Between Marilyn and Diana there was another dead blonde who defined a generation. It is her murderer, however, who is best remembered – as martyr, demon, hero, villain and sniveller – in films, books and rock music
Early on in the 2003 documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls film director Roman Polanski appears. He is being interviewed sitting on the edge of a swimming pool with his girlfriend of the moment. Polanski was a scion of the New Hollywood – a youthful band of brigands which was to alter Hollywood forever. What neither Polanski nor his girlfriend (soon to be his wife) knew then was that they were about to become part of a defining moment in 20th-century history.
Roman Polanski was the enfant terrible of a changing Hollywood. He had just made at the big budget and hugely successful and controversial movie Rosemary’s Baby. He and his fiancée were the ultimate 1960s jet-setting It couple; partying with Mia Farrow in New York, and Ringo in London, they flew from LA to Paris, Cannes and Rome. They were photographed topless by David Bailey, and were friends with a host of Beautiful People. They married in Chelsea in 1968 and the reception was held at London’s Playboy Club. Mr and Mrs Polanski’s world came crashing down a year later. The awful fate that befell the love of Polanski’s life in the little red house with its fairy lights along the fence and a wishing well at the top of the hill became one of the most notorious events of 20th-century American history and signalled a horrible, bloody end to the Love Generation.
What befell 26-year-old, pregnant Sharon Tate Polanski is everyone’s worst nightmare – that someone will creepy-crawl into your home in the dead of night and murder you in your bed; someone you don’t know and doesn’t know you and has no discernible motive. Evil puppet-master Charles Manson who was able to persuade his peace-loving, flower children acolytes to do his murderous bidding became for a time in the 1970s an underground, anti-establishment hero. In reality he was a career conman who spent half his life in prison. When he was released in 1967 he fetched up in flower-power San Francisco: the wrong man in the right place. In the prison library he had absorbed the Bible (notably the Book of Revelation), Scientology and sci-fi. He learnt from pimp cellmates how needy, runaway girls could be talked into almost anything. He studied the guitar. And he could sing a little, enough to get the Beach boys to record one of his songs.
From the time Charles Manson was arrested he got what he always wanted: fame. The June 1970 cover of Rolling Stone ran his portrait with the tagline ‘the most dangerous man alive’. His story and the horrible crimes he perpetrated became, as one of his chroniclers Ed Sanders put it, ‘the case that won’t go away’. Sex, death, drugs, murder, fame, hippies, graffiti written in blood, celebrities, pop music and a dead blonde forever frozen in time – the story had everything. The trial was to be the longest and most expensive in US history. Charlie, the scruffy little guru/nutjob with the shining eyes, was sentenced to die with three of his perpetrators, young, middle-class women barely out of their teens. In a twist of fate in 1972 the death penalty in California was overturned and Charlie and many of his so-called Family members are still alive today. Manson was convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder yet he never murdered anyone himself. His right-hand man Tex Watson was tried separately.
The motives were horribly mixed up – drugs were involved as much as ‘the revenge of the insignificant on the affluent’ as one observer put it. From the get-go the shock value of this bad-moon-rising case was seized upon by pop culture. Indie filmmaker John Waters’ 1970 Multiple Maniacs, The Todd Killings, The Hills Have Eyes and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls all tapped into the murders. There has been a steady drip of low-budget exploitative/movies ever since. Then in 1971 Polanski made a ‘terrifyingly grisly’ version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. His follow-up, Chinatown, was widely seen as Polanski’s revenge on LA. There was a chilling documentary in 1972. And in that same year the trial’s chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi published Helter Skelter the definitive account of the crimes and trial. It became an enormous international bestseller spawning a two-part CBS docudrama. Bugliosi called the murder case ‘perhaps the most bizarre in the annals of crime’.
In between times Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, Charlie’s former second-in-command, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 bringing the Manson Family back into the public eye. By the end of the decade the perpetrators had come up for parole (denied) and Joan Didion wrote the book of literary essays White Album. Martin Amis called her ‘the poet of the Great Californian Emptiness’. She wrote: ‘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 remember 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. And, at a stroke, the Sixties ended – the paranoia was fulfilled.’
For almost the first time a witness to the implosion of the blissed-out 60s made serious comment on the Manson takedown. The Polanskis and one of the Manson women came within Didion’s social orbit. And although the late 60s zeitgeist had ‘revolution in the air’, the Manson story was a one-off aberration.
It was the murder case America wanted to forget. No chance.
Bubbling under the surface there had been underground recordings of Manson songs. The poster boy of everything transgressive and evil, Manson’s face appeared on fan T-shirts. Ever since the trial there has been glorification of the killer with a steady market for memorabilia and pop culture references. A snarling Charlie – every inch the delusional psychopath – appeared in TV interviews from San Quentin with chat show hosts; Squeaky escaped from prison and was recaptured. Charlie remained the ultimate bogeyman that every adolescent loved to hate or hated to love. There is something of the fable about the whole episode (the beautiful princess and the evil dwarf) but it is a story without a happy ending. ‘Manson embodied so many counter-culture clichés, he was an almost allegorical figure,’ wrote Lila Anolik in Vanity Fair earlier this year. ‘Merry Christmas Charlie Manson!’ was a notorious 1998 episode of South Park.
Manson became a lightning rod for teenage angst. Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1978 covered the Beatles’ hard-driving ‘Helter Skelter’ (a track which influenced Manson more than any other). It was also used by band U2 on the opening track of the album Rattle and Hum. In a live performance Bono introduced the song as the one ‘Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.’ In effect, the song only introduced the Manson story to a new generation. Other bands followed: the Lemonheads and Skinny Puppy recorded or sampled Manson. Cabaret Voltaire used clips of Charlie’s voice in a 1985 album.
In 1993 Guns’n’Roses recorded a version of the drippy Manson-penned song ‘Look to Your Game, Girl’. Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor moved into the house where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered, built a recording studio – nicknamed ‘Le PIG’ – and worked on new songs. He had shock rocker Marilyn Manson – who named himself after the killer – over for beers.
Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister who was active in victims’ rights confronted Reznor, charging him with insensitivity and making capital out of dead people. Reznor moved out the year before the little red house on the hill was finally demolished. He took the infamous front door with him and installed it in his New Orleans studio/offices. This was the door on which one of the killers daubed in blood the word ‘PIG’. Royalties from recordings of Manson’s songs go to the son of one of his victims, Bartek Frykowski.
Spool forward to 2009, the 40th anniversary of the Manson murders. No other case, before or since, has been so fully documented on the internet – from crime scene and autopsy photographs to ‘tribute’ pages, from YouTube montages to snippets from televised parole hearings. In the decades since 1969 there has been a slew of crimes with a higher body count: Columbine, 1999, 13 killed; Sandy Hook, 2012, 20 young children killed. But few remember the killers’ names in these cases.
As Manson’s female perpetrators reach retirement age it seems that none will ever receive parole. Susan Atkins, the wild child who daubed on the front door died of cancer. 2009 saw the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s detective novel Inherent Vice which uses the Manson trial as a backdrop (it was made into a film in 2014). Drew Barrymore channelled Tate in a 2010 fashion spread in Harper’s Bazaar.
Manson’s biography was published in 2013 and the popular cable TV drama Mad Men flirted with the Manson story when Don Draper’s wife Megan moved to LA to become an actress living in a groovy little house in the hills. Social media went into a whirl of speculation when Megan appeared in a T-shirt bearing a red star. It was an echo of a wet T-shirt shoot Sharon Tate did for Esquire magazine in 1968. Was Megan’s fate to mirror Sharon’s?
In 2013 Rolling Stone published a long feature/interview with Charlie and updated the story on the superannuated psycho and Star, his conjugal innamorata and wannabe wife. The author, Erik Hedegaard, quoted a question the snivelling Manson put to him: ‘do you think this [Rolling Stone] story will help me get out of here [prison], only for a little while, before I[die]?’
Meanwhile Debra Tate had long advocated that parole for the murderers should never be granted and wanted the murder victims remembered rather than have the killers lauded as cult icons. Ms Tate was very critical of the second season of American cop series Aquarius charging it with insensitivity and playing fast and loose with the facts. The David Duchovny show used the Manson clan as an unsavoury subplot. In 2014 Debra Tate published a glossy coffee table book Sharon Tate: Recollections with photos of the starlet and fashion icon accompanied by heartfelt tributes from famous people who remembered her. Roman Polanski wrote the foreword.
As the 50th anniversary approaches, Manson’s bad moon is on the rise again. Karina Longworth’s podcast ‘Charles Manson’s Hollywood’ began in May 2015. This year has seen a major publishing sensation in the form of a novel by Emma Cline The Girls which features a teenage girl in the late 1960s becoming involved with a creepy Californian commune. The film rights were immediately snapped up. Writes Cline: ‘Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.’
There’s long been talk of a remake of Sharon Tate’s most famous movie Valley of the Dolls starring Madonna. There have been two recent Beach Boys autobiographies. In one, Mike Love admitted that Susan Atkins once babysat for his children. The movie Bigger Than the Beatles, directed by Vaughn Juares, will be released next year. It tells of when Charlie befriended Dennis Wilson, the troubled Beach Boy who died of drowning in 1983.
The next time Manson will be up for parole he’ll be 92. It’s the case that will never go away,