Monday, October 29, 2018

The Coffee Heiress, Part 2: Gibbie's Books

Other Posts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Final

Q (Bugliosi): What happened next?

A (Atkins): Tex told me to go into the bedrooms -- the other rooms, he didn't say bedrooms -- go in and see if there was anybody else in the house. I went into two bedrooms, walked past one room and saw a woman sitting wearing glasses reading a book. She looked at me and smiled and I looked at her and smiled.

( Susan Atkins Grand Jury Testimony (Kindle Locations 472-481). Kindle Edition.)

Abigail Folger was a voracious reader. In 1967 she travelled to New York City to work at one the most iconic book stores ever: The Gotham Book Mart in New York City. By all reports, she read constantly. She was seldom seen without a book. Reading was her passion; a passion she shared with her mother. 

The last evening of her life Abigail Folger was sitting in bed, reading a book. We know this because of Susan Atkins' testimony. But the question remains, what book was Gibbie reading that night? 

The answer may lie in the probate court file regarding her estate. On July 10, 1969 Abigail Folger purchased 12 paperbacks and three hardcover books at the Pickwick Bookshop located at 6743 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The invoice for those books appears below. The receipt was submitted by the shop as a ‘claim’ against Abigail's estate and was paid by her father. 

These are the three hardcover books she purchased: 

Kingdom and Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World, Gay Talese (1969)

The Dolphin Smile (Twenty-nine Centuries of Dolphin Lore), Eleanor Devine and Martha Clark (1967)

Man and Dolphin, John Cunningham Lilly (1961)

Aside from confirming her passion for reading (she bought 15 books!), two of the three books are interesting for another reason. 

In July 1969, Roman Polanski was in London working on the screenplay for a movie based upon the book, The Day of the Dolphin by Robert Merle. Polanski never finished the screenplay and withdrew from the project after Sharon Tate’s death. 

The final version of the film actually bears very little resemblance to the book. Instead, George C. Scott’s character and the communicating dolphin premise behind the storyline were taken rather directly from the work of John Cunningham Lilly the author of Man and Dolphin

Dr. John Cunningham Lilly was an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, writer, inventor and psychonaut. That last one means he was a nut case. 

Lilly believed he could find a way to talk to dolphins. He believed the sounds dolphins made above and below water were actually a complex language and the problem was not on their end, they were trying to communicate, but on our inability to figure out what they were saying. In 1960-61 our military apparently saw some merit in the theory and Lilly’s project was funded to the tune of $500,000 a year by the government and in particular by the U.S. Navy. That was a lot of money in 1960. 

Lilly’s efforts to connect with the dolphins initially resulted in him killing several because he failed to recognize, until after a half dozen tries, that the dolphins quit breathing under the anesthetic. The dolphins were being anesthetized so Lilly could drill electrodes into their brains. That idea failed to accomplish communication between man and dolphin. 

When the electrodes proved unsuccessful he then switched to using a sensory deprivation tank to ‘connect’ with the dolphins. His experiments with the tank would provide the inspiration for Paddy Chayefsky's 1978 novel, Altered States, later adapted into a movie by director Ken Russell but it did not further dolphins-human discourse.

At one point, Lilly even came up with the creative idea that if he and the dolphin both were on LSD in the deprivation tank that they might be able to connect in that heightened state of awareness. That too failed to produce results. 

At another point one of his assistants allegedly had sex with a dolphin in an effort to find a breakthrough. All efforts proved unsuccessful. 

However, despite his reputation today, in the 1960s Lilly and his dolphins were a national and indeed an international, phenomenon. The TV show ‘Flipper’ was also inspired by his work. 

It seems rather clear that a Lilly-inspired version of Day of the Dolphin was Polanski’s original plan for the movie. That is also the final storyline. George C. Scott plays a Lilly-like character who teaches the dolphins to speak English with a limited vocabulary. 

Sometime after Polanski became associated with the project he promised Wojciech Frykowski a ‘staff’ role in the film and according to Polanski was reading books about dolphins shortly before the murders.  

“Recently since I was preparing this (inaudible), I told him [Frykowski] because I saw that he was a little uptight doing nothing next to this girl [Abigail] like a kid. I said, “Believe me, you will have job on my staff” and a few letters I got in London from him were full of enthusiasm about this thing. He’s reading books about dolphins because that was the subject and he has ideas and he can’t wait and he was really loved me that guy, you know?”

(Lt. Earl Deemer interview of Roman Polanski (polygraph) August 16, 1969.) 

Abigail likely discussed the film project with Frykowski (or maybe even Polanski or Sharon Tate) around July10th and learned about Lilly's connection to the film. She then purchased Lilly’s book, probably for Frykowski. Lilly and his work is also extensively discussed in The Dolphin Smile, the more recent work. It appears then that these two dolphin-related books were purchased for Frykowski as background, to bring him up to speed on Polanski's project. The Day of the Dolphin was to be Frykowski's entree into the film industry, even if only on a limited basis.

Although she could have been reading one of the paperbacks, Kingdom and Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World by Gay Talese is likely the book Gibbie was reading that night. Not exactly ‘light’ reading.

The image to the left is a book actually purchased by Abigail Folger in the fall of 1968. The book contains two works by the author Nathaniel West: A Cool Million and The Dream Life of Balso Snell. Both stories give a little insight into Abigail and her sense of humor. 

Nathaniel West wrote a series of books during the 1930’s that were intended to be comic satires of the Horatio Alger books of the late 1800’s; books that exhorted young men (only men) to go forth into the world and make their fortune. Ragged Dick, the most popular of Alger’s tales, for example, tells the story of a vagabond boy who through a series of fortunate coincidences and sheer determination pulls himself by his bootstraps to become the wealthy and respectable Richard Hunter, Esq. (an unfortunate name if you ponder it for a moment). 

West’s books follow the Horatio Alger storyline but with typically disastrous results, reflecting the times when he was writing. While I have never read The Dream Life of Balso Snell, I have read A Cool Million, actually titled A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin for good reason. 

A Cool Million, as its subtitle suggests, is about the physical 'dismantling’ of the protagonist, Lemuel Pitkin, piece by piece. Lemuel sets out on the road like a good Horatio Alger figure to get money to pay his mother’s mortgage. He encounters a character named Mr. "Shagpoke Whipple, a former president of the United States, who tells him to work hard and persevere and good things will come his way. Lemuel accepts the challenge with dire consequences.

During the course of his quest, Lemuel is arrested, falsely accused of a crime and thrown in prison barely avoiding a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. He loses his thumb, teeth, one eye, one leg and his scalp while trying to accomplish his goal. The girl of his dreams, Betty Prail, is sexually assaulted, kidnapped and sold as a sex slave. A native American he encounters and befriends named Jack Raven is lynched by a crowd in Mississippi. Lemuel never accomplishes his goal. His mother loses her home. Even when he manages to collect any cash he is robbed.

In the end Lemuel is a performer in a vaudeville-like show where ‘losing’ his artificial parts is his ‘role’. Before one final show Whipple, who appears throughout the book, sends a messenger to Lemuel informing him that Whipple’s National Revolutionary Party is taking over NYC and gives him a speech to read to announce the event.Lemuel reads two lines before he is shot from the crowd. 

Lemuel gains some success posthumously: as the martyr of the National Revolutionary Party, also known as the 'Leather Shirts', an organization he never embraced. The book ends with marching young men singing songs about Lemuel and chanting “Hail!”

As one critic has said:

“However, West makes a viable point about the American Dream. It is a well-constructed myth backed by air and dream clouds, and perhaps stories of the lucky few. He reveals the timeless truth that everyone wants so desperately to ignore: the American Dream is one great big, lie, well-advertised for the sake of developing economy and putting to work little hopeful bees. And all the while, as vaguely sickening and bizarre as Lem’s experiences are, West’s humor is catching. The ridiculous racist gestures, poking ridicule, and hysterical happenings, all drawn in such nonchalance as if the world was built off an M.C. Escher drawing and walking sideways was standard practice; no one is spared from West’s mocking. Every character is wholly a part of West’s strange view of America, and each fits in just perfectly.”

And as to The Dream Life of Balso Snell:

“The title character, a lyric poet, takes a nightmare tour through the bowels of the Trojan Horse, meeting a series of failed and frustrated writers along the way. Each surrealistic episode underscores the futility of the literary vocation and gleefully mocks the pipe dreams of amateurs who aspire to wealth and immortality. 

Deborah Wyrick, one of the book's few defenders, sums up the novel's customary place in the West corpus: "critics agree that it is formless, chaotic, a juvenile pastiche of bathroom jokes, college magazine parody, and borrowings from contemporary avant-garde authors"

Abigail took notes throughout the book. She gave the book to a teenager whom she met through his mother, a friend in Los Angeles. You can hear more about the book, here:

I think Abigail’s choice of this book revels something about her. A Cool Million is not for everyone. The reader encounters rape, scalping, lynching, racism and, foreshadowing today, anti-immigrant politics. The subjects are presented with dark nihilistic humor. There is no ‘happy ending’ and West certainly does not offer even a glimmer of hope. 

I also believe the book provides a glimpse of how Abigail may have actually felt about the problems she confronted through her volunteer social work. It seems to me that Abigail may have felt the situation was hopeless. There is certainly a hint of that in this quote that has been attributed to her: 

"A lot of social workers go home at night, take a bath and wash their day off, I can't. The suffering gets under your skin".

While some point to this quote as evidence of her dedication, remember, she quit.

At the same time, I think her choice of books may reveal the depth of the conflict she likely experienced because of her ‘inherited’ socio-economic status. Abigail was a member of the "1% Club". She certainly was never going to have to work a day in her life.

Her book choices reveal an interest in the structures of the establishment. She had purchased Gay Talese's book about the intrigues and personalities of the New York Times. The inner workings of the New York Times and its ability to shape public opinion likely would not appeal to many.

Her reading choices also reveal a certain level of rebellion against that same 'establishment'. While she was born into the upper crust, West's books may have given a voice to her concerns about the plight of those less fortunate than her. West may, initially, have encouraged her to get involved. Then again, it may be that her experiences as a volunteer social worker simply confirmed a belief she held, like West, that the American Dream was a fiction, for most. 

She certainly abandoned the path of volunteerism after Tom Bradley's failed May 1969 mayoral campaign. After that she seems to have increased her level of 'self-medication' while at the same time she was seeing a therapist five days a week. And those facts, I believe, reveal the depths of her internal struggles and is evidence she suffered from depression.

Pax vobiscum