“The Manson case was, and remains, unique…the prominence of the victims, the pure fright before the killers were identified, the incredibly strange motive for the murders…the lyrics of the most famous rock group ever, the Beatles…and behind it all, pulling the strings, a Mephistophelean guru who had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him…”
“Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (1974)
When Charles Manson died in November of 2017, I read up on him. His madness fascinated me and I was reminded of this book written by the district attorney who prosecuted him, Vincent Bugliosi. I stumbled on the copy pictured above at a junk store in central Florida the following March. It smelled strongly of mold so I put it in a ziplock with a dryer sheet and let it sit. I was going to read it that summer but now I’m glad I didn’t. I read it this summer, the summer of 2019, fifty years after the horrific events described within. To avoid making assumptions, I should explain that Helter Skelter tells the story of the Tate-LaBianca Murders carried out by Charles Manson and his “Family” on August 8th and 9th, 1969 that claimed the lives of seven people including 8-month pregnant actress Sharon Tate, who was then married to film director Roman Polanski who was in Europe at the time. I normally like to keep things light here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure but that would be pretty hard to do in this case. I feel compelled to report on this book because of it’s historical significance and because of the high quality of the writing. Another reason, I suppose, would be because the events of that long ago summer are actually mind-boggling to contemplate. The perpetrators of these crimes and their motivations are so beyond the realm of understanding that the result is fascination. The fact that people can be so outside the bounds of acceptable human behaviour can compel you to want to learn about them. I guess it really is like not being able to look away from a wreck on the highway.
Only once before can I remember reading a book that drew me in as much as did Helter Skelter (Dracula – Bram Stoker). Every summer, my plan is to read the longest book I own that I have yet to read. While this book was not the longest, it is long – 664 pages – and with the 50th anniversary coming up this August, there was no other book in the running, really. Now, my “summer book” is supposed to last me basically all summer but I just ate this book up and read it in just under four weeks. I literally could not put it down. Something was cool about this particular copy as well; it was well worn and worked in, like a ball glove.
My strongest link to the story of Manson has always been the Beach Boys. One of the many intriguing and somewhat contradictory elements of the band’s story is the fact that the Beach Boys’ drummer and one of the band’s founding Wilson brothers, Dennis, hung out with Charles Manson. Maybe “hung out” is not the right term. Dennis was at first intrigued by Charlie and his harem and helped Charlie with his dream of becoming a musician. The Beach Boys recorded one of Charlie’s songs, reworking it into “Never Learn Not to Love”. Dennis, however, soon became repelled by and ultimately terrified of Manson and severed ties.
Quite often with a large book, the early going can be tough. I’ll never forget trying to read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and barely making it through the first 13 pages with the turtle crossing the road. This is not a problem with Helter Skelter. The opening pages recreate, step by riveting step, the discovery by the Polanski’s house keeper of the atrocities perpetrated at 10050 Cielo Drive. Right from the early pages, two things emerge that will have your mind reeling. The first is the contemplation of those on the periphery of this crime. Regular people that have become almost historic figures because of the fact they were in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time. The maid who first discovered the bodies; what was the rest of her life like? Did she ever recover from such visions? The first patrolmen on the scene; trying to understand what it was they had come upon and no doubt feeling the pressure of following procedure amidst such carnage and revulsion. Sharon Tate’s younger sister; she was going to be at the house that night but decided against it. The 11-year-old boy who lived down the street; he discovered the discarded gun used in the crimes in his yard.
The other thing you discover from the outset is that Bugliosi pulls no punches when describing the many errors made by the LAPD throughout the investigation of these crimes. For example, it was understood early on that the suspects exited the Polanski property by activating the electronic gate guarding the driveway. An officer, however, also pressed the gate button, thereby obliterating the fingerprint that no doubt would have been there. I was also surprised to learn that there is a difference between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office. These two entities each initially investigated the Tate murders and the LaBianca murders separately and it took them months to compare notes and come to the conclusion that the same people carried out both sets of murders. They avoided each other out of jealousy and pettiness.
The reader will hear much about record producer Terry Melcher. The only son of Doris Day, Melcher and his girlfriend Candice Bergen used to live at 10050 Cielo Drive and Manson had once looked for Terry there. Terry had turned Manson and his music down which rankled Charlie. Although he knew Melcher had moved, Manson wanted to instill fear into Terry by slaughtering all who were in his former residence. Bugliosi takes pains to explain Manson’s main motive; the race war Charlie predicted was coming and that he claimed was prophesied throughout the Beatles “White Album”, the race war Manson referred to as “helter skelter”. Manson hoped police – and white America – would think blacks had committed these murders.
Reading this book will enlighten you as to the various aspects of trial law such as the courtroom definitions of “guilty/not guilty”, the legal term “aranda” and you also may come away, as I did, with a different opinion of defence lawyers. How could anybody defend such murderers, you may ask. The point is, I learned, that everyone deserves a fair trial. The prosecution is obliged to apply the laws of the land accurately and fairly when seeking a conviction. The defence attorney’s job is to make sure this happens. Trouble is, if a D.A. makes a mistake and leaves a loophole, a defence attorney can use this not to “get his client off” but to contest that the law and courtroom procedure have not been applied correctly.
Bugliosi tells of Family member Linda Kasabian and her’s may be the most fascinating story related here. She was along on both nights of murder but did not participate in the carnage. Her testimony for the prosecution will leave you slack-jawed; the horrors she witnessed and her stunned realization of the capabilities of the people she had misguidedly aligned herself with. And what of her afterwards? What has her life been like?
Also of interest: when Manson was first being arraigned, Bugliosi says he looked at his watch and it had stopped. It was odd, he thought, that’s never happened before. He happened then to look up at Charlie and Manson was staring right at him, grinning slightly. Details of the sequestered jury, the defence team consisting of one loose cannon who stretched the record length of the trial to preposterous proportions, the bailiff working at the court house who became well known on television’s The People’s Court, the idea of Manson himself fathering children and female members of the Family actually bearing children into this madness. The A-list Hollywood stars who were next on the Family’s hit list.
These murders and the contemplation of the perpetrators are disturbing, no question. But there is much to warrant examination of these crimes that have oftentimes been described as the definite end of something in Los Angeles’ storied history.
I can highly recommend Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. This award-winning book is the best selling true crime book in history and has been the basis for three motion pictures. It is available virtually anywhere books are sold.