Natalie Wood Mystery: Who is Yacht Captain Dennis Davern?

Life looks like it's been hard for Dennis Davern, the captain of the yacht on which Natalie Wood spent her last night 30 years ago. 

He has a crinkly, sun-scarred face out of which sprouts an uneven beard of brown and gray. He wore glasses on the “Today” show interview and donned an olive-colored cargo shirt with two unbuttoned breast pockets. He appeared as if he might have just skippered a charter cruise, and was returning after an afternoon under an unforgiving sun. He wore a white tee-shirt under his cargo attire and an ill-fitting cap.

Pressed by "Today" host David Gregory Friday morning about his claims, 30 years after the fact, that Robert Wagner was responsible for Wood's death, Davern's responses were clipped and choppy. 

“Was the fight between Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner what ultimately led to her death?” Gregory asked.

“Yes,” Davern replied. But he would go no further.

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So who is the New Jersey native who captained the yacht, Splendour, on the night Wood went missing? And is he, as Gregory postulated, a calculating “opportunist,” out to sell copies of his book, with a flair for revisionist history and well-timed revelations?

“Dennis Davern, born and raised in New Jersey, was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1971,” reads a bio for the book about Wood's death he co-authored. “A marina job took him to California where he became a boat captain for Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. From 1982 to 1984 he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and employed as a general extra actor in Hollywood. Since 1987, he has owned and operated a successful marina and boat maintenance business in Florida.”

Davern wrote the book, “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” with a friend from New Jersey, Marti Rulli, with whom he appeared on “Today." On Rulli’s blog, she writes that the book, “is the poignant story of a young, cavalier adventurer, Dennis Davern, who landed the position of Splendour Captain, and how the Wagner family welcomed him into their hearts and home.”

Young. Cavalier. Adventurer. Charged words, to be sure, chosen by Rulli, in what is perhaps an attempt to explain away the “mistakes” for which Davern says he so much regrets having made on the night of  Nov. 28, 1981.

The following comes from the book, which reveals that it was Davern -- and not Wagner or fellow passenger Christopher Walken -- who identified Wood’s lifeless body after it was retrieved from the water.

“Natalie Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, and their boat captain, Dennis Davern, had been waiting aboard the Wagners' yacht, Splendour, for word from the search crews since 1:30 a.m. when Wagner had announced over Splendour's radio, "Someone is missing from our boat."”

Robert Wagner declined to view his wife's body when a small group of officials boarded Splendour to inform him of the grim discovery. Wagner dropped his head, and with emotion and drama, cried out, "She's gone, she's gone, oh, God, she's gone. Why?"

Dennis Davern embraced Robert Wagner, as if to keep him from falling over.

"Will you please identify her for me, Dennis? I can't, I just can't," Wagner pleaded. The extraordinary request seemed to deepen everyone's compassion for Wagner, but no one considered, even briefly, that the terrible task of identifying Natalie Wood's body would haunt Dennis for the rest of his life.”

Since his morning show appearance, Davern has denied he is making his revelations for money. Wagner's rep has issued a statement welcoming any investigation that could provide further details on Wood's untimely death.