, the startling ring of the telephone confirmed my uneasiness, and I jumped up, ran to my desk, and grabbed it before it awakened my husband.
"Marti, Marti, I need your help ... to talk ... to tell you. Please."
It was my friend Dennis Davern.
Now living aboard Splendour, he called a lot lately, without regard for the east–west time difference—I lived in New Jersey. I had never heard such distress in his voice. I knew, before he said another word, what the call was about.
Dennis agonized constantly over Natalie Wood's death. He had tried to hide his difficulty in coping with the tragedy, but there was no concealing his pain. We had discussed it occasionally but briefly over the past twenty months. It was his determined avoidance of the subject and his recent, drastic weight loss that told me how deeply he was wounded. Now, tonight, I could tell from his voice that Dennis, anesthetized with booze, was about to perform drunken surgery on himself. My immediate thought was to stop him.
"Denny, where are you?"
"I'm on Splendour ... the murder yacht, that's where I am," he answered sarcastically. "People call it the murder yacht, and the tabloids are calling me the death-yacht captain."
"I'm sorry, Den. I know you're hurting. Has the therapist you've been seeing helped at all?"
"I've been seeing Wagner's doctor. I can't talk there. I'm going to burst," he cried. "I'm ready to burst ... I can't take it anymore."
I wouldn't take advantage of Dennis's drunkenness, and I wasn't so sure I wanted to hear his obvious, enormous burden. But Dennis, even in his most inebriated state, knew that I would listen to whatever he had to tell me and that I would do anything in my power to help him.
"I'll never regret telling you, Marti," he continued. "Tape me so I can never take this back. I'll shock you with something you ... that you won't...."
Despite preferring to believe that Natalie Wood's death had indeed been accidental, I suspected there was a dark side to the story. The subject was widely discussed among my circle of friends and family. Dennis, to this point, had not spoken of the details of that night, and more than the contradictory news stories, more than the downward turn Dennis had taken since Natalie's death, it was his silence that bothered me. This night, as he sobbed on the telephone, I feared he would say too much, and my stomach churned with anxiety for him.
"I won't tape you like this, Den," I told him. "You're dealing with enough. When you wake up tomorrow and realize what you said—well, this is serious."
"It's beyond serious, Marti. It's beyond your worst thought. It's eating me alive. Identifying her body.... You know I had to identify her," Dennis sobbed.
I stayed quiet. Quiet and numb.
"Marti, ask me anything, so I can answer. Take this out of me, please."
I fought temptation and said, "Den, I just can't. Right now, I don't care how she died. I just care that you—"
"Everyone cares how she died!" he vehemently interrupted.
"Denny, I need you sober for this."
"I'm never sober anymore," he yelled. "If I'm not drunk on scotch, I'm drunk on fucking bullshit! It's all total bullshit, and I can't stand it!"
He mumbled more, and I waited with no idea what to say.
Finally, Dennis said, "I want this story in a book, Marti, and I want you to write it. The strangers and reporters who hound me, they just care about getting it first, but I need it explained right."
I sandwiched the receiver between my shoulder and jaw and grabbed a pen and paper, as if I could finish a book by daybreak. Natalie Wood's death had become one of many intriguing Hollywood mysteries, and I was talking to a witness—a desperate one. Had I any inkling that I was facing decades of frustration, disappointment, outrage, and consuming work, I still would not have put down that pen.
"Marti, will you answer me?" Den asked.
"You've never told me what happened that night, and your whole demeanor since then leaves me imagining the worst. That's scary."
"Remember the night we met? What I told you?" Dennis asked.
"Of course, I do. You said we would do something big together one day."
"Well, this is it, Marti. This is our something big. The big truth."
Chills ran through me. I had no clue what secrets Dennis would reveal, but I trusted him. To be privy to something as shrouded in mystery as Natalie Wood's death overwhelmed me, but there was more at stake: I thought about the word "justice" and now suspected that Natalie hadn't received it.
"Den. I can't just say 'yes, I'll write a book' at three in the morning."
Dennis was prepared to tell me every detail of the weekend Natalie Wood died. I sensed I might regret what I said next, but at the moment, it seemed the only right thing to say. "Den, you're in no state of mind to relive that weekend tonight, so tell me something nice about your relationship with Natalie instead."
"She knew she would die in water, Marti. Natalie knew it—even said it. That's two predictions made years ago, and here we are."
"Den, we'll talk about all that later. Tonight, go lighter."
Perfect medicine. His voiced cleared to a less burdened tone. He seemed to sober up. "I got along great with Natalie," he said. "We spent a lot of time together on the boat. I was their friend, not just an employee."
"I've talked to you enough through the years to know that much. But are you still friends with Wagner?"
"The world should know just how much of a friend I've been to him."
His strange response startled me. "Meaning?" I asked.
"Meaning I lied for him, like friends do. Like I was told to do, anyway. But what about Natalie? Is it okay to lie because she's dead and doesn't matter?"
I stayed quiet as Dennis yelled out the answer to his own question, "No!"
"Den, please, just tell me about a boat outing or something."
He paused and took a deep breath. "We would sit in the wheelhouse, just hanging out. I knew when to leave her alone and when to start a conversation. Sometimes, I'd say, 'Hey, Natalie, wanna listen to some music?' I'd throw in the Doors or a Jimmy Buffet tape, but she would say, 'Take that out and put on Dylan.' She loved listening to Bob Dylan. Sometimes we'd dance around and sing. One day, I made her feel ten years younger. I was thinking about that cruise right before I called you. I told her she would never drown out there."
* * *
The Wagner family set out aboard Splendour for a day of shopping the boutique-lined streets of Avalon on Catalina Island, but when they moored, the brutally hot sun persuaded everyone to stay with the yacht.
Natalie lounged lazily on her corner settee and read a script. Her jeans obviously irritated her legs, and she shifted about constantly. She glanced over at Dennis, where he dozed in his captain's chair at the wheel. He lifted an eyelid each time she stirred.
"Dennis, it's hot," she complained. "I can't move, I can't read, I can't even think. Would you please get me a glass of ice water?"
"Ice water isn't good for you in this kind of heat, Natalie."
"Maybe we do need air conditioning," she suggested.
"Like R.J. would go for that," he grinned. "He thinks he'd be laughed off the boat by his fishing buds, but I'm with you, Natalie," Dennis agreed, wiping his brow with his forearm.
Courtney's, Natasha's, and R.J.'s voices, sounding from the rear of the boat where they played and swam, reverberated against the thick calm. Natalie delighted in hearing her husband's teasing laughter mixed with her daughters' playful squeals. She closed her eyes and tuned in.
Dennis watched Natalie's face. Never was she more serene and beautiful than on days like this one. Her smile grew wider with each burst of laughter from the stern.
"Dennis, why don't you take some pictures of all those children out there?" she said, smiling.
R.J. and his stepdaughter, Natasha, treaded the crystal blue water as four-year-old Courtney watched from the deck. Courtney would not budge toward the water as her father coaxed her to the swim step, but no one teased her. Instead, R.J. asked Natasha to come on deck while he gathered tackle boxes and poles for fishing. The girls were excited to help reel in dinner.
Dennis returned to Natalie, who had lost concentration on her script. She stood up as he entered the wheelhouse.
"These things aren't helping today," she complained, looking down at her blue jeans. "Dennis, did you notice those girls back at the marina, how skimpy their cutoff jeans were? Their cheeks showed!"
"What if I cut these like that? Am I too old for that look?"
"You'd look great in anything, Natalie."
Her lethargy disappeared as she rushed off to her stateroom. A few minutes later, she returned, frustrated, with scissors in one hand, a glass of ice water in the other.
"I ruined them," she whined, looking down at the ragged, uneven edges of her jeans, which barely allowed her knees to peek out. Her untucked tee shirt made her look almost frumpy.
Dennis burst out laughing. "If you were after the long, leggy look, Natalie, you missed it."
She tried not to laugh while defending her attempt. "I buy clothes. I wear them. I don't alter them! Can you cut them, Dennis?"
"Yeah, I'll fix them."
Natalie squirmed out of her homemade knickers, down to her bathing suit bottom, and reluctantly handed over her jeans. As Dennis reached for them, she clutched them back. "Be careful!"
Dennis cut just below the crotch, ignoring Natalie's "Wait! Not so short!"
"Here, put these on. They'll be perfect," he assured her.
The custom cutoffs revealed Natalie's smooth, tanned legs. She did a slow pirouette, confident she triumphed over the scantily clad marina beauties that she, of all people, had envied.
"Now, hand over that glass of ice water," Dennis reprimanded.
She threw back her head and filled the wheelhouse with her laughter.
The day lingered on as Natalie read scripts, and R.J. fished with the girls. At dinnertime, R.J. barbecued steaks on deck while Dennis prepared a salad in the galley. When Dennis went to call Natalie for dinner, he noticed her pensive expression. "I just love coming out here," she said. "It's a balm for my spirit." Then she leaned forward, looked at Dennis, and admitted, "Only two things scare me, though. What if I have a heart attack? What would happen, Dennis? Help couldn't get here in time."
"We could be on the island, to a hospital, within minutes, Natalie," Dennis assured her.
She wasn't satisfied.
"What brought this on?"
"I'm under a lot of stress, and I just worry about heart attacks. I just want to be cautious. Maybe we should all take CPR training. You should know CPR, Dennis."
"I'll check into it," Dennis promised, "but I don't see you having a heart attack. You're worrying for no good reason."
"Okay, Doctor Dennis, but what about drowning?" she asked.
"Drowning? You're sure high on anxiety today."
She exhaled loudly, telling Dennis she was perturbed at his dismissal of her fears.
Dennis sat quietly at the wheel. The melodic wash of water lapped at Splendour's hull.
"Natalie, check out the sunset," Dennis finally said.
Side by side, Natalie and Dennis watched the sun's orange wings spread across the island and horizon. A rosy glow hid Catalina's hilltops and spread across the sky. As golden sparkles danced off the calm water's surface, Natalie drew in a deep, peaceful breath, and Dennis knew she felt better.
"You'll be fine out here, Natalie," he assured her.
Natalie gave him a beaming smile. "Okay, Dennis, let's go eat."
At the dinner table in the galley, Natalie cut Courtney's portions into tiny, tiny pieces.
"The sunset was awesome tonight," R.J. commented.
Natalie agreed, and then teasingly asked her husband, "So, where are the fillets to complement our steaks, R.J.? Catch anything other than the sunset?"
Natasha burst into a fit of giggles. Courtney, following her older sister's cue, laughed along. As conversation drifted lazily over dinner, Courtney dozed off. Natalie carried Courtney to the sofa in the adjoining main salon, then asked Natasha what she wanted to do.
Natasha pleaded, "Mommy, will you draw a picture of me? Please?"
Natalie attached a few sheets of cream cotton paper to a clipboard. "Now, stay still, Natasha," she instructed.
Natasha loved the attention and repeatedly asked to see the work in progress as her mom's pencil moved in downward strokes and upward sweeps across the paper. "You'll have to wait until I'm done," Natalie insisted.
When the sketch was completed, Natasha beamed at her mother's rendition of her pretty young face and long, flowing hair. "Now draw Courtney, too, Mommy," Natasha insisted.
Excerpted from Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour by Marti Rulli, Dennis Davern. Copyright © 2009 Martin Rulli, Dennis Davern. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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