Tate family grave, Culver City, Calif. Photo by IllaZilla on Wikimedia Commons.
The way I see things, my childhood ended in the summer of 1969, and the 1960s ended this week with the death of the decade’s most notorious murderer, Charles Manson.
That summer, men walked on the moon for the first time. The New York Mets shed their status as perennial losers to overtake the Chicago Cubs en route to winning the World Series. The Buffalo Bills butted heads with a rookie by the name of O.J. Simpson, who demanded a contract that made him the highest-paid athlete in pro sports at the time. A half-million young people converged on a farm in Bethel, New York, to listen to three days of music at Woodstock and share their opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Just down the road from Woodstock, I was spending the last summer of my youth in a “bungalow colony” in the Catskills, where New York City parents customarily took their kids to escape the sweltering, polio-ravaged tenements of the city. My age group was the first to get the Salk vaccine, and so we never knew polio. But our parents brought us to the Catskills anyway.
The bungalows had no televisions, but even kids my age knew from the newspapers and radios that on successive nights that August, two ghastly sets of murders took place in mansions on the other side of the country, in the hills above Hollywood. In the first, actress Sharon Tate – wife of director Roman Polanski, and pregnant with their child – was killed, along with coffee heiress Abigail Folger and three others; the word “pig” was written on the front door in Tate’s blood. The following night, supermarket magnate Leno LaBianca was slaughtered together with his wife. The crimes appeared to be motiveless, and police were initially stumped as to who might have committed them.
But it fit the pattern we kids knew and took for granted. Our childhood included the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of a King and two Kennedys, urban riots, Vietnam and the mayhem outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, so what was the surprise in one more set of nightmare headlines? We expected it almost the way we expected summer thunderstorms.
It would be months before authorities followed a string of jailhouse clues back to Manson, a small-time criminal who had managed to assemble a collection of socially misfit youths – more women than men – into a murderous cult. The murders had been intended to bring about a race war that Manson called Helter Skelter, named for a track on the Beatles’ 1967 White Album. The Manson acolytes who carried out the killings were themselves mainly in their late teens and early 20s.
Manson and his three female co-defendants were leering and unrepentant in their seven-month trial, which began the following year. Manson carved an X into his own forehead; his co-defendants soon followed his lead. The prosecution’s star witness, Linda Kasabian, said she had served as lookout during the slayings. She received immunity in exchange for her testimony. Another defendant, Charles “Tex” Watson, was apprehended in Texas and fought extradition long enough to receive a separate trial. All were eventually convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison after California’s death penalty was struck down in 1972.
Manson and his followers went away but they were never truly gone from our lives. Most chillingly, another follower – Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme – pulled a gun on President Gerald Ford in 1975. She was stopped by a Secret Service agent and was imprisoned until 2009, when she was paroled and moved to upstate New York.
Manson himself sought parole a dozen times, most recently in 2012. Just a few years ago, CNN reported that Manson and a groupie who called herself Starr had taken out a marriage license. Plans for a 2015 wedding were reportedly called off.
Susan Atkins, who carried out an earlier killing for Manson and whose jailhouse gossip helped lead authorities to him, died in 2009. Co-defendants Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten remain in prison, and although Van Houten currently has another parole bid pending, they both seem likely to stay there. Watson also remains in prison.
As for me, I never went back to the bungalow colony. We moved to a new air-conditioned apartment in 1969, and I entered my teenage years by spending summers back in the Bronx. I read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling book about the Manson case when I was a sophomore in college, which filled in many of the details I half-remembered from the trial.
The book was called “Helter Skelter.”