Death by Yacht

They Sailed From This Life

From actress Natalie Wood to the poet Hart Crane to the wayward son of a U.S. president, here are some famous people who died while living aboard, vacationing on, or sailing on yachts.

Natalie Wood

Actress NATALIE WOOD died near Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend of 1981.

Wood was spending the holiday on the yacht Splendour with her husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken, her co-star in the movie Brainstorm. She disappeared sometime after dinner on the night of 28 November; the next morning her body was found floating nearly a mile from the Splendour, dressed in a nightgown and down jacket. No one had seen or heard her leave the yacht; the ship’s dinghy was also found drifting at sea.

“Coroner to the Stars” Thomas Noguchi ruled accidental death, suggesting that Wood had slipped and fallen overboard. Hollywood gossips hinted at a romantic triangle (and a 2000 Vanity Fair article claimed that Wood had climbed into the dinghy after a drunken argument with Wagner), but nothing of the sort was ever proved. In a stunning development, the case was reopened by the LA County Sheriff’s Office in 2011 after reading comments made by the boat’s captain during the 30th anniversary of Wood’s death.

Robert Maxwell

One decade later, in November of 1991, maverick media mogul ROBERT MAXWELL went sailing near the Canary Islands. (His yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, was named for his daughter.) Maxwell was last seen about 4:30 on the morning of November 5th; later that day, when the yacht arrived at the port of Los Cristianos, the crew found that Maxwell had disappeared. A search ensued, and Maxwell’s naked body was discovered floating 20 miles off of Gran Canaria island.

A judge ruled out foul play but did not rule on whether Maxwell’s death was accidental or a suicide. Investigators discovered that Maxwell’s businesses were on the brink of financial collapse, adding to speculation that he may have committed suicide.

Joseph Pulitzer

Newspaper mogul JOSEPH PULITZER spent the last moments of his life aboard his yacht Liberty, nearly blind and extremely sensitive to loud sounds.

Pulitzer made his fortune as the owner and publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World, competing with William Randolph Hearstfor readership as well as political influence. On 29 October 1911 Liberty was anchored off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina when Pulitzer became seriously ill with heart pains. His family was sent for and arrived from New York just before Pulitzer expired. His last words, uttered to his secretary, were “leise, ganz leise, ganz leise,” German for “softly, quite softly, quite softly.”

Thomas Ince

Pulitzer’s rival, William Randolph Hearst, figured in the mysterious 1924 death of filmmaker THOMAS INCE. Ince had joined film star Charlie Chaplin, actress Marion Davies, columnist Louella Parsons and other guests for a weekend party aboard Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida. According to the official version, Ince suffered heart failure following an acute attack of indigestion; his body was removed from the yacht at San Diego and then cremated. However, rumors quickly surfaced that Ince had been shot by a jealous Hearst after making a pass at Davies, Hearst’s mistress. (Another version had Hearst aiming for Charlie Chaplin and hitting Ince by mistake.) According to the rumors, the powerful Hearst kept the shooting out of the papers and prevented a detailed investigation by police, then gave Louella Parsons a lifetime contract in return for her silence. No public proof of this story was ever offered, but the alleged “murder” of Ince became one of early Hollywood’s most famous scandals.

The Beach Boy

DENNIS WILSON, longtime drummer for the Beach Boys, died on 28 December 1983 while diving from the Emerald, a 52-foot yacht anchored at Marina del Rey in California. He had been diving for personal effects he had earlier thrown overboard — including a framed photo of himself and his ex-wife — when he apparently tired and sank beneath the surface. His body was retrieved later that day, and an autopsy showed that he had been legally intoxicated. A few days later, Wilson was buried at sea.

Not Quite a Yacht, But…

German engineer RUDOLF DIESEL, inventor of the diesel engine, also drowned under mysterious circumstances. It happened on the steamer, the Dresden, sailing from Antwerp to London in September of 1913. More accurately, his death apparently came as a result of being off the steamer. He went overboard sometime in the night and his body wasn’t found for another ten days.

Many consider Diesel’s death to be a suicide, but at the time there was plenty of speculation that he had been murdered, either because he wouldn’t help the German military or because his engines threatened the rich and powerful coal industry. Then again, maybe he simply leaned too far over while shouting “I’m King of the World!” We’ll never know.

Hart Crane

Poet HART CRANE jumped to his death from the ocean liner Orizaba in 1932. The volatile poet was returning from a year on a Guggenheim fellowship in Mexico, where he was supposed to be drafting an epic poem about Aztec civilization. The story is that he’d been doing as much drinking as writing.

Crane’s death was presumed to be a suicide; though he left no note, witnesses reported that he shouted “Goodbye, everybody!” before leaping over the rail.

George Washington Adams

GEORGE WASHINGTON ADAMS, the eldest son of John Quincy Adams, met a premature end when he went overboard while on a steamer bound for New York City in 1829.

The younger Adams was barely 28 years old when he left Providence, Rhode Island, summoned by his father in New York. Drunk, despondent or both, George ended up in Long Island Sound and his body washed up six weeks later. Some say George was in despair after losing a girlfriend to his brother, John (who also met an early, alcohol-fueled death a few years later). Some say he had recently fathered an illegitimate child and was depressed. Another version has it that he was convinced other passengers were out to get him and in his frenzy he jumped overboard.

All that is certain is that he somehow went off the steamer Benjamin Franklin and into the ocean, where he drowned.

Next: Autopsy By Noguchi

Natalie Wood drowned and Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose, but they had something else in common: both had their autopsies performed by the “Coroner to the Stars,” Thomas Noguchi. (John Belushi too!)

Read about his controversial career in AUTOPSY BY NOGUCHI »

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