Who Was Sharon Tate?

Sanders's first contribution was to see Manson as an individual — not a symbol.

Who Was Sharon Tate?

Sharon Tate: A Life by Ed Sanders. Da Capo Press. 304 pages.

IN 1988, THE IRISH rock band U2 opened their double live LP and film Rattle and Hum with a version of “Helter Skelter.” Introducing the song to the crowd, the band’s lead singer, Bono, announced, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” The situation was a bit more complicated than Bono implied: Yes, the Beatles lost control over the song when Charles Manson began preaching a delusional and apocalyptic vision of race war to his followers that was rooted in his reading of the song. But Manson also lost the brand on “Helter Skelter” when prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi published a 1974 book by that name that detailed how he obtained convictions for Manson, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins in 1971.

In legal terms, “Helter Skelter” was a value-add proposition when Bugliosi presented it to the jury in 1970; as he explained, providing motive in the murders of Sharon Tate et al. was a prosecutorial bonus, not a requirement. Much more important is how “Helter Skelter” became a cultural and economic phenomenon — the cornerstone of Bugliosi’s true-crime empire. Manson was obsessed with the Beatles’s 1968 double album as a whole and the song “Helter Skelter” in particular. He did, according to all credible testimony, project a disorganized but fiercely held set of beliefs onto a collection of Beatles’s songs. To put it in the psychological vernacular, when Manson put on the White Album, he “heard voices.” But I want to credit what literary critic Nick Bromell has slyly suggested about all this — that what Manson heard in this album was “what every attentive Beatles fan found there: a message, an authorization, an affirmation of one’s understanding of the ’60s.” 

Manson’s conviction for his role as putative mastermind of the Tate-LaBianca murders was delivered in early 1971; over the next five years (and really until he died), Bugliosi continued to prosecute Manson — in public appearances, documentary films, and, most significantly by far, in the book and the 1976 televised versions of Helter Skelter. If his immensely appealing text frightened a generation of young people raised in the 1970s (quick experiment: do a Google search of “helter,” “skelter,” and “bejesus”), Bugliosi’s work also promoted a “true” crime narrative that brought the horrifying threat of Manson and his Family to light only to show how utterly that threat had been contained — mostly by the good work of an energetic prosecutor. 

Bugliosi’s death in 2015 will not topple him from his perch atop True Crime Mountain any time soon. But it does give us a convenient opportunity to think about how his work has been challenged at every turn (avant la lettre, in fact) by his one main competitor, Ed Sanders. For more than four decades, Sanders has put himself into dialogue with the prosecutor, most recently with a project that bears a kind of crazy fruit, his new book Sharon Tate: A Life. This strange book — with its five-page plot summaries of films that never mattered much, meditations on whether Tate could have developed into as great a comedic actor as Carole Lombard, a long consideration of Tate’s possible connection to Sirhan Sirhan (a thread Sanders has been tugging on for some time having to do with Tate overhearing something she should not have about Robert Kennedy’s assassination), odes to Tate’s beauty, and so on — serves as a sort of de facto, if sadly perfunctory, update to The Family, Sanders’s magnum opus on the case. Sanders, the radical poet, activist, member of the rock group The Fugs, and founder of the journal Fuck You, has been shadowing Bugliosi from almost the moment that Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi was assigned to the case.


Readers of Ed Sanders’s oft-reprinted and variously subtitled book The Family might be surprised to find out how sympathetic Sanders was as he first immersed himself in the world of Manson and his followers as a correspondent for The Los Angeles Free Press. Sanders’s first contribution was to see Manson as an individual — not a symbol. Since 1970, Sanders has rarely left Manson alone for long. In a 1975 lecture and 1976 manifesto, Sanders codified his work as belonging to a domain he called “investigative poetry”: “the poets are / marching again / upon the hills / of history,” Sanders announced, arguing that it was the task of the history-writing poet to be “uncompromising,” “revolutionary,” “seditious,” and “absolute.” While Sanders’s Free Press articles are not “poetry” in any standard definition of the term, they are full of dazzlingly allusive elements and figurative language, appealing to sound as well as sense.

When he joined the Free Press, Sanders understood he could at once provide an in-depth account of the legal issues playing out in the courtroom while using the case as a mirror, a cudgel, and a stack of Marshall amps. What was perhaps most impressive about Sanders’s Manson series for the paper is how hard he worked to politicize the courtroom. One of Sanders’s central objectives was to insist, with virtually every article, that the warped space of the trial was not a sacred or pure arena of justice, but held concentrated doses of the corruption and violence that defined the larger culture. This was most clear in Sanders’s linkage of the death penalty that was in play in Judge Older’s courtroom and the death being wrought by American forces in Vietnam. In January 1971, Sanders invoked what had become a familiar objection to the prosecution of Manson (and one that Manson himself used) — not that he was “innocent” but rather that it was unfairly selective of the government to hold Manson accountable for his crime if it was unwilling to try other products of institutional indoctrination: invoking the American Army lieutenant who directed the My Lai massacre of March 1968, Sanders insisted that “if you kill Manson you have to kill Calley.”

Sanders was also particularly (and refreshingly) incensed at the role played by New Journalist Joan Didion, who, according to his description, was, it seems, working in cahoots with Bugliosi by preparing a version of Linda Kasabian’s “flower strewn life story” for publication and would likely “appear on Johnny Carson” before long. The Kasabian book never did appear, though Didion ultimately incorporated some of this material into The White Album, a key text in establishing the Manson case as the “end of the ’60s.” By shopping for and buying the dress that Kasabian (testifying against her former Family) wore on the stand, Didion helped her look the “flower child” part Bugliosi wanted her to play at the trial.

In order to contest the strategy of Bugliosi and his team, Sanders embarked on his own system, borrowed in part from his mentor, the poet Charles Olson, who called it a “saturation job.” Olson discussed this approach in a letter to the poet Ed Dorn, and later revised it for publication: “Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt [sic] that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it.” Sanders has dug one thing for more than 40 years, and has used a variety of methods: on occasion his research “required the adoption of a persona to secure data, as when I posed as a New York pornography dealer with Andy Warhol out-takes for sale during an elaborate two-month caper in which I attempted to purchase certain famous porn-films of Manson and the family and citizens of Hollywood.” At other times, Sanders found himself impersonating a Satanist, as well as a “dope-tranced psychopath.”

The truths of The Family emerge in images: Tex Watson’s stash of powdered amphetamine is in a Gerber’s baby food jar; the Family listens to the Beatles’s record Abbey Road on a “battery-powered” portable turntable; one of the Beach Boys’s gold records ends up “in the hands of [ranch-owner] George Spahn’s brother.” If the book has a breathless “and then, and then, and then” feel, it is important not to underplay how explicitly it presents a hyperreal vision of multiple overlapping presents. The apparent documentary clarity of The Family is a willful act of writerly misdirection; it is Sanders’s main method for establishing his rhetorical bona fides as he takes on the mainstream press, Vincent Bugliosi, Richard Nixon, and the rest of the establishment. In his work for the Free Press and then on what became The Family, Ed Sanders was flying two flags. He was, first of all, working diligently to explain just what kind of freak Charles Manson was and, in doing so, creating plenty of daylight in between Manson and the rest of the tribes constituting the counterculture. But he was also attacking the mythologies of omniscience and even-handedness around which Bugliosi would organize his case.


Sanders’s work is meant to be in conversation not only with Bugliosi’s artless true-crime work but also with the entire field of cultural production we might as well call Manson Art. Since the family’s arrest in December of 1969 (Manson was already being held for grand theft auto), Manson has permeated the visual, aural, and textual vocabularies of American vernacular and high art. For decades now, Manson and his Family have demonstrated a remarkable level of usefulness; they have creepy-crawled across the landscape of American fiction, horror film, indie rock, painting and installation art, animated and live-action television, comic books, T-shirts, and all manner of internet cultural productions.

Artists across genres and across time have found ways to make use of Manson and the Family. While it is tempting to create temporal or generic taxonomies (“There is no American horror film in the 1970s without Manson,” “Manson matters more to indie rock of the late 1980s than to any other genre,” etc.), it is perhaps better to admit that Manson’s ubiquity makes neat categorization and legible chronology difficult to achieve. We can identify nodal points — moments when the Manson family held particular “sway” (to borrow the name of the Rolling Stones song used by Zachary Lazar as the title of his Manson-inspired 2008 novel) over the cultural imaginary of the United States. If 1974 must be taken seriously as a crowning year for Manson Art, so must 1989. And 2015, with a major television series, a popular podcast, an important indie film, and so on, shaped up to form a fairly dramatic spike on the graph of Manson creation as well.

Manson Art travels. It moves from genre to genre, jumps around in time and space, and climbs up and down, from pulp to highbrow, with stops at all the levels in between. Even a simple (and very partial) roll call of artists who have in some way participated in making “Manson Art” tells a story of remarkable cultural breadth and investment: Banksy, Leonard Cohen, Zachary Lazar, N.W.A., Thomas Pynchon, Sonic Youth, Paul Schrader, John Cale, Raymond Pettibon, Joan Didion, Devendra Banhart, John Waters, Joe Coleman, The Ramones, Steven Soderbergh, Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Carroll, Richard Schechner, Eminem, Brian De Palma, the Lemonheads, Wes Craven, Lil’ Kim, the Pixies, Don McLean, John Moran, Negativland, Cady Noland, Neil Young, James Ellroy, Death Grips, Jerzy Kosiński, Stephen Sondheim, Joachim Koester, Nine Inch Nails, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. What I am calling “Manson Art” ranges from serious book-length investigation and extended musical work to (seemingly) thoughtless shout-outs, which on their own might serve to undercut Manson’s fearsomeness but when taken collectively underscore the cult leader’s centrality to American conceptions of terror, sexuality, race, family, and so on. Signs of Manson and his followers are far-flung and include writing on the wall in blood, unconventional family arrangements, sexy/weird female hippies, mattresses on floors in deserted structures, and charismatic men with beards and Southern accents.

Manson images appear in opera, horror film, rap, television animation, reggae, literary and genre fiction, immersive theater, various subgenres of indie and punk rock, musical theater, photography, and what the IMDb dubs “Hippie Exploitation and Manson Family-Inspired Films.” He is attractive to traditional narrations, abstract and avant-garde artists, and purveyors of kitsch (and in the case of at least one, John Waters, both). Artists treat him with derision and with respect. They invoke Manson to rearticulate tired tropes about “the end of the sixties” and to challenge received notions about whether there ever was such a thing as the “sixties,” which could have a distinct beginning or end point. 

One recent major example of Manson Art, the 13-episode first season of the NBC show Aquarius (spring 2015), represents perhaps the most promiscuous deployment of Charles Manson to date. Here Manson lives at the heart of a web connecting a truly astounding range of political, cultural, and community actors in and around 1960s Los Angeles. Aquarius rereads Manson’s time in Los Angeles as a postscript or aftershock: it begins in 1967 on the premise that if Manson ended up playing such a major role in Southern California life in 1969, then he must have begun to make his presence felt much earlier. Aquarius is, to put the matter in the vernacular, a hot mess — but it is a meaningful hot mess. Aquarius wants above all to frame Manson (as defense lawyer Paul Fitzgerald put it) as “some sort of right-wing hippie.” If Fitzgerald’s description had a baffled tone of unforeseen discovery, Aquarius quite audaciously makes “right-wing hippie” a literal and consequential fact: the show is organized around the fiction that Manson has, for years been in bed with Ken Karn (the “KK” of his name meant to evoke both the KKK and the “RR” of Ronald Reagan), a Republican lawyer and fundraiser who hopes to take a position as California finance chief for Nixon’s 1968 campaign. Virtually all of the action involving Manson in this show traces back to Manson’s late 1950s relationship with Karn, which apparently stretched the definition of attorney-client privilege to include lots of desperate sex.

And so here Manson is the hub of a crazy wheel whose spokes radiate out from him into the national Republican Party, the gay rights movement, the Vietnam War and the antiwar activism of veterans, the Black Panther Party, the Chicano movement, the hip capitalism under development in Los Angeles in the second half of the 1960s, the disorganized movement for sexual liberation, religious nonconformity, the rearguard activism of the real estate industry attempting to sustain residential segregation, and psychedelic experimentation. Creator John McNamara claims to be a follower of the jejune Manson-killed-the-’60s narrative developed by Joan Didion and her followers — “I believe personally that Manson single-handedly destroyed the ’60s. Tate-LaBianca was the end of the ’60s. It turned everything wonderful or explosive or radical or new or amazing into death, paranoia and murder.” But his show (like Hal Ashby’s 1975 Shampoo) argues that it is Nixon, not Manson, at the center of the American wheel.

Manson Art has been asked to carry such cultural baggage since late in 1969. Manson Art, to borrow the name of a key Rolling Stones album of the second half of the 1960s, is the art of Aftermath. It is the art of what novelist Dana Spiotta has called a “cracked Southern California creepiness,” a landscape of almost-abandoned Western movie sets, bleached bones in the desert, of the eruption of the irrational after a moment of intense crisis. In the aftermath, as readers and viewers and listeners, we are left with the interpretive challenges presented by archaeologically complex and doomy palimpsests.


In the face of all this richly complex high and popular art, in the face of Sanders’s own decades-long engagement with the case, why the book Sharon Tate: A Life, why now? 

This is no “saturation job” to be sure. I lost count of how many times Sanders lazily takes refuge in referring to the treacherous “quicksand” of history instead of offering an informed analysis when confronted with complex material and conflicting memories. While the front matter includes a touching paean to Sanders’s longtime partner in crime (solving), the recently departed private investigator Larry Larsen, the book offers virtually no new evidence or new details in the much-covered crimes and subsequent trials. In his New York Times review of The Family upon its original publication, Robert Christgau applauded what he called its “data-mania”: “The Family,” Christgau wrote,

is nothing more than a chronological arrangement of […] facts, apparently written direct from the files, rapidly . […] [T]he book is determinedly non-written. There is no theorizing, and no new journalism either — no fabricated immediacy, no reconstructed dialogue, no arty pace.

Sharon Tate is a sadly faint echo of the lifework to which Sanders has dedicated so much time and deep thought: by page four Sanders has already written “It is not known” and “It is thought,” and the book never gets much more forceful than that.

The real problem with this new book from Sanders is that it has no subject. This is neither an energetic “icon” study (paging Wayne Koestenbaum!) nor a satisfying pulp tour of what movie magazines of Tate’s moment called the “Rich Hippie Jet Set.” Sanders can barely pretend to project even a smidgen of his long-held interest in the case onto Tate herself. Tom Brinkmann’s Bad Mags 2 collection (from 2009) provides plenty of lurid data about how Tate was blamed for her own victimhood; such magazines as Modern Screen, National Insider, and TV and Movie Play asked cruelly and consistently if the “swinging” (and possibly sadomasochistic parties) hosted by Tate at 10050 Cielo Drive might have led to her demise. Sanders is not immune to this sort of purple speculation: relying particularly on such sources as Dennis Hopper, Sanders has regularly revisited a troubling story about the whipping and rape of Billy Doyle by Tate’s friends Jay Sebring and Wojtek Frykowski, who (may have) accused him of burning them in a drug deal.

But Sanders is not particularly interested in continuing to prosecute the case about the malfeasance of the Hollywood nouveau riche that galvanized him for so long. He is still a little bit interested in English Satanists (perhaps holding a grudge still about having to excise material about the Process Church from The Family) and definitely interested in cleaning out whatever weird bits and pieces he has stored in the manila folder that he seems to have labeled “Sirhan Sirhan/Sharon Tate: Unanswered Questions.” Over its multiple editions and many, many pages, The Family made it plain that Sanders himself had become an important character in the Manson tale. In Sharon Tate, the outraged investigative poet of The Family is reduced to a barely conscious mouse-clicker and phone-dialer. Here is Sanders recounting the interesting (but well-known) information that Sharon Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, was briefly interested in directing a film version of The Day of the Dolphin, based on a novel that had been translated from the French by Helen Weaver: “When I saw on the Internet that Helen Weaver had translated The Day of the Dolphin, I called her. She’s a friend. Yes, she confirmed, she was the translator.” Of course Sanders could have found that out by rereading The Family — since the information is also there. But that’s not my point: unless this is an avant-garde performance-art metacommentary on the pointlessness of Manson obsessiveness, then what Sanders has offered in this passage is exactly nothing.

Sanders has never been much of a prose stylist, but he is just completely out of gas in Sharon Tate. He informs us that Polanski was “literally on top of the world in the late spring and early summer of 1969” but neglects to tell us whether it was as a member of the crew of Apollo 10 or Apollo 11. When he describes Tate and Polanski’s African-American housekeeper as “well-spoken,” it is hard not to be a little bit grateful that he did not call her “articulate.” 

But mostly Sharon Tate is disappointing because Sanders cannot pretend to care much about the book’s subject. Acknowledging the tragedy that “befell” Tate is not the same as having a point of view, a legible research protocol, or a new frame for old pictures. Tate has been the subject of a serviceable book by Greg King and a fascinating mess of materials produced by her family (a tangle I cannot do any sort of justice to here). Sanders has not managed to add anything to existing portraits of Tate.

In the annals of Manson True Crime and Manson Art, Tate has been relatively absent from the reams of pages written, the reels of film shot, the vinyl pressed. In her wonderful 2001 novel Lightning Field, Dana Spiotta offers up a bit of conversation between an older restaurant worker and a young woman working as a host who has just messed up a task pretty dramatically. Mina, the older woman, advises young Ashlee to try to adopt a persona modeled on “Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls — beautiful and helpless.” Ashlee’s response? “I don’t know who Sharon Tate is.”


Jeff Melnick is Professor of American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.

LARB Contributor

Jeff Melnick is professor of American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston, where he specializes in teaching 20th-century cultural history. His most recent book is Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America's Most Infamous Family. He is also the author of 9/11 Culture: America Under ConstructionA Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, and Immigration and American Popular Culture: An Introduction (with Rachel Rubin).


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