What Would Charlie Do? Part 3: Midnight in Hollywood

This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.

The entire saga of Charles Manson is shrouded in lurid details of illicit sex with minor females, celebrity, blood, death, legal maneuvering, and possible manipulation of the public by uncontrolled elements within the federal government. By my thesis, this episode in American history marked a wild cultural turn that resulted in our present circumstances where the counterculture rules supreme. Our civilization went tribal here. The epoch culminated, as things often do, in one place at one time and involved a few unlikely historical figures.

These turning points are rare, but they happen. Here are a two examples.

On July 3, in 1863, some 12,500 Confederates tried to take Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, and they failed in about an hour of death and destruction. General George Pickett led those men and the episode is referred to as ‘Pickett’s Charge.’ In this furious hour turned the outcome of the Civil War, and thus, the wheel of American history. Slavery ended here.

On June 28 in 1914, the driver of the carriage that carried the Archduke Ferdinand made a wrong turn, and an assassin, Gavrilo Princip, killed the Archduke and his wife with a pistol. This event set in motion World War 1, from which virtually all modern history flows. Princip was only 19 years old at the time, but he turned the wheel of history hard and fast. Empires that were hundreds of years old entered their final days and were done four years later.

But these events, Pickett’s Charge and the assassination of the Archduke, involved big turns of military and governmental history. What happened in Hollywood in 1969 turned the wheel of cultural history, which is, more often than not, far more powerful and far reaching. The rise of the counterculture was more akin to Martin Luther nailing his 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Luther set off years of warfare over the future of Christianity.

Religious warfare in Europe had many historical ramifications, and the Holocaust was one of them. One of the refugees created by the Holocaust was a child of the war, Roman Polanski. Polanski’s father was Jewish and his mother was half-Jewish and a practicing Catholic. Nevertheless, she was murdered at Auschwitz and young Roman had to survive as best he could during the war years. His father survived the camps, but in post-war Poland, they were both very poor.

Polanski loved movies and eventfully went to an film making academy where he did well. He made a series of successful films and arrived in Hollywood an ‘enfant terrible‘ of cinema. Polanski was not a good man and the war years made him hard in a way that was tough on women. Nevertheless, he met and married bombshell and siren Sharon Tate and they moved into a house that had been previously occupied by young people who had lived virtually opposite lives to his.

Terry Melcher was the son of Doris Day and Candice Bergan was the daughter of famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergan. Melcher and Bergin were young Hollywood royalty and heirs to the culture-leading lifestyle of the hip sixties Hollywood set.

Sharon Tate Polanski was married to Roman, but by many reports, he was continuously unfaithful to her. Nevertheless, in August of 1969, she was pregnant with Polanski’s child. Like Manson, Polanski found the easy sexual mores of Hollywood and the availability of boomer women to be a tremendous sexual opportunity. However, Polanski was in Europe prepping for another film in August, and his successful life in America was about to take a very dark turn.

Not much about what happened next is in perfect agreement, but the actors and actions of August 9, 1969, are largely known and agreed upon. The major actors have all confessed though the specifics of who did what are still at issue. As the sun went down on that summer night, Charles Manson told one of his male followers, Charles “Tex” Watson, to take three of the girls in his perverted ‘family’ and go to the house at 10050 Cielo Drive and kill all present.

Around midnight, Watson and the three girls, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Teresa Krenwinkel, left Spahn Ranch in rural Chatsworth and headed for the house in Benedict Canyon. They were only gone for a couple of hours, but those were consequential hours, and right from the beginning, the story loads up with odd metaphorical details that are positively literary.

Spahn Ranch is one of these details. The ranch was used to film westerns at the peak of the popularity of the genre. Westerns promoted the ‘cowboy’ ethos, and it was the cowboy and all he stood for that the hippies hated the most. The most consequential murders of the entire hippie era begin when four drug addled boomers departed from a ruined cowboy movie ranch that had been taken over by the murderous drug using hippies.

The ranch was owned by ailing, 80-year-old George Spahn, and he was kept under control by dangling a nubile young hippie, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, before him. Older men can be controlled by young hippie women, Manson knew, and old George Spahn was just one of the many men Manson seized by allowing them sexual access to his harem of females.

Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Kasabian then drove the 27 miles across the San Fernando Valley and into the Hollywood Hills. Just past midnight, they reached the gate that marked the entrance to the house at 10050 Cielo Drive and parked the car. “Tex” climbed a telephone pole at the gate and cut the phone wire with a pair of wire cutters brought along for just that purpose. Then the four climbed the hill around the gate, dropped back down to the driveway and headed for the house.

The house they were headed for had a storied history already. It was built for a French movie actress, Michele Morgan, who was born Simone Renée Roussel in 1920. The house was completed in 1944 but sold in 1946. For a time, it was rented to Lillian Gish, who was a star of the ‘silent films’ era. It was purchased in the early 1960s by Rudolph Altobelli who rented it out to even more A-list celebrities including Henry Fonda, and later, Cary Grant. Hundreds of A-list movie industry players had been to that house.

At a certain point, the children of Hollywood’s elite came to power and that is when Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen, rented the house. They had many parties while living there, and when they broke up in early 1969, it was rented out to a new power couple, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Given that Polanski traveled a lot Tate was often at the home by herself. She allowed two friends, Abigail Folger and Polanski’s film school chum Wojciech Frykowski, to move in. Sharon was often visited by an old boyfriend, Jay Sebring. Sharon, Jay, Wojciech, and Abigail were there when Tex, Susan, Patricia, and Linda showed up just past midnight on August 9.

What happened next is the stuff of many books, movies and other media. The four residents were killed up close with knives and a few bullets fired by Watson, who carried a .22 caliber pistol. In addition to those four, Watson shot a perfectly innocent teenager, Steve Parent, who was leaving the property after having paid a visit to another teen who was living in the guest house. Someone, either Atkins or Watson, stabbed and killed Sharon Tate who was at the end of her pregnancy, and it showed. She was very visibly pregnant. Her baby, later named Paul Polanski, died of asphyxiation that same night and is a murder victim as valid as the rest.

The killers left the home, got in the car, threw the murder weapons and their bloody cloths out the car window on the way back to Spahn Ranch, and subsequently went to sleep, unaware that they had just participated in an ugly and revelatory event in American history.

This was not the first or only murders committed by this group. A few days earlier, other Manson family members, Susan Atkins among them, had killed a music teacher named Gary Hinman. The following night, a similar group, plus Leslie Van Houten, would kill a couple in Los Feliz. But the house at Cielo Drive had a history and the people where were linked to other parts of American culture and now they were dead at the hands of murderous hippies.

The peak moment was nigh. The underground currents of American culture burst into view for what could not have been more than 30 minutes. But the consequences are still with us.

Tate and Sebring
Abigail Folger
Steve Parent

Next – Part 4: Charlie’s Girls

Back – Part 2: Turning Points