“Natalie Wood was just a great, great broad,” Joey Devane was telling me the other day and please do not go wasting your politically correct breath at the use of what for him is a term of admiration.
Devane was Natalie Wood’s driver-bodyguard until her death: “Who am I kidding; I ain’t no tough guy, I ain’t no bodyguard. I drove her to the set every day and waited in the motor home and then took her home at night.” He was with Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner — RJ to intimates like Devane — on an almost daily basis.
“They were like two lovebirds,” he tells me, “like a couple of teenagers who just fell in love. So no, no way could RJ ever do anything to hurt that lady. Never once in 30 years did I ever hear a single word that it might have been foul play and certainly nothing — I’m telling you nothing — to suggest that RJ did anything whatsoever wrong in connection with Natalie’s death.”
Devane says he phoned Wagner last week when news broke that sheriff’s deputies were reopening their investigation into Wood’s mysterious drowning death 30 years ago this Thanksgiving weekend, ruled a tragic accident at the time. “RJ was distraught, he was very, very upset. I mean, what do you expect him to be when all of a sudden you hear they’re reopening the investigation and you got some of these idiots saying he might have been involved? It’s nuts.”
Investigators say they have new, seemingly credible information from witnesses not questioned the first time around but they also state flatly that RJ is not a suspect.
Actually, it’s Dennis Davern, the skipper of the Wagners’ boat, the Splendour, who is making the bad sounds about RJ and that night. Davern, the fourth person on the boat, has changed his mind and his story from the first investigation. He told NBC’s “Today” show that Wood and Wagner had a terrible argument just before she went missing and that Wagner refused to immediately search the waters for her. Though it’s long ago, you probably know the other particulars: Wood and Wagner and their friend, actor Christopher Walken, celebrate Thanksgiving with dinner, much booze and then some dissension on the boat, in the Southern California waters off Santa Catalina Island. After the noisy argument — is it Wood vs. Wagner or is it Wagner vs. Walken? — Natalie goes missing and some time later her lifeless body, in a nightgown, is found in the water.
“Look,” says Joey, “ I was only on the boat a few times and I only met [Davern] maybe twice, so you’re asking me why is he saying this garbage? I can’t tell you for sure but I’ve heard he had a book coming out but whatever it is, it’s garbage.”
Joey Devane is an Albany native who 35 years ago followed his famous actor brother William Devane to California. He joined the Teamsters Union and got himself a pretty nice lifetime gig, driving movie stars back and forth. Natalie and RJ were his first passengers and they became friends, maybe because Billy Devane was so close to Wagner.
Now I believe this is the point in the proceedings where I am supposed to remind you that Natalie Wood was “America’s Sweetheart” back then. Those dark eyes and everything about her caused teenaged boys to clear their throats when they viewed her photos. Even more so here in the Capital Region, where Natalie Wood starred in what was probably the first movie ever filmed in this area. “Marjorie Morningstar” was shot at Schroon Lake in 1957 with Wood and Gene Kelly in the lead roles but it bombed at the box office. It was “Dirty Dancing” without the dirty dancing, the story of a young Jewish girl clashing with her parents, tradition and her own feelings. Schroon Lake lore has it that Robert Wagner spent much time waterskiing on the lake during the day, pursuing Natalie when the sun went down. They married that year, got divorced and then remarried in 1972.
Joey Devane cannot be faulted for not remembering “Marjorie Morningstar.” Not a lot of folks do. But Wood was a top-flight box-office draw when Joey started driving for her. “And RJ, he was the man everybody wanted to be, the actor that every other actor in the industry wanted to be,” he says. “Down-to-earth guy but you knew that you were around a movie star when you were around him.
“That’s why I hate to see this garbage about him now,” says Joey. “RJ deserves better than that.”