1969 will be known for many things: the Stonewall riots in New York. The Apollo 11 moon landing. The Beatles famously crossing Abbey Road. Woodstock. The opening of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. But in LA, more than anything else, the shadow that looms larger than all of those thing, is the murders of Sharon Tate and her houseguests, and then Rosemary and Leno LaBianca on the evenings of August 9 and 10th, respectively, by the Manson family.
After a decade of civil rights turmoil, the first month in the closing summer of the 60s seemed to begin on a note of peace and love, no doubt influenced by the hippie movement that pervaded the counter culture during the decade. On June 8, President Richard Nixon promised to withdraw 25,000 troops from Vietnam, and a month later, on July 8, Nixon made good on his promise as the first of the troops were withdrawn from our interminable war in Southeast Asia.
But even so, as June wore on, it would seem to be that an age was slipping by, and the innocence of a nation that had come to adolescence in WWII would be lost. I am of course overlooking many dark aspects of our nation as I say this, but I think you get the point. WWII was a bright spot for America, but it would still be stained by racism, the internment of Japanese-Americans and many other things. However, on June 22, when Judy Garland, who, famous for her role as Dorothy in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, died, it would really be as though our nation never could go home again.
June 28 brought about the Stonewall riots in NYC. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwhich Village was a Mafia-owned bar that catered to a wide assortment of marginalized peoples: drags queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes and homeless youth.
When police attempted to raid this Inn, they quickly lost control of the situation. At 1:20 AM, police entered and shouted that they were taking the place. Standard procedure was to line up all the patrons, and to have those dressed as women escorted to the the restroom by a female police officer in order to have their sex checked. Any men dressed as women would be arrested.
That is not what happened on this night.
People began gathering outside of the Inn. A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to a police wagon waiting outside. She escaped and fought with four of the police, after which another woman in the crowd outside turned and said, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The police tried to restrain the crowd, which only fueled the crowd more. They tried to overturn the police wagon, and the commotion attracted more people. The riots would last for two days. What had first involved only 10 NYPD officers would, by the next day, involve multiple NYPD precincts. 500-600 supporters stood up to the police on that first night, while on the second day, the number would swell to more than 1,000.
Amazingly, no one died in the Stonewall Riots, but it is because of these events that June came to be known as Pride Month.
Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, and it after that moment it truly seemed like there was no going back, not for America, not for humanity. We had set food on a foreign planet. Putting aside our differences, we had risen to the challenge of this common goal. There could only be good things from here.
On August 8, The Beatles took their famed picture crossing Abbey Road. The Beatles had come to symbolize love and freedom, uniting people of all different races, religions and creeds under the great god of rock n roll.
But not everyone saw peace and love in The Beatles. Some, in particular, saw a call to arms.
This one was Charles Manson.
I don’t want to say too much about Charles Manson. There has been enough said about him already, and indeed the way he has been covered has given way to the way many, if not all, of the perpetrators of heinous crimes are covered. Their names are splashed across the headlines. Their motives are weighed and dissected, discussed and analyzed, and through it all, the victims become almost footnotes to their own murders. Those words are taken from the father of Ron Goldman, who was no doubt hurt that his son, murdered by OJ Simpson along with Nicole Brown-Simpson, was barely mentioned during the trials or in the coverage of the murders. So though I will give some information about Manson in order to give some background, as you read those words, I want you to think about this:
Sharon Tate was pregnant at the time of her murder. When she was buried, her unborn child was wrapped in her arms in her coffin. Her son, posthumously given the name of Paul Richard Polanski, would have been 50 this month.
Take a moment to think about that.
Now. A bit of background. Charles Manson was born in 1934 to a 16-year old woman, and he spent more than half of his early years in reform schools or prisons of some kind. By the time he ended up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in late 1968, he was only 34 and had spent more than half of his years in prison. Despite this, Manson seemed to want to make something of this life. He wrote songs and could even play the guitar. No doubt his music attracted some of his earlier followers, most all of whom were young women, runaways from unhappy home lives. Manson seemed to offer sage advice and worldly wisdom. And they fell under his spell.
Unhappy and frustrated with his inability to forge a music career, Manson decided he would do what he felt the Beatles were telling him to do. Despite the Civil Rights movement, there was still a lot of deep-seated racial tension in the U.S. The Watts Riots were almost exactly only four years old.
The riots had resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and $40 million in property damage and did not end until 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard were called out. The riots began when on August 11, 1965 a black motorist on parole was pulled over for reckless driving. A minor argument broke out, which escalated into a fight, which escalated into six days of civil unrest. In LA, the racial tension was still there, bubbling under the surface, and Manson felt The Beatles were calling upon him to start a race war.
What were the Beatles telling Manson to do? Manson convinced his followers he was both the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and also God, and he interpreted the Beatles’ lyrics to mean they were looking for Christ, that Christ was living in LA, that the Beatles were telling the black community to get their guns to fight the whites, and from the song “Helter Skelter” on the album, Manson intuited that the race-based war was imminent.
Manson would call this war Helter Skelter.
But he also believed the black community would need help to start this war, and he intended to help them.
On July 25, 1969, Manson and some of his family members showed up at the residence of Gary Hinman, a music teacher and PhD student at UCLA.
Manson tried to convince Hinman to join his Family and to turn over his assets to the Family. When Hinman would not, Manson instructed Family member Bobby Beausoleil to kill Hinman. Beausoleil stabbed Himman to death, and then Beausoleil or one of the women there with him wrote “Political Piggy” on the wall in Hinman’s blood, along with a panther paw, a symbol of the Black Panthers.
On August 6, Beausoleil was arrested when he was pulled over while driving Hinman’s car. The police found the weapon used to kill Hinman in the tire well.
Two days later, at Spahn Ranch, where the Family had been staying, Charles Manson declared, “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.”
Sharon Tate was a rising starlet in Hollywood at the time of her death. She was born in 1943 in Dallas, Texas. Her big screen debut had been in Barabbas with Anthony Quinn, and was next seen in 1966 in the occult-themed Eye of the Devil. 1967 was a big year for Tate that saw the release of three of her movies: The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Don’t Make Waves, and the cult classic, Valley of the Dolls.
Asked about her semi-nude pictorial in a 1967 issue of Playboy, Tate famously (and rightly, if you ask me) said, “I have no qualms about it at all. I don’t see any difference between being stark naked or fully dressed — if it’s part of the job and it’s done with meaning and intention. I honestly don’t understand the big fuss made over nudity and sex in films. It’s silly. On TV, the children can watch people murdering each other, which is a very unnatural thing, but they can’t watch two people in the very natural process of making love. Now, really, that doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
It was also during this time that Tate met Roman Polanski (he directed The Fearless Vampire Killers). They married in January 1968, and the marriage no doubt helped her star rise, but to keep her star on the rise she had to have talent. And she did. In the summer of that year, Tate made the movie The Wrecking Crew, starring as an accident prone spy and during which she performed her own stunts and received training from none other than Bruce Lee.
Her last movie would be released posthumously. It would be called 12+1.
In February, 1969, Tate and Polanski moved into 10050 Cielo Drive, a house they had been to many times, a house that once been rented by Terry Melcher, a music producer who was the son of Doris Day and Candice Bergin. In March, Polanski travelled to Rome to work on Day of the Dolphin. Tate travelled to Rome to work on 12+1, but returned to LA on July 20. Nearing the end of her pregnancy, Polanski asked his childhood friend, Wojciech Frykowski and his lover, Folger’s coffee heiress, Abigail Folger, to stay with Tate until his return on August 12.
After July 20, Polanski would never see Tate again.
Shortly after midnight, in the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, the Manson Family struck 10050 Cielo Drive. Manson had performed for the previous resident of that address, Terry Melcher, and felt blown off. He had visited here since Melcher’s departure, but it was as if that residence came to embody the culture that had blown him off, a culture he now wanted to kill and destroy. Four members of Manson’s Family, Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkle, were instructed by Manson to go to “that house where Melcher used to live” and “totally destroy everyone in it, as gruesome as you can.”
Kasabian was ordered by Watson to be a lookout outside the house as the following events occurred.
When they broke into the house, Jay Sebring, who had been previously engaged to Tate and was still good friends with her, asked them who they were.
Steven Parent, 18, who had no relation to Sharon Tate and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (he was visiting the caretaker of 10050 Cielo Drive) was the first to die. He was shot to death in his car as he was leaving the property.
Abigail Folger, who had been wearing a white dress, had been stabbed so many times authorities thought her dress was red when they found it. She had been stabbed 28 times.
Wojciech Frykowski was found sprawled on the lawn near the front door. He had been shot twice, hit over the head 13 times with the a blunt object (it was assumed to be the butt of a gun), and was stabbed 51 times.
Jay Sebring was stabbed seven times.
Tate begged for the life of her unborn son, pleaded with her killers, offered he life as hostage until her son was born. She was stabbed 16 times.
As they left, instructed by Manson to “leave a sign… something witchy,” Atkins wrote on the door in Tate’s blood, “PIG.”
Pig may not have been “witchy,” but it was a part of Manson’s ultimate plan: to start a race against the black community and the whites.
All five bodies were discovered the next morning by the housekeeper, Winifred Chapman, and a couple hours later, on that very same day, because there has to be balance to this world, the Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland.
That ride has always embraced the macabre, and there is no way to suggest this was at all even remotely intentional, but that is the way it happened.
Almost immediately, the savagery of the murders took the nation by hold, and gun sales in L.A. skyrocketed.
It would get no better.
If August 9 saw the murder against the establishment and the elite, August 10 would see the murder of two people who had come to embrace the American dream, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. They lived at 3301 Waverly Drive, in Los Feliz, and were prominent owners of a local grocery store chain, Gateway Markets.
Displeased by the panic of the previous night, Manson himself accompanied six of his Family members (Leslie Van Houten, Steve “Clem” Grogan, and the four from the previous night) in order “to show them how to do it.” Manson roused the sleeping Leno from a couch, and, with Watson’s help, bound Leno’s hands together with a leather thong. He would be stabbed 12 times with a bayonet. The word “WAR” would be carved into his abdomen.
Rosemary would receive 16 stab wounds in the back and her exposed buttocks, but an autopsy report would show she had many more stab wounds. Manson wanted to make sure everyone played a part in this murder, and evidence would show that Rosemary had been stabbed 41 times after she had already died.
After the murders, the murderers showered, and as Watson did so, Krenwinkel wrote “Rise” and “Death to pigs” on the walls and “Healter (sic) Skelter” on the refrigerator door, all in Leno’s blood. I am not sure if she did this post-motem or not, but Krenwinkel gave Leno LaBianca 14 puncture wounds with an ivory-handled, two-tined carving fork, which she left jutting out of his stomach. She also planted a steak knife in his throat.
The two murders were not initially thought to be linked, and in fact on August 12, the LAPD told the press it had ruled out any connection between the two murder scenes.
On August 16, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office raided the Spahn Ranch and arrested Manson and 35 others as “suspects in a major auto theft ring,” though because the warrant had been misdated, the group was released a few days later.
By the end of August, the LAPD had exhausted all their leads, though one of the LaBianca detectives noted a possible connection between the bloody writings at the house and the Beatles’ most recent album. But it was only because Susan Atkins, who had been arrested again in October for grand theft auto, bragged to her cellmate of the Tate murders.
While Los Angeles was gripped with fear in the week after the Tate and LaBiance murders, on the other side of the country, between August 15-18, in the spirit of music and love and drugs and peace, the largest outdoor music festival in the world happened in a field in Bethel, New York, and the world would come to know it as Woodstock. It was billed as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” and it would attract an audience of 400,000. Thirty-two acts performed despite sporadic rain and thick mud. The concert took place on a dairy farmed owned by Max Yasgur.
After the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the violence of the Civil Rights movement, and the horrific killings of Sharon Tate and her friends, and then Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, the nation no doubt wanted more of the peace they had at Woodstock.
But it was not to be.
Charles Manson is largely credited with killing the hippie movement, but that is giving him too much credit. He no doubt had a hand in it, but the real nail in the coffin for the hippie movement happened on December 6 of that year at the Altamont Music Festival at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California.
It was supposed to be “the West Coast Woodstock,” a counterculture rock concert that would feature the likes of Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones.
As violence broke out at the festival, the Dead opted not to play.
Reports differ as to how this came to pass, but the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels were hired to be security at the concert. They were paid in $500 in free beer. Thought the Angels initially balked at offering security (most of them had no interest in playing ‘cop’), when told all they had to do was sit on the stage and keep people from storming it and drink beer, they agreed. It seemed easy enough, after all.
The first act went smoothly enough, but as the Angels and the crowd drank more beer and grew more drunk, the situation deteriorated. A woman who was six months pregnant was hit in the head with a beer bottle and suffered a skull fracture. The Stones paid all her medical bills, but even they weren’t safe. When the Stones were late taking the stage, the unruly crowd grew impatient. The Angels armed themselves with sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains. Mick Jagger was punched in the head by a concertgoer almost immediately upon arriving to the scene. Once he got to the stage, he urged everyone to “just be cool down there, don’t push around.”
But it was not to be.
By their third song, the Hells Angels got into a scuffle with an 18-year old man named Meredith Hunter. As seen in concert-footage, Hunter was wearing a lime-green suit, from which he pulled a long-barreled .22 calibre revolver from inside his jacket. One of the Hells Angels, Alan Passaro, saw Hunter pull the gun, and Passaro drew a knife from his belt, then charged Hunter from the side, parrying Hunter’s knife and stabbing him twice.
Meredith Hunter died from his wounds.
Later, the magazine Rolling Stone said, “Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.”
It would seem the counter-culture hippie movement was truly dead then.
On June 15, 1970, the trial of Charles Manson for the murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folgers, Wojciech Frykowski, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca began. Lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi took it upon himself to convince the jury that the motive behind the murders was Helter Skelter, the name Manson gave to the race war he had intended to start. It would last until January 25, 1971, and, along with Manson’s antics in the courtroom, and his follower’s antics outside the courtroom (some of which, like the murder of attorney Ronald Hughes, are believed to include “retaliation murders”), stayed on the front page and lead every news broadcast until its conclusion.
Murder on the TV every night, the names of the murdered almost forgotten, while the name of the murderers were repeated night after night after night.
The media made the murderers superstars.
Have we learned anything since 1969? In the wake of the Tate and LaBianca murders, I am not sure. In 1994, though OJ Simpson was already a household name because of his NFL status, and although it was indeed worthy because of that status, his name was splashed across the papers and was constantly heard during the news cycle. The names of his victims became almost forgotten, and it would be his name we would remember.
Amid this trial and all of its media coverage, Oliver Stone released his movie Natural Born Killers, from a story by Quentin Tarantino.
The conceit for the movie was that the media made superstars of the killers Mickey and Mallory Knox. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie, “Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers might have played even more like a demented nightmare if it hadn’t been for the O.J. Simpson case. Maybe Stone meant his movie as a warning about where we were headed, but because of Simpson it plays as an indictment of the way we are now. We are becoming a society more interested in crime and scandal than in anything else – more than in politics and the arts, certainly, and maybe even more than sports, unless crime is our new national sport.”
“Natural Born Killers is not so much about the killers, however,” Ebert continues, “as about the feeding frenzy they inspire. During the period of their rampage, they are the most famous people in America, and the media goes nuts. There are Mickey and Mallory fan clubs and T-shirts; tabloid TV is represented by a bloodthirsty journalist played by Robert Downey Jr., who is so thrilled by their fame he almost wants to embrace them. The people Mickey and Mallory touch in the law industry are elated to be handling the case; it gives them a brush with celebrity, and a tantalizing whiff of the brimstone that fascinates some cops.
Ebert closed his review with this, “seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning. As we coast into a long autumn where the news will be dominated by the O.J. Simpson trial, ‘Natural Born Killers’ is like a slap in the face, waking us up to what’s happening. Watching the movie, it occurred to me that I haven’t met or talked with anyone who seemed genuinely, personally, angry that Simpson (or anyone else) might have committed those sad murders. Instead, people seem more intrigued and fascinated. The word grateful comes to mind. The case has given us all something to talk about. The barking dog. The blood tests. The ice cream that didn’t melt. The matching glove. When the subject comes up at a party, you can almost feel the relief in the room, as everyone joins in: At last, a topic we can all get worked up about! Once we were shocked that the Romans threw Christians to the lions. Now we figure out a way to recycle the format into a TV show. That’s what Natural Born Killers is all about.”
Five years later, in 1999, when two students unleashed a murderous rampage at Columbine High School, it would be their names we would remember once again. Their names, and not the victims. And so it would be for every mass shooting that became a media sensation from Manson until the present.
When we refer to the murders of Sharon Tate at all as the Manson murders, we are doing a disservice to the murdered. Yes, it is an easy shorthand by which can we can refer to these terrible murders, but we are forgetting the murdered.
So I ask again, what has changed since the early morning hours of August 9, 1969? What has changed about us as a society? What has changed about the way we cover these terrible acts of violence? What has changed about the way we portray the murdered and the murderers?
And I remind you again that Sharon Tate’s son would have been 50 this year.
1969 was indeed a year that changed the nation, and especially LA. It is a year from which we are still trying to recover, a year we seemed to forget the lessons of in 1994 during the OJ Simpson trial.
Last month, Quentin Tarantino released his latest movie called Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.
Like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained before it, Tarantino offers us a delightful “what if” scenario as he riffs on history. With the Basterds and Django, it was fun. With this one, as he presents a scenario in which Sharon Tate and the others at her house survive that fateful night, it becomes at once more wistful than anything else Tarantino has released. Wistful and, yes, a bit sad, even.
If only it could have been…
If LA is ever going to crawl out from under that shadow, we have to do better to learn.