Death in the fast lane: Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe, Robert Kennedy and the SLA's Donald DeFreeze, Sharon Tate and Janis Joplin, they all went their separate ways, bought their fame in different places, found their death in different ways as well. Accidents, suicides, murders -- it wasn't the ways they had died that was disputed, but there were questions to be laid to rest, explanations that were needed. In the end, they had to yield their secrets, to tell the stories of their last few moments, and perhaps it is only fitting that in Los Angeles County, where fame is more sought after than sunshine, the hand that wields the scalpel in such cases is a celebrity in his own right: Thomas T. Noguchi, coroner to the stars.
"They talk to me," says the man on whom the protagonist of TV's "Quincy" is modeled, and he is serious. The dead he says, tell him the stories of their last few moments, give him clues to be interpreted to the living. Some of them talk more directly -- there are the young drug-overdose victims who send him their suicide notes asking him to warn the living. Others are more subtle -- the homicide masquerading as the suicide, for instance, waiting for Noguchi to find it out.
"I don't believe in reincarnation," he says, "but I do not think that life ends. It continues. I do not think of the deceased as Americans often do, as the property of the next of kin. Before performing the autopsy, I ask the dead permission."
It is a matter of respect. In the stillness before the blade cuts, he acknowledges the relationship. Perhaps the eyes that look up at him are still caught in wide alarm. The cool metal casts a shadow on an old scar. And the flesh yields its final confidences.
Noguchi was in Reston Friday to chair a symposium on fire toxicity. For his interview, he changed into a three-piece gray suit. "My public," he says, "expects this of me." No stranger to the particular demands of image and ego, Noguchi is given to offhand pronouncements such as, "I humbly admit that I don't know more than the most outstanding pathologist in the nation."
Still, he has a reputation for brilliance, for a discerning eye that can look at three holes in a skull and know a spike heel was the murder weapon, or discover that the blood stain in the coat pocket of the accused came from the mouth of the dead woman, or that the repetitive nature of the 30 stab wounds in the victim's leg means the murderer was on amphetamines. His autopsies are not confined to the mere dissection of a corpse, either. He conducts what he calls "psychological autopsies" as well, trying to understand the manner of dying through the mode of living, conducting interviews with families and friends, to see what light a life might shed on a death.
He has a reputation for flamboyance and a penchant for recognition as well. Noguchi's pronouncements on William Holden's drinking at the time of his death roused the ire of some of the denizens of the Hollywood community, where the fame of fallen idols is meant to be laminated in place even when the body is dissected, leaving the character intact. His statements concerning an argument that supposedly occurred before Natalie Wood's recent death were flatly denied by one of the homicide detectives involved who said the coroner was inclined to "juice things up a bit."
None of this seems to bother Noguchi, who glosses over such contradictions as if they were mere mirages of the floating world. When reports came out of witnesses who said they heard a woman screaming around the time of Wood's death, contradicting Noguchi's theory that Wood had probably swallowed too much water to scream for help, he simply said, "I hope they are not being misguided by a desire to get their names in the newspapers. But then, I do not want to build my house on quicksand."
Such controversy, he says, is merely an inevitable part of his profession. "We are in the people's business," he says, in heavily accented English whose rhythms owe more to his native Japanese than to the cadences of mellow-maniacal California. "You get caught between the public's right to know and the proper administration of justice and the question of privacy. Any work that we do is by law a matter of public record, and I've been known to tell it like it is." He is not surprised by the ghoulish attention the public will pay to all the details of a celebrity death. "It is no different than their wanting to know whether a star lives in Beverly Hills or Bel Air," he says with a shrug.
He is 54, a slight man, with wavy black hair and an owlish face set in a small, almost delicate head, whose eyes gaze out upon the world of the living in a detached fashion. In the world of the dead, they have seen it all, the pale In the world of the dead, they have seen it all, the pale lips of the drowning victim, the gunpowder in the suicide's hair, the last tracks on the addict's arm. He has been a coroner for 20 years now and he knows how to put distance between himself and the work he does, but still there are times when it is more difficult than others: Robert Kennedy's autopsy for one, and that of any battered child. It is as if, he says, you can still hear the screams.
Noguchi has identified a body from a bleached clavicle found on a California hillside; he can tell the difference between a suicide and a homicide designed to look like one. "When a man is contemplating suicide," he says, "he puts a great deal of pressure on the index finger that would pull the trigger, building up tremendous amounts of lactic acid in the finger, making it very stiff. It is impossible to duplicate that." He understands the ironies, how small the difference is between the amount of lidocaine that will save a life and the amount that will end it. "I'm not suggesting how to get away with a murder, but I know how to do it," he says in a determined attempt to be intriguing. "But are you aware how difficult it is to dispose of a human body?"
Last year, Noguchi's office investigated 17,000 deaths. Among them were 1,500 suicides, 1,500 traffic accidents, about 1,000 other types of accidents and 2,300 deaths described as homicides. "Dead bodies," he says. "We don't like the dead body business. Our primary aim is the living. We receive messages from the dead person; they tell us what happened to them and we interpret these things to the living." He pauses, then continues. "I want to be a part of a bigger dream. I hate dead bodies, I don't like dead bodies. I'm not working for the dead, I'm working for the living."
Noguchi repeats this litany at regular intervals, as if these are the things he has to tell himself, as if he has to hear them, to know that there is a rationale and reason for the unendingly gruesome nature of his work.
Still there was a time 10 years ago when it finally got to him. "I began to feel trapped," he says. "There was an ever-increasing caseload, and I began to wonder, 'Am I satisfied to continue?' I wondered if my only contribution was to death and I wondered, 'What do I really do? What service do I perform, handling the bodies, chopping the bodies?' "
So he tried an exercise: "I set a deadline. I told myself that at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, I, Thomas T. Noguchi will not exist. I said to myself, 'You now have 12 hours. What do you really want to do from now until 8 o'clock?' " In the intervening hours, there was no work to do, no prestige to worry about, no money to spend, and he realized that what he wanted to do was go down to the beach and listen to music. To celebrate his life among the living.
The crisis came a year or two after Noguchi had found himself fighting bizarre charges that he was mentally imbalanced. Noguchi was dismissed from his job and in a hearing before the county civil service commission he listened to a parade of witnesses describe him as dancing for joy on days when the traffic was particularly heavy in the autopsy room and praying for airline crashes so that he might increase his international renown. The witnesses apparently had taken his graveyard humor seriously. The charges were dismissed and Noguchi completely exonerated after a counter parade of witnesses not only praised Noguchi's work to the hilt, but also asserted that Western eyes cannot understand how a Japanese can smile in the face of tragedy, and as one expert noted, "They smile no matter what happens . . . "
"It was very frightening," says Noguchi. "I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I tried to become very proper. I even went to the supermarket with a tie on." The experience still has him keeping a watch on the black humor that had been so grossly misinterpreted. "My humor is not funny anymore," he says. "Now before I say anything I mean to be funny, I say, 'I'm going to tell a joke now.' "
Noguchi came to this country from Japan in 1952, a doctor and the son of a doctor. In fact, it was as a doctor's son that he first became interested in forensic medicine. When he was 12, he was sitting in his father's office watching the elder Noguchi swab with iodine the throat of a young man complaining of a sore throat. Suddenly, the patient keeled over and died. At first, it looked like negligence on Noguchi's part, and Noguchi pere was in danger of spending three years in prison, the prosecution contending that the patient had choked on the cotton swab. But an autopsy showed the patient was severely allergic to iodine.
Noguchi graduated from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, having watched the American B-29's pound the place into rubble during the closing days of World War II. "Oh well, win some, lose some," he is reported to have said when the war ended. He asked his professors if he could take his final exams in English.
He has lived in Los Angeles for nearly 30 years now, becoming over the years a curious combination of Hollywood hype and Zen Buddhist subtlety. "I am very well known," he says casually. "Five out of 10 people in Los Angeles know my name, can spell my name. They're depending on me. When there are strange deaths in a particular hospital, I go after that hospital. When there is a mysterious scuba-diving death, I go after the diving industry. Whoever it is, if there is something dangerous there, I go after it. I'm beginning to become a watchdog of the quality of life in the community."
Even the moments of relaxation are connected to this sense of vigilance. Noguchi teaches Japanese cooking classes once a month because, he says smiling, "I am an expert on the subject of needless death, and Japanese cooking will make you live longer." He paints, too, although there is something strangely obsessive about his choice of subject matter: Lately he has been working on a series of stylized drawings, in a variety of media, of the white chalk line that is drawn around a victim's body when it is found under strange and unusual circumstances.
"I am a coroner," he says simply. "It is a noble profession. I consider myself an artist."