The Manson Murders: The night that Hollywood slid into the darkness
The new Quentin Tarantino movie 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is set against the Manson killings of 1969 - but Mick Brown explains how a terrified Los Angeles was at that time already drenched in hedonism and paranoia
The Manson killings in which, 50 years ago, seven people were murdered were, in every sense, a Hollywood event. Hollywood was the location; the most famous victim, Sharon Tate, was a Hollywood star, albeit a minor one. And Hollywood's most intoxicating elixir, celebrity, was the drug that Charles Manson craved - and eventually found.
Manson's infamy was set on the night of August 8, 1969 when, acting on his instructions, members of his "Family" broke into the rented home of Tate and her film director husband Roman Polanski, murdering Tate, the celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, Abigail Ann Folger (the heiress to the Folger coffee fortune), aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and the caretaker's friend, Steven Earl Parent.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
The following night, a supermarket owner, Leno LaBianca, and his wife Rosemary, were also murdered in their home at Manson's behest.
It is a series of events that, ever since, Hollywood has commemorated in the way that Hollywood knows best.
There have been some 30 films on or about Manson, including Charlie Lives: The Family Return and Charles Manson Superstar, not to mention numerous TV documentaries and specials.
Now comes Quentin Tarantino's new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, set against the background of the Manson killings.
Rick, a fading TV actor, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, lives in a house in Cielo Drive, high in the hills above Hollywood, where his new next-door neighbours are Polanski and Tate. Rick's stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) gets involved with a girl living with a group of stoned misfits on an abandoned Hollywood movie ranch. That group, of course, turns out to be the Manson Family.
The film quickly departs from being a true account of the events of August 1969, but it vividly captures the mood of Hollywood as a place commingling hedonism and paranoia, at a time when, to many, it seemed that America was coming apart at the seams.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy the year before; the ongoing war in Vietnam, civil unrest, and the rise of the counter-culture, had driven deep fissures into American society.
As Joan Didion observed in her essay about the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it was a time when the highs of 1967's Summer of Love were fast curdling into a dystopia of teenage runaways, drugs, and crime - "the ceremony of innocence drowned". And it was in "the Haight" that Manson, newly released from prison, recruited the waifs and strays who became his followers and, later, executioners.
Manson was 32, 5ft 2in tall and had spent almost half his life in reform school and behind bars. He wrote songs about peace and love, surrendering your ego, and life and death being exactly the same thing.
He was in search of a following but, more than that, craved fame. In 1968, primarily to further his dream of becoming "bigger than The Beatles", he moved his growing Family from San Francisco to Los Angeles, occupying the abandoned Spahn Ranch, which had been used as a Hollywood westerns set. A mixture of gullibility, sex and his con-man powers of persuasion would take him to the heart of the Hollywood music business.
After picking up two Manson girls hitchhiking and taking them home for sex, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys made the mistake of allowing Manson and his Family to move in, sponging money and drugs, and wrecking his Mercedes. Wilson was mesmerised by Manson, calling him The Wizard - and thought he had musical talent.
Of more interest still to Manson was Wilson's friend, Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son and a prominent record producer, who Manson believed could arrange a recording contract for him. Melcher auditioned Manson but, after that, kept him at arm's length. Wilson actually agreed to record a Manson song, Cease to Exist. But when it finally appeared as the B-side to a Beach Boys' single, Manson was furious to learn that the title had been changed to Never Learn Not to Love and the song was credited solely to Wilson.
Manson came looking for Wilson, leaving a bullet and a threatening note. Wilson was so disturbed he moved house. That left Melcher. But when Melcher finally turned him down, Manson's dream of being a rock star was dead.
Melcher was living with his actress girlfriend Candice Bergen in a rented house, 10050 Cielo Drive, at the end of a narrow, twisting road in Benedict Canyon. But at the end of 1968, they moved to Day's Malibu beach house, and the property was rented out by its owner to Polanski and Tate. Manson had been to the house with Wilson, Melcher had not let him inside, but in March 1969, Manson showed up again, presumably looking for Melcher, before being shooed off. Stepping out of the house, Tate actually came face to face with him. She would later describe him as "that creepy-looking guy".
In the summer of 1969, Hollywood was a place off-kilter, drenched in the sense, as Didion put it, "that it was possible to go 'too far' and that many people were doing it". The house on Cielo Drive was famous for its parties, where the hip jeunesse doree of the movie and music worlds rubbed shoulders. There were rumours of orgies, and heavy drug use. Sebring (the model for Warren Beatty's lothario hairdresser in the film Shampoo) was a former boyfriend of Tate's, and regular visitor to the home. Frykowski, a friend of Polanski's, and Folger, were house guests at the time. Shortly before the killings, Frykowski and Sebring had allegedly arranged a "mass whipping" of a dealer for giving them bad dope.
It is unclear whether Manson knew who was now living in the house on Cielo Drive, but that was where he chose to send his acolytes on their mission to trigger "Helter Skelter" (his term, taken from The Beatles song, for an apocalyptic war between blacks and whites).
For Manson, the slaughter of anybody who was rich or famous would serve his purpose of generating headlines, fear and panic.
Nowhere was that fear and panic felt more keenly than in Hollywood, as the ultimate demonstration of how things had indeed gone "too far".
"The Hollywood community, particularly film and music, to a certain extent had always felt invulnerable," says Jeff Guinn, the author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, the definitive account of the murders.
"Terry Melcher, for instance, had grown up in a gated community. If somebody like Sharon Tate could be murdered and butchered, that would mean that nobody was safe."
As details of the murders leaked out, people shuttered their houses; some, connected to the victims, left town. The nightclubs and music venues of Sunset Strip emptied of customers.
The producer Phil Spector, "paranoid to begin with", as Peter Fonda put it, fortified his already heavily protected Hollywood mansion by erecting a chain-link fence a few feet from his front door, with electrified barbed wire and two attack dogs.
"Vincent Bugliosi [the chief prosecutor in the case] told me how, within a couple of days of the murders, high-end sporting goods stores no longer had a single handgun or rifle in stock," Guinn says.
"Guard dogs that had been selling for $100 were going for a couple of thousand; a panic really swept the city, but where it struck home the hardest was in the music industry."
Believing he was the intended target of the killings, Melcher hired a bodyguard and kept a shotgun to hand. The actor Steve McQueen wrote to his lawyer asking him to renew his gun permit after discovering that his name was supposedly on a "kill list" drawn up by Manson, along with the names of Tom Jones, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Frank Sinatra.
The killings polarised an already divided country in strange and unpredictable ways. "There were three ongoing schools of thought," Guinn says. 'One was, there's this murderous, drug-addled long-hair and his equally drug-addled followers who are just beyond disgust. Then, there was the faction who believed Manson had been set up by Richard Nixon as a fall guy. But another faction saw Manson as a shining revolutionary hero. While so many people were horrified, others saw it as 'somebody's getting even with the people we don't like'."
Guinn believes that had Manson been executed, as the court ruled, public fascination in the case would have died with him. But Manson was spared when California suspended the death penalty in 1972.
Until his death in 2017, he was never far from the news - whether it was the attempt by one of his followers, Squeaky Fromme, on the life of President Gerald Ford, Manson giving interviews in jail, acting the role of the crazed messiah to the hilt, or, in recent years, luxuriating in the attention of a young female follower whom he was said to be marrying.
"Charlie Manson was an unregenerate, sociopathic thug with a great sense of theatre and personal marketing," Guinn says. "And the disgusting thing is that in a very real sense, he got what he wanted. He thought he would be even more famous than The Beatles - well, he wasn't. But I think it's fair to say, he certainly was one of the most famous people to come out of that era of the 20th Century."
And it is a fame that Hollywood continues to exploit. Each Saturday, a bus leaves from opposite the Hollywood Forever cemetery - resting place of Rudolf Valentino, Judy Garland and Johnny Ramone - taking customers on the Helter Skelter tour, "a multimedia tour", its website advertises, in which "we reconstruct the lives of both killers and victims in the hours leading up to these horrific crimes".
A note adds: "This tour is not recommended for children."
'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is released on August 15