Natalie Wood: The woman Sydney forgot
No one noticed the neatly dressed woman from 139 Kippax Street, Sydney, lay dead in her Australian home for eight years. But there is much interest in Natalie Wood's estate as her inquest begins, writes Peter Munro.
Her bones fit neatly inside a drawer and two jars marked ''HANDS'' and ''FEET'' that police packed and placed on the dusty bed frame. So small were the remains that the first officer who looked in the bedroom did not see her at all. ''There's nothing in here,'' he said.
He was not the only person to overlook Natalie Jean Wood. During the eight years she lay dead and forgotten in her Surry Hills terrace, cobwebs covered the furniture and part of the ceiling fell away. Her power and pension were cut off. Outside, a forest grew and grew until a tree spread into an upstairs room. Still, no one stopped to wonder what happened to the well-dressed woman at 139 Kippax Street.
That the former war bride and David Jones machinist had been dead for years was beyond doubt.
When police found Wood on the floor by her bed in July 2011, a month before her 87th birthday, she was little more than a skeleton and a set of bright pink dentures. Animals had gnawed holes in bones still greasy and smelly. Downstairs, in the kitchen, officers found cans of instant coffee and condensed milk long since past their use-by dates.
That she was not missed for about eight years - not by relatives, not by the City of Sydney council, not by Centrelink nor her bank nor utility companies - is among the issues to be considered by a coroner on Thursday.
Closely following the inquest will be Wood's sister-in-law, Enid Davis, and some of Wood's cousins, all of whom are staking claim to her estate: A$79,270 (NZ$86,189) in a Commonwealth Bank account and her now derelict two-bedroom home, worth A$800,000 (NZ$871,000) or more.
''It hasn't got ugly yet but it will,'' says Davis' solicitor, Vasso Tsolakis.
Wood - dubbed ''the woman Sydney forgot'' - is attracting more attention now from some relatives than she ever did, alive or dead.
Kippax Street is an inner-city stretch of tightly packed terraces and women's clothing wholesalers behind Central Station. Many residents are transient: renters, students or investors. ''I didn't even know she existed - I always thought the house was derelict,'' says a man in the laneway behind Wood's old home.
The setting is not too grim: the lane is lined with potted plants and flowers tended by neighbours. Jenny, who declines to give her surname, says people there look out for each other. ''It's terribly sad [Wood] was there so long,'' she says. ''I was not surprised, though. People lead such busy lives.''
Forensic pathologist Dr John Hilton says neighbours might not have smelt Wood's decomposing body, even as it lay beneath a broken window facing the street. ''From the inside it would have been powerful indeed, like rotten meat or a really ripe blue cheese,'' he says. ''From the outside it was possibly not all that noticeable."
The last confirmed sighting of Wood was on December 30, 2003, when she filled a prescription for blood pressure tablets at a local pharmacy. She had been in hospital after complaining of ''funny turns'' but went home on December 1, after declining offers for respite care and home assistance.
The police statement to the coroner suggests Wood died a month later after she fell in her bedroom, perhaps suffering a stroke, and could not get up. The cause of her death that hot summer ''will be forever undetermined'', police say, because of the time it took to find her body.
Allan Matthews, 85, learned of his cousin's death in the newspaper in 2011.
''I was shocked like everybody else but I didn't feel emotionally involved because I didn't know the lady,'' he says.
He met Wood only once, while on a family camping holiday as a young boy. ''It was a big family and they just drift apart,'' he says. ''We moved in different circles as it were.''
Despite this, he is among five of Wood's cousins who argue they are entitled to the proceeds of her estate. Their joint claim is contested by Davis, who was married to Wood's brother, Vane Herbert Davis, who died in 2009.
The coroner's decision as to the date of Wood's death is crucial to any subsequent claim in the Supreme Court, says wills and estates specialist Darryl Browne. Wood had no will, spouse or children and her parents were long dead. Browne says if she is ruled to have died in 2004, while her brother was alive, any spoils would be likely awarded by the Supreme Court to his estate, of which Enid Davis is the sole beneficiary.
The laws of intestacy changed in 2010. If the date of death remains the day Wood's body was discovered in 2011, after her brother had died, her estate will be likely shared equally between her cousins, as her closest living relatives.
It matters little under the law whether they visited or cared for her while she was alive, Browne says.
''The prospect of money probably brings out the worst in characters,'' he says. ''The sister-in-law was absent for eight years as well, so I don't think anybody comes out of this with great glory, frankly. It is an indictment on society, on all her relatives, her neighbours, the gas people, water people, social security.''
The inside of 139 Kippax Street looks the same as in the crime scene photographs. On a recent weekday, I peep through the keyhole to see cobwebs coating the floors and walls. Dust and dirt are everywhere.
''There was a skeleton in there, you know,'' calls out a woman from the footpath behind me. She introduces herself as Robyn Gregory, who lives in a boarding house nearby, and says she often saw Wood sitting on her front steps many years ago.
''She was very alert and always saying hello to everybody who went past,'' she says. ''I remember stopping to talk to her. She said: 'My family want me out and into a nursing home. But I'm staying here till the day I die.'''
Later, after media reports of Wood's death, people left flowers on the front steps and footpath.
''It was a bit late,'' Gregory says. ''These days, nobody knows anyone. It's a throwaway society. Everything is recyclable, even people.''
Wood was born on August 11, 1924, and grew up at 139 Kippax Street with her brother and their parents, Phyllis and Herbert. Her cousin John Newlyn, who is not part of Matthews' claim, often stayed as a young man.
''She was nice, she wasn't argumentative [but] she kept to herself a lot,'' he says. ''She was a private person.''
In about 2005, Newlyn, who lives in Wamboin, near Canberra, walked up Kippax Street but found the home looking empty and derelict. He did not knock. ''I thought they were all dead and gone,'' he says.
It is unlikely Wood would have answered, even if still alive.
''Natalie became a real recluse in her later life,'' Davis, who declines to be interviewed, told police in 2011. ''She wouldn't answer the door unless you knocked using a special code.''
She remembers her sister-in-law as friendly and well-dressed, stubborn and vain, standing 160 centimetres in neat slacks and shoes that matched her handbag and jewellery.
She says Wood wore a straw hat in summer and berets in winters over thinning grey hair, which she dyed brown at home.
In 1945, at the age of 20, Natalie met and married navy seaman Douglas Wood. They moved to Melbourne after the war but, when the marriage ended five years later, she returned to Kippax Street to live with her mother. In 1979, they moved in with Enid and Vane at their home in Chifley and later had their mail redirected there. In 1997, long after her mother died, Wood returned home.
The siblings soon lost contact with each other, particularly as Vane became housebound with prostate cancer. In 2007, when Vane was admitted to hospital, Enid Davis asked police to help track down her sister-in-law. In 2011, two years after her husband's death, she tried again. Her solicitor met police at 139 Kippax Street with the key.
''Natalie was very much a loner,'' Davis said later. ''At times, I thought she must have sold the house and moved … She had told me that if she did ever move, she wouldn't bother letting us know.''
Davis was not the only one who stopped wondering about Wood's whereabouts. Energy Australia and the City of Sydney council each sent debt collectors to Kippax Street, with no response. Sydney Water sent out overdue notices over five years, from 2005, despite receiving nothing in return.
The Commonwealth Bank and Centrelink, which stopped paying her pension in 2008 after there had been no withdrawals for years, also failed to realise something was amiss, says Detective Constable Andrew Wells in his statement to the coroner.
''If any one of these companies were able to identify the lack of movement by the deceased's financials, her body may have been located earlier,'' he says.
He has called for the introduction of a monitoring system to ensure such neglect does not happen again. Any such system will come too late for Wood.
Newlyn and Davis were the only two people at her funeral service in 2011.
''We just sat for a while and said a prayer or two,'' he says. ''I think now: 'Why didn't I do some checking earlier about where she was?'
''You have lots of good rellies you lose track of because they have different lifestyles or they get married. I have been checking on a good many of them since.''
Wood's ashes now rest at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, in the shadow of a pink rose. A small bronze plaque offers strange tribute to a woman who lay dead and forgotten for so long: ''Natalie Jean Wood … Loved and remembered.''
Sydney Morning Herald