Monday, October 26, 2020

Reporter Dave Smith on the Family

Dave Smith was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.  His article on the Manson Family, written after the Tate/LaBianca trial, is a departure from what other publications were writing at the time.  The article is insightful and there is plenty of food for thought and discussion.

The Manson Family

Through A Glass Darkly

Some reflections on how they got that way

By Dave Smith

West            June 20 1971

"Gaze not too deeply into the abyss, lest the abyss gaze into you."  Friedrich Nietzsche

"Don't look back. Sump'n may be gaining on you."   Satchel Paige

On Monday, March 29, a Los Angeles jury voted the death penalty for Charles Manson and three female disciples- Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten- for the Tate-LaBianca massacre of August, 1969.  In the nearly two years since, people have kept asking: Why did they do it? How did they get like that? Are there more?  (Apparently yes- in Yuba City, for example.)  Underneath shivers the normal man's horror of the kind of murder taught us lately by Starkweather, Whitman, Speck, Oswald, Smith, Sirhan, et al:  Death may come anytime, and not exactly from your proven enemy, but from some stranger who springs up and slashes, killing you without saying why.

The Manson trial was shot through with the vague sense of a lesson to be learned, somehow.  One juror offered her own summation: "I hope this verdict will be a lesson to young people of this country- that you just can't go into a person's house and butcher them up..."

I wouldn't want to gainsay that, though I have my doubts.  Since February I have talked to a variety of behavioral scientists- psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, social historians and lay counselors at hippie clinics- in an effort to extract some meaning from the brutal affair.  Several of those I consulted see Manson as embodying the growing existentialism and nihilism of our time.

By and large, behavioral scientists have paid too little attention, I think, to the Manson case, for it is they who might help explain how the "family" got that way.  (The danger of ridicule to the profession- underlined by the psychiatric donnybrook of the Sirhan trial- kept them away from the Manson trial in droves, though four belatedly appeared for the defense and one study has begun since the conviction.)

Some of the experts I chatted with saw a connection between the Manson and Calley cases: a society at war inside and outside itself may tend to influence the defectives among us toward a compulsion for violence.  It is a debatable analogy, beyond proof or refutation, but an intriguing one.

But an hypothesis is only a stand-in for verifiable facts.  And maybe no one can ever know the whole truth about anything anyway.  But a really good writer once told me, "Don't try to illuminate the whole subject for all time.  Just part the curtain."

Fair enough. To pull the curtain over the Manson case is to deny ourselves any possible hint of where the beast may come from next, and so remain afraid of things that go bump in the night, the way we were in August of 1969.

I remember that incredible weekend when the savagely butchered bodies of actress Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voityck Frykowski and Steven Parent were hauled away from the charnel house.  (There would be two more killings to go, and earlier ones yet to be learned of.)

Case-hardened as we may have since grown on the subject, then we were stupefied at the viciousness and lack of meaning in the crime.  Our bewilderment kept us transfixed by the Manson family far more than we might have been had the defendants been clearly insane and, therefore, too freakish to be duplicated.

We have kept on wondering how they got that way.  The experts I consulted- most asked not to be identified- agree that the answers sprawl beyond the borders of any field of expertise, into genetics, environment, family background, sex, booze and drugs, conscious reconditioning, group pressures, the anti-intellectual countercultures so prevalent today and whatever it is about an establishment society that seems to turn off so many of its young people.

For their part, Manson and his ardent true believers have explained away their crimes, and perhaps their self-doubts, in a flood of circular, pseudo mystical gab that covers everything- or nothing.  But at times, however unlikely or suspect the source, some points hit home, if only by accident.

Charlie on child rearing: These children that have come at you with knives, they are your children.  You taught them, I didn't teach them.  I just tried to help them stand up.

Leslie on the human condition: We are all murderers; we are all capable of murdering; we are all animals; that is part of all of us.

Psychiatrist Joel Hochman, of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, on Leslie's condition:  I think, in fact, that this is not inaccurate from a psychological point of view- that murder is a potential in all human beings.  The remorselessness?  With a certain class of person, or value system, it's unusual.  With another, not so unusual.  The first time I ever encountered such an attitude was in The Stranger by Camus.  It was about a man who killed for no reason, to test an existential point.

Attorney Paul Fitzgerald:  There is, in mankind, some underlying homicidal urge?

Hochman:  No.  I think there is, in mankind, rage which can become differentiated into a variety of acts, one of which is murder, another which is war.  We have killed 50 million people in the last 30 years in the world.

Fitzgerald:  Is it possible to unprogram somebody, as it were, from some belief that murder is wrong to a belief that murder is right and OK?

Hochman:  I think we try to do that with every soldier we send out.  I think historically the easiest way to program someone into murdering is to convince them they are alien, that they are them and we are us, and that they are different from us.

Dr. L. J. West at NPI has a theory about the "universal stranger."  He theorized that we project upon the stranger all the impulses we forbid in ourselves, and all the characteristics.  It is easy to be angry toward them.  That is what mankind has done traditionally, made the other person into an object, not like us, with flesh and blood.

Fitzgerald:  Well, that might be a recognized characteristic on a national or international scale, but it's extremely unusual on an individual basis, isn't it?

Hochman:  I think it happens every time someone murders an individual.

(In the past and present wars we have fought "spics," "krauts," "wops," "nips,"  and now "gooks," "chinks," and "slopes."  At home, our freaks call our cops "pigs."  To the Manson family, their victims were "piggies.")

The Manson family was unquestionably more than the sum of its parts, if only because each member, taken separately, is rather an ordinary type of sick person seen often in this so-called age of alienation.  The ordinariness of it is the horror of it, and we write of it in clich├ęs.

In the past decade especially, we have got used to the ugly experience of crazed individuals wreaking private vengeance on the world, but a prime fascination of the Manson crime was that it was done as a grisly parody of togetherness.  (A deranged leader and his witless maenads, howling out of the desert, when are they coming for me...?)

Charles Manson may be insane-we don't know- but whatever he is, a similarly wretched mental condition could be inferred about many men with such backgrounds of long imprisonment.  Yet it is the girls who are most interesting.

Testimony at the trial indicated the girls were not legally or even medically insane.  Neurotic, you bet; psychotic, no.  Up to the time they fell under Manson's influence, they lived lives that pass more or less as normal, in the permissive context of today.  And even then, without anyone noticing, they were being warped by forces that hammer just as mercilessly on thousands of other girls- who will commit no crimes.  Not all the girls Charlie met agreed to go with him.  Why did these?

In court Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme tells of her unhappy life at home and adds, in a tone of incredulity, "In fact, I was taught I was ugly!"  The jurors blink, embarrassed; alas she is merely plain.  After a pause, Squeaky adds quietly, "A dog goes to somebody who loves it and takes care of it."

Susan Atkins is asked why she devoted herself so fixedly to Charlie, and she asks right back: "Can you imagine what it's like- a girl who never had much attention?"

And Katie:  "I felt ugly.  I always had too much hair on my body.  He began to tell me what I wanted to hear.  'Everything is all right,' he would tell me..."  It just might be that simple.

In court, this infamous Charles Manson stands disappointingly small for a legend, just over five feet.  At 36, his face still has an innocent quality.  Untouched.

It has been an adolescent boy's dream, this trial.  His girls have testified over and over again- not just to him but in court for all the world to read- about his manhood.  Charlie is love.  Charlie is all man, the first real man I ever met. Oh wow.

The records may say he was an abused, rejected child; his mother insists he was spoiled rotten by the women of their family.  Both claims are probably true; he wouldn't be the first child bewildered by grown-ups blowing hot and cold.

One thing for sure: for all that is said of his way with girls, and for all the girls that say they love it, Charlie hates women.  One of his favorite sermons is how women take away manhood, how mothers weaken their sons, wives their husbands.  Charlie and his girls. Wow.

Charlie, the coolest and sickest of them all, really pretty humdrum if we could know the whole story, but now, undeniably fascinating in the way- as novelists and movie-makers so well understand- mentally sick people are so often more fascinating than healthier ones.

Susan Atkins, alias Sadie Glutz, mother of Zee Zo ZeZe Zadfrack (named by Manson, fathered by whom?).

Set adrift by and unloving mother who died, a father and step-mother she didn't like, Susan recalls a self-fulfilling prophecy: "My family kept telling me, 'You're going downhill, you're going downhill, you're going downhill,'  So I just went downhill."

Sadie is the one who snitched.  Separated from the Manson family for a few days, she faltered and then talked, to two cell mates, then in a long interview later she tried to take it all back.  (Did her eyes dart about then, I wondered, the way they do now in court?)

With a little girl's mischievous smile and bright eyes that peek and wink and flick about, Susan is the most expressive and vulnerable of the three girls.  Watching her behavior- bold and actressy in court, cute and mincing when making eye-play with someone, a little haunted when no one pays attention- I get the feeling that one day she might start screaming and simply never stop.

Patricia Krenwinkel, alias Katie.  Earth mother of the family.  Quiet, competent, the Rock of Gibraltar to Susan.  Heavy.

We know she was born in her parents' middle age, that her mother wasn't well, that an older sister, now dead, was troublesome, that her parents were divorced when she was 18, and that from birth until Charlie, her best friend was her father.  (Joe Krenwinkel remembers that time as happy, and says three different times:  "She was such a good little guy.")

But she was overweight and hairy for a girl, and didn't have any dates.  She used to come home crying from school; these were the people she'd have to grow up with and live among; she couldn't be her father's best buddy her whole life...

Today she seems quite at peace.  There were bad moments after her arrest in Alabama, where she ran to, but then she was reunited with the family, and Charlie's philosophy rushed back into her soul, filling all the empty spaces.

A psychiatrist, A.R. Tweed, talked to her for hours, but never got through to her.  He called her Alice in Wonderland and she giggled and agreed.  She made his head spin with her magic word castles of homemade mysticism and secondhand religion: Everything is love, there is no pain, no death, only love, and when love is all I am, everything I do is perfect, so don't be upset, Dr. Tweed.

Dr. Hochman believed she was a schizoid personality- not schizophrenic and insane, merely ill with a schizoid tendency that deepens as she walls herself off from reality.

He may have been right.  She moves through the trial with an increasingly awesome serenity.  She strikes me as a person who is moving away.  They'll never get through to her.

Leslie Van Houten, the most All-American of the lot.  Normal, happy childhood, two big brothers, parents who adopted two younger Korean children, good grades, being chosen homecoming princess by the football team, a groovy boyfriend, almost everything.  Yay-y-y.

The pot, LSD with her boyfriend, pregnancy at 15 , an abortion she couldn't forgive her mother for.  High on LSD one day, seeing her parents as cold, unloving, mother domineering, father giving in.  Then divorce, and her curious lack of caring about it, and efforts to find herself- in Self-Realization Fellowship.  Bust.  In a Victorville commune.  Bust.  In San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.  Bust.  Then Charlie.  Bingo.

Clear-eyed, articulate, theatrical and just a little bitchy at times, Leslie seemed hard enough to make one suspect she is still capable of wanting.  Hochman thinks she could be reached with treatment.

But this she will not get.  She hung onto her cool, and society made its judgment.  Less of a fantasist than the other girls, she will simply grow harder and bitchier, I suspect, knowing better than they what the coming down of helter skelter really means, but unable to say a word of apology.

Charlie took them all away from their misery, like Peter Pan to Never-Never Land.  First was Susan, grubbing around blearily in San Francisco, dancing topless in North Beach and making it with old men for money, strung out on LSD and booze at 18, and genuinely hurt over a broken engagement to a nice young man whose brother convinced her she wasn't good enough to marry him.

Then Patricia, drudging fatly through the days as an insurance clerk, experimenting occasionally with drugs introduced to her by her own sister, yearning always for something good to happen, and then, at her sister's, meeting a houseguest named Charles Manson...

And Leslie, tripping vaguely through California, her father remarried and lost to her, her boyfriend gone religious and lost to her, now with a new beau, and some girls who talked about a dude named Charlie, who sounded real heavy.

Charlie took them all way, dressed them in kicky clothes, gave them clever new names, and off they went- to the woods, to the deserts, to any old town, playing their games together, their magical mystery tours, their creepy-crawling, everybody sharing food, work, sex, and play, so sharing (like the shared rituals of a child's gang or as college fraternity or a men's lodge) became a bond among them, and the more outrageous the initiation, the more tightly they were bound together against the world outside.  From isolated children they grew into a family, with Charlie carefully dispensing love and beautiful talk they all wanted to find somewhere.

At this point, they are still not so obviously different from many thousands of others, wanting to find love and beautiful talk.  The hippie movement is in full flower around 1967, and dropouts, runaways, acidheads and flower children are a common sight from the East Village to the Haight.

Charlie is the most memorable one of his group, and two specialists at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, Dr. David E. Smith and research assistant Alan J. Rose, do a brief study of Manson's "group marriage commune."

Their research, finished 15 months before the Tate massacre but not published until after Manson's arrest, deals chiefly with Manson's role as a sexual omnivore and charismatic Big Daddy, but makes no mention of any predilection towards violence in his group.  They describe Manson in 1970 as "probably an ambulatory schizophrenic."

But few others in the Hashbury scene would have said anything that heavy in 1967 or '68.  Everybody was entitled to do his thing, and it wasn't very cool to put down somebody else's trip.  You might have thought Charlie was a little more spaced-out then the average, but you wouldn't have called him crazy- not against the background that embraced nearly everything, from transvestites to speed freaks, that gave protective coloration to such incipient sociopaths as the Manson family. 

The decade containing the two Kennedy murders, the King slaying, the Calley case, the Manson family and our first generally unpopular war has given Americans a bitter taste of lessons other nations down through the years have boggled at, each in its turn, ever since Cain slew Abel and helter skelter came down for good.

Maybe they're wrong, at those super-aware gatherings where they beat their breasts a while and say, "We're all guilty.  We are a violent people," but really only worry whether they have wetness.  Maybe it's really true, the part of our national anthem that goes: "Then conquer we must,/ for our cause it is just,/ and this be our motto,/ 'In God is our trust.' " Maybe.

Whether our history has been nonviolent, or just recently violent, or covertly violent all along- or all three - is still a moot question, although historians suggest the extremes of good and evil have co-existed in all nations.  But the past decade had indisputably been a shocker who believed his high school American history textbook; this is particularly true of the young, who are less experienced at adjusting to the discrepancy between ideals and realities.

The point is that since the Depression and World War II, the great majority of the young Americans- older Americans too for that matter- have grown dissatisfied in differing ways and degrees with American life.  Not that youth hasn't rebelled before, but seldom to this extent.

When those crises ended and affluence began to flourish, and still out Utopian dreams were deferred by more wars, more technology, more taxes, then the movements began in earnest on a broad scale.  The beatniks fanned out from Greenwich Village.  Martin Luther King caught a bus.

He was not alone.  John Kennedy offered a New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson proposed a Great Society, Robert Kennedy sought a Newer World and Martin Luther King had A Dream.  Well, a funny thing happened on the way to reality, and many are now turning inward with their dreams, scaling them down, perhaps closer to life-sized or, at least, to what they feel is possible.

Affluence and technological capability climb steadily, but as social evolution fails to keep pace, at least as many people seem to be intimidated by the potential of the time as they are inspired by it.  The empty-handed still want a piece of the action and go after it with anger that has rocked every American city in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the children of the affluent middle class- the first generation raised wholly within the gelid gaze of the television (which Buckminster Fuller calls "the third parent") and perhaps exposed and over sensitized as older generations were not- decide the status quo isn't worth the grief.  Having had it, they can't reject it.  And they drop out- with a little walking around money, of course- a pervasive sadness and insecurity fueling their search for alternatives to a society they find unresponsive and undesirable.

Subcultures, countercultures, alternative cultures- in themselves are nothing new, of course.  From long before the Brook Farm experiment to today's Hells Angels, there have always been groups which, with greater and lesser hostility toward the establishment world, sought to escape it.  Christ Himself, it appears, belong to such a group. 

Some communal efforts- such as the Shakers- survived quite a long time and made valuable contributions, while others simply ran out of gas, fell to bickering over who slept with whom or whose turn it was to clean the privy, or found themselves ideologically bankrupt when the society they despised stubbornly refused to collapse on their departure.

One such commune of separatist Christians was lead by a holy man named Guiteau, whose son Charles grew up to assassinate President Garfield.

Success or failure of early communes was often related to whether the group dropped out of society to fight or punish it, as some revolutionary and counterculture groups seem to be doing, or whether it simply wanted to do things differently, no hard feelings.

The very term "counterculture" suggests a force whose power derives chiefly, if not solely, from its adversary role.  The term also implies that the group is still defining itself, like it or not, on the establishments terms; the umbilical cord still ties the child to the parent.

Historically, deranged individuals were not welcome in communes which often shared a communal neurosis as well, and thus needed no lunatics to worsen their heavy sledding in a hostile world.  Isolated psychopaths generally burned themselves out young, their high degree of visibility dealing most of them into prisons or madhouses.  The less obvious, more clever of them, according to many sociologists, sometimes channeled their violence into vigilante groups like the Klan, while some even found social acceptance through the institutionalized violence of war, or on occasion, in police work. 

But the variety of experiences available on the contemporary scene afforded those like Manson and his girls both an atmosphere in which they could move comfortably without attracting much notice, and a rhetoric of anger and alienation, with which they could reinforce, even aggravate, the personal problems that had brought them to the brink in the first place.

To further aggravate an already dangerous emotional imbalance, there were the drugs.  LSD research has a long road ahead to go before we can identify all of its properties for certain. But most experts agree that LSD, depending on the social context in which it is used, can exert a powerful influence on shaping the personality of an individual whose sense of himself and whose hold on reality have been flimsy.

The experts also agree that in such a case as the Manson killings, LSD was a catalyst- not a casual agent.  It apparently stripped the thin veneer of civilization off a murderous, unchanneled anger that bubbled just below the surface in each of the family's members.

Above and beyond drugs, anti-intellectualism is a matter of deep concern to many behavioral scientists who have followed the Manson case.  It is not the anti-intellectualism of the stupid, but rather of the skeptical, articulate, well-educated young dissidents whom question what all our intellect has done for us.

"Reality is a crutch," announced a recent bumper sticker, and perhaps  that is the core of the neo-romantic, anti-intellectualism of today.  One psychologist has pointed out, "Intellectualism is reality, and anti-intellectualism is a form of denial- in this case a denial of reality that is painful.  These pseudo philosophical systems, the interest in ESP, astrology, prayer, drugs- these appeal to people who want to take the easy route, who want to deny old guilt, adult responsibility or the pain of facing reality.

On UCLA's Dickson Court, between the brick grandeur of Josiah Royce Hall and the Powell Library, a young man is blowing bubbles.  Long, tangled hair streams down behind his multicolored shirt, which billows tent-like in the breeze.  He dips his plastic bubble wand negligently in a pan of soapy water, waves the wand negligently, talks negligently to a friend, his eyes darting with studied carelessness about the court.

Finally a small crowd gathers to watch. and the young man's gestures grow suddenly graceful.  His friend, disregarded, ambles away.  The young man wields the wand slowly now, inflating large opalescent globes that waver off on the air, undulating, shape-changing, until their flimsy beauty bursts against the hard brick fortress of intellect that glowers down on the grassy court.

For more than an hour the young man and his fluctuating audience enact this ritual, observing each little death with small ironic smiles.  They well know the fate that awaits beauty and feeling in collision with the rational established order.

I am momentarily moved to suggest that they should take their ceremony to a beach or grassy hillside, but I am wrong: that would miss the point entirely.  There, they would have no hulking towers to break  the bubbles or their hearts against; here in this citadel of learned responses, they are more keenly attuned to the bittersweet symbolism, and with each pop they are drenched in significance.

It is just real profound.

And harmless, perhaps.

But further down the scale, the split between romance and reality takes on an eerie edge.  For instance in this prose poem.

I went into the bathroom and looked into the mirror and I saw myself.

I'd look away, and then I'd look at myself again.

And I saw myself.  I saw my father and his age, and everything that he had ever told me, on my face.

Then I began to grow older, right before my very eyes.  I began to get old and wrinkled and my hair began to get gray.

And I looked at my hands, and my hands got age spots on them, and then got arthritis in them.

And I grew old and I died right before my very eyes.

It was quite an experience.

Then I couldn't get away from the mirror.  I would want to go away from the mirror and the reality of what I was seeing.

And I went to bones.  My skin fell off.  I went to bones.

Then I closed my eyes, and I wasn't really thinking too much about anything, since I was dead.

And I opened my eyes and it was like I was reborn.  It was like I never- there was nothing on me.  I was nothing but pureness.

A moving experience, beautifully expressed.

And its author, describing from the witness stand a 1967 trip on LSD, is Susan Atkins.

Similarly moved on a later occasion, she plunged a knife in and out of the beautiful, living, pregnant body of Sharon Tate.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Col Presents: The Last Word on JAY SEBRING... CUTTING TO THE TRUTH

In 1985 I came to California to get a graduate degree from USC.  I knew absolutely no one and had only enough money to get a small room in a roach infested “graduate” apartment building eight blocks from the campus.  I didn’t mind, I was away from home pursuing my dreams.


I didn’t have a car yet and, after orientation, school would start in another week.  Plenty of time to read large books, go to the cinema and explore the area.  Although then as now the area near USC is shit.


Hell, I thought one day, I am going to the Cinema School and there is a Cinema Library and I am in fucking LA, Hollywood adjacent.  Let’s check it out.Alabama born celebrity hairdresser died defending Sharon Tate from Manson  Family -


At the time it was a small space.  It had lots of cool movie star bios and other things along that line.   Good reference materials for film students.  I quickly learned that they had “files” on many subjects.  Like if you asked for the Errol Flynn file they had several folders filled with clippings of articles and photos.   Thus you could read about Flynn’s abuse of underage girls, his movie stardom- or even learn that he had once been an actual slave trader!


Even in 1985, learning these files existed, I only wanted to ask about one- Manson, TLB. Tate.  Years before founding the ONLY official TLB Blog I was still obsessively bothered by the case.  I had not learned that BUG had committed perjury during a capital murder case, and was in fact a sociopathic liar.  But I knew something was wrong.  No way this Helter Skelter shit was the motive.


I spent several hours going over the files and learning nothing new, although as Deb will tell you primary sources are the most accurate and fascinating, being up close time wise to the events occurring.   As I was set to go probably eat a shitty cheeseburger, a fellow student, undergraduate, came up and said “I understand you have the Manson files”.  I said yes, I was finished. I handed them to him.  He was younger than me, but equally new.


“Thank you.   What is your interest?” he asked.  I said “Obsessed since the TV film.  Still seeking facts.  You?”  “ Jay Sebring was my uncle”.


Awkward.   Although weird juxtapositions would come regularly in the future as effortlessly, I was three days in LA and without trying met one of the victims relatives.  I quickly did the math, was uncertain, but doubted the guy really knew his Uncle before he was slaughtered.


As Patty will attest, I do have a habit of sticking my foot in my mouth and then was no different.  “Yes, he was one of the victims with Tate.  I guess he was into tying women up and beating them.  He apparently loved Sharon till the very end.”  DUMB.   I don’t even know this guy.  I gave him the files and left.


Circa 2011, DiMaria became one of the sad people showing up at Parole Hearings to make sure the killers stay put.  I say sad, because it has been clear since the 90s that all the Mansonites in prison are dying in prison. Not even a chance.  Not even LVH who “only” stabbed a dead body (eye roll).  So when you show up it feels to me pretty sad.  You spend hours driving to a remote prison and reliving shit that happened decades ago and why?   They were not getting out anyway.  And people like Orca Tate, showing up at hearings of people who didn’t kill anyone she knew, after her own mother specifically did not WANT her to take up the mantle I mean wtf?  If it isn’t some sad attention seeking what is it?  It feels like a fake mailbox explosion, like why did you do this, who cares?


I recall saying all this, either here or on the Official TLB Blog, and meaning it.  Yuck.


A year or so after, I was at Musso and Franks the legendary restaurant in Hollywood and a guy came up to me.  Anthony DiMaria.  Maybe he was with a mutual friend.  I was awkward again, like how does he know who I am?  Is he upset at my opinions?  He was nice and gracious and I reminded him of the USC library and that’s that.


I think back story is important so the reader can judge.  I never, unlike Nelson/Molesto, inserted myself into the story but often I became inserted into it.  So in the same way you needed to know that Tom O’Neil was an assclown as far back as 15 years ago, I passingly met DiMaria 35 years ago last month.



JAY SEBRING….CUTTING TO THE TRUTH is a strong documentary look at a mostly forgotten and tragic figure, Jay Sebring, arguably one of the early fathers of modern men’s hairstyling.  It is told from the point of view of his nephew, who was a toddler when Sebring was viciously murdered by Tex Watson and his comrades.


Unlike say HBO’s The Vow, the director does not have access to a lot of primary footage.  The main footage used seems to be a Sebring International hair cut training video.  (I did wonder, with so little footage available, why the sequence from MONDO HOLLYWOOD was omitted- they could not have asked a large fee ffs).  He relies on the usual talking heads along with some home pictures and, certainly unusual for the genre, a lot of footage of himself on the phone.   That sounds boring but it isn’t.


The film gives a clear, for the first time, view of Jay:The Early Years.   His upbringing and military service and family life gets more attention here than anywhere I have seen.   It really is not enough, and the director struggles to connect cause and effect several times but it does portray a three dimensional picture of a real human being.


As he moves to the second act of the film I feel like the director struggles because of one simple fact- HAD Jay lived he was on his way to worldwide fame and fortune.  He would have been a millionaire and his salons would be in every state.  Instead he was murdered.  So the film tries to make an argument that Jay WAS what he probably would become, if that makes sense to you all.  When Jay died he was a jet set playboy with money and star access, who was on his way to the top.   But to argue that he somehow already WAS there is silly.   $100 Steve McQueen haircuts were great, but that would not make him remembered today had he not been killed.


The filmmaker also struggles with who would show up.  Jay’s pretty ex wife is there and does the obligatory “I still love him today” dance  But the person you really want to hear from is Sharon Tate and yeah, well, she’s dead too.


Despite these struggles the second act works for me because of how thorough the director is.   He glosses over things- I really do not think a guy who moved to LA and changed his name should be portrayed as close to his family, and his dad does not sound like fun.  There is some weird obsession with BUG.  Unusual for BUG who will show up for a supermarket opening, he refused to be interviewed by Di Maria, saying he never knew Jay.  He didn’t.  Why did DiMaria want him?  No clue but he tried hard to get him.


If I was impressed by Act 1 and enjoyed the massive data dump of Act 2 I felt Act 3/Denoument goes off the rails a bit.   There are still many people not named Orca who knew Roman and Sharon around in Hollywood.  No one is interviewed.   Would Beatty not come and speak for his fallen friend?  Hell he could have set the ground rules- talk only about Jay, not the TLB stuff.   Act 3 is where everything needs to come together.  DiMaria tries but he does not quite get there.  He’s stuck with the fact that he’s said everything he really can about Uncle Jay.  You see, because JAY didn’t get to his third act.


Instead we get DiMaria showing up at one of the Parole Hearings.  Remember, he’s a toddler when Jay is killed, he doesn’t know the guy.  No one from the immediate family showed up through the 70s and 80s when, conceivably, some of the girls could have been released.  Yes, DiMaria has the right to show up, but is he there to “make sure’ these old people stay put – or for a “movie moment”?


He also falters in the “bring the film together section”.  To tie my above story to the review, much is made about Jay’s s/m peccadillos.  Now in 2020 there is a thriving community of s/m fans on the internet, Reddit, where have you.  In 1969 less so.  But DiMaria brings up the accusations AS accusations and makes a big deal about portraying these and accusations, more or less saying “Can you believe this shit?”.  You sit there waiting for him to show us that it was bullshit.  But he just moves on.



DiMaria spends some time finessing an ending making his Uncle a hero for standing up to the hippie psychos and defending Sharon.  I didn’t get why.  All versions of the story have him trying to tell these killers that the lady was pregnant and stop being assholes, which leads to his death spiral.  It is surely brave if not heroic (I mean, he fails).  The problem was that Jay had no reason to believe they would not all get out of there alive because this kind of shit DIDN’T HAPPEN.


Look, I am being picky, probably because this is likely to be the only profile of Sebring we will ever see.  As such, OVERALL, it is very good.  It TRIES to be excellent and doesn’t quite get there.  DiMaria is too much a fan of his Uncle to make a warts and all film. (Look at the photos from the last day that we have thanks to Statman lifting that roll of film off the puke LAPD cop- tell me Sharon and Jay weren’t still fucking.)  But he obviously worked on this for ages and I get the full rounded sad story.

 Jay Sebring

I didn’t expect to like this film, and bought it just because.  But if you are on this blog you care about the TLB victims.  Had she lived I think Sharon possibly might not have acted again.  She wasn’t good and she didn’t love it.  Had Jay lived he would have been a big deal. The fact that none of the five made it is the tragedy.


Hollywood being Hollywood, I am certain I will see DiMaria again somewhere.  I will tell him that he did his Uncle proud and buy him a Musso’s Martini.


The rest of you check it out- Amazon has it for $5.99 and it is worth it.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Jay Sebring Is the Godfather of Men's Hairstyling. So Why Haven't You Heard of Him?

By Garrett Munce (Esquire)
Oct 1, 2020

The first celebrity men's hairstylist was murdered by the Manson Family. Now, a new documentary tells his whole story.

Jay Sebring...
Cutting to the Truth
Let's get this out of the way first: on August 9, 1969, members of the Manson Family murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four friends in cold blood. You know the story. It sent shockwaves through the nation that can still be felt in our culture today, decades later (see, most recently: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood). As Joan Didion famously said, it was the day the '60s ended. Charles Manson and his murderous followers became mythic boogeymen, but as their roles in American culture were cemented, the lives and legacies of the victims faded away.

One of those four other victims was Jay Sebring, who you probably don't know anything about except how he died. Tragedy has a way of eclipsing everything else, and one of the sub-tragedies wrapped up in the story we all know so well is that Jay Sebring is now famous for the wrong thing.

Sebring's legacy, a topic explored in the new documentary Jay Sebring...Cutting to the Truth, streaming now, is little-known but lasting. So lasting, in fact, you're probably part of it without even realizing. The haircut you have right now, and the place you go to get it, are direct descendants of Sebring's life and work as the first celebrity men's hairstylist.

Even without his close relationship to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring was a fixture of 1960s Hollywood in his own right. He was born Thomas John Kummer but changed his name to Jay Sebring after the famous racetrack; he alternated between driving around a Mustang and a motorcycle (sometimes in full leathers); he wore hip-hugging jeans and chambray shirts he bought at Fred Segal; he was a party boy known to work hard and play even harder, usually with a beautiful woman on his arm and some drugs in his pocket. His staff idolized him and his customers, most of them celebrities themselves, were in awe of him. He was such a well-known figure that rumor has it he was part of the inspiration for Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo (Beatty has never commented on this, but he was a client of Sebring's).

Above: Jay Sebring and Bobby Darin in 1961.
Lead image: Sebring cutting Jackie Cooper's hair.

His larger-than-life personality isn't the story—it's the starting point. When Sebring opened his eponymous salon in West Hollywood, he did something revolutionary for the time: He brought hairstyling to men. "Pre-Sebring, men only went to barbershops, women only went to beauty salons, and never the two did mix," says Anthony DiMaria, Sebring's nephew and the film's director. "Jay realized he wanted men to be able to be groomed and taken care of the same way that women were." A Navy barber who later went to cosmetology school, Sebring created a salon that catered to men, but featured things like wash stations where he shampooed his client's hair before cutting. He imported small, handheld hair dryers from Europe to replace the big, sit-under versions that were common in women's salons, but were never found in barbershops. This doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but in the 1960s, people’s mouths were on the floor. "What’s the big deal with a unisex shop?" asks DiMaria. "Well, at the time, they didn't do that."

It was such a strange idea that Sebring caught flack from the Barber’s Union, which tried to shut him down several times. "They tried to squash him because he wasn't fitting into barbers' guidelines," says DiMaria. Since he went to cosmetology school where he learned to cut hair on women, and not barber school, they claimed he couldn't legally cut mens' hair. His response? Hair has no gender. The clashes between Sebring and the Barber’s Union even got violent a few times, says DiMaria, since the union was rumored to have mob ties. "But Jay had friends, too, in Las Vegas and Detroit." Eventually Sebring founded his own union, the Hair Designers Guild of America, and even participated in passing legislation that did away with the "cosmetologists are for women, barbers are for men" delineation.

Sebring in Malibu in 1969.

Still, it was his hair-cutting technique that brought in the clients even more than his personal mythology. He called himself a hair designer, not a hairstylist, because "he knew that hair was the frame for the face," says DiMaria. "He cut it free flowing and he used his techniques to help express the individual." Walking into an appointment with Sebring meant you weren't going to walk out with the same barber cut that every other man in your office was sporting. You were going to get something completely personalized to you and, in most cases, a little longer and a lot cooler. People, especially celebrities, were willing to pay big bucks for that experience. While a barber cut ran around $1.25, Sebring charged $50 and sometimes more. His was said to be the most expensive men's haircut in the country.

He was the man behind Jim Morrison's iconic shaggy mop and the Rat Pack's sleek quaffs and Steve McQueen's effortless crop both in real life and in movies like The Thomas Crown Affair. He worked on Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, and Henry Fonda. Bruce Lee was a client (whose hair he cut in exchange for martial arts lessons) and also a friend who is credited with helping Lee get his big break. Truly, name a male movie star in the '60s and they were probably a Sebring client. His technique and signature styles were in such high demand that before his death he was laying the groundwork to expand his salon into other cities including New York and London, had created his own men's-specific product line, and had even developed a series of educational training videos to teach his specific cutting technique. It's easy to wonder where he might be today if he hadn't died so tragically.

Sebring cutting Robert Phillips’s hair
on the set of The Dirty Dozen

Even without speculation, it's clear Sebring's impact on men's grooming can still be felt. "His approach to men’s hair was visionary," says hairstylist Martial Vivot. "The styles he did are our everyday inspirations [now]. Think of Jim Morrison and the Rat Pack—you've just covered the entire spectrum of men's hair styling from classic to edgy, longer, and curly. He embraced the hair, respected the hair, followed how the hair moves." Chances are, the barber or hairstylist you see today for your cut is influenced by Sebring, possibly without even knowing it. What we take for granted—from the types of tools our hairstylists use to the types of products we put in our hair to the fact that we might be sitting at a salon station next to a woman (and that it's okay)—is all thanks to Sebring.

"Jay created something out of nothing that went on to become a billion-dollar industry, elevating thousands of professionals and artists," says DiMaria. "I've always felt that he really, in his way, changed the world." Like many other visionaries, he burned bright and fast. "He is really like the Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain of hair," says Vivot. And while it's impossible to say what he would have accomplished if he'd lived longer, or whether we'd know his name for his work instead of his death, next time you walk out of the barbershop with a fresh cut, pour one out for Jay Sebring. We owe him.

A portrait of the man responsible for your
haircut, whether you knew it or not.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Did Charlie really believe in his Helter Skelter Theory?

Did Charlie really believe in his Helter Skelter Theory 


Some feel that Charlie never actually believed in all that Helter Skelter stuff, and that he was only using it to get his followers to kill, killings that were really ordered for other reasons.

Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, c.1978  pg201-3
LVH:  "To this day(1977), I don't know if he really believed what he was saying, or if everything he did was just to get even with the world."
In one of his last interviews, Bugliosi—who passed on in 2015—said he did not think Manson believed the Helter Skelter concept.
--Anonymous said...
  I sincerely believe the murderers among this group had completely bought the HS story, hook, line and sinker. But I'm unsure of Manson's REAL motive. He manipulated the family into doing his bidding through the HS bullshit, but I think his reasons were more complex.
--AustinAnn74 said...
  I have always thought the so-called "Helter Skelter" motive was the reason behind why Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, & Susan Atkins went to the Tate & LaBianca homes, terrorized and murdered innocent people. Manson's motive was different, but his instructions were to go to those homes and destroy whoever and whatever was in them. I have never doubted for one moment that it was any other reason. Manson didn't believe that bullshit, but some of the people he indoctrinated on a daily basis sure believed it.

But I think the evidence is good that yes, Charlie really did believe it:

Member of the Family by Dianne Lake  Chapter 12 
"...even in the beginning(1967?), he was indoctrinating us to believe that black people were going to rise up collectively against white people. While he wasn't necessarily framing it as an armed conflict initially, he talked to us in the Family about the blacks and whites and the coming insurrection."
After the Beatles’ “White Album” came out in November 1968, Lake felt that Manson was starting to become ever more delusional, announcing that the music was speaking directly to him and telling him to prepare for a race war he called Helter Skelter.

Manson's Right Hand Man Speaks Out by Charles "Tex" Watson c. 2012  pg34
Tex:  "The spontaneous songs he sang in the confines of the family spewed forth this hatred, different from what he later released for public consumption. ... Helter Skelter became the theme of every song he wrote; a violent revolution, a bloody conflict between whites and blacks." 

Will You Die For Me?  Tex Watson  pg16of120
People are bound to ask at some point if Manson actually believed we would find the Bottomless Pit, or if it was a delusion he merely fostered among his followers. I will never know for certain, but I'm convinced he believed it as much as we did. He was absolutely sure he was Jesus Christ. It had been revealed to him three years before on an LSD trip in San Francisco, so why shouldn't he lead us first into the Pit and then back out of it to rule the world? He shared the madness he created in us; he was finally its most ardent disciple.

Charles Manson - 1992 Parole Hearing  Steven Kay on HS:  "Now I know this sounds bizarre, but the problem is that Manson and his followers believed in this motive enough to kill innocent people. At the trial we showed that Manson was so serious about this that he went to a sporting goods store in Santa Monica and bought expensive golden rope that he was going to lower himself into the bottomless pit. He rented scuba equipment because he thought the entrance to the bottomless pit was under some underground river in Death Valley and he was looking for the entrance."

Gregg Jakobson at the TLB trial:
Jakobson said Manson, whom he first met in the spring of 1968, often talked of “Helter Skelter” – which the hippie chief described as a black-white bloodbath in which the Negroes were to emerge victorious and take over the United States.  ...
“He firmly believed there was a bottomless pit in the Death Valley that could be inhabited,” Jakobson noted.   ...   Jakobson testified that Manson...  even acquired a record player for the Spahn Ranch near Chatsworth, stronghold of the family, so he could play the (White)album over and over again.

LADA files  Box 22  Van Houten retrial  April-June 1977 vol9033  Gregg Jakobson pg23of85 
Q:  ...did Charlie talk about Helter Skelter in front of the Family? ..
A:  It became pretty hard-core gospel for Charlie.  ...
Q:  Did you believe Charlie believed in Helter Skelter?
A:  Yes.

"Sympathy for the Devil, the Greening of Charles Manson" is the title of a chapter in a book called No Success Like Failure, by Ivan Solotaroff,  c.1994   pg177
Gregg Jakobson: "See, Charlie really believed what he believed in, he never faked it. His reality was bizarre, but so is prison and that's where Charlie came from."

Juan Flynn interview
"But no matter what the cult leader did, he said he knew he was right, Flynn added, because "he felt he had the seal of God in his forehead." "When he called himself Jesus Christ, he believed it." "                      Gypsy Share:  "Charlie talked about Helter Skelter every night ... I think Charlie really believed his own hype."   Dianne Lake:
“That(the racial war) had been part of our existence,” Lake said. “I know that there’s a lot of people out there that say that’s BS, but I was there. He had been talking about this race war for a long time. Then once The White Album came out, it was Helter Skelter. .... Charlie thought he was this Messiah. He thought he was Christ, coming again. It was just crazy.”

LADA files  Box 17 Vol6024  pg5of193
Tex Watson trial, 9-2-71  Paul Crockett testimony
Q:  Who would do the talking about helter-skelter, all of them, or Manson, primarily?
A:  ...I never heard Tex voice much opinion about anything; but Manson spoke continuously of it and the other members did, too.

Charlie believed in Helter Skelter so much that even as he was being dragged away in cuffs from the Barker Ranch he is still trying to win converts:
Charlie to police at the time of the Barker arrests:
"Charlie told us(arresting officers) that his group was out there looking for a place to hide because there was an impending race war. He told us that the blacks were going to win. He told us that because we were number one, cops, and number two, white, we should stop right there, let them loose, and flee for our lives."

                                     [photo taken at California Medical Facility, Vacaville, July 1982]

IF Charlie really believed in HS, this of course diminishes the case for the drug burn or copycat motive theories.   Perhaps we should then move on to asking questions like:

--Was Charlie just plain batshit crazy to believe the more far-out aspects of the HS theory?

--What caused Charlie to move in the direction of believing in the spring and summer of  '69 that he and the Family would have to be ones to kick it off ?

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Strange RV Tours: The Escape Truck

Friday, September 4, 2020

Irving Kanarek, Lawyer Who Defended Charles Manson, Dies at 100

 The national spotlight that focused on Mr. Kanarek made his disruptive circus of courtroom tactics almost as fascinating as his bizarre clients.

Irving Kanarek, right, in 1970 with Charles
Manson, whom he defended in the macabre killings
of the actress Sharon Tate and six other people.
Credit...Associated Press

By Robert D. McFadden

Sept. 3, 2020

Irving Kanarek, a Los Angeles lawyer who defended Charles Manson in the cult killings of the actress Sharon Tate and six other people, and Jimmy Smith, whose murder of a police officer was chillingly retold in Joseph Wambaugh's 1973 best seller "The Onion Field," died on Wednesday in Garden Grove, Calif. He was 100.

His nephew Kany Levine confirmed the death.

Those killings were among the most notorious crimes of the 1960s, and the national spotlight that focused on their trials made Mr. Kanarek's disruptive circus of courtroom tactics almost as fascinating as his bizarre clients — Mr. Manson, the cult leader with a "family" of young drifters, and Mr. Smith, a petty thief who did not quite know how to operate the automatic pistol he carried.

For Mr. Kanarek, the trials were high points in a three-decade practice given to a more routine caseload of personal injury and damage claims. The law was not even his first calling. He had been an aerospace engineer for North American Aviation, but had lost his Air Force security clearance and his job after being falsely accused of Communist associations in the 1950s. He cleared his name, but the experience had soured him on science.

His first major case arose in Los Angeles on a March night in 1963 with a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight on a car carrying Mr. Smith and Gregory Powell. As two officers, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, approached, Mr. Smith and Mr. Powell drew guns, disarmed the officers and drove them 90 miles north to a remote onion farm near Bakersfield, Calif.

Mr. Wambaugh's novelistic treatment described Mr. Campbell's killing:

"Gregory Powell raised his arm and shot Ian in the mouth," he wrote. "For a few white-hot seconds the three watched him being lifted up by the blinding fireball and slammed down on his back, eyes open, watching the stars. He probably never saw the shadow in the leather jacket looming over him, and never really felt the four bullets flaming down into his chest."

Mr. Hettinger fled into the darkness and escaped. Mr. Powell and Mr. Smith were caught, tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death.

But the case became a seven-year marathon of appeals, mistrials, reversals and reinstatements. Mr. Kanarek won Mr. Smith's first reversal and defended him in other proceedings, but he was eventually fired by Mr. Smith, who threw a chair at him.

Those death sentences were commuted to life in prison in 1972 by a California Supreme Court ruling that temporarily invalided the state's death penalty. Mr. Smith was paroled in 1982, but was in and out of prison for the rest of his life on parole violations. He and Mr. Powell both died in prison in their late 70s.

Mr. Kanarek with reporters outside
a Los Angeles courtroom in 1970 during
Mr. Manson's murder trial. He was
known for his disruptive courtroom tactics.
Credit...Associated Press

Mr. Kanarek's next — and last — famous client was Mr. Manson. On Aug. 9, 1969, a cleaning lady entering a Benedict Canyon home in North Beverly Hills, Calif., found the mutilated bodies of Ms. Tate, 26, the pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski, as well as three friends and a chance visitor. All had been stabbed and shot many times, and Ms. Tate had been hung from a rafter.

A day later, the bodies of a grocery magnate, Leno LaBianca, and his wife, Rosemary, were found in their Los Angeles home. They had been killed in ferocious attacks that left little doubt they had been slain by the same people who killed Ms. Tate and her companions.

Within months, Mr. Manson and four followers were arrested and implicated by Linda Kasabian, an accomplice who admitted her role in the crimes. Ms. Kasabian was granted immunity and became the state's star witness in a trial that began in July 1970 and lasted six months. (Charles Watson, a cult member who joined in the killings, was committed to a mental institution and not tried with the others.)

Mr. Kanarek's courtroom tactics — a Niagara of objections, interruptions, shouting matches with the judge and witnesses, shoving incidents with two prosecutors and a scuffle with his client, who repeatedly tried to fire him — made him an outcast in some legal circles, but in others an exemplar of legal tenacity. He was jailed twice for contempt of court and vilified by much of the press and public.

The state called 84 witnesses and adduced that Mr. Manson, hoping to trigger an apocalyptic race war in America, had planned and ordered the killings, which were executed by his co-defendants, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, and by Mr. Watson. The defense rested without calling a single witness because, Mr. Kanarek said, the three women wanted to confess on the stand to "save" Mr. Manson.

In 1971, all four defendants were convicted of murder and conspiracy and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. Mr. Kanarek scoffed at the rulings and the trial.

"It was entertainment for the public," he said.

A year later, when California's death penalty was temporarily invalidated, the sentences were commuted to life in prison. Mr. Manson was never released. He died in 2017 at 83.

Mr. Manson's crimes generated books, plays, television dramas, documentaries and feature films — most recently Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-nominated "Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood." After the trial, Mr. Kanarek prospered for a few years, but he never again made national headlines.

In 1989, he was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct and hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation. In 1990, he lost his law license over unpaid debts. He later lived in motel rooms.

Irving Allen Kanarek was born in Seattle on May 12, 1920, to Meyer and Beatrice (Prupis) Kanarek. His father was an insurance salesman.

Irving and his sister, Zillah, grew up in Seattle and attended Garfield High School. Irving graduated from the University of Washington in 1941 with a chemistry degree.

In the 1940s and early '50s, he was an engineer for North American Aviation, working on aerospace projects in California, and held a patent for work on rocket fuels. After losing his security clearance and his job, he won a suit for reinstatement and back pay.

But he had already decided on a new career. He earned a degree in 1956 at Loyola Law School and began his practice in 1957.

His marriage to Sally Nava ended in divorce. He is survived by their two daughters, Irvina and Walesa Kanarek.

Long retired from law practice, Mr. Kanarek in recent years had resided at an assisted-living facility in Garden Grove.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. 

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 4, 2020, Section A, Page 25 of the New York edition with the headline: Irving Kanarek, Lawyer Who Defended Charles Manson, Dies at 100. Order Reprints | Today's Paper | Subscribe

Monday, August 31, 2020

Juanita Wildebush

Not much has been written about Juanita Wildebush (no, it's not her real name). Years ago Farf did a humorous piece centering on her (I miss the fuck out of Farf), but the most detail we got was found in Paul Watkins' book My Life with Charles Manson. Here is an excerpt followed by a couple of pics of her. She was one of the lucky ones. She escaped with her life, but lighter in the pocketbook. Enjoy... 

"My name's Juanita," she said, still gauging traffic through her outside rearview mirror. She turned and smiled. "Juanita Wildebush."

"You're kidding." I beamed. "I'm Paul...Paul Watkins."

Juanita was a big, corpulent, rawboned blonde, with thick hair, thick lips, and generous well-tanned haunches. She wore an embroidered Mexican blouse, a tight pair of white shorts, and sandals. Her teeth looked like chunks of quartz crystal when she grinned, telling me she had just returned from Mexico City but was headed right back. "This culture sucks," she quipped. "After being down there for a year, everything up here seems dead." She said she spoke fluent Spanish and that after stopping in L.A. she'd be driving straight through to Oaxaca.

"We could have used you last night." I described briefly what had transpired with the rancheros. She seemed delighted with the story but felt that we should have gone to the party and had a good time. "It would have been a gas. Latin men are the greatest, let me tell ya." She went on to recount, quite graphically, several romantic episodes that she had enjoyed south of the border. "Those guys don't just ball; they get down!" So imbued was she with anything that smacked of Latin culture, I felt it futile to do anything but nod in agreement.

"Whereabouts you goin' in L.A.?" she said at last.

"I live in the Santa Susana Hills at a place called Spahn's ranch."

"Never heard of it."

We chatted amiably while her tape deck boomed out the Beatles and Three Dog Night. The inside of the van was completely customized, with a full leather tuck-in roll, a canopied bed, a propane stove, refrigerator, and a yellow life raft which sat perched on top of the mattress alongside some scuba diving gear. I got the distinct impression Juanita wasn't hurting for money. And that she was horny. I told her a little about the Family and Charlie and that our lifestyle was pretty much divorced from the rat race Anglo culture she so abhorred. When she mentioned that she had recently come into a small inheritance, I suggested, circuitously, that she stop by at the ranch and meet Charlie. She said she'd like that.

When we pulled up and parked in front of the ranch house that night, Charlie was sitting outside on the porch whittling on a piece of wood.

"Made good time, Paul," he said. "Only one back so far. Who's your friend?" Charlie stood as we approached the porch.

"This is Juanita, Charlie...Juanita Wildebush."

"No shit! That's your name?...Jesus! That's real poetic!" He laughed. "Come on in."

We followed Charlie into the house. While I poured a cold glass of water, he proceeded to introduce Juanita to Snake, Squeaky, Sandy, Ouisch, and the new girl Catherine Gilles, who were seated around the fire. Juan Flynn was lounging around the couch playing with Pooh Bear. Brooks was in the shower, singing. Juanita and Juan exchanged amenities in Spanish and Juanita seemed pleased at this.

Later, Charlie took her aside to smoke a dube while I parked her van down by the corral. I didn't hurry, so as to give him plenty of time to lay out his rap. I'd told him Juanita had money and that she might be willing to part with some of it. At the time, I wasn't averse to hustling money for the Family. It was like a game. I could think of no better cause than our own communal existence. And, like everyone else in the Family in those days, I wanted to please Charlie. By the time I got back, Charlie had the full scoop. Juanita's inheritance was no mere pittance—some fifteen thousand dollars, to be exact; what she needed most, he said, was to have her "wildbush" sucked, good and proper.

"She's partial to you, man." He beamed. "So just take her back to her van and ring her bell."

I hadn't figured on that. Generally, Charlie was first with any new girl. Had Juanita been physically attractive, he would have been. The fact is, I'd been thinking about Snake all the way home. But I didn't have much choice.

Juanita and I spent a long and active night in the van. And some of the next morning. She was eager, she said, to move in with the Family. That afternoon she made arrangements to give us some of her money. A week later George Spahn's four-thousand-dollar tax bill was paid in full.



Saturday, August 22, 2020



Richard Turgeon

Original Article

When I was growing up, my parents kept their eclectic library of books on full display in our small downstairs den. From a very young age, a few stood out to me—namely a Life World Book about Japan, my mom’s copy of In Cold Blood, and a particularly lurid-looking paperback with a cover that looked like bad news through my young eyes.

This was the edition and cover of my mom's
worn paperback on the bookshelf of my childhood home.
Many consider this the definitive account,
but Simon’s book, and this interview, may change your mind.

The book’s title, HELTER SKELTER, seemed to have been painted in blood, set against the kind of warm yellow backdrop one might associate with the California sun. I was also old enough at the time to know what “murder” meant, so of course I was sufficiently intrigued to flip through the photos—which were fortunately whited out. Undoubtedly, part of what’s made the book the #1 true crime book of all time was the shocking brutality of the killing spree—carried out by “hippie cult leader” Charlie Manson and select members of his so-called “Family” of mostly young, female, twentysomething drifters.

In my late 30s, I moved to San Francisco and revisited the topic by reading Manson in His Own Words by Nuel Emmons, which provided insight into Manson’s awful upbringing and distorted worldview. Flash forward to early 2020—before COVID, BLM, election anxiety—when I felt compelled to learn more about the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson himself, and his young followers who carried out these unspeakable acts. I’ve since spent the last several months watching documentaries, reading at least a dozen more books on the subject, and sifting through infinite online archives.

Tellingly, more books, films, articles and documentaries have been written about Manson than one could possibly consume in a lifetime—it’s a bottomless rabbit hole. But longstanding interests in a number of subjects—Los Angeles, late ‘60s American history, San Francisco’s Summer of Love, the introduction of LSD to the counterculture, the music and Hollywood film biz, true crime, and cults—all compelled me to go deep on the topic. The story of Manson and Helter Skelter is one where all of these subjects seem to intersect.

One of Manson’s many mugshots since age 14, this one from 1969.
You’ll find a gallery of them here.

Additionally, America has not felt this divided since the late ‘60s. Things seem to be breaking down to the point where it feels like there are strong parallels between then and what we’re going through today. Most writers and musicians like myself tend to be interested in pop culture and feel a certain attunement to the zeitgeist. Even so, I only recently realized that 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the August 8–10 murders, putting them in the spotlight all over again.

That’s my best explanation of why, like so many others—and perhaps more than ever—I’m compelled to understand why Manson and his followers did these things. Who were they? How did the social and political climate of the time make such horrifying and bizarre crimes even possible?


In the many Manson documentaries I’ve watched these last many months, several familiar faces are interviewed with strong ties to the case—including Jeff Guinn, author of Manson, and retired FBI profiler John Douglas, who interviewed Manson in prison decades ago as part of his groundbreaking work on serial killers.

But in the excellent documentary Manson: Music from an Unsound Mind, someone new to me was interviewed: UK author Simon Wells. From the first time he appeared on camera, I thought, Wow, this guy really gets it. I promptly ordered his book, Charles Manson: Coming Down Fast.

This was the first documentary (but not the last) I saw that featured Simon.

Even though the Introduction is seven pages long, I’d never read such a clear, concise, insightful summary of the Family and their crimes—along with the complex social and political climate that spawned it all. As I continued to read, I became utterly absorbed by the book’s craft, unique tone, and thoroughness.

My paperback copy of Simon’s book.

Once I’d gotten about halfway through, I reached out to Simon to learn more about the project, and he was gracious enough to agree to the following interview. Before we dig in, I’d like to thank him now for his time, the insights into his process, and for his unique perspectives on this pivotal event in American history.

What got you interested in Manson and how did the project come about?

Anyone who is a student of the 1960s will have come across Manson. He is the decade’s foremost bogeyman—the man who as legend informs us was the person “who killed the 60s.” I was intrigued by Charlie’s assignation of a serial killer and mass murderer when it was clearly obvious he was neither. So on that basis, I was hooked into exploring the story. 

It was around 2008 I started pitching the idea around, and I was fortunate that Hodder in the UK was interested—so much so that they paid little attention to my brief to de-sensationalise the story. What they wanted was something to update the story and to cash in on the 40th anniversary. To be honest, I was just excited that they went with it.

The whole writing and research process was regrettably quick (I don’t recommend it). With the 40th anniversary looming in August 2009, it left me just 11 months to write a 500-page book. Nonetheless, I was intent on sticking with my quest to present what I believed would be the first sober account of the story.

So much has been written about Manson these past 50 years. What was your research process for this project, and how did you synthesize that into such a well written narrative in just 11 months?

A lot of hard work! I had the bare bones of the story—which is freely available—so I used that as a very bare skeleton to hang my story around. The next process was to challenge every aspect of what had been previously written and draw out as much of the truth dressed in as little emotion as possible. A lot of what I read didn’t ring true—so I decided to cross-check and re-investigate as well as interviewing many people who I feel had been badly represented earlier.

What is your daily writing routine (at least at the time)? Do you have any special rituals, tools or techniques you rely on—especially when taking on such a large project?

I always set myself a word target, but given I had research running in tandem it often blurred. Many of my interviews were done on the phone and with the time difference in the States (eight hours behind from the UK) it meant frequent late nights.

Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel
being escorted to court during the most infamous trial of the century—perhaps ever.

Of all the books I’ve read on Manson and the Family, you tell this story with such exceptional care and craft. It’s detached and objective, but at times also laced with a subtle dry wit. What informed and inspired your unique approach?

The brief of the book was to de-sensationalise Manson and place him and his cohorts in a more solid reality than before. To expand; I come from an alternative community and have spent time around many fringe and esoteric groups. I am not intimidated by the weird and alternative, and I have met many “Charles Manson” characters in my time—so Manson as a character did not faze me. Equally, the activities of the so-called “Family” were of no real shock to me (apart from the murders obviously) so I could view all of this in a way that hopefully didn’t offer any judgement or hysteria.

Given emotion, fear and horror had previously driven the narrative; it gave me a new angle to explore. At times, especially during the murders, I found it hard to detach myself—especially given the horrific detail of the murders. I found that particularly harrowing—but it had to be told.

Aside from the unbelievably brutal nature of the murders, and overall strangeness of the Family, why do you think this dark chapter in American history continues to fascinate the world some 50 years later?

It’s rock and roll. And to decode that a bit further, it’s that most murders are pretty dour and dismal affairs. However, the Manson case embodies all the elements of rock culture. With participants such as the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the counterculture of southern California and the 60s, it will endure as long as all these parts remain attractive. (This is not to act as an apologist of Manson or indeed the murderers).

Manson was cunning and manipulative, but his obsessions with race, the Beatles, and the Bible—along with his violent outbursts before the murders—seem almost schizophrenic. Do you think he really believed his vision of Helter Skelter, or it was just part of his act to keep his followers frightened and dependent as he felt his control over them slipping away?

I believe Manson believed and conceived Helter Skelter as a conversational point—something that would wow and (possibly) control his followers. Manson’s wacky spiel was not unique to him—as we know many were convinced that Paul McCartney was dead and that the Fabs had been sending messages about his demise through their records.

From left: Brenda McCann, Sandy Good, Cathy Gillies,
and Kitty Lutesinger of the Manson Family, kneel on the sidewalk
outside the Los Angeles Hall of Justice on March 29, 1971.

Charlie’s madness appeared to gain a greater precedence as his musical aspirations began to slide. His failure called for something to mask his (and by extension his followers) disappointment, but more importantly to preserve his self-appointed divinity and oracle status. Manson had lots of proclamations in the run-up to Helter Skelter, so it wasn’t an unusual topic. He’d previously been obsessed with the Fab’s “Magical Mystery Tour” album, so the connection with the Beatles had already been made. Helter Skelter remained a conversation topic up until August 8th when he flipped it into a reality. I doubt very much if Manson and the Family’s downturn in fortunes hadn’t occurred, it would have remained in the domain of a campfire chat.

Manson very much seemed to want to be a player in Hollywood’s music scene, but was rejected. How much do you think that fueled his commands to commence Helter Skelter and the Tate-LaBianca murders?

It was a combination of many elements. The murder of Gary Hinman, the shooting of a drug dealer “Lotsapoppa” (aka Bernard Crowe, who Manson believed was a Black Panther), the arrest of Bobby Beausoleil, Sandra Good and Mary Brunner, Manson’s rejection at the Esalen centre and not least, the defection of many Family members. With the music rejection ever present in the background, it presented a cocktail of dismal failure. All of this came to a head on the afternoon of August 8th. So it was a combination of rejection and upset. 

It also was an example of what happens when commune living breaks down, something I know a lot about. I personally feel Manson didn’t plan Helter Skelter as a reality, it was just that circumstances forced it. I called my book “Coming Down Fast” as it really was that—a monumental collapse. The few weeks before the murders are the true key to what happened. I do detail it in great depth and to me at least, it is academic why they occurred.

There seems to be a good deal of circumstantial evidence of Manson murdering others before the infamous two nights of Helter Skelter. You seem to disagree. Can you expand on that?

There is something quite insidious that I couldn't really explore in the book—that being the rush to associate as many "freaky" murders with the Manson Family. Bugliosi's claim that there were somewhere in the region of "35" deaths ascribed to the Family is spurious. Given the resources available at the time, I would have thought in the 50 years plus since the crimes, at least one would have been proven.  

My opinion is that in reality there is only one murder that could be ascribed to the Family after Tate-LaBianca, and that is the death of Christopher Haught (aka Jesus). To me, it seemed strange that police in Inyo County were eager to jump on the bandwagon with the Pugh case as if there were some kudos to be associated with the drama (ditto lawyers). They patently avoided the glaring evidence of Pugh's mental health status and failed to contact Joel's family—probably knowing the answers would derail their more sensational investigation. I did get a chance to expand on this on my blog, so I hope that will put the record straight—as far as it can be. 

If you could change anything about how the book turned out, what would it be?

Ooh… I would have liked lots more time and twice the page count! To be honest, the story needs a three-volume approach to do it absolute justice. Before the crimes, the crimes and the trials, and the aftermath. It is such a complex and labyrinthine story—far too small for one book.

What have you been working on since the publication of Coming Down Fast?

I wrote a book on the Rolling Stones famous drugs bust of 1967, a couple of books on the Beatles, a book on the film Quadrophenia, a biography of Anita Pallenberg and a 60s London retrospective. A couple of books of poetry and a novel too!

Do you think a murderous cult like the Manson Family could ever happen again, or do you see it as something of an anomaly?

Not exactly like Charlie’s gang. Given the era, Manson had what appeared to be unchallengeable license to spew out his blurb to his followers. I dare say many today would Google what they heard and probably question him. The drugs are different too—and are far more acerbic. It’s very much an episode of its time and of region. That said, radicalization has many links with what happened with Manson, with young people—often from unremarkable homes—being brainwashed into killing. It’s a new and disturbing parallel.

Do you see any connections between the turmoil of the late ‘60s (race riots, social unrest, Vietnam, the Summer of Love) and what the world is going through today?

I don’t think so. There’s such passivity about life these days. It appears that revolt has been largely dampened down. I fear that IT, increased wealth and consumerism have swallowed up the hurt and the hunger that often underpins dissent. Yes, there are demonstrations and the occasional riot, but they are largely (as far as I can see) without the passion of what back-dropped the 1960s.

After the massive undertaking of researching and writing Coming Down Fast, do you have any lingering curiosity or feelings around Manson and the case? Does it still stick with you, or do you feel like the project provided a sense of closure to any of that?

The deeper you go with the Mason story, the more you uncover. I remember feeling that there were many lines that I hadn’t properly explored, or that other angles could produce some interesting stuff. Manson and the Family’s tentacles touched so many people in southern California, and everyone who came across them has a story to tell—so I dare say I could have reached out even further. Sadly, because of the time constraint, I could not. Who knows, I may dip my toe back in one day.