The Manson Family appropriately laid roots, for much of its short existence, at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a fading set popular in an older, black-and-white, cowboy-crazy Hollywood but used for horse rides and an occasional shoot (a Bonanza here, a softcore porn movie there) as Westerns waned in the public imagination.
If the Manson Family’s existence were a movie—and it later became several movies—Spahn Ranch might serve as setting and foreshadowing and metaphor. Like the run-down ranch, its tattooed, hirsute inhabitant never quite made it in the entertainment industry in the late 1960s. So, he exacted his revenge on that industry.
After taking guitar lessons from Alvin Karpis, once the FBI’s Public Enemy #1, at McNeil Island Penitentiary, Charles Manson petitioned the criminal with connections to land him gigs in Las Vegas. Karpis refused. The year following his release, the parolee made his own connections in the business, befriending Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who provided Manson and his growing harem a more lavish place to live than Spahn Ranch. In exchange, Manson’s women supplied sex and housekeeping.
Then, as now—the current scandals embroiling Hollywood surely demonstrate this—men used sex as a means of gaining power in the entertainment industry. With more than a dozen girls and young women, many of them extremely attractive and some of them underage, mesmerized by the guru’s spell, Manson empowered himself to gain an audience with powerful men who might otherwise dismiss him by giving them use of the bodies of his acolytes.
The group cozied up to others in tinseltown. Manson recruited Dean Martin’s daughter Deanna, to whom he presented a ring, to join the Family—to no avail. Manson so impressed Neil Young, who later called him “stone-brilliant” and compared him to Bob Dylan, that he gave him a motorcycle and recommended that Reprise Records sign him. Jackson Browne, already an accomplished songwriter in his teens though years away from releasing an album, considered linking up with the Family before record producer Terry Melcher warned him against it. Manson wooed Deirdre Lansbury, who soon allowed the Family to crash at mother Angela Lansbury’s house, raid its closets, and run up bills on the actress’s credit cards. But the group made their deepest connection with Dennis Wilson.
Dianne Lake, who lived at Wilson’s rented log mansion in 1968, described weekly acid trips and nightly sessions of group singalongs or group sex. “For over six months, I’d been listening almost nightly as Charlie told us that all we had to do was ask the universe for what we wanted and it would be presented,” Lake recalls in Member of the Family. “In connection with Dennis Wilson, it appeared that was precisely what had happened: Charlie had led us to the communal promised land—everything he’d asked for had come to pass.” Manson called willing a desire into existence through thoughts a “postulation,” and the idyllic life in a Southern California mansion with a swimming pool in the backyard appeared to validate his take on mind over matter.
But after an enraged Manson lashed out at the Beach Boys for constructive criticism in the studio, and his harem outside alienated (and excited) party-goers by swimming and prancing around Brian Wilson’s property in the nude, Dennis Wilson cut ties. Lake, one of the nude girls cavorting that day, recalls in a new memoir that it was “hard to shake the nagging feeling that something very real had been permanently lost.”
When Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, who produced the first two Byrds albums, rebuffed Manson, this sent the former car thief, pimp, and peddler of bad checks to ponder more diabolical crimes. The Manson Family soon traded in a luxurious existence for Death Valley. Worse still, their jilted leader’s dreams of stardom morphed into a nightmare of murder.
Neil Young interpreted the murders as Manson “punishing people for the fact that he didn’t make it in the music biz. That’s what that was all about. Didn’t get to be a rock and roll star, so he started f—in’ wipin’ people out.”
On August 9, 1969, at 10500 Ciello Drive, a home recently owned by Melcher, Manson’s followers murdered actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, her boyfriend, aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, a teenager with the bad luck of visiting the property’s caretaker that night. The following evening, they murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca at 3301 Waverly Drive, a property once owned by Walt Disney. The Family dropped acid at a neighboring house the year before. Susan Atkins explained their intention: “To instill fear into the establishment.”
That they did. And when Atkins began boasting of her group’s exploits and plans to fellow prisoners, that fear grew.
“The story she related, Virginia [Graham] would say much later, was even more bizarre than what Susan had already told her,” Ed Sanders wrote in The Family. “It was so incredible that Virginia didn’t even mention it to [fellow inmate] Ronnie Howard. No one would believe it, she decided. For Susan Atkins, in one spurt of non-stop talking, gave her a ‘death list’ of persons who would be murdered next. All were celebrities. She then, according to Virginia, described in gruesome detail exactly how Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Tom Jones, Steve McQueen, and Frank Sinatra would die.”
Peter Sellers, Yul Brenner, Warren Beatty, and others put up a $25,000 reward leading to the killers of director Roman Polanski’s wife, their unborn child, Tate’s three houseguests, and a bystander. At Sebring’s funeral, which Steve McQueen attended with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, the Bullitt and Great Escape star carried a gun.
With the murderers behind bars and their motives growing clearer, the case began to envelop four stars shining even more brightly than McQueen, the Beach Boys, and Roman Polanski.
Inside the jail, the Manson women wrote science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in an effort to raise money. Not knowing the gravity of their crimes, Heinlein—whose character Valentine in A Stranger in a Strange Land gave Manson’s son his name—offered vague words of support but no financial support. Messages to four writers of a musical sort went unanswered. Manson hangers-on outside the courthouse wondered why The Beatles refrained from reaching out to the group of people who so obviously best understood their music, which, they reasoned, provided the rationale for partaking in “Helter Skelter.”
“The dream can be real when you see it, and when you live it,” Catherine Share, who starred in an adult movie with Manson Family murderer Bobby Beausoleil filmed at Spahn Ranch, told Rolling Stone. “And that’s what the Beatles are singing about. They’re singing it’s all a dream, life passes by on a screen. They’re singing it, but they’re still asleep singing it. They haven’t woken up to the fact that what they’re singing about is more than a song. They could be living it.
“They have the power—and this is directed to them—if they would realize how much they’re the ones, then just the point of their finger could send 144,000 people back to the desert. They could point to Charlie and say, ‘This is the man who’s saying what we’re saying. Let’s all get together on it.’”
Alas, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, broken up by this point anyhow, did not lift a finger let alone point one. They just let it be, and, like so many others in the entertainment industry, let Charles Manson down.
While Manson’s vision of a music career eclipsing The Beatles never became reality, as so many of the conman’s “postulations” did, his dream of celebrity certainly came to fruition. Manson, who possessed some talent as a songwriter, gained fame in a way that few before him, but too many in his wake, did. If you could not join ’em, kill ’em. The black hat won notoriety in the manner that the silver-screen cowboys once did at Spahn Ranch: by killing people. Like that dilapidated set, he struggled to make it in late-1960s showbiz.
In a time of political assassinations, bombings, riots, and war, Manson represented not so much a departure from the age as a reminder of what lay under its peace-and-love veneer. He disturbingly proved that one needn’t go platinum or #1 at the box office to launch fan clubs and become a celebrity.