LOS ANGELES – November 29 marks 31 years since Hollywood golden girl Natalie Wood drowned on a weekend trip to California’s Santa Catalina Island. And while one may assume the passage of time makes it easier to move on, her daughter Courtney Wagner – just seven when her mom died – says each anniversary of the tragedy is harder than the last.
“I remember waking up to my sister screaming, and luckily I had a nanny that I was very close to that was by my side. There were all these people in the living room, and my dad (actor Robert Wagner) told me I wasn’t going to see my mom again,” Courtney Wagner told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column in an exclusive interview. “I was just trying to make sense of it, and dad was asking if we wanted to go and see her one last time.”
Although an autopsy determined that Wood's death was an accident by drowning and hypothermia, several facts surrounding her death have consistently been called into question, and last November the homicide investigation was re-opened when a worker on the ship told reporters that a fight between Wood and Wagner led to her death, a notion deeply troubling to Courtney.
“There are certain people in our lives that continue to drudge up all this speculation and stories every year for no other reason than to indulge themselves,” she said.
But it’s rare for Courtney, 38, to get through a day without being brutally reminded of that fateful day.
“I was just casually watching E! Fashion police recently and Joan Rivers referred to something being like ‘going to a pool party at Natalie Wood’s house’ and it was painful. I don’t see how anyone would find a distasteful comment like that funny,” she said.
And while Courtney was once cradled by the likes of icons Fred Astaire and David Niven while in the company of her multiple Oscar-nominated mom, she has one particular memory that stands out.
“Her hands,” she said. “I remember her hands – they were so soft. And she had such a distinctive voice and laugh.”
Yet of all the stars of the famous 1961 musical film “West Side Story,” Courtney said her mom's was the only singing voice they didn’t end up using in the final cut.
“I think she was hurt by that,” she said.
Despite her Hollywood heritage, life hasn’t exactly been a breeze for Courtney, who earlier this year was arrested for cocaine and heroin possession, stemming from a violent incident at her Malibu home and ended with a gunshot and a 911. Although she was eventually released from all charges, Courtney still contends with a feeling of shame in tainting her mother’s name.
“A label was put on me, and I felt so badly that my mom was associated with having a so-called ‘junkie daughter,’” she said. “I was so upset that I had defamed her name, and I had to look at how I could make this better for my mom and find healthier ways to deal with everything that has happened to me.”
And for Courtney, that involves returning to her first love – jewelry designing. Several years ago, Courtney co-founded the collection Wagner & Ko. (her partner’s last name was Ko) but this time she intends to go out on her own – and perhaps instill in her collection a little of her mom’s elegance and beauty.
“I’m aiming for 2013 to produce a small selection of fine pieces,” she said. “I want to make my mom proud.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay