Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 112: Ed Wood's death certificate

It's time to think about Ed Wood's death again.

December 10 is a date well known to Ed Wood's fans, since that's the anniversary of Eddie's untimely passing in 1978. Evicted from his grungy apartment at 6383 Yucca St. in Los Angeles, just weeks before Christmas, Ed and Kathy Wood hastily relocated to actor Peter Coe's apartment less than ten miles away at 5635 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in Valley Village, where Eddie expired in a back bedroom on a Sunday afternoon as the others were watching the Rams on TV. As with many celebrities who left this world too soon, Ed Wood's alcohol-fueled death at the age of 54 is a key part of his legend. Fans can't help but romanticize, sentimentalize, or even mythicize his tragic ending. The fact that he died penniless and obscure, only to become famous in death, makes him the Vincent Van Gogh of B-movies.

Eddie would have understood this phenomenon all too well. As I've written many times, death was one of Ed Wood's muses, possibly the main one, topping even sex, booze, and women's clothing. The Grim Reaper looms over Eddie's most famous movies, especially Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Orgy of the Dead (1965), both of which largely take place in cemeteries. Eddie's short stories and books are likewise rife with graveyards, tombstones, coffins, and corpses. Through his writing, Ed Wood frequently pondered how we die, what happens to our bodies after we die, and how we are remembered by those still living. As a quick primer, I refer you to the stories "Into My Grave" and "Epitaph for the Village Drunk."

In the primitive days before the internet, it was not so easy to dig up personal information about other people, even public figures like movie directors. So it was rather eye-opening when author Rudolph Grey included Eddie's full death certificate in the patchwork biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). With his truly morbid imagination, Eddie would likely approve of his fans studying this grim document in detail. 

Ed Wood's death certificate.

So today, on the eve of Ed Wood's 42nd death anniversary, let's take a look at this document again and see if anything new pops out at us. Before you complain, contradict, or correct, please know that this is all amateur speculation on my part. As always, should you disagree, I advise you to start your own blog about Ed Wood and express your thoughts and feelings there.

  • We might as well start with those file numbers up at the top. Eddie's death has been assigned both a state file number (78-158190) and a "local registration district and certificate number" (0190-055284). As for the state number, my guess is that "78" refers to the year 1978. Could Eddie have been the 158,190th death in all of California that year? Looking at the statistics, it seems possible. The state now records over a quarter million deaths annually, but the population has greatly increased since Eddie's day. California now has 39.5 million residents; in 1978, it had just 22.8 million. So the number of deaths per year might've been closer to 160K when Eddie died.
  • Similarly, the "0190" prefix may refer to Los Angeles, in whole or in part. It seems plausible that Eddie was death #55,284 in L.A. that year.
  • Nothing too surprising in the top rows. Eddie's name (Edward Davis Wood Jr.), age (54), date of birth (October 10, 1924), date of death (December 10, 1978), race (white), and sex (male) are all what you'd expect them to be. Box 2B gives the hour of Ed's death as 1403 or 2:03 in the afternoon. (Thanks to Edward Fisher for that observation.) Eddie's ethnicity is given as 9, which as far as I can tell means "unknown." Note that "race" and "ethnicity" are separate but neighboring boxes. It's interesting, too, that most of the info on the form is typewritten, but the ethnicity is handwritten, almost as an afterthought.
  • We are then given the decedent's birthplace (New York) as well as the name and birthplace of his father (Edward Wood Sr., New York). Tellingly, there is no information about Eddie's mother Lillian. Her birth name and birthplace are given as "unknown, unknown." I'm guessing Ed's widow, Kathy Wood, probably supplied much of the information on this death certificate, and she and Lillian never did get along. The death certificate reduces Ed's mother to a shadowy nonentity.
  • Ed's marital status is rightly listed as "married" and the name of his surviving spouse as Kathleen Everett. The death form indicates that widows should be listed by their birth names. Kathy's full name was Kathleen O'Hara Everett.  Eddie was sometimes known to refer to his wife simply as "O'Hara," but he used the pseudonym "Kathleen Everett" for the book Carnival Piece (1969).
  • At last we get to the good stuff, i.e. the details pertaining to Eddie's notorious career. Primary occupation? "Writer-Producer." Number of years in this occupation? "30." Employer? "Self Employed." Kind of industry or business? "Movie Industry." Considering that Eddie made most of his money in his last decade writing books and articles for Bernie Bloom and may well have been doing work for Bernie right into 1978, it's touching that Kathy chose to say her late husband worked in the movie industry instead. As for that date of 30 years, I suppose Crossroads of Laredo (1948) could be considered the humble beginning of Eddie's screen career.
  • That concludes the Decedent Personal Data. We now move on to the Usual Residence section. Eddie's usual residence is given as "5636 Laurel Canyon Blvd. Apt. 4, North Hollywood." This is also given as the residence of Eddie's informant, Kathleen Wood (identified as "wife"). To reiterate, Ed and Kathy had only been living with Peter Coe for a very short time before Eddie's death.
  • Up next is the Place of Death section. Nothing too remarkable here. Eddie is said to have died at home, and Peter Coe's address is again given. Funny how the apartment on Laurel Canyon was only Eddie's residence for a couple of days, yet it manages to appear three times on his death certificate.
  • This is followed by the rather sparse Cause of Death section. Officially, Edward Davis Wood, Jr. died of "arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease." Arteriosclerosis is defined as "hardening and thickening of the walls of the arteries," the blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the tissues of the body. Arteriosclerosis can also prevent oxygen from reaching the heart itself, leading to a heart attack. Essentially, Ed Wood's heart suffocated. The culprit here may have been high blood pressure due to Eddie's drinking, poor diet, stress, and lack of exercise.
Healthy arteries vs. Ed Wood's arteries.

  • Interestingly, though, the death certificate notes that neither an autopsy nor a biopsy was performed. Was Eddie's cause of death determined solely from anecdotal evidence and a cursory examination of the corpse? Box 24 on the form asks, "Was death reported to the coroner?" It seems like this would be a yes or no question, but instead a number is given: 78-15360. Yet again, my guess is that the "78" prefix refers to the year. Box 27 informs us that no operation was performed on Eddie, presumably because he was dead on arrival.
  • The Physician's Certification section (28A through 28E) was left entirely blank. I believe this is because no physician was on hand at the exact moment of Eddie's death.
  • After that is a section called Injury Information, designated as "Coroner's Use Only." Boxes 29-34 have been left blank, since there does not seem to have been an injury or accident in this case.
  • Box 35A yields a tiny bit of information. In the statement, "As required by law I have held an (inquest/investigation)," the word "inquest" is crossed out. There would have been no need for a coroner's inquest here.
  • Box 35B is designated: "Coroner -- Signature and decree or title." This is a small rectangle on the form, but it is positively crammed with text, some handwritten, some rubber-stamped. Let's break this down a little at a time.
  • A rubber stamp reads: "Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D., Coroner Deputy." Born in Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan in 1927, Thomas Noguchi is a fascinating figure in his own right. After graduating medical school in the early 1950s, he emigrated to the United States. In 1967, he became the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, a title he held until 1982. Famed as the "coroner to the stars," Noguchi performed autopsies on John Belushi, Sharon Tate, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, and more. Since no autopsy was performed on Ed Wood, however, I doubt Noguchi came anywhere near Eddie's body. But there's his name on the death certificate, forever. Dr. Noguchi's reign as coroner ended messily, as this article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel indicates.
"Coroner to the stars" no more.

"Serious abuse of public trust and power."

  • Under Thomas Noguchi's rubber stamp is the signature of some lesser-known subordinate. It looks to me like "Michael A. Stuphed," though perhaps I'm thinking of Norman Bates stuffing those dead birds of his. Could it be "Stuyed" or "Stushed"? Look at the certificate yourself and draw your own conclusions. Whatever his last name was, Michael signed the death certificate on December 11, 1978, the day after Eddie died.
  • There's a rubber stamped address in this box, too: "1104 N. Mission Rd., Los Angeles, Calif, 90033." This is still the address of the Los Angeles County Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner. A September 1974 article in the Independent Press-Telegram (from Long Beach) describes this facility: "Some 20,000 [deaths] find their way to Dr. Noguchi's 130-man department in gleaming new $3.5 million quarters at 1104 N. Mission Road; to be farmed out among 15 physicians for autopsies that average one hour." Fancier digs than what Eddie was used to in life. And that same article gives the average number of annual deaths in Los Angeles as 60,000. So, yes, Eddie might have been 55,284 in 1978.
  • We now arrive at box 36: Disposition. In other words, how was the corpse disposed of? The answer is terse: cremation. Box 37 tells us Eddie was cremated on December 18, 1978, a week and a day after his death. Box 38 gives us the location: Memory Gardens Crematory, 455 W. Central Ave, Brea, California. This place is still in business at that address, though its name is Memory Garden Memorial Park and Mortuary. They still offer cremation services, too. I suppose if any Ed Wood fans want to see where his body was cremated, they can swing by for a visit. I'd call first, though.
  • Before he was cremated, however, Ed Wood was embalmed. In box 39, we get the embalmer's license number (3140) and signature, identifying him as Harry Fox. A minor yet pivotal player in the Ed Wood saga gets a name!
  • Box 40 is for "name of funeral director (or person acting as such)." No name is given, other than "Utter McKinley Van Nuys." We know that a small memorial service for Ed Wood, presided over by David DeMering, was held at the Utter McKinley mortuary.
  • The rest of the form is rather impersonal. Box 41 is reserved for the "local registrar's signature." The scrawled name might be Robert White. The first name, at least, is fairly legible. Box 42 says that the "date accepted by local registrar" was December 15, 1978, about midway between Eddie's death and cremation. Just what is being accepted, I'm not sure. The death certificate, I imagine.
  • The bottom line of the death certificate is given to handwritten marks by the state registrar. No explanation or context is given: 7, X, 1, 4124.

CONCLUSION: Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was not a celebrity when he died on December 10, 1978. He was penniless, essentially homeless, and largely forgotten. He had come to Los Angeles with big dreams in 1947, but as of 1978, those dreams had seemingly come to nothing. Eddie died a poor man's death a few weeks shy of Christmas. There is nothing to indicate that Ed Wood's death was treated as special in any way, nor that it meant much to anyone except a few friends and relatives. He was just one of thousands to die in Los Angeles County that year. The important figure on his death certificate, then, is the 30 years he spent in the motion picture industry. It was the work that he did there that would grant him a very odd form of immortality.