Marilyn Monroe, Robert Kennedy, Sharon Tate: Dr Thomas Noguchi, Hollywood’s coroner to the stars, tells all about the dark age of Hollywood homicide.
By John Preston
As you talk to Thomas Noguchi, it’s hard not to glance down at his hands. He has long, delicate fingers and as he talks he folds them together. When he closes his eyes, it looks as if he is in prayer. And what a strange, often terrible, story these hands have to tell. Perhaps none stranger than what happened on the morning of Sunday, August 4 1962 when Noguchi, then a junior medical examiner, reported for work at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.
As soon as he arrived, he was told that the Chief Medical Examiner wanted him to perform an autopsy on a young woman. She had been found eight hours earlier in a small house in Brentwood – the victim, it appeared, of a drugs overdose. There was, Noguchi was warned, a good deal of press interest in the case. He was, he says, rather taken aback by the request. In prominent cases, the Chief Medical Examiner, Dr Theodore Curphey, invariably conducted the autopsy himself. But for reasons that still puzzle him, this did not happen. When Noguchi looked at the police report, he saw that the dead woman was 5ft 4in tall and weighed just over 10 stone. Various bottles of pills, including an empty bottle of the sleeping pill Nembutal, had been found close to her body. Her name meant nothing to him. It was only after he had read the report that someone told him that she was better known as Marilyn Monroe. ‘Even then,’ says Noguchi, ‘I didn’t think for a moment he meant the movie star. I just assumed it was someone else who had the same name.’ But when he walked into the autopsy room and lifted up the sheet that had been placed over the naked body, any doubts were swept away. When he’s asked how Marilyn Monroe looked in death, Noguchi, who has a fondness for poetry, quotes the Latin poet, Petrarch: ‘It’s folly to shrink in fear, if this is dying. For death looked lovely in her lovely face.’ At the time, though, it’s safe to assume that Petrarch was not uppermost on his mind. ‘Of course, I felt pressure, but I remember thinking very clearly that I must make sure I was not distracted by who she was.’
First of all, Noguchi did what he always did. He took out his magnifying glass and examined every inch of the dead woman’s body. ‘When you are a coroner, you start from the assumption that every body you examine might be a murder victim.’ He was looking, principally, for needle marks in case she had been injected with drugs. Also, of course, for marks indicating physical violence. Noguchi found no needle marks, but just above Monroe’s left hip, he did find a dark reddish-blue bruise. Judging by its colour, the bruise was fresh rather than old. Under the External Examination section of his autopsy report, Noguchi noted: ‘The unembalmed body is that of a 36-year-old, well-developed, well-nourished Caucasian female… the scalp is covered with bleach blonde hair… a slight ecchymotic area is noted on the left hip and left side of lower back.’ He then began the internal examination. It was this that has given future generations of conspiracy theorists sufficient room in which to exercise their imaginations. In Monroe’s stomach, Noguchi found no visual evidence of any pills. Nor was there any sign of the yellow dye with which Nembutal capsules were coated – and which might have been expected to stain her stomach lining. All he found was what he describes as ‘a milky substance – there were no food particles or anything like that’. Along with samples of blood, the internal organs were sent off for toxicology tests. Several hours after he had completed the autopsy, Noguchi received the toxicology report. The tests on the blood showed 8.0 mg per cent of chloral hydrate – another sleeping pill – while the liver tests revealed 13.0 mg per cent of pentobarbital (or Nembutal). Both of these were well above the fatal dose. However, Noguchi admits he made a mistake at this point. The toxicology tests had only been performed on the blood and the liver – not on the other internal organs. He should, he feels now, have insisted that all the organs were examined. ‘I am sure that this could have cleared up a lot of the subsequent controversy, but I didn’t follow through as I should have.’ As a junior member of staff, he says, he didn’t want to risk displeasing anyone. At a press conference later that day, his boss, Dr Curphey, announced that Monroe had committed suicide. Noguchi did not disagree with his conclusion. None the less, he was sufficiently troubled by the oversight to go back to the toxicology lab a few weeks later and ask if they could test the other organs that he’d sent over. But when he did, he was told that the organs had already been disposed of as the case had been marked as closed. ‘I think that was a great shame,’ he says, speaking very deliberately. ‘Not suspicious. I’m not saying that; it was a perfectly normal procedure. But still a shame.’ Noguchi’s autopsy was widely derided when it was published. The journalist Anthony Scaduto called it ‘one of the weirdest autopsy reports ever confected’, while Norman Mailer in his 1973 book, Marilyn: A Novel Biography, openly questioned Noguchi’s motives. ‘The word was out to keep this thing a suicide, not to make it a murder… If you’re the coroner and you feel the official mood is to find evidence of a suicide, you wouldn’t want to come in with murder.’ Almost 60 years on, Noguchi, now 82, sits in his salmon pink mock Tudor house in Los Angeles and all this talk of his having come under pressure makes him wave his hands dismissively. He believes now – as he believed then – that Monroe’s death was suicide. As for the purportedly suspicious aspects to her death, he carefully picks them off one by one.
There was, he says, nothing strange about the fact that no pills were found in Monroe’s stomach. A habitual pill user – which she was – would have had no problem digesting both the Nembutal and the chloral hydrate. As a result, he wouldn’t have expected to have found them in her stomach – they would have been pumped straight through into the intestine.
What’s more, anyone familiar with Nembutal would know that the yellow dye on the pills doesn’t run when it is swallowed. As for the bruise on her hip, the cause of that remains a mystery – albeit one that may well have a perfectly innocent explanation.
And what about Dr Curphey’s insistence that Noguchi perform the autopsy? ‘That is something I still don’t understand,’ he admits. ‘I have thought about it a lot over the years. Maybe he just thought that I would do a good job.’ But for all that, it’s plain that Noguchi has a weirdly ambivalent attitude towards Monroe’s death. On two occasions, he’s called for the case to be reopened – a bit odd for someone who insists there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding it. Perhaps he just misses the attention that the case – along with several other almost equally high-profile ones – brought him.
After Monroe’s death, Noguchi went on to become the Chief Medical Examiner for Los Angeles – a position he held from 1967 to 1982. He was also the inspiration for the hit television series Quincy. As the Chief Medical Examiner, Noguchi was to prove a controversial figure, frequently accused of being a keen – even slavish – publicity hound. In 1983 he published a biography, Coroner to the Stars. But what no one – not even his many detractors – can deny is that during his time at the top, Noguchi presided over a kind of Dark Age of Hollywood homicide.
Six years after Monroe’s death came the murder of her alleged lover, Robert F Kennedy. The moment when Noguchi heard the words ‘Kennedy’s been shot!’ left him, he says, more shaken than at any other time in his career.
But this time he was more experienced, more determined not to get anything wrong. ‘I knew that all kinds of mistakes had been made with the autopsy on John F Kennedy and I wanted to make sure everything was absolutely right.’
At 8.30pm on June 5 1968, 22 hours after Kennedy had been shot, the phone rang in his office. When Noguchi picked it up, he was told, ‘Senator Kennedy’s brain waves have gone flat.’ The first question Noguchi asked when he was shown Kennedy’s body was, ‘Where are the hair shavings?’ The surgeons who had operated on Kennedy had partially shaved his head and Noguchi knew, or suspected, these hair shavings could contain critical evidence.
When he came to start the autopsy, he did something he had never done before: he asked for Kennedy’s face to be covered with a towel. ‘I had such admiration for him, such hope that he would become President, that I did not want to be influenced by my feelings.’
Noguchi discovered that one bullet had passed through Kennedy’s right armpit, another – which he recovered – had lodged in his spinal column, while a third – the one that killed him – had penetrated his skull just to the left of his right ear and subsequently shattered.
A day after he’d done the autopsy, Noguchi was called by a criminalist at the LAPD who said that soot had been found in the hair shavings. ‘I really sat up in my chair when I heard that. This was a very important discovery because all the witnesses had reported that the gunman [Sirhan Sirhan] had been at least a yard away from Kennedy when he shot him. But soot meant that a gun had been discharged from a much closer range.’
To the surprise of his colleagues, Noguchi asked if he could be provided with seven pigs’ ears. Once these had been fetched from a local butcher, he took them to the Police Academy for ballistics tests. The patterns of soot on the pigs’ ears suggested that the shot that killed Kennedy had been fired from just three inches away. Either all the witnesses had been wrong, or else there had been more than one gunman.
Even now, Noguchi is unsure what really happened. His professional instinct, he says, tells him that Sirhan Sirhan carried out the assassination on his own. ‘Based on the available information, I’m certain there was just one gunman, but I’m also aware that, like theories of the universe, things keep changing.’
Less than a year later, on August 9 1969, Noguchi was called to 10050 Cielo Drive, an isolated house in Bel Air, where three bodies had been found. Among them was that of the actress Sharon Tate. One man, Voyteck Frykowski, had been stabbed 51 times, clubbed with a blunt instrument 13 times and shot twice. ‘I have never seen such savagery applied to one person.’ On the bottom of the front door, scrawled in blood, Noguchi found the single word, ‘Pig’.
The LAPD were convinced that this was a drugs-related murder, possibly executed by the Mafia. Noguchi, however, wasn’t so sure. ‘My experience with Mafia killings was that they are done very quickly – the killers don’t hang around. But in this case, they must have been in the house for about two hours. Also, the repeated stabbings to the bodies, even after death, suggested that the murderers may well have been high on amphetamines. I wondered if some pseudo-religious group had been responsible. I also thought it was possible they might strike again.’
The next day, a married couple, Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, were found dead in the Los Feliz district of LA. They too had been stabbed repeatedly. Written in blood on the fridge door were the words, ‘Helter Skelter’.
Despite the similarities, the LAPD refused to believe that the murders were related. Together with a psychiatrist, Dr Frederick Hacker, Noguchi was convinced they were.
On August 16 Charles Manson was arrested as part of an investigation into a stolen car ring. Subsequently released, he was then rearrested in mid-October following the discovery of evidence linking him and his ‘family’ of dope-addled acolytes to both sets of killings.
Over the next few years, Noguchi performed autopsies on Janis Joplin (heroin overdose, 1970), Natalie Wood (drowned, 1981), William Holden (fell over while drunk, 1981) and John Belushi (heroin overdose, 1982).
Today, Noguchi pads around his office in his stockinged feet, a small bespectacled man with grey eyes and trousers hitched high up his waist. All around the walls are framed certificates testifying to his eminence as a coroner. But having spent so long in the presence of death, he has no intention of submitting to it until the last possible moment. ‘I intend to live to 100,’ he says.
As to what – if anything – comes afterwards, Noguchi is keeping his options open. ‘For someone who originally comes from Japan, it is not difficult to believe in a departed person living somewhere else. It’s a comforting thought anyway.’ But is it a comforting thought that you actually believe in, or just hope for?
He smiles. ‘I think more like a hope.’
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