Think For Yourself – An Apology To Robert Wagner

Sometimes, a bit of thought and 90 minutes could make you rethink what you believe.

Last night my sweetie and I watched a relatively new HBO documentary, What Remains Behind. It was made by Natasha Gregson Wagner…actress and daughter of famous actress Natalie Wood. I recognized her from her bit role in High Fidelity (the journalist who flirts with Rob near the end, causing him to make her a mix tape before he began asking himself what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t be happy) . I knew Natalie Wood’s name, and that she was a pretty successful actress in the ’60s…and that she drowned under suspicious circumstances way back in 1981. She had been on a boat with her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken before she met her demise. Somehow, I hadn’t realized that Natalie was the little cynical girl in Miracle on 34th Street, nor the star of West Side Story. Nor that she was so very good looking as a young woman, nor that she was one of the hottest stars in Hollywood. I did know that she drowned, the California coroner considered her death accidental…and that many people for years accused Wagner of killing her. A few figured Walken might have. It seemed few believed the official report, and more gas was thrown on the fire when the boat captain wrote a book in the 2000s suggesting maybe she got knocked overboard in an big fight, be it deliberate or not. L.A. Investigators actually re-opened the case because of it. And I knew my sweetie, who was a fan of Natalie’s, firmly believed Wagner had killed her and struck some kind of deal to cover it up. It made sense to me, based on tabloid headlines and innuendo I saw.

Enter the movie. The whole fact that her daughter, not Robert’s biological one,  made the film and narrated it, and its whole context was to clear Wagner might be a clue. Not every conspiracy theory is really covering something sinister. Natasha, her half-sister and step-brother all talked at length about what a complex, warm but slightly troubled person Natalie was. Her childhood wasn’t happy, with her mom being very critical and pushing her to be a star in order to make enough money to pay the bills for her parents. She was a movie star by age eight. She was talented, pretty, and headstrong. Ahead of her time. She was perhaps a bit promiscuous as a teen and young star…nothing new these days but probably quite scandalous back then. And she knew what she wanted, be it in men, movie roles, or later, children and a a happy home. She usually got it, but not without a price. She had the looks and the acting chops to get them all, but at times she still struggled with depression.

Wagner, for some reason nicknamed “RJ”, entered the scene when they were both kids, and it didn’t work out. Initially. Years later, they hooked up again, more mature, and both with kids. They remarried and remained so, with no hints of black clouds on their marriage horizon, until her death. They became a family. Both Natasha and her siblings (be they from Natalie, Robert or both of them) spoke about how happy the house was and how both parents loved them unconditionally. Natasha interviewed Wagner and calls him “Daddy Wagner”. They talked about the family, their love of his boat, and the trips to Catalina Island on it. Oddly, Natalie was noted as being afraid of “dark water.”

Flash forward to Thanksgiving 1981, a rainy, stormy weekend in the L.A. area, and Natalie, Wagner, and Walken (whom she was in a movie with at the time) took off for a spin on his boat. Natasha said she had a bad feeling and begged her mom not to go; other friends said they were invited and felt guilty for not going out with them in the rain. Maybe they could have changed things and she’d still be alive. But, like it or not, hours later she was found dead in the water not far from the boat, with its dinghy floating around. Many piled on to accuse Wagner of killing her in a jealous rage.

The coroner found she drowned, and had quite a bit of booze in her system as well as sleeping pills and other (unnamed but presumably prescription) drugs. She had a bang on her head, but the ultimate demise came from the water. He called it accidental. But that wasn’t enough for many…especially supermarket tabloids who lured buyers with tales of lurid affairs and drugged out violent orgies, and other total fabrications of their imagination. Then came the boat captain’s book decades later, and it all came to the front again.

Not hard to imagine then that her mad, jealous husband beat her up and threw her off the boat in the dead of night. But, there is little to support that. Numerous police agencies investigated and found no evidence of it. And Natasha – her daughter – sat and talked to her stepdad, “Daddy Wagner” and clearly loved him like a real father. She recalled how he wouldn’t get out of bed for days after Natalie died. How the press would climb on top of fences to snap pictures at the funeral and while the kids walked around their home yard, distraught. She detailed the emotional toll it took on her, her brothers and sisters , and most of all, on Robert Wagner. And he seemed fully believable. Yes, he’s an actor, and yes, he admits to drinking a lot that night and being “a little high”. But it’s also clear she was the love of his life. He eventually got back on his feet and kept the kids – his and hers and theirs alike – close. He was breaking up thinking about Natalie and about that fateful night.

The most likely explanation, the original one. Natalie was, a bit drunk, a bit under the influence of sleeping pills, just wanting to sleep. She got up and went to the boat life raft/dinghy which was banging against the boat in the storm. Making noise. Her daughter said she was a light sleeper and had complained before of the noise the dinghy made banging into the boat. She probably figured she could tie it up tighter to keep it from banging around, and fell overboard in the stormy seas, perhaps banging her head off the little boat doing so. A tragic accident.

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy… I do believe there are at least some extraterrestrials flying around our planet at time and not all UFOs are ‘swamp gas’ … but this one seems like … the obvious answer was the real one. Moreover, my love, who for years fully believed Wagner to be a murderer, was turned around after watching it. Nothing pointed towards murder. She, and I, now fully believe it was a horrible accident, a result of poor choices by all involved regarding going out on a boat in a storm and drinking too much …but an accident nonetheless.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes bad things happen for no apparent reason, and remember, the entertainment and tabloid media need headlines to sell their product. At times they may uncover real dirt…but sometimes, they just fabricate it. And real people end up paying the price for it. And it showed the power of a good, thoughtful documentary.

Moral of the story – once again…examine all the evidence, then think for yourself. The truth is out there… and sometimes, it’s not as hidden as we might think.

Kind And One Of A Kind, That Was Betty

2021 ended on a sad note with the passing of Betty White. Sadly ironic, her death came right around when magazines began appearing on the shelves with her on the cover and some variation on the theme of “Betty White Turns 100”. She was, as you may well know, 99 years old and already planning a 100th birthday celebration for this month. By that point, why wouldn’t she, and why wouldn’t all her friends? Many somehow thought she might just live forever…and would have been happy for that to happen. Betty herself said just weeks before her passing, “I’m the luckiest broad on two feet to be as healthy as I am and to feel as good as I do.”

White was indeed one of a kind. Her career was long and epic. She was on a TV talk show in the 1940s, when TV itself was new and novel. She had her own sitcom, Life with Elizabeth by 1953. In 1951, she was nominated for an Emmy Award. She won seven along the way and got her last nomination in 2014… at age 92. She was one of those actresses who were always a part of our cultural backdrop, it seemed, rising to prominence as Sue Ann, the man-hungry cooking celebrity on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, before becoming the charmingly naïve Rose for over 200 episodes of The Golden Girls (and its short-lived spinoff The Golden Palace) in the ’80s and ’90s. Then in the last decade, she was Hot In Cleveland…or at least Elka in that show. Along the way there were too many walk-on roles and guest appearances to keep track of, from five different characters on the Love Boat, to Boston Legal to St. Elsewhere to doing voices on King of the Hill. She was nicknamed “the first lady of television”, to which she joked “yeah (I’m) that old!”… she pretty much was the first lady on television! Months before Alex Trebek passed away, when asked who would be a fitting replacement for him on Jeopardy, he quipped “someone younger, someone funnier than me.. so I’m thinking Betty White.” He added they had been friends for years.

The outpouring of sad comments about her passing was voluminous. Jamie Lee Curtis said “what women want is to live like Betty White. Full of love, creativity, and integrity and humor and dedication,” also mentioning Betty’s famous “service to animals.” Kristen Bell remembered “Betty was one of a kind. Kind, gracious and a wit that could stun a sailor.” Michelle Obama noted “Betty broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country (she’d volunteered to drive trucks for the Army during WWII as well as entertain troops) and pushed us all to laugh.” And on and on.

That’s not that unusual after a star dies, but what is unusual is the width of the community that responded thusly… and that no one had a bad word to say about her. But then, has anyone ever said a bad word about Betty White? She was the kind of person that seemed to love everyone and every animal and was loved and admired in return. The only celebrity I can think of who shares a similar love of the people – the entire people – Dolly Parton, suggested “Betty will live on forever, not only in this world but the world hereafter. I will always love Betty, as we all will.”

Well said Dolly…and when no one disagrees that is a life well-lived. Many people become widely famous; few of them are lauded and loved by all and disparaged not at all. May she rest in peace and laugh away the hereafter with her beloved husband Allen Ludden, who preceded her by about 40 years.

Betty White. One of The Commendables.

Thankful Thursday XXXIII – Benevolent Celebrities

As many of you know, I also do a daily music blog. Recently while writing pieces I featured Janis Ian. Janis is a singer who had one big hit in the 1970s, “At Seventeen” and has periodically recorded since as well as written a few books. But an interesting sidebar to her story is that she also runs a charity called the Pearl Foundation that raises money for scholarship for adults returning to school. I think that’s pretty great and noble. To date, with her help it’s given out over a million dollars to help further the education of people who might not otherwise be able to go back to school to better their lives. The same week I looked at Farm Aid, a charity designed to help out struggling small family farmers around the country. It was started as a one-off rock concert in 1985 set up by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Little did they know back then that it would still be an ongoing event, and they’d all still be performing almost every year and the charity a round-the-calendar organization assisting farmers and lobbying for their interests. Again, a very worthy cause. So, this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for celebrities who use their fame (and quite often money) to help others through such events and organizations.

There’s no shortage of them of course. Elton John has worked extensively for various organizations helping AIDS patients. Peter Gabriel brought Amnesty International onto the radar for millions of his fans by talking about them and having booths of theirs set up at his concerts. And of course, it’s by no means limited to the music world. Actor Gary Sinise became a hard-working advocate for disabled veterans after playing one in Forrest Gump and being contacted by many real-life people with stories like his fictitious Lt. Dan. Reese Witherspoon has been involved with a number of organizations promoting improving childrens’ lives in the Third World, helping battered women and encouraging reading. And the list goes on and on.

It’s often said we idolize our entertainers far too much. Perhaps true. Also true is that the bar keeps being lowered for what it takes to be considered a “star”. These days a “leaked” sex tape or filming yourself walking around dollar stores pointing out new items with a little bit of panache are sometimes all it takes. We can debate what this means for society in general, but while it is the case, I say more power to those who find that rising star and use the enormous pulpit they have to influence their fans and make the world a little better.

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