I woke up a few minutes before the alarm this morning and reached for my bedside iPad, to catch up on the mayhem overnight. Learned Charles Manson had shuffled off the mortal coil, as all of us will, one day. For some reason, my sleepy brain took a hop and a skip to a newspaper in southern Indiana somewhere, whose editors used lurid headlines to describe the deaths of Soviet leaders: HELL’S POPULATION RISES BY ONE AS ANDROPOV KICKS THE BUCKET, for instance.
No, I don’t know if they did the same thing for criminals like Manson. Wouldn’t surprise me. As Charlie’s body reaches room temperature, it’s worth looking back on that crazy time in 1969-70 when the Manson family really and truly brought the peace-and-love part of the ’60s to a crashing end. I had an editor once tell me he went to bed at night convinced it was only a matter of time before John Dillinger came creeping through his bedroom window. Manson had nearly that effect on kids my age, almost-teens enthralled with the romance of the counterculture but too young to participate. The Manson crimes were so awful, in their randomness and savagery, that the bloodstain seeped from California all the way to Ohio and beyond.
Why that house? Why that other house? (Light a candle for the often-unmentioned second night of the spree, when Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, a couple of L.A. nobodies, were stabbed to death with bayonets.) Was Sharon Tate’s fetus really sliced from her body? The group at that house in the middle of the night revealed it as some sort of upmarket crash pad, with a hairdresser, an actress, an heiress and some random visitors in attendance when doom arrived. And the killers themselves were mostly women, with Manson not even in attendance at the Tate home. So many details to pore and obsess over. I took our household copy of Time magazine to my bedroom for weeks, reading about the crimes and, later, the manhunt, arrests and the insane trial. Manson initiated girls into the family with daylong sex marathons, I read, which sounded simultaneously intriguing and terrifying. (All day? Really? How does that work?)
And then, just when you thought you’d heard all you could hope to know or even handle about the case, the acts continued to reverberate, as when un-convincted Manson girl Squeaky Fromme pointed a gun at President Ford. (The other would-be Ford assassin, also a woman, that same month, was Sarah Jane Moore, who had her own weird attachment to California subculture; she is a minor character in the Patty Hearst kidnapping saga. You could look it up.) Of course, by then, the crimes had become a touchstone of late 20th-century American culture. Joan Didion’s essay about the case, in “The White Album” connection, gets it as right as anyone did, or ever will.
Manson was the bogeyman behind so much free-floating fear, even after he was revealed as another shitbird criminal, who chose the Tate-Polanski house because it had once been rented by Terry Melcher, a music producer Manson believed had stunted his destiny as a rock star. His infamy has transcended time and place; I chuckled when I watched an old Sopranos episode recently and Tony tells an angry mobster giving him the stinkeye to turn off “the Manson lamps.” Everyone knows what he’s talking about.
Manson is the rare case where I can come closer to agreeing with people who claim criminals commit lurid crimes to become famous. He was your basic white-trash west-coast sleazebag, who had the gift of attracting broken souls, at least for a while, and in horror gained a sort of permanent infamy that he thought was his due. We won’t forget him anytime soon.
This where are they now is instructive, if you haven’t kept up.
Did Charlie scare you? Or is it just me?