Manson Nation, Pt. 1: The Tate-LaBianca Murders

Like the Beatles’ White Album, this bloated post comes in a set of two. This is Part One. Part Two, a review of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is here.

Reflections on the Manson Family on the 50th Anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca Murders

50 years ago today: the launch of the long national nightmare now known as the Tate-LaBianca Murders. It may seem an odd subject to write about on this ostensible show biz blog, but only if you don’t know either the subject or the author. For this gruesome topic is in fact strongly tied to both Hollywood and the music industry, so it’s very much a show biz story. We’ve had at least a couple of dozen occasions to mention the event here in the past. And, not for nothing, I wrote a play about the subject, which received its premiere ten years ago in the New York International Fringe Festival. (We’ll return to the subject below).

For the young and incurious: On the morning of August 9, 1969, a housemaid discovered the mutilated remains of five human beings at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, the best known of whom was starlet Sharon Tate. Tate was the wife of Hollywood director Roman Polanski, who’d released the hit movie Rosemary’s Baby the previous year. Tate’s own films had included Eye of the Devil (1966) The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Don’t Make Waves (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and most recently the Matt Helm spy spoof The Wrecking Crew (1968) with Dean Martin. She had even been in some episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. It had been awhile since her last picture because Tate was, at the time of her killing, 8 ½ months pregnant. Also found murdered at the scene were hairdresser-to-the-stars Jay Sebring (inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo), Folger Coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and Folger’s boyfriend (and Polanksi pal) Voytek Frykowski. Discovered slightly later in a nearby car was the body of teenager Steven Parent, the textbook definition of a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just as the grisly discovery was making national news the following day, supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were also murdered in their home a few miles away. Their bodies were discovered on the 10th. Unbeknownst to the public, the LaBianca murders were actually the third in a series. The first had been music teacher Gary Hinman, killed in his home on July 27. In all three incidents, the victims were butchered with incredible savagery, with cryptic messages written on the walls in the victims’ own blood.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that the three events weren’t immediately connected and investigated with the view that they were committed by the same perpetrators. It should go without saying that even in the craziest of times such crimes are rare. What was the motive? Multiple stabbings are a uniquely personal way to kill someone. Such an act can only be conducted with passionate hatred. It is not about dispatching someone efficiently. The killer must linger and relish the most horrific thing one person can do to another. By definition, this kind of thing almost never happens.

Still, a connection between the murders was ruled out, and multiple law enforcement agencies worked on solving them as separate crimes for nearly four months. During that time, Los Angeles lived in uncertain terror for week after week. The richest people hired private security guards, or left town completely. An interesting artifact of the time is the John Waters movie Multiple Maniacs (1970). In the film, a newspaper headline makes mention of what was still being called the “Sharon Tate Murders”. It must have been filmed during that four-month window in the fall of ’69 before anyone had ever heard of Charles Manson.

Meantime, these clueless turkeys were working the case. The investigators were all nearly crippled by the cultural gap between law enforcement and the counterculture. Naturally, none of the police recognized that most of the words written on the walls of the crime scenes were inspired by the Beatles’ White Album, for example. That wasn’t their sort of music. And they had such a fantastically ill informed picture of hippie culture and the drug world that they actually believed that the crimes were just some sort of “hippie drug thing” which different parties had decided to do INDEPENDENTLY. To them, the similarities just meant that hippies were responsible, not that that the SAME hippies were responsible.

In early December, Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkle, Linda Kasabian and Leslie Van Houten, most of them already in custody for other crimes, were charged with the murders, after Atkins bragged about their involvement to a fellow inmate. In other words, the police never solved the crime at all; the answer fell in their laps. About a week after that, Charles Manson, the leader of the cult the suspects belonged to, (informally known as “the Family”) was charged as their mastermind. At this stage, an already sensational tabloid story exploded into a firestorm of endless revelations about such things as rampant drug use, Satanism, group sex, sodomy, lesbianism, mind control, communal life, and (not least) first hand accounts of the murders themselves. Preparation for the trial took over six months; the trial lasted a year.

As L.A. County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi began to drill down on the details, the story got even weirder. Manson was a lifelong criminal and ward of the state. Most of his life had been spent in foster homes, juvenile detention facilities, or jail. He emerged from a life behind bars in 1967 only to find the Summer of Love in full swing. Fortuitously (for him) while in stir he’d learned to play the guitar and had done a lot of reading in esoteric religion. In short order he amassed dozens of followers, most of them female drop-outs from middle class families whom Manson had manipulated with a combination of sex, drugs, and double talk. His most notable male follower was a guy named Bobby Beausoleil, who’d been in Kenneth Anger’s movie Lucifer Rising.

By 1969, the Family was living at the Spahn Movie Ranch, an abandoned film set for westerns. Manson, convinced that he was a combination of the Devil and the Second Coming of Christ, was diving deep in the Beatles’ White Album, convinced that the band was sending messages directly to him. He hoped to become a rock star and in so doing to amass the power that would allow him to take over the world. And for a time, he got surprisingly close to that objective. Amazingly, he managed to insinuate himself into the life of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. The Family even lived at Wilson’s house for a time, until Dennis fled and had them removed. Then, through Wilson, Manson was also able to audition for Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son, who had produced records by The Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders, and connected Brian Wilson with his Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks. When Manson met him, Melcher lived at 10050 Cielo Drive with Candice Bergen and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders. By the time Manson was ready to attack Melcher for turning him down, 10050 Cielo Drive had new tenants – Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

The rejection made Manson, already a basket case, go completely ape shit. His disordered mind cooked up a plan to commit a series of murders that would ignite a race war. Out of the ensuing chaos, he envisioned himself and his followers coming out of hiding to rule the world. Given the endless riots and assassinations and other violence that characterized the 1960s, one could be forgiven for thinking a race war might be imminent. Plenty of people from all walks of life feared one was already under way. The idea that a group of random drug-crazed hippies would be the ones who came out on top afterwards, however, was the summit of narcissistic delusion. And Manson’s stupid murders ignited nothing except what you would expect: a manhunt for the killers.

Americans were living with Manson Family insanity every day on the six o’clock news for about two years. Shortly after sentencing, the death penalty was repealed in California. The defendants all got life sentences, except for Kasabian, who hadn’t killed anybody, and who testified against the Family in exchange for immunity. And so for decades thereafter it seemed we never heard the end of Charles Manson. He and his followers remained periodically in the news to annoy us for the rest of their lives. We still have to hear periodically from Van Houten and Watson every time their parole hearings roll around. The Never Ending Horror Story.

Justice for this bunch, I think, would have included permanent anonymity. The guilty should have been placed in a hole and never heard from again. Instead they became sick celebrities, because there was profit in putting them before the cameras. I’ve always felt there was a bit of a self-serving scapegoating ritual to it, an implied character assassination of outsider culture all too convenient for the media to exploit. The guilty themselves deserved their punishment and more, of course. But I also really dislike the charade of absolution the finger-pointing gives to the rest of us. The Manson Family story allows you to simultaneously hate freaks and then do nothing about the murders YOU are responsible for – with your votes, with your pocketbook, etc.

A minor industry has sprung up around the telling of their story, although I should alert you that I’ve seen and read it all and nearly all of it is terrible. The few sources I would recommend are: D.A. Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelter and the 1976 TV movie adaptation of it starring Steve Railsback (but not the dreadful 2004 remake). Bugliosi’s theory of the crime is too pat, too weirdly specific to be true I think, but he needed to tie the events with a neat bow in order to make his case to a judge and jury and make it stick legally. He had to organize the senseless facts into some kind of sense. A much truer reality I think was the Family’s passionate loathing for the establishment in general. This accounts for the savagery of the crimes. They had been conditioned to hate people they considered rich, powerful, and entitled. Thus the Tate-LaBianca murders could be considered the best known acts of left-wing terrorism in American history. The murders were much more about class than they were about race. If the activists had seriously planned to pin these murders on black activists they sure didn’t do much about it. To this day, the public barely even knows about that aspect of the case.

As a counterargument to Bugliosi’s portrait, I would offer The Family, published in 1971 by Ed Sanders of the rock group The Fugs. Sanders gives the hippie perspective and was able to get some people to talk who wouldn’t cooperate with authorities. Whereas Bugliosi, a lawyer, naturally felt constrained to confine himself to the proven, Sanders was free to draw his own conclusions about the broader scope of the Manson Family crimes. Based on Sanders’ research and that of others, I find it plausible that the Family may have murdered as many as another couple of dozen people on top of these cases, among them drug dealer Lotsapoppa Crowe (July 1, 1969), stunt man Shorty Shea (August 16, 1969), Manson lawyer Ronald Hughes (November, 1970), and James Willette and Reni Chavelle (November, 1972). Some of these, Manson was said to have dispatched personally.

Another excellent source is the 1973 documentary Manson by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick. This incredible film includes the members of the Family who weren’t in jail at the time (such as Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Goode), in situ, at the Spahn Ranch. You will never get a truer picture of the Family than the one in this film, largely because practically every talking head is out of their bloomin’ gourd.

As a general rule, with one exception I can think of, all subsequent films on the subject, be they documentary or dramatization, are rubbish. The documentaries are simplistic and sensational, which is not surprising but also not useful in terms of learning anything, be it factual, moral or legal. And the dramatizations are simply piss poor on period detail. Most are made cheaply, with hack writers and actors who make no real effort to get at the spirit or voice of the times. They always ring horribly false. The one exception I would make is Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which came out earlier this year, and which I reviewed here. Harron (with a screenplay by Guinevere Turner) looks at the events through a feminist lens, which while perhaps simplistic (and lets the girls off too easily) at least provides some new insight.

Like a lot of people, I became interested in this topic as a teenager. I wasn’t a metalhead; I was drawn to the story for reasons other than rebellion. A religious kid, I regarded the characters and events with something like superstitious awe. They felt, quite literally, apocalyptic, with Manson as a LITERAL anti-Christ, in a literal manifestation of the Book of Revelations. This feeling never leaves me. Every photo or film clip of him scares me on some level. Years ago, I bought Lie, the CD of Manson’s songs, and listening to it always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Robert Pinnock as Willy Nilson, our version of Manson

In the late ‘90s my friends Frank and Michele Cwiklik (then Schlossberg) of Danse Macabre productions were doing these wonderfully dark theatrical adaptations of Ed Wood movies (not just the horror and sci fi ones but also the crime and exploitation pictures) and it inspired me to write a play about the events for the 30th anniversary in 1999. In my version, the names were changed, but the events cleaved closely to real events, exaggerated here and there for satirical effect. I envisioned a sort of psychotronic/ AIP parody, funny but dark as hell, and Danse Macabre had just the touch for that combination. We started some pre-production talks and even took some publicity stills of my friend Robert Pinnock in the title role. But then, for whatever reason, it didn’t happen at that time, although we went on to collaborate on other shows together over the next few years.

Me as the Bugliosi character with Avery Pearson as Willy Nilson, our Charlie.

A decade later my play received another shot. Jeff Lewoncyck and Hope Cartelli offered to mount it in the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival. With Jeff’s involvement the play got sunnier and more cartoonish somehow, with a Laugh-In color scheme and a tone closer to black-out skits than, well, black-outs. Originally called Son of Nothing, we renamed it Willy Nilly: A Musical Exploitation of the Most Far-Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era. It was a sold out hit of the festival and held over for several performances.

I’d always been somewhat worried about my obsession with these twisted events. Am I sick? Immoral? Craven? Others must have wondered the same thing. But in writing this (and the upcoming review), I have realized with reassuring clarity that it’s the opposite. It was an attempt to puncture that superstitious power the story, and Manson’s personality had, or attempted to have, over me. It was an attempt to get control of it, to assert reason over the madness, to impose some kind of order on this chaotic world. Satire as exorcism. Which as good a lead-in as any to our next post.

Read, part two, my review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, here.