49 Years On, the Manson Murders Continue to Haunt Hollywood
Last week, Margot Robbie posted a sneak peak of her role in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where she will play the actress Sharon Tate. Much has already been made about the inherently problematic issues surrounding making a movie on anything vaguely related to Charles Manson and his murdering family. Yet Robbie’s photo seemed to receive a mostly positive response from fans and critics. Granted, Robbie doesn’t look much like Tate - the lashes aren’t big enough, nor is the eye make-up - but it was an image of relative sweetness. She looked happy, not so much innocent as a throwback to a more innocent time. This was before the 1960s ended.
It’s been almost 50 years since the Manson family murdered Tate and her unborn son. Over two heady months, nine people would die in what seemed like senseless carnage or an intricate scheme of hippy revenge against the establishment. People have written songs about it, think-pieces galore have been written about it, and a few grungy film-makers have made movies of varying degrees of trashiness on the subject. Every true crime or classic cinema nerd knows the disturbing details of this case. They’ve probably seen the crime scene photographs too. This was a true Hollywood story in every sense, one that encapsulated a ragtag ensemble of bit-players, from the Beach Boys to Doris Day to Dennis Hopper to Steve McQueen to the Beatles. Joan Didion wrote the most iconic words on the case and what it meant to those who slumbered in the California valleys that Summer:
‘This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969…The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remembered all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.’
Didion posited that the 1960s ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders. Others have argued that Altamont was the true nail in the coffin, yet more now insist the decade’s innocence ended when Nixon pushed forward into Vietnam. Whatever stance you take on this symbolic end of the era, it’s tough to ignore the legacy the Manson family have left. In many ways, Hollywood is still haunted by it.
There were many self-styled gurus if California in the 1960s. Post-WW2, there was a real sense of hopelessness from many and a search for answers that the all-but-enforced Family Values lifestyle could not provide. Plenty of leaders, charlatans and cult-wannabes sprung up during this period. It’s no coincidence that this was the time Scientology gained a foothold in the American consciousness. Manson even studied Scientology in prison and incorporated it into his own teachings, with combined Rapture focused Christianity, a dash of Satanism, lots of drugs, even more racism, Beatles tinhatting, and a few lines from How To Win Friends and Influence People. He gained enough followers — totalling about 100 in his peak — to make the leap to Hollywood, where he felt his true purpose lay. Even maniacal cult leaders just want to be celebrities, so it seems.
The late 1960s was a period of transition in Hollywood. The old faces were dying out and losing their relevance while the hot young auteurs were on the rise, but most of the power was simply passed down to the offspring of the older generation. Sure, movies like The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde were gaining in popularity but they still had to compete with Dr. Doolittle at the Oscars. Doris Day was exceptionally uncool on the big screen, but she would soon dominate the small screen while her son, Terry Melcher, became a go-to music producer for the hip rockers of the time. Manson latched onto Melcher, who produced the first two albums of The Byrds, as his great hope for stardom.
Manson and his family had been introduced to Melcher through Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. The band’s drummer had picked up two hitch-hikers, including Patricia Krenwinkel, and would later take them back to his home. After hearing about Manson and his guru status — this was a time when the Beach Boys and many other bands of the time were heavily into the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi so offbeat spirituality was very much in — Wilson would eventually meet Manson. Well, I say ‘meet’. They basically moved into his house without asking. Yet Wilson did let them stay for quite some time. He gave them money, let them borrow his cars and clothes, and he paid their medical bills so they could receive treatment for gonorrhoea. He even helped Manson out with his music, letting him record stuff at the legendary home studio of his brother Brian. Dennis recorded a Manson song for the Beach Boys, called ‘Cease to Exist’. However, he heavily reworked it as ‘Never Learn Not to Love’ and Manson was never credited, which infuriated him. He became volatile and threatened Wilson by bringing him a bullet and saying, ‘Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.’ According to Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Wilson them grabbed Manson by the head and beat the shit out of him.
Eventually, Wilson’s manager evicted the squatters, and Manson and the family moved into Spahn Ranch in August 1968. The ranch had previously been popular as a set for movie and T.V. Westerns, but the genre was dying out by the end of the decade and the sets going to rot. While here, Manson heard The Beatles’ White Album for the first time and became obsessed. He listened to it repeatedly and maintained the songs were coded instructions to him and his family about the impending race war and how they could survive it. The plan, so Manson insisted, was that a battle would break out between black and white people, and while black people would win, they would simply secede power to Manson and his family because they weren’t smart enough to rule themselves. Manson still held onto dreams of Rockstar fame, and Terry Melcher had even agreed to come to the ranch and hear some of Manson’s music. He never arrived. Manson was actually given a pretty decent amount of industry support in his attempts to become a professional musician. The simple truth was that Manson wasn’t all that talented. He could play a few chords and had the kind of abrasive growl of a voice that suited a hippie rocker. However, he was easily outclassed by those around him. The image of Charles Manson and his ethos was more alluring than the end results.
On March 23, 1969, Manson arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive, the former residence of Terry Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen. He was met by Shahrokh Hatami, a photographer who told him that the house was now the Polanski residence, meaning director Roman Polanski and his wife of over one year, the actress Sharon Tate.
Polanski and Tate were the coolest celeb couple of the era, the epitome of the dream that Hollywood could make stars of anyone. Polanski was a Polish-Jewish auteur who had survived an abhorrent childhood in the Warsaw ghettos during World War Two and had seen his own parents dragged away by Nazi soldiers. He was currently the most wanted director in the business following Rosemary’s Baby. Sharon Tate was an actress whose work wasn’t necessarily celebrated, but everyone knew who she was. She was stunningly beautiful, she’d posed for Playboy (photographed by her husband), and she’d played the role of Jennifer in the long-awaited adaptation of Valley of the Dolls. That movie was critically lambasted, but it made a lot of money and Tate was hoping it would lead to bigger things. She was ready to film what would be her last role in the comedy The Thirteen Chairs and she was also heavily pregnant. Tate adored her husband and craved a simple life with him, but Polanski was a self-proclaimed horndog who would sleep with any and every woman who wasn’t his wife. He would even confess that, while he loved Tate deeply, he didn’t want to have sex with her while she was pregnant and so he looked elsewhere. Tate and Polanski had moved into Cielo Drive that February, with Tate considering the property her dream house. The following month, she’d fly to Italy to film her final movie, then head to London to meet with Polanski as he worked on his next project. She returned to Los Angeles alone on July 20th. Polanski, who planned to return before the baby’s birth, had asked two friends, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger, to stay at Cielo Drive and keep an eye on Sharon.
By that time, ‘Helter Skelter’ was ready to be set in motion.
On July 1th 1969, Manson got into an altercation with a drug dealer named Bernard Crowe, nicknamed Lotsapoppa. Manson had cheated Crowe out of a lot of money and Crowe threatened to wipe out everyone at Spahn Ranch, so Manson shot Crowe in his apartment. He claimed to his followers that Crowe was a member of the Black Panthers — he wasn’t — and that they should expect retaliation before Helter Skelter could start properly. But first, they needed money.
On July 25th, Manson sent family members Susan Atkins, Mary Brunner and Bobby Beausoleil to the home of Gary Allen Hinman, a music teacher who they believed had plenty of cash they could steal. They held Hinman hostage for two days, trying to get information out of him on the location of the stocks and bonds they insisted he possessed. At one point, Manson himself turned up to see what was going on. It ended when Beausoleil, a former collaborator of Kenneth ‘Hollywood Babylon’ Anger, repeatedly stabbed Hinman to death. One of the family members then wrote ‘political piggy’ on the wall in Hinman’s blood, adding a panther paw in the hopes that the police would connect this murder to the shooting of Crowe. Beausoleil was arrested on August 6th after he was caught driving Hinman’s car. Manson declared this incident to be the spark for Helter Skelter.
On the evening of August 8th, Manson directed Tex Watson to take Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to the house on Cielo Drive and told them to kill everyone there. Tate, her unborn son, Folger, Frykowski, Steven Parent, a friend of the property’s caretaker, and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (said to be the main inspiration for Warren Beatty in Shampoo) were all stabbed to death. I won’t go into any more details here but if you are interested, they’re easy enough to find. So are the crime scene photos, unfortunately, so be careful. Atkins, oft-considered Manson’s most zealous family member, wrote ‘pig’ on the front door in blood.
Los Angeles went into a panic. It seemed like every celebrity claimed they were supposed to be at the Tate-Polanski house that evening. The next night, six family members drove to 3301 Waverly Drive, following more orders from Manson to case the joint, take all the money they could find and cause carnage. Waverly Drive was the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, a dress shop co-owner. The family members, including Leslie Van Houten, Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan, and the murderers from the night before, tied up the LaBiancas and stabbed them both. Watson, according to his own autobiography, then carved ‘WAR’ in Leno’s stomach, although none of the family members can seem to agree on who did what. Krenwinkel wrote ‘Rise’ and ‘death to pigs’ on the walls of their home, then added ‘Healter [sic] Skelter’” to the refrigerator door. Linda Kasabian had been instructed to drive to the Venice home of an actor friend of hers and kill him in a similar way, but Kasabian backed out and deliberately led them to the wrong house.
Originally, the LAPD ruled out a connection between the Tate and LaBianca murders, believing Tate and her friends’ deaths may have been drug-related. They raided Spahn Ranch that same month but only on auto theft charges. Due to a warrant error, the group would only be in jail for a few days. Manson believed that the family had been ratted out to the authorities by Donald ‘Shorty’ Shea, a ranch hand and occasional stunt man who distrusted Manson and eventually helped the ranch owners to remove the Family from their property. Shea was murdered by Grogan and Watson, who hit him with a pip wrench and stabbed him in his car. His remains were buried near the ranch, but it would be another 8 years before they were located.
The family were arrested again soon after on the same charges of auto theft, but during this time, Atkins became implicated in the murder of Gary Hinman. While in jail, Atkins started blabbing to her cellmates about her involvement in the Tate-LaBianca murders, bragging about the taste of Tate’s blood. Both cellmates reported Atkins to the police, and eventually arrests were made for the murders.
There’s a whole other post to be written about the trial and its impact: The breathless press coverage, the celebrity cache, the desperate theatrics of Manson and his family, from head shaving to self-inflicted Swastika carvings on the forehead. Linda Kasabian testified for the prosecution, wearing a dress bought for her by Joan Didion (‘mini but not extremely mini’ was her specification). The three main women continued to act as Manson’s top groupies, kicking up a fuss for the judge and ever present press. Eventually, on January 25 1971, Charles Manson was sentenced to death, as were Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten, Watson, Beausoleil, Bruce M. Davis (often called Charlie’s right hand man), and Grogan. These sentences were commuted to life imprisonment once California abolished the death penalty. The three women, each of whom became almost as darkly iconic as Manson, would all later condemn Manson and spend their respective jail-times being model prisoners.
Patricia Krenwinkel has been denied parole 14 times and remains the longest-incarcerated female inmate in the California penal system. Leslie Van Houten was recommended for parole in 2017 but her appeal was denied by California Governor Jerry Brown. Van Houten actually spent some time outside of prison in the 1970s due to a retrial. She even went to the Oscars with a friend. One of her most vocal supporters is director John Waters, who dedicated a chapter to her in his book, Role Models. Grogan was released on parole in 1985. He assisted the police in finding Shorty Shea’s body. Tex Watson converted to Christianity in the 1970s and married in 1979. Through conjugal visits he fathered four children. He’s now an ordained minister. Bobby Beausoleil records music from prison and has released LP and albums through his website. He composed the soundtrack for Lucifer Rising, a short film by his old pal Kenneth Anger. He’s been interviewed by publications like Vice, because of course he has. Squeaky Fromme remained dedicated to Manson after his arrest. While she was never charged with involvement in any of the murders, she would find her own infamy after attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford. She was paroled in 2009. Atkins became a born again Christian while serving her sentence and dedicated herself to various prison programs. She received two commendations for helping inmates during crises, including one suicide attempt. She married twice and died in September 2009 of advanced brain cancer. She had been denied parole 22 days earlier.
Charles Manson milked his prison-bound infamy for all its worth and gave rambling interviews to anyone with a camera. In 2014, he announced his engagement to 26-year-old Elaine ‘Star’ Burton, although he then called off the wedding after it was claimed that she only wanted to marry him to gain legal rights over his corpse when he died, thus enabling her to make the world’s weirdest tourist attraction. He died on November 19th 2017 at the age of 83.
History will tell you that Charles Manson was the devil incarnate, a man of such intoxicating evil that the spectre of his power hung over Hollywood until his death last year, despite him having been incarcerated for over 45 years. I do not feel this is wholly accurate, mostly because it gives Manson way too much credit. He was a drugged up, unwashed and hugely racist hippy who knew a few chords on the guitar and could easily manipulate young girls for his own benefit and that of other men. The late 1960s just happened to be a time when such qualities carried real social capital. He wasn’t special, he wasn’t a legend of sin, and he certainly wasn’t a Machiavellian planner of chaos. The chances are a lot of people went along with his clearly ridiculous Helter Skelter nonsense because they were too high to object. Yet Vincent Bugliosi needed a more damning prosecution than the banality of Manson’s breed of evil. It wasn’t enough to jail him: We had to fear him and his ‘type’.
In a 2009 Los Angeles Magazine piece on the 40th anniversary of the murders, Juan Flynn, a Spahn Ranch worker who had become associated with Manson and his Family, said this: ‘Charles Manson got away with everything. People will say, ‘He’s in jail.’ But Charlie is exactly where he wants to be.’
The Manson family and the devastation they caused cannot help but intrigue us, although I cannot help but be troubled by how this prickly period of history has become a chic aesthetic. Manson and his family became their own brand of iconography (I seriously second guessed even using the above image for fear that it was too ‘glamorous’). Bugliosi helped to popularize true crime as a trashy pleasure. Rock-stars reference Manson as a cultural stand-in for a time and mood they never would have wanted to experience first-hand. Sharon Tate is a great role for an actress working with an auteur. Tourists can take guided trips around the geography of Manson’s murders. History is merely a great story. Our times feel as senseless as they did in the Summer of 1969. Then again, as Joan Didion said, ‘in the jingle-jangle morning of that summer it made as much sense as anything.’
If you’d like to know more on this case and its impact on Hollywood, check out Karina Longworth’s brilliant Manson season of her podcast, You Must Remember This. Much of my research is taken from Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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