‘Twisted’ truth of Sharon Tate and Manson family
WARNING: Graphic content
"A Hollywood actress, an internationally known male hairdresser and an heiress to a coffee fortune were found slain along with two other men Saturday in what one policeman described as a twisted 'ritualistic' killing."
This was the Associated Press news reported about what would become known as the Tate murders: a gruesome series of slayings 50 years ago that closed the book on the utopian idealism of the 1960s, ushering in a dark new reality like a bad acid trip.
"Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the '60s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true," Joan Didion later wrote of the killings.
"The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled."
Sharon Tate, the aforementioned "Hollywood actress" was 26 years old and eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time of her death and the most famous of the five murdered that night.
She and her husband, filmmaker Roman Polanski, were renting the house on Cielo Drive where the killings took place. Polanski was absent that fateful evening, working on a film in Europe.
Tate was set to become one of the leading sirens of the era, with a Bridget Bardot meets Malibu Barbie look. In fact, her character from 1967's cheesy beach sex romp Don't Make Waves was named Malibu, wore a tan bikini, and was said to have inspired the creation of Malibu Barbie, which debuted in 1971.
She starred in cult classics such as Eye Of The Devil, The Wrecking Crew, and Valley Of The Dolls, the latter of which earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
She met Polanski in London when he was casting for his 1967 flick Fearless Vampire Killers. Polanski wasn't taken with her at all, only agreeing to cast her if she wore a red wig in the film. His initial instincts were way off. With three films set to come out in 1967, Playboy declared: "This is the year that Sharon Tate happens."
In an interview just a week before she was brutally slaughtered, she was asked if she believed in fate. "Certainly," she replied. "My whole life has been decided by fate. I think something more powerful than we are decides our fates for us.
"I know one thing - I've never planned anything that ever happened to me."
FATE COMES CALLING
Late in the night of August 8, 1969, Charles Manson's right-hand man Tex Watson and three of his "Family" - Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian - headed towards 10050 Cielo Drive, the house that Tate had occupied since February.
She was hosting a small dinner party with guests Jay Sebring, a Hollywood hairstylist who once dated Tate, Polanski's friend Wojciech Frykowski, and his partner, Abigail Folger, who was the incredibly wealthy heiress to the Folger coffee fortune.
As the guests dined inside the house, Watson and the girls were scaling an embankment to the right of the gates, having parked the car further down the driveway. Watson had already cut the phone line to the house.
While they entered the grounds, headlights flashed from an approaching vehicle. Watson stepped in front of the car and aimed a revolver at the driver, 18-year-old Steven Parent, who was visiting a friend living in the guesthouse at the rear of the property.
As Parent begged for his life, Watson shot him four times, leaving his body slumped dead in the vehicle.
Reaching the house, Watson crawled through a window and let two of the women in through the front door, while Kasabian kept watch down by the front gates.
By this point, Frykowski was asleep on the living room couch, awakened with a swift kick in the head. When he asked what Watson was doing in the house, he replied: "I'm the devil and I'm here to do the devil's business."
The three others were dragged into the living room and tied up. Tate and Sebring were tied together by their necks with a rope, which was hung over one of the ceiling beams. Sebring protested the rough treatment of the heavily-pregnant Tate, and was shot by Watson.
Folger was ordered into one of the bedrooms to fetch her purse, which contained $70. Watson was distracted by Sebring's groaning in the lounge room, and came back and stabbed him seven times, killing him.
Kasabian was drawn up the driveway by the fracas. "I started to run toward the house, I wanted them to stop," she later explained. "I knew what they had done to that man (Parent), that they were killing these people. I wanted them to stop."
Frykowski had managed to free his arms from the towel they were tied with, and lunged at Atkins. She stabbed his legs with a butcher's knife, but he managed to struggle out the front door. There he met Kasabian, who was entering to stop the slaughter.
"He had blood all over his face and he was standing by a post," Kasabian later testified, "and we looked into each other's eyes for a minute, and I said, 'Oh, God, I am so sorry. Please make it stop.' But then he just fell to the ground into the bushes."
Watson gave chase and knocked him out with the butt of his revolver, stabbing him numerous times, and shooting his body twice. Miraculously, he was still alive.
Kasabian, horrified by what was occurring, falsely told Atkins that someone was coming. She stood planted to the front lawn, watching with horror as the murders unfolded.
Folger had escaped from the bedroom window and ran out towards the pool area. Krenwinkel gave chase and the pair ended up on the front lawn, where Krenwinkel tackled her to the ground, stabbing her several times.
Watson stepped in and finished the job, stabbing her 28 times. Frykowski, still alive, was crawling across the lawn. Watson finally killed him, with a flurry of further stabs.
As the killers went back inside, Kasabian ran down the hill to where the car was parked and started the engine. As she planned to drive far away, she worried about the fate of her small daughter, who was at the Spahn Ranch, with Charles Manson and the rest of the Family. She hopped out of the car and headed back towards the house.
Kasabian would later testify against the others, being the key witness for the prosecution in exchange for immunity - a controversial decision, given her role in the killings.
Inside the house, Sharon Tate was pleading for her life, offering herself up as a hostage if they'd only let her live long enough to give birth to her child. It was unknown who killed Tate, but she was stabbed 16 times, and her unborn child was brutally cut out of her stomach. As she died, Tate repeatedly cried, "Mother, mother, mother".
Grabbing the towel used to bind Frykowski, Atkins dipped it in Tate's blood, and wrote "PIG" on the front door of the house. The four removed their bloody clothing and discarded it in the thick shrub in the hills on their way back to the Spahn Ranch.
To unravel how the Manson Family ended up at Sharon Tate's house on that evening, we need to go back to patient zero: Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.
Nowhere is the Californian disconnect between sunshine and shade more prevalent than in the lives of The Beach Boys: wholesome Californian surfer boys whose lead songwriter never caught a wave, an All-American story that features parental cruelty, mental illness, drug abuse, drowning, alcoholism, paranoia, and Charles Manson.
In 1968, Dennis Wilson, drummer for The Beach Boys, picked up two women who were hitchhiking, one of whom was Patricia Krenwinkel.
Through these women, he met Charles Manson, an aspiring songwriter and musician. Wilson was entranced by Manson, and fostered his musical dreams, going so far as facilitating many hours of recording sessions with his brother Brian Wilson, resident genius of The Beach Boys.
Not surprisingly, given what happened the following year, not a second of these recordings has ever been made publicly available, but Never Learn Not To Love, a song written by Manson, with lyrical changes by Dennis, actually made its way onto the Beach Boys album 20/20, released half a year before the Tate murders.
That same year, Wilson, shopping around Manson as a musician, introduced him to Terry Melcher, a record producer who helmed the first two albums by The Byrds, and decades later co-wrote The Beach Boys' 1988 hit Kokomo.
By this point, Manson and a gaggle of women had moved into Dennis Wilson's house. Melcher, like Wilson, was initially taken by Manson's jagged songcraft and made plans to record his music, also floating the idea of making a documentary about Manson and his Family.
Manson met Melcher at 10050 Cielo Drive, the house he lived in with girlfriend Candice Bergen (the titular star of Murphy Brown) and the pair began hatching plans.
As Manson's erratic behaviour became evident to both Melcher and Wilson, they both started to distance themselves from him. When Wilson changed the lyrics to Manson's song without his knowledge, Manson threatened his life.
"One day, Charles Manson brought a bullet out and showed it to Dennis, who asked, 'What's this?'," Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks recalled later year. "Manson replied, 'It's a bullet. Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.'"
Charles Manson may be a harbinger of fear in light of the murders, but at the time, he was just a hippy who'd overstepped.
"Dennis grabbed Manson by the head and threw him to the ground," Parks continues. "He beat the living sh*t out of him."
Manson felt angered by Wilson, but slighted by Melcher, who had made career promises he hadn't kept.
When the Family turned up at 10050 Cielo Drive that evening, they were looking to seek retribution. Melcher and Bergen had moved out in January, seven months prior. The owner had then rented the house to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, who were planning to raise their unborn child in the French country-style home.
There are differing accounts as to whether or not Manson knew Melcher no longer lived at the house. Melcher himself claimed Manson must have known because he left a threatening note on the porch of his new Malibu home.
Susan Atkins, however, who was charged with the murders, told a grand jury the house was chosen "to instil fear into Terry Melcher because Terry had given us his word on a few things and never came through with them".
That doesn't explicitly say they expected Melcher to be home.
Nor do claims by Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who prosecuted Manson, who wrote in his 1974 book on the case, Helter Skelter, that Manson instructed Watson, Atkins, Kasabian and Krenwinkel to go to "that house where Melcher used to live" and "totally destroy everyone in (it), as gruesome as you can".
If Melcher wasn't the physical target, he was certainly meant to feel the threat. Melcher employed a bodyguard, cancelled his recording sessions and appeared shaken at the trial, even though Bugliosi tried to assure him that Manson knew he no longer lived at the house.
According to Beach Boys' Mike Love, screen legend Doris Day, who was Melcher's mother, was behind him vacating the house at Cielo Drive.
"The move was no accident," wrote Love in his 2016 autobiography, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy. "Terry, Doris' only child, was extremely close to his mum.
"He had told her about Manson - and about some of his scary antics, his brandishing of knives, his zombie followers - and that Manson had been to the house on Cielo and she insisted he move out.
"A mother's intuition, perhaps," Love noted, "and it may have saved his life."
The murder count from that night could have easily been six, if one guest didn't completely forget about an invitation to Tate's house.
Record producer and musician Quincy Jones had an odd history with that house on Cielo Drive. He almost bought the property in the late '60s, but the owner was only willing to rent it out.
Jones was looking to buy, so he bought a place nearby, while Tate and Polanski took up residence in the Cielo Drive place.
The evening of the murders, Jones was invited to a rough cut screening of Steve McQueen's film Bullitt, to which he took his hairdresser, Jay Sebring. After the screening, the pair agreed to meet back at Tate's house, where she was holding a dinner party, but Jones forgot to turn up, and instead went home.
The following morning, Bill Cosby, of all people, called Jones from London.
"He said, 'Man, did you hear about Jay?' Because we all used to hang out together," Jones recalled early last year. "He said, 'Did you see that he's dead?' I said, 'Impossible, man, I was with him last night.'"
It was true. The dinner party Jones forgot to attend became the most infamous murder scene of the decade.
"Oh my God, it was freaky," Jones said of the near miss. "Because they hung him up, man, and cut his nuts off and everything - Jay Sebring. And they cut her belly open with the baby, you know."
The house at 10050 Cielo Drive had a rich history, even before the murders.
Built in 1941 for French actress Michele Morgan, and located on three acres, the French-style house featured beamed ceilings and stone fireplaces. A swimming pool, cherry trees and a tree-lined private driveway flanked the building, while a guesthouse sat out back.
Hollywood business manager Rudolph Altobelli, who represented a flock of stars, including Katharine Hepburn, bought the house in the early '60s, and rented it out to a number of big names, including Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Olivia Hussey - and Polanski and Tate.
Shockingly, just three weeks after the murders, Altobelli himself moved into the house and lived there for the next two decades.
The house was destroyed in 1994, but not before its final tenant, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails made some dark history there of his own. Reznor recorded parts of the first Marilyn Manson album there, as well as his own band's magnum opus, 1994's The Downward Spiral.
Despite referring to his home studio as "Pig", in reference to the gruesome message on the front door, he claims he rented the house only due to his "own interest in American folklore".
By chance, he met Sharon Tate's sister while he was living there, who accused him of exploiting her sister's death. "For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face," he told Rolling Stone in 1997.
"I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support," Reznor said.
He went home and cried that night, sick at his own decisions. "It made me see there's another side to things, you know? It's one thing to go around with your dick swinging in the wind, acting like it doesn't matter.
"But when you understand the repercussions that are felt … that's what sobered me up: realising that what balances out the appeal of the lawlessness and the lack of morality and that whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don't deserve that."
Reznor moved out in December 1993, explaining, "There was too much history in that house for me to handle." He did, however, remove the infamous front door and take it with him.
The following year, the house was knocked down and replaced with another, the new owner even applying for a different street address for the property to completely remove any association to the murders.
When attempting to sell in 1998, the owner stressed this was a different house, devoid of any horrific history.
"We went to great pains to get rid of everything," he told LA Weekly. "There's no house, no dirt, no blade of grass remotely connected to Sharon Tate."
Nathan Jolly is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @nathanjolly