We are coming up to the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family murders, and the cash registers will be ringing at bookstores and movie theatres as we relive a ghastly weekend that most people are too young to remember.
We’re helped along by Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood¸which, despite mixed reviews, looks like a summer blockbuster.
Still, probably the best examination of the Manson murders is Karina Longworth’s series of podcasts. She goes deep into the Hollywood culture of the time, and I think she’s done a better analysis than the authors of the two books that I’m writing about here.
The Manson murders happened the weekend before Woodstock but, supposedly, they marked the end of the Sixties, and, supposedly, caused the crash of the Counterculture. I’ve never bought into that. I think the Sixties ended simply because styles change. And, once the Draft was over and middle-class white boys were not being forced to fight in Viet Nam, all the “peace” and “love” talk was redundant.
Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter is the best selling true crime book in history, even bigger than Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood. Both authors have been accused of being fast and loose with the truth, and neither are particularly palatable people. But both try to make sense of what seem like senseless mass murders, and both were able to satisfy their readers.
Now, Tom O’Neill takes a run at Bugliosi in the just-released Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. He scores some solid hits on Bugliosi’s reputation, as well as that of rock producer Terry Melcher and Melcher’s mother, Doris Day. It’s obvious that O’Neill waited until all of them were dead before bringing the book out.
O’Neill talks of how Melcher strung Manson along with talk of a record deal, going so far as to make some sample recordings at Manson’s desert lair. Melcher’s relationship to Manson, and Manson’s other friendships among the drug-drenched and troubled members of Los Angeles’s music elite, are old news. O’Neill’s new claim is that they lasted after the Tate-La Bianca killings, and that “everyone” in Hollywood knew Manson did it.
O’Neill’s book is conspiracy theory piled upon conjecture and stacked with more conspiracy theory. He writes in the first person, constantly suggesting to the reader that answers are just a few pages away. But there are no answers, as he finally admits in the last few pages.
O’Neill doesn’t believe Bugliosi’s theory that Manson had Sharon Tate and her friends killed to start a race war where Charlie would be the only one left standing, and he does a pretty good job of dismantling that theory. O’Neill’s theory – stripping away his idea that Manson was programmed by the CIA, for no apparent reason – is that Manson wanted revenge for not being made into a rock star by Melcher, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, and the many hipsters in their circles of friends.
Of course, we’re looking at this through the lens of celebrity: the big murder is the killing of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski. Tate was, at the time, mildly famous. Folger’s family name is recognizable to most Americans: she was one of the heirs to the Folger coffee fortune. Sebring was well-known as a hairdresser to Hollywood’s male stars, and his death would have been news in LA no matter how it happened. Frykowski was a friend of Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, as well as Folger’s boyfriend, and he was a middling drug dealer.
But we need to see it through the eyes of the participants. A couple of weeks before, street-level drug dealer Gary Hinman was murdered by the Manson Family for burning them in a complicated drug deal involving bikers. Manson drew first blood, cutting one of Hinman’s ears in half with a saber. Then he left and Bobby Beausoliel, along with several of Charlie’s women, finished Hinman off. Supposedly, they tried to frame the Black Panthers by writing “political piggy” on a wall in Hinman’s blood.
Soon afterwards, cops found Bobby Beausoliel on the side of a Los Angeles road, asleep in Hinman’s Fiat station wagon.
For ten days, Manson sweated at his hippie colony in an abandoned movie set on the northwest edge of the city. Manson was afraid Beausoliel would talk, making a deal that would implicate Manson and several of his women. Then Beausoliel made a phone call, and things started to happen.
The night of the phone call, four of Manson’s followers killed Sharon Tate, the eight-months pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, along with three of her friends and an unlucky teenage who had just visited the Tate mansion’s caretaker at his house on the edge of the property.
Charles Manson, Tex Watson and the two women who did the killing didn’t know who they were killing. It’ was clear they knew the people in the isolated Benedict Canyon home were rich, but that was about it.
Manson knew of the house because Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, had lived there. He had visited the place, and he knew it was isolated.
Manson told the women to get some cash from the people they killed. On that first night, they came back with $70 taken from Abigail Folger, but the murderers seemed to go out of their way to make sure the murders did not look like a robbery. They didn’t take any of their victims’ watches or jewelry, nor did they leave with any of the drugs in the house. Folger had an ounce of hashish in plain sight on the nightstand of her bedroom. Sebring had a bag of cocaine – a drug that was too expensive for anyone in the Manson Family – in his Ferrari.
Bugliosi’s theory of “Helter Skelter” has two components that need to be looked at: one was the psycho fantasy of race warfare that Manson preached. The other was that Manson could start this war with the right type of murder.
First, as a half-assed prophet-guru, Manson had to come up with some kind of religious-political story. Frankly, his was lame, and it’s doubtful that anyone believed it. Manson’s followers never talked about it, even in Bugliosi’s version of the story. No one in th Family seemed too concerned, either after the murders or during the trial, that this race war is going to start and that white folks better take shelter.
The second was the idea that the Hinman-Tate-La Bianca murders were the kind of killings that would be blamed on Black people. Here, we glimpse Manson’s inherent racism – the Family was nothing if not lily-white, and Manson never seemed to have any more than passing dealings with Black people – and the racism of the prosecutor.
No one ever seems to call bullshit on Manson’s idea that politicized Black people would get blamed for the brutal slaughter of strangers. Manson supposedly believed the Black Panthers and similar groups were capable of such brutality, and so did Bugliosi. Interestingly, the homicide investigators never went down that road. Perhaps it was because whatever killings the Panthers committed did not involve the carving up of rich white strangers.
Not to say the investigators showed great brilliance. Three murders within a very short time involving the mutilation of the victim and the writing of words – many of them the same words, like “pig” in the victims’ blood, and the LA police could not make the connection, or saw them as copycat killings.
I believe this is why these killing stopped after the media reports of Tate-LaBianca came out. It was obvious that the press and the police were not making a connection between the Hinman murder the Tate-La Bianca killings.
And that’s something that’s missed by O’Neill, Bugliosi and everyone else who writes about the Manson killings.
Because obviously they failed to cause whatever it was that Manson wanted to happen. The murders were risky, they involved a lot of work, and whatever the payoff was supposed to be, Manson knew quite quickly that it wasn’t happening.
So, in a way, that rules out Helter Skelter. If Manson really wanted to start a race war, he would have taken his weird show to a Black neighbourhood or given the police and media some sort of fake sign that Blacks were responsible for the LA murders – like, maybe, a Panthers logo. Cryptic nonsense like “healter skelter” and “political piggies” wasn’t much of a message.
But stripped of all the theories, let’s start chronologically and see this the way Manson did:
Manson had Gary Hinman killed. Manson was, and knew he was, culpable in this killing.
Manson had only three men in his inner circle: Tex Watson, a Frankenstein-like character who probably scared Manson; Clem Grogan, who was half-bright and not particularly violent; and Bobby Beausoliel. The latter is usually mentioned in passing, mostly because he didn’t kill anyone famous. But he was important to Manson. He was also the first member of the Family to be caught. Manson wanted to get him back.
The second murder – the Tate massacre – is always seen as the most important because the victims were rich, famous and pretty. But it’s clear that this murder was staged to look like the Hinman killing. Beausoliel called Manson from jail and asked for this, telling Linda Kasabian to “leave a sign” and Manson delivered. Then he did it again the next night at the La Bianca house.
Manson tried to make sure the crime scenes matched the Hinman murder, going to the Tate-Polanski house after the murder and re-arranging the crime scene – and, again, not stealing anything, which, knowing Manson’s back story, speaks volumes.
In the end, Bugliosi was wrong. This was not about igniting a race war and bringing on “Helter Skelter”
Nor is O’Neill right. It’s not about Terry Melcher and all the other Hollywood hipsters swanning with Manson (and were also slumming with the Hell’s Angels, as Hunter Thompson shows in his study of that bike gang.) O’Neill’s big point is that Melcher and his friends deliberately downplayed their connection to Manson. Who wouldn’t?
In the very brief time of the Hinman-Tate-La Bianca murders, Manson was angry at Melcher, but if he wanted to kill him, Manson knew where Melcher lived. And if he had a message to deliver to Melcher, he would have simply threatened him.
The third killing, that of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, blows O’Neill’s theories apart, which is why he devotes almost not attention to it. Killing the La Biancas would never have sent a message to Terry Melcher. Leno LaBianca was a supermarket executive with a few skeletons in his closet. He and his wife were not part of the Hollywood crowd.
The police saw the La Bianca murder as a copycat killing. And I think it was. But it was a copycat of the Hinman, not the Tate murder, and it failed to send the message that Manson wanted to send. He thought the police would let Bobby Beausoliel go (despite being found with enough evidence to easily convict him.) Manson was no master criminal.
In the end, it was, as the police thought, a drug deal gone wrong. But it wasn’t Frykowski or Sebring’s drug deal. It was Hinman’s.