Mark Frechette, movie actor and bank robber, believed in astrology. His interest in it started before he joined an astrology-obsessed commune, based in the Fort Hill district of Boston, that called itself the Fort Hill Community and eventually answered to “the Lyman Family.” Like all cults, they denied being a cult, despite being led by a despot who proclaimed himself the Second Coming and was tagged the “East Coast Charles Manson” by Rolling Stone magazine in a 60,000-word exposé that appalled his apostles. Here’s how they characterized themselves in a pamphlet published in 1973, the same year Mark Frechette botched a bank heist and feathered a reputation already tarred by Rolling Stone: “We are a group of people between the ages of 16 and 30 who have been experimenting with communal living for seven years now and have come up with some amazing results which we would like to share with you.” The pamphlet advertised the courses they offered to the heathen, including two in astrology: “By studying your own chart, you will learn to make astrology work for you in your relationships with other people by a greater understanding of them, an understanding to which there are no limits.” Mark Frechette would certainly have studied his own chart, but whatever understanding he gained from it, he was captured and died cryptically in prison. His FBI file includes a photocopy of the Lyman Family pamphlet.
“People who dismiss astrology do so out of ignorance or rationalism,” Camille Paglia wrote in a rare defense of astrology by a teacher with an Ivy League doctorate. “Rationalists have their place, but their limited assumptions and methods must be kept out of the arts. Interpretation of poem, dream, or person requires intuition and divination, not science.” Recalling this passage (from Sexual Personae), it occurred to me that an astrological interpretation of Mark Frechette might shed light on his view of himself, providing a kind of inside approach; otherwise any attempted portrait would draw only from the usual magazine and newspaper accounts and the smattering of more elusive material I had managed to collect: the FBI file; a DVD of a short documentary about Mark; his correspondence with his friend and early mentor, Robert Dole, who was interviewed in the documentary and happy to speak to me, unlike most other former intimates and associates. I never reached out to the Lyman Family, which, remarkably, was still intact. They, least of all, would welcome the subject of Mark Frechette, I imagined.
My knowledge of astrology was confined, almost, to the twelve signs of the zodiac, but I did know that specifics of time and place are essential to a comprehensive natal chart. The Internet disgorged the location of Mark’s birth—St. Margaret’s Hospital in Boston—but not the moment he was born on December 4, 1947. For that I would need a birth certificate, and for days I phoned the Massachusetts Bureau of Vital Statistics, unable to get through. Online efforts were also fruitless. Now I had an excuse to do something I had long wanted to do as a fan of film noir: hire a private investigator. I called one at random from an online list of PIs in the Boston area and asked about a rate. “I’ll give you three hours for three hundred dollars,” he said in the jaded tone of noir cliché. The casting was too perfect for me to shop for a cheaper rate, and a few days later he called to say, with a surprising hint of boyish excitement, that he was holding the birth certificate. Mark had been born at 10:25 p.m.
Now to find a professional astrologer. A friend suggested Antero Alli, originally from Finland and now living in Berkeley. Like the detective in Boston, he was perfect casting, an author and filmmaker who had directed his own plays when Sam Shepard was active in the same theater circles, and Shepard wrote the early drafts of Zabriskie Point, Mark’s most notable film. I preferred a “blind” reading of his chart, unbiased by his fame or infamy, however faded; but Antero’s code of ethics precluded readings of third parties. Nothing ventured, nothing gained: I messaged him the name of the third party in question. “Interesting person,” he messaged back. “Like Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Cobain, & other anonymous great ones, Mark died at the age of 27—a year before his Saturn Return. There’s an entire mythos around this passage. OK, Duke. If you can pay my regular fee, I will agree to interpret his chart for you and send it to you on a CD.”
That was before I decided to attend a film-noir festival in San Francisco. I messaged Antero to ask if we could meet in person and, if so, how to get from San Francisco to his place. It was as simple as taking a BART train, he answered; and two weeks later I walked out of a BART station in downtown Berkeley and up Shattuck Avenue, per Antero’s directions, passing a sign that announced Hearst Avenue and reminded me of the case that informed my earliest impressions of Berkeley: the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA, a small cadre of Maoist urban guerrillas, and Patricia Hearst’s subsequent reemergence as “Tania,” a gun-brandishing, rhetoric-spouting, bank-robbing compañera of the SLA. No one ever seemed to connect the Hearst case and the Frechette case thematically, as I did. The SLA was a late-blooming product of the revolutionary sixties, and it fully cohered in Berkeley at the very moment that Mark determined to rob a bank in Boston as “a personal revolutionary act,” with a secret beneficiary.
Antero’s A-frame house was on Rose Street, and I followed him upstairs to his consultation room, where he handed me a printout of Mark’s chart. I had brought along a cassette recorder, an analog backup should something go wrong, and during the ninety-minute session he paused just once, to turn the cassette over at the forty-five-minute mark, and a long time later I edited the transcript for brevity and clarity.
Each chart is to me a kind of fingerprint, quite distinct, quite unique, and one of the key distinctions of this chart is that he’s got Mars conjunct ascendant tightly in Virgo, and Mars, of all the symbols in the chart, really represents the force of action, doing; it’s the embodiment of a strong masculine force. However, what’s really interesting is that because it’s in Virgo—with the confluence of Mars in Virgo, and Saturn and Pluto both in the twelfth house—we have here a character that I will call a misanthropic critic of society. There’s a mysticism here. A chart is divided into twelve areas, sort of like pieces of a pie, and each of these areas the language of astrology refers to as houses, which represent very specific areas of human experience and activity, and the twelfth house is the one most directly linking to solitude or withdrawal. It’s traditionally associated with prisons, with hospitals, any kind of experience that places the individual apart from society. Pluto represents where and how a person comes into some sense of their own power, and Pluto in the twelfth house is really defined as power derived directly from personal experience, communion with the divine, some kind of merging with higher power; and often times when Saturn is in the twelfth house it represents an absent father or a disappearing father or a father that was there physically but not emotionally.
Mark’s father managed the commissary at the Electrolux factory in Greenwich, Connecticut, long one of the wealthiest towns per capita in the U.S. and, in my thankfully brief experience of it, also one of the snobbiest. Most employees at the factory, best known for producing vacuum cleaners, commuted to work, and so it was with Mark’s father; the Frechettes lived in nearby Stamford before they moved a few miles north to Fairfield when Mark was fourteen. His mother was Irish Catholic, his father Franco-American. Both parents were born and raised in Massachusetts. Given all this, Mark would seem to have been drawn to Jack Kerouac, a literary sensation of the day, lionized by youth, and a working-class, Catholic, Franco-American originally from Massachusetts; but Robert Dole can’t remember Mark ever mentioning Kerouac. “He enjoyed reading,” Robert wrote me, “but he didn’t really have much of a literary education.” Still, he was a straight-A student till he started high school, approximately.
Around that same time, a pivotal figure entered his life. Despite their move to Fairfield, the Frechettes remained parishioners of the Church of St. Cecilia in Stamford, where Father Laurence Brett had become assistant pastor, and Larry, as Father Brett preferred to be called, was a polyglot and world traveler, then around twenty-five, who drove one of the original muscle cars, a 1962 Pontiac Tempest, and dazzled all who met him with his charm and erudition. As a “cool” priest unlike any they had met before, he was especially popular among boys in their early to mid-teens, and he organized an elite group among them to discuss liturgical reform within the Church. Mark was one of them. Their name, Brett’s Mavericks, was derived from a television program, and Father Brett smoked and cursed in their company, and took them on road trips, allowing them to drive his red Tempest, whether they did or didn’t have learners’ permits. Manhattan was a frequent destination. Brett accompanied the boys to grindhouse theaters in Times Square and even helped them to hire hookers, some of them said decades later.
By now you’ve surely guessed where this is headed, but priests were trusted, even revered, figures in the early sixties and the parents of the Mavericks couldn’t conceive that their sons were being molested by Brett, whose seduction formula had a blasphemous twist: after the standard grooming and isolation, he would explain fellatio as another way of receiving Holy Communion. The Mavericks had not been singled out for their superior minds, as Brett had led them to believe, but for their desirability, and Mark was “likely to his own regret, an extraordinarily good-looking boy,” or so the Boston Phoenix would remark postmortem with his acting career in mind, not the Father Brett business. Mark never spoke publicly of Brett, and there’s some question as to what happened between them. Robert Dole was under the impression that Brett propositioned Mark, no more; but according to a Hartford Courant story published in 2002, “Frechette told a friend that Brett performed oral sex on him after hearing his confession.” His “reaction was extreme,” the Courant continued. “Within months of his…fateful encounter with the priest…[he] dropped out of school, started burglarizing homes and, eventually, landed in the state-run mental hospital.” Here’s a more detailed version of the story, from my correspondence with Robert Dole:
Mark himself told me he had run away from home, went to Greenwich Village, came home for Christmas, got in a fight with his father, and then his parents had him taken off to the Hartford Institute for Life, a mental hospital from which he managed to escape after six months of incarceration by making love with an Afro-American attendant in an elevator and receiving her keys to the hospital as a recompense. He then came to Cambridge and that was when we met. I once spoke to his father on the phone and he told me that he had nothing good to say about his son. His mother, however, was a very sweet lady, who suffered greatly from Mark’s misfortunes.
He got in a fight with his father. His father had nothing good to say about him. An absent father or a disappearing father or a father that was there physically but not emotionally. Was that the case before Father Brett? It would certainly help to explain Mark’s investment in him, which must have been enormous, judging by the meltdown that followed. He seems to have lost not just a mentor—a surrogate father—but his faith in institutions: the Church, formal education, the nuclear family, the entire politico-economic system, which as he may have seen it—and I don’t believe he would have been wrong—was rigged by and for the lords of Greenwich and beyond. He did not lose faith in faith itself, however, or in mentorship.
The other Mavericks, each in his way, suffered quietly for years before admitting, in some cases to themselves, what had happened to them; but Mark told his parents and denounced Brett in a meeting with the vice chancellor of the Diocese of Bridgeport. Brett was a priest of the diocese, and the vice chancellor made a curious note in a memo about Mark: “He really has his astrology down!!!” Why did the subject arise? The Church frowns upon astrology as fatalism, so Mark could have been inferring his defection by talking of it. He had just turned seventeen, and after he was removed to a mental hospital a year later—three “thugs” ambushed Mark in his bedroom, according to Robert Dole, and forced him into a van—his parents petitioned the diocese to contribute to the cost of his care and were told there was no proof of any wrongdoing on Brett’s part.
In fact, there was proof, as the diocese knew very well. A few months before Mark’s meeting with the vice chancellor, Brett was reassigned to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, and a student there had complained of being of bitten on the penis by his chaplain—Brett—in what today would be classified as a sexual assault and handled by police. In 1964, however, it was handled by the diocese, and Brett was sent to a treatment center in New Mexico, where he claimed to have been cured and, assigned to local schools and parishes, he molested more boys. He did the same in the Sacramento area and again in Baltimore, all while remaining technically a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport. Finally, in response to a lawsuit filed by one of the Mavericks in 1993, the diocese effectively defrocked Brett, who disappeared and was found nine years later by the Hartford Courant, “living a secretive but comfortable life on the tropical island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean.” He refused to speak to the Courant, of course, but his neighbors said that “young men and teenagers were frequent visitors” and that Brett “identified himself to acquaintances on the island as a writer, a businessman or, at times, a CIA agent.”
For protecting Brett, the Diocese of Bridgeport was ordered to pay a million dollars to the former Maverick whose lawsuit may have prompted other victims to come forward. Criminal charges were filed and, now being sought by the FBI, Brett fled St. Maarten for Martinique, where, still at large and evidently drunk, he fell down a flight of stairs and died of a head injury on Christmas Day 2010. The date of his death can be viewed as ironic happenstance or as meaningful in a cosmic scheme that astrology purports to delineate; or maybe it’s simply poetic that, for instance, Mark’s father died days before the first anniversary of Mark’s death, as if to avoid it, and that Mark’s mother died days after the twenty-first anniversary, as if to absorb it. They never saw any restitution from the Diocese of Bridgeport.
I haven’t talked about his Sun sign. His Sun is in Sagittarius, but it’s conjunct Jupiter, so there’s kind of a double emphasis in what we’ll call the character of the seeker. This is who he was deep down. People who really got to know him found out this guy’s a real seeker, and that seeker energy would have been accompanied by what I would call a feral spirit of recklessness, okay, someone who would pretty much do anything just to get at the truth of something, who would put the truth first, and in doing that, there’s a natural inclination to just open yourself up to whatever, to more opportunities and situations, and therein lies serendipity or coincidence or synchronicity. This is, in part, amplified by this other element with Pluto in the twelfth house. There’s a channeling element here. This guy had kind of a medium-mystic quality about him, where there was something in him that acted as a screen for the projection of the zeitgeist of the time.
After he escaped from the mental hospital, Mark would have, in a two-year period almost exactly, three momentous encounters with strangers who, in each case, approached him on the street. The first was Robert Dole, an undergrad at Harvard with troubles of his own. They had started at prep school, when he confessed his homosexuality to his roommate. The roommate initiated sex. It was a gratifying experience for both of them, Robert thought, but the following day, apparently distraught, the roommate confided in the campus physician and requested a new roommate. Robert was summoned to the dean’s office and told that he would have to keep a weekly appointment with a psychiatrist in order to remain at school. The psychiatrist practiced what’s now called conversion therapy, and Robert realized the failure of it quickly. He grew more and more depressed, consoling himself by listening to Joan Baez records, and praying as he hadn’t prayed since he realized at fourteen that he was gay and therefore persona non grata to God. His prayers now were answered in the form of beatific visions that led to a self-diagnosis of schizophrenia, and later, at Harvard, his behavior so alarmed others that he was escorted to McLean Hospital by three interventionists, much as Mark was escorted to the Hartford Institute of Life by a team of three. Robert spent fifteen months as a psychiatric inpatient, and because he decided early on that homosexuality wasn’t the cause of his condition, it was actually the cure, he refused to discuss it with any psychiatrist. He also had a vision in which God promised him the ideal lover of fantasies that began before Robert grasped their implications. In fact, this person was the new Messiah, God told Robert, who would recognize him at once by his superlative good looks.
Need I say it? A week or so after he was discharged from the hospital, as he was leaving a class at Harvard in June or July of 1966, Robert set eyes on Mark and “knew immediately that he was the true Messiah,” to quote one of Robert’s two books that cover much of the same territory with minor variations—hence the hedging about the month. Mark had already run away to Greenwich Village so, figuring the police might search for him there, he had found his way to Cambridge and picked up a job as a sandwich-board man, advertising a bookstore in Harvard Square. That’s where Robert saw him, and he was there again, the Messiah as walking billboard, when Robert returned to Harvard Square the following day. Now Robert shared his find with another former inpatient at McLean, the friend he calls Maria Maddalena in his second book, and she accompanied him on his pilgrimage to Harvard Square the next day. He hadn’t described Mark to her. He wanted to see if she could spot him in the crowd. She did so without hesitation. Then, taking Robert by the hand, she crossed the street and began to talk to Mark. It was trivial talk, a ploy for Robert to meet Mark, and when Robert proved tongue-tied, Maria Maddalena said, “Young man, my friend here would like to tell you that he finds you an aesthetically pleasing ornament to Harvard Square.” There is never any variation on that remark in Robert’s writing or his conversation. Maria Maddalena went on to provide Mark with Robert’s address, inviting him to stop by after he was done with work that night. Robert, embarrassed, was sure he would never turn up.
But he did turn up. They traded life stories and bonded as recent mental patients. They were similarly angry with just cause and then some, but Mark was a high-school dropout with sensibility and limited learning to support it, while Robert was an academic whiz kid who had started Harvard as an advanced-placement sophomore and had read, by age twenty on his own, a long list of authors from Sartre to Proust to Bertrand Russell to James Baldwin. He was especially interested in the German-born theologian Paul Tillich and, like Mark, in the subject of religion overall. Like Father Brett, he was a polyglot, but, unlike Brett, he was readily forthcoming about his homosexuality. Mark made good on God’s promise, though as Robert clarifies in his first book:
Mark was profoundly heterosexual and he was probably unable to make love with any other man than me… Whenever we made love, he made it known that it was for my pleasure. His only pleasure consisted in giving me pleasure. He loved me in a way that no homosexual could. But Mark also needed my love. After the humiliations and horrors that he had known in the mental hospital, my worshiping him came as a balm. He needed a real friend to whom he could say anything. He also needed a crash pad.
I believe there’s an additional reason that Mark became Robert’s lover: he was correcting his experience with Father Brett by sleeping with a man who was Brett’s intellectual equal and his moral superior by leagues. Meanwhile, if Brett, with his talk of liturgical reform, was something of a rebel who started Mark on the same path, Robert was the next step in that way. “We detested bourgeois American society,” he writes, “and its materialism, its war in Vietnam, its racism, its sheer stupidity.” Mark was “the most idealistic person I have ever known,” “a true prophet who knows that his country is not what God wants it to be,” yet Robert was the prophet’s tutor, contextualizing and supplementing his intuitions. In a sense, they were both students at Harvard, though only one of them was enrolled there.
It was never an exclusive relationship. Mark had a girlfriend, Betsy, in Fairfield, and at some point that autumn she told him she was pregnant. His FBI file mentions an arrest for breaking and entering and aggravated assault in Fairfield in September 1966, so possibly this had to do with a freakout on Mark’s part. Nevertheless, two days after Christmas and three weeks after his nineteenth birthday, Mark married Betsy in a civil ceremony, and they set up house near Robert, who was always ready to accommodate Mark when he and Betsy quarreled. They quarreled often, but she didn’t insist on monogamy. There are indications that, with her blessing, Mark slept with other women, and she accepted, Robert says, that he and Mark were lovers. I was unable to speak to Betsy, but I would guess that, like most teenage newlyweds, she and Mark fought about chores and money, particularly once their son was born. Mark worked a series of odd jobs, selling pot on the side, and his FBI file also mentions an arrest for possession of pot in February 1968, which may have precipitated his split with Betsy. They would reconcile long enough to conceive a second son, and in the meantime Mark learned of the Fort Hill commune through the Avatar, the underground newspaper it published and hawked on the streets, though Mark’s first copy was a gift. Here’s the story as recounted by a communard in a later edition of the Avatar, with punctuation and emphasis intact: “See, one of the lovely ladies on the hill was very attracted to him and picked him up on the street. She said ‘WOW, did you see that guy that walked by?’ And she said ‘Hey kid, do you want an Avatar?’ And he says ‘Yeah.’ Two days later he moved up to the hill, right, with his kid on his back… She thought he was be-au-ti-ful!”
In fact, Mark did not move “up to the hill” two days later. By his own account, he continued to read the Avatar for “several months” before the move, and what surely struck him right away was its preoccupation with astrology. There was a regular column on the subject, articles about it, and the Sun signs of editors and contributors appeared alongside their names on the masthead. The most important contributor was Melvin Lyman, a self-taught banjo and harmonica player who had drifted to the Boston area when it was winding down as the folk-music mecca that produced Joan Baez. He was self-taught in almost every way, save the degree in computer programming he had picked up at a night school in San Francisco. He made films. He exalted himself in writing, shelling the reader with capitalized word grenades: “I traveled a lot, I preached for years all over this country until I FOUND my people, the few who could UNDERSTAND me…” Kay Boyle, the Lost Generation novelist and mother of two children who were among “the few who could UNDERSTAND” Lyman, thought him “very insignificant looking and very weak looking,” and she’s borne out by photographs, though in one taken by Diane Arbus, we observe the weird gleam that must have electrified the thirty or so people who, around the time Mark met Robert, followed Lyman to Fort Hill, then a slum, and, pooling their resources, bought or rented seven dilapidated Victorian houses and began to restore them as self-taught carpenters. They wouldn’t be known as the Lyman Family till the Manson Family became infamous on the very eve of the seventies, and Lyman’s commune, like Manson’s near Los Angeles, was a utopian alternative to establishment America with a musical motive besides: Lyman and Manson both had bands comprised of Family members. Both grew more tyrannical as they tested their disciples for loyalty and realized the hold they had on them; both had hodgepodge philosophies slopped together from crackpot hunches and spotty schooling; and both sought to familiarize their followers with “reality,” as if either dwelled in reality, but that wasn’t required of them, since they were both Christ incarnate. In the Avatar, Lyman wrote of his mission as the new Messiah: “No turnin water to wine and raisin the dead this trip, just gonna tell it like it is.” If Mark never read Jack Kerouac, it’s clear that Lyman had read him and adopted the worst of Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” prose style.
To Robert, of course, Mark was the Messiah. He “played such an essential role in bringing me to a life of sanity,” Robert wrote to me. His theory is that “Mel Lyman simply replaced me as Mark’s guru.” A void had to be filled. Mark “wanted to have a guru in his life,” and Robert decided to start a new life abroad. He would leave the U.S. permanently as soon as he graduated from Harvard, he announced to Mark, who raged at him “for the only time in our relationship… He said, ‘America needs you. You will spend your life like a tourist, living out of a suitcase.’” But Robert feared a relapse if he stayed in America, and with Betsy gone already, ostensibly for good, Mark moved to Fort Hill, where he watched the communards from a distance. By now there were around fifty of them, and as Mark would say later in the Avatar, he was struck by their “vitality,” and “even though I didn’t know them, just even their physical presence on the top of this hill helped me through an awful lot of changes.” He longed “to contribute something to what was going on up here,” but he didn’t know what that could be, since “they had enough people with hammers in their hands.”
Serendipity would supply a solution. One evening in June 1968, a few weeks after Mark moved to Fort Hill and a week after Robert flew to London, never to live again in the U.S., as promised, Mark was waiting at a bus stop in Cambridge, while, next to him, a sailor argued loudly with a girlfriend. A third-floor tenant of a nearby apartment building, angered by the noise, hurled a potted geranium at the sailor. “This was real slapstick,” Mark would later tell a journalist, “and I started to laugh, but when the sailor looked over at me for laughing at him, I felt bad about it and started yelling at the guy in the window.” He specifically yelled “Motherfucker!” The tenant replied in kind, and Mark “tried to open the front door and go up after him,” and just then a man walked up and said, “Hey, kid, how old are you?” “Twenty,” Mark snarled. “Follow me,” the man said without identifying himself. He worked in public relations in Boston, Mark later learned, and for some reason—was it the “seeker” in Mark?—he followed the man a few blocks to a waiting limousine and stood while the man shouted to someone inside it, “I found one. He’s twenty and he hates.” Then “a groovy-looking blond chick” emerged from the limo to say that she was scouting talent for a movie. Her name was Sally Dennison, and she was an assistant to the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who was prepping his first—and, as it turned out, only—American production. Mark had never heard of Antonioni. Even so, in an Aquarian-age twist on golden-age Hollywood legend, the hat-check girl or cabana boy in the right place at the right time, Mark had just been discovered.
This is an extremely private person. However, there are other indications in the chart where he’s, let’s say, destined for public exposure, and that would be the North Node conjunct, the very top of the chart, which has to do with the marketplace and profession. And North Node—that little loop up there, every chart has one—is going to give some indication of where an individual tends to be pulled forward. We’re called to that area, and here it is, he’s called to the public, he’s called to make an impact, okay, but it’s also the most challenging area of any chart. So if you want to find the area that comes easiest for a person, like their comfort zone, you look to the South Node, the bottom of the chart, and with him, he’s totally safe in the realm of his mind. To come out and expose himself up there, okay, that’s like the front lines of battle. It’s really tough, and he can do it, but he needs to come back to regroup, and then he can go out a little bit. The combination of the forces in the twelfth house also represents a very strong inclination throughout life of retreat and withdrawal, over and over again. Wherever Pluto is in the chart, it represents a place where you power up, okay; and typically, people who are born with Saturn in the twelfth house have this overriding sensitivity, almost like a crab without its shell. So, throughout his life, he would be constantly searching for some kind of sanctuary, some place where he can find psychic protection. And often times when this happens, people will make a home either in a wilderness region or some kind of commune that is defined by principles and visions that are set apart from society.
Around the time Mark married Betsy, Blow-Up, Antonioni’s film about Swinging London, was released in the U.S. Antonioni was already a hallowed name on the arthouse circuit, but Blow-Up was an international breakout hit with special appeal to college students, so possibly Mark had passed a theater in Cambridge with a long line of students waiting to see it or heard someone at Harvard reference it. He would later watch a number of Antonioni films and say in an interview with Roger Ebert, “Nothing happens, man; it’s just a lot of people going nowhere.” He didn’t miss the point; he nailed it. Antonioni was the auteur of alienation, a master of composition whose frames were filled with victims of the automated modern world, characters who yearned to connect but couldn’t and often dragged themselves through desultory affairs set against desolate landscapes. Blow-Up was a kaleidoscopic exception that captured the spirit of sixties youth culture, even though its director was in his fifties. It was notorious at the time for a scene with full-frontal nudity. In Hollywood, where the hoary Hays Code was still in effect, nudity was prohibited.
Blow-Up was distributed, not financed, by MGM, which, like all major Hollywood studios, was struggling with the decline in movie attendance due to television. Exploitation filmmakers might have the right idea, they decided: leave television to families and target youth with sex, blood, and salty language. Blow-Up opened with modest expectations and without Code approval, the beginning of the end of the Code, and MGM was thunderstruck that an art film directed by an inscrutable European could take in so much money. Who was this wizard, this youth whisperer? Let’s get him over here to make an American Blow-Up. He could do whatever he wanted at MGM’s expense, and Antonioni embarked on a tour of the country, chasing inspiration. He found it in Death Valley at Zabriskie Point, just outside the Nevada border in California. A sign at Zabriskie Point encapsulated its origins: “This is an area of ancient lake beds deposited five to ten million years ago. These beds have been tilted and pushed upward by earth forces, and eroded by wind and water.” Five to ten million years! Nature had been working that long to sculpt the perfect location for Michelangelo Antonioni. He merged it with a recent newspaper story about a young man who stole a light aircraft in Arizona and, when he went to return it, was shot and killed by authorities. Antonioni added a girl to the story. She and the boy would somehow converge here, a kind of contemporary Adam and Eve in a fossilized Garden of Eden.
Antonioni spoke fluent English but not the American vernacular. For that he would need an American writer, and he preferred someone young, a Hollywood outsider like himself. He read novels and plays by young Americans during his travels, and while staying in New York, he tracked down Sam Shepard, the author of a one-act play, Icarus’s Mother, produced in Greenwich Village at Caffe Cino, which was to theater in the sixties what CBGB would be to rock & roll in the seventies. There was an offstage airplane in Icarus’s Mother, and Antonioni “figured that since he had an airplane in his movie we had something in common,” Shepard remembered. Antonioni headed back to Rome, awaiting Shepard’s arrival to collaborate on the screenplay. They weren’t very compatible. Most Italian intellectuals of the day were Marxist to one degree or another, and so it was with Antonioni, who was enamored of youthful radicalism and titillated by the widespread sense of imminent revolution. For Shepard, then twenty-four, it was sufficient to be part of a revolutionary theater movement. Ideology wasn’t his métier, and he found the sixties “terrifying”: “It felt like everything was going to get blown up sky-high. It didn’t feel like flower power. It felt like Armageddon.”
Shepard gave the screenplay an anticapitalist subplot about real-estate development in the desert, but Antonioni, he said, wanted “a lot of Marxist jargon and Black Panther speeches. I couldn’t do it.” He was replaced by Fred Gardner, a Marxist journalist and antiwar activist, and the airplane thief became a student radical suspected of gunning down a cop. Three other writers were credited for the script, including Antonioni, but there was never really a final draft of it; the film would be semi-improvised as Antonioni shot footage of actual campus protests and staged an encounter session between Kathleen Cleaver, a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, and fledgling revolutionaries. He decided against casting professional actors as his two main characters. The people he chose would be the characters; if the boy was named Steve in life, that would be his name in the film. He didn’t know what he wanted exactly; he would know it when he saw it, and he saw it relatively quickly in the case of the girl. A colleague showed him Revolution, a documentary about the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene, and there was a dance troupe in it, a naked dance troupe performing in a psychedelic lightshow, and Antonioni was impressed by one of the dancers. “She was so beautiful, she’d knock you right off your feet,” Mark would say later in Rolling Stone. “I guess I was nailed to the floor when I first saw her, otherwise I would’ve been blown over.” She was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, where she was making a pot in the ceramics department when she called to the phone and told that Antonioni had her in mind for the lead in his new film. Unlike Mark, she had heard of Antonioni. Her name was Daria Halprin and, within days of the call, she was flown to Los Angeles for a screen test and the girl of Zabriskie Point was “Daria.”
But finding her male counterpart was a problem. Production was delayed for weeks while Sally Dennison, Antonioni’s proxy, searched for “a boy who’s been involved in the student revolt” and “what you see when you go to Berkeley.” When he didn’t turn up in Berkeley or Haight-Ashbury, the search extended to Hollywood, as if such a creature existed there, and then to the counterculture capitals of the east coast, Harvard Square and Greenwich Village. In the latter alone, well over a thousand contestants responded to a cattle call and were asked to say “Fuck you.” That was the audition. It had to be said with conviction, and Mark had aced the audition unwittingly by shouting “Motherfucker!” at a bus stop. He had a beard at the time, which might have evoked Che Guevara, one of the character’s alleged prototypes. Daria was tall and Mark was taller, so he wouldn’t have to stand on an apple box in a two-shot. Both he and Daria had brown hair and light eyes, hers green, his blue. Sally Dennison must have realized he was a likely finalist before he met with the film’s executive producer the next day and with Antonioni ten days later in New York. He shaved his beard reluctantly for a screen test, and learned he had been given the part after the requisite flight to L.A. He wasn’t sure he wanted the part. “Hollywood scared me,” he would tell the Boston Globe in 1973. “I felt lucky if I could get out of it with my skin.”
He was persuaded to go forward by Mel Lyman. He had already tried, more than once, to speak to Lyman, who couldn’t be bothered. The purpose of the Fort Hill Community—purpose was one of its loaded words—was to assist its moving spirit, Lyman, in his various creative endeavors, and too many people were looking for a free ride; they were deficient in feeling; they ran from pain; they had yet to wake up, and were unable to be of service. A worthy recruit would have—check one or more—a trust fund, reputable parents like Kay Boyle, arty credentials, media connections, an exploitable skill or skill set. Possibly Mark was thinking of the last by becoming an apprentice carpenter, his job when Sally Dennison discovered him; and back in Boston, before he packed or didn’t pack for a long stay in Hollywood, he called again on Mel Lyman. Antonioni, did he say? The lead in a movie? Have a seat! There were so many things the community needed, practical things, equipment, and if Mark accepted this part—and he really should accept it—maybe they could finally acquire those things, and he could certainly help Lyman as a filmmaker by making valuable contacts in Hollywood. So it went for a couple of hours, at least. Mark had a guaranteed place in the Lyman Family now, and as far as he was concerned, that was the first of just two rewards that would come from Zabriskie Point. You may already have surmised the second.
It was a star-crossed shoot from the start. Antonioni’s extemporaneous directing style was an aberration in assembly-line Hollywood, and MGM accused him of wastefulness, not without cause. For one shot he insisted that a new floor be added to a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles to improve the view from its windows, and for outdoor shots with billboards in them, he ordered the billboards changed. It wasn’t him but Hollywood that was wasteful, he said; he had sought and gotten a small, young crew, but the labor unions forced him to hire extraneous tradesmen, reactionary types who regarded Antonioni as a “pinko dago pornographer” and repeatedly halted production with de-facto strikes and complaints to the unions about minor infractions of industry regulations. They may also have informed the FBI that hundreds of hippie extras were being bused from Nevada to the desert location in California to have sex in the film’s “love-in” scene, a fantasy orgy intercut with Mark and Daria making love in the sand. Antonioni was already being surveilled by the FBI because of his association with Kathleen Cleaver and other perceived enemies of the state, and the love-in scene supplied the FBI with an excuse to openly investigate him for violating the Mann Act, an antiquated federal statute that forbade the transportation of “any woman or girl” across state borders “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery.” In fact, what was transported to the set by the truckload was a powdery grade of sand that wouldn’t chafe the skin of the seventy or so extras, not hundreds of them, as they mimed sex in the scene. One extra recalled Antonioni “dashingly commanding” Mark off the set for “laughing uproariously…at our feeble attempts to create ‘love noises'” for a wild-track recording.
Mark was another headache to Antonioni. Like countless young men opposed to the war, he was a draft resister, and the draft board ordered him to report for a physical exam, which must have alarmed everyone with a stake in the film: how would it ever be completed if its star were shipped to boot camp? The physical was a rite of passage for Mark’s generation, and the freakout at the induction center was a common tactic of draft dodgers, but it succeeded in Mark’s case, backed as it was by his madhouse stint and a police record with a recent arrest: during a break in filming, he attended a concert in Connecticut and spat in the face of a plainclothes cop and probable narc, though Mark was charged with breach of peace and resisting arrest, not again with possession. In the same period, he spent a weekend with Lyman at Fort Hill and, as he reminisced in Rolling Stone, they “stayed up and smoked some of [Lyman’s] fantastic weed, and listened to his music. All the music he ever recorded he played for me that weekend.” Drug use, prevalent in the commune’s early phase, impeded reality, Lyman later decided, and he frowned upon drugs, except when they suited his agenda; and what was his agenda in scrambling this kid with “fantastic weed,” sleep deprivation, and aural bombardment for two days? He wanted to compose the score of Zabriskie Point, and he inculcated a zealous agent in Mark, who, back in California, began to pester Antonioni to listen to the recordings he had brought with him from Boston.
But Antonioni had his own ideas about the score. He envisioned bands like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and the Doors writing songs for it, and while he would reject “L’America” by the Doors, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead contributed a guitar instrumental for the love-in scene and eerie Pink Floyd sound collages would play over the film’s title sequence and its unforgettable finale: a series of dreamlike explosions, the revolution as imagined by Daria. Eventually, to placate Mark, Antonioni listened to Lyman’s recordings. “It’s hard to say what he thought of them,” Mark related in Rolling Stone:
I noticed that during one of the more spirited pieces he was twitching in his chair quite a bit. I mean, he had a terrible slant on what was happening here in America; he had a real European outlook. I tried to make him aware of what was happening here. I told him about Fort Hill, about Avatar. I told him about Mel and what he meant to this country. But he never understood. It was really frustrating.
It’s frustrating to read of Mark’s frustration. Why was “a real European outlook” necessarily negative? Did every view of America have to conform to America’s view of itself, and was Antonioni obliged to make the film about revolutionary youth of the sixties? Couldn’t he present a few personal impressions expressed poetically and not, as Americans tend to prefer, literally? And what exactly did “Mel mean to this country”? He was a minor celebrity to folkies and Avatar readers, idolized only by his Family, but he would be idolized by all if Mark could manage it; and for the rest of the shoot, Mark proselytized on behalf of his “good” father, Lyman, in defiance of his “bad” father, Antonioni. I believe that’s how, unconsciously, he graded male authority figures, even when they weren’t much older than him, and while he may have recognized his actual father, a factory worker, in the Teamsters on the set, he approached them anyway with the Avatar in hand, trying to save their souls. Lyman had equipped him with multiple issues of the Avatar, some with Lyman on the cover, and Mark used them in a failed product-placement campaign: he would dress the set with an Avatar, arranging it so that Lyman’s face was legible to the camera, and the raptor-eyed Antonioni would snatch it out of the frame. Antonioni was often aloof with his leading men and magnanimous with his leading ladies, and that applied to Zabriskie Point, so Mark’s cold war with the director wasn’t entirely one-sided, but he handled it poorly. An assistant director described him as “incorrigible.” Delivering him to the set was a routine struggle, since “he always seemed to have something better to be doing,” and he created “a bad environment for Daria,” his sole convert to the Lyman sect.
The climactic battle of the cold war was fought in March 1969, when Mark flew to Boston, possibly to see his new son for the first time, and showed up unexpectedly in Fort Hill to announce that he wasn’t going back. It was all “a big Hollywood lie,” he told Lyman, and he had decided to toss “a monkey wrench in the works” by quitting the movie as it was finally winding down. Lyman hid his horror. Mark was his ticket to Hollywood expansion, and the ticket was trying to cancel itself. Out came the stash of pot again. Antonioni would yield if Mark played hooky instead of quitting, Lyman suggested; and sure enough, when Antonioni phoned Fort Hill to negotiate, he agreed to reshoot scenes with dialogue that addressed Mark’s concerns—a spiritual revolution was just as important as a political revolution, Mark lectured him—and to meet with Lyman in Boston as soon as the film wrapped. Instead, fleeing MGM, the FBI, the subversive crew, and Mark and his furtive guru, Antonioni returned to Rome, taking with him the 50,000 feet, or roughly nine hours, of footage that he had shot for the last eight months, which he began to edit without interference. “Most everything we worked out was left on the cutting-room floor,” Mark would complain. It’s impossible to identify what remains of it in the final cut, but there’s an intriguing line delivered by “Mark” about pot: “This group I was in had rules about smoking. They were on a reality trip.” The response of “Daria” is likewise intriguing in light of forthcoming events: “What a drag.”
Going back to the concentration of Virgo—he’s got Moon in Virgo too, with Virgo rising, and Mars in Virgo—that can naturally lend itself to a kind of introspective nature, and also things around him are not falling in line with his expectations of them. One thing with people with Virgo rising—they’re born with this fine-tuned, discriminating intelligence that enables them to pretty much see what’s wrong with any picture that’s given to them, so that they are persistently not only perceiving what’s wrong or incorrect, they’re adamant about correcting it. And the downside of that is that the world at large, as you know, is going to be constantly producing one imperfection and flaw after another, and sometimes Virgo-rising people have to figure out, “How do I live in a totally flawed and imperfect world when I just want to keep correcting it? It’s like the job is never done.” And so he may have had to struggle with that kind of perfectionist outlook and this compulsion to correct stuff that, in essence, would never be corrected, even though he’s compelled to continue trying.
I didn’t expect to hear from Daria Halprin when I e-mailed her about an interview, so I wasn’t disappointed by her silence. She has seldom given interviews about Zabriskie Point, and the little that’s known of her involvement with Mark comes predominantly from him and David Felton’s exposé in Rolling Stone. It began, in fact, with silence. “Mostly we just stared at each other,” Mark told David Felton. “For months I was just completely overwhelmed by her.” That was likely because of her manner as much as her appearance. Her father, Lawrence Halprin, was a distinguished landscape architect, and her mother, Anna Halprin, was a modern-dance pioneer with a company that included Daria. It was Anna Halprin’s company that performed naked in Revolution, which of course led Antonioni to contact Daria, a pedigreed, cultured native of San Francisco. She might have reminded Mark of the blue-blooded girls of Greenwich, Connecticut, and he might have struck her as a blue-collar bad boy, and “Look but don’t touch” seems to have been the initial rule for both.
But how could they resist one another? They were accidental actors and lottery winners, unique among those they knew, and neighbors at the Chateau Marmont, at least in late 1968, when their romance on film became a romance in fact. What a place Chateau Marmont must have been in 1968! Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski were residents that year, and Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson, who was juggling Morrison and the actor Christopher Jones, another resident, and we can picture one or more of these people saying to the concierge or valet, “Who’s that beautiful girl with the long hair, the one who’s always with that good-looking guy? Are they those kids in the Antonioni movie? Do you know what I heard about that? Hundreds of hippies are really going to ball in a big orgy scene.” We can also picture Mark telling Lyman about this stellar girl who would hopefully move to Fort Hill when the movie was over, and Lyman all but drooling. Daria’s background made her a better recruit than Mark, and with both stars of Zabriskie Point in his thrall, Lyman would have Hollywood at his feet. Then too, in the Family way, Mark had been forwarding his earnings to the commune, minus what he presumably sent to Betsy, and if Daria joined, that would be gravy. As newcomers with equal screen time, each probably received the same amount for Zabriskie Point—in Mark’s case it was $40,000: nearly $270,000 when adjusted for inflation—and Daria, unlike Mark, had no kids to support.
For weeks he tried to sell her on their future in Boston, but Daria, to her credit, balked. Finally, while they were shooting in Berkeley, she had a vision of Lyman and a change of heart. “Mel just paid me a little visit one night in California,” she would say of her vision in the Avatar; and after production wrapped in April 1969, she and Mark took the scenic route to Fort Hill, driving across the country. “It was,” David Felton writes, “a very happy time in their lives. They were the center of attention on the Hill, and they were in love.” Now, largely because of their revenue, the Family would colonize New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and (of course) Hollywood, and buy a farm in Kansas; and the moving spirit would move from branch to branch and reduce his leadership role. Every hardcore communard was Mel Lyman, effectively, so the original could leave the minutiae to them and occupy more time with creating and procreating. He fathered twelve children by seven Family members, and one of his daughters was named Daria in tribute to his star apostle, or maybe to appease her. He must have sensed immediately, with his nose for potential dissent, that she would never thrive as Mark did on the Spartan life and confrontational “honesty” of Fort Hill. What do you mean by that? Show me your feelings! Get real! Wake up! That, I think, was the appeal of the place to those who stuck it out there: the jolt of the ongoing group therapy made the outside world seem dull by contrast. Lyman’s Jesus charade was superfluous. The Family’s mysticism had mostly to do with astrology—visitors were asked their Sun signs in the manner of traffic cops demanding proof of insurance—and politically they were anti-establishment in some ways and reactionary in others. There was a feminine quality about Lyman, who mandated gender conformity in his followers, as if to boost his own. Fort Hill men wore their hair relatively short and the women wore modest dresses, never pants; and everyone got together every Sunday in autumn to watch football on television. Lyman loved football.
Mark missed most of the regular season in 1969. Having worked with Italy’s best-known filmmaker after Fellini, he was offered a starring role in Uomini contro, a film about World War I to be directed in Yugoslavia by another well-known Italian, Francesco Rosi, starting in September. He told a newspaper columnist that he “wanted a few months to reflect on what all had happened to me” and he “might do other pictures, but not right away.” He might do other pictures? Must is the obligatory verb for a cash cow; and while Mark was in Yugoslavia, Daria’s honeymoon with the Family ended. The specifics are limited to a single anecdote. According to David Felton, Daria called a publicist at MGM to say that she was broke and staying at the Family outpost in New York and hoping to book a few television commercials. “Without any trouble,” Felton quotes the publicist, “I lined up some jobs for her. But when I called her back in New York, she wasn’t around. They said Daria had to be sent back to Fort Hill for retraining, that she was too much of an individual.” What did “retraining” entail? Felton, citing “fairly reliable, anonymous” sources, writes that Daria was physically assaulted by Family women, and he documents other instances of members beating heretics or confining them in a kind of dungeon, which is consistent with Lyman’s view that “FORCE” would change those who “won’t learn gracefully.” Kay Boyle, who once observed a shrine to Charles Manson in the children’s playroom at Fort Hill, believed that “the notoriety of Manson had an effect” on Lyman, that “he saw even greater dimensions that he might rise to in some way,” and she may have been right. He exchanged letters with Manson and expressed interest in meeting him, and though Lyman never incited his followers to kill, rumor has implicated him in the bank robbery that left one of them dead—or two followers, if we count Mark’s later death in prison.
Anyone who has ever been in love can appreciate Daria’s probable reason for remaining in the fold after finding herself at odds with it. Surely at some point she spoke to Mark in Yugoslavia, but how private was the setting? He would have urged her to stay in any case, and once he returned, they were both busy with promotional duties for the soon-to-be-released Zabriskie Point. Mark was photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue with run-of-the-mill results, certainly compared to Bruce Davidson’s timeless images of Mark and Daria on location in the desert, looking like the older siblings of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, the teenage stars of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, a pop-culture phenomenon of the previous year. MGM seems to have noted the resemblance and angled for Mark and Daria to decorate the dorm rooms of college students, just as Whiting and Hussey were tacked to the walls of high-school girls. Davidson’s photos were used in most of the promotional material for Zabriskie Point. One of them ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone, though not in connection with David Felton’s article, and a more striking image made the cover of Look magazine, a lesser Life, inviting a rare public comment from Mark’s mother. Surprised by a reporter, she said that “we don’t really want the publicity,” perhaps anxious that the Father Brett matter and Mark’s subsequent breakdown would come to light. “Let us wait until the movie is out before calling him a star,” she added with a touch of admonishment. We can only imagine the reaction of this pious, beleaguered woman if she ever saw her son fornicate in the midst of a hippie orgy, but we know the reactions of Mark and Daria. He disparaged the film—at the premiere, yet—as “a revolutionary Disneyland. Antonioni has given us a lot of pretty pictures, but otherwise it’s a void—there’s no context, no feeling.” Daria, handed the cudgel, judged that Antonioni “doesn’t understand people—he didn’t give his characters enough room to be human.” Mark’s opinion of the movie worsened over time, but Daria, fifteen years later, said that while she used to be “quite embarrassed” by it, “at my age it becomes enjoyable.” Still, she regretted that “it wasn’t a silent film. I would have been better off.” She and Mark were both pilloried for their flat performances.
Yet, for all of Antonioni’s disagreements with Sam Shepard about dialogue, Zabriskie Point essentially is a silent film, with the score by Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, and so on, functioning as the live piano or moviehouse orchestra of the 1920s and earlier. Even in the encounter session with Kathleen Cleaver, the film’s only garrulous scene, what’s said is far less important than the faces of the people saying it, and so it is with Mark and Daria. To gaze upon them is to know as much as Antonioni cares for you to know. Their sparse youthspeak is filler, and already sounded dated to the cognoscenti in 1970. Pop culture was evolving at hyperspeed, and Zabriskie Point arrived a minute late with insurmountable expectations. It was the Edsel of movies, scorned by critics and snubbed by audiences, and its stars were in the awkward position of having to promote a film that they disliked as much as, or more than, anyone. When they went on The Dick Cavett Show and the host mentioned that he was planning to see Zabriskie Point the following week, Mark told him to save his money. “It was clear from their grim-visaged entrance that they were soiling themselves by appearing on a commercial television program,” Cavett said in one of two interviews I’ve read with him about his torpid guests—“I wondered if they were zombies of some sort”—but I interpret the episode differently. It was taped in April 1970, and by then their relationship was shaky, per Mark to David Felton, and their demeanor on the show implied squabbles and a brittle truce. Then too one of their fellow guests was the critic Rex Reed, whose bellicose review of Zabriskie Point had fired a shot at them—“two of the worst performances of the decade”—and Daria, wearing a long dress in the Family style and undoubtedly conscious that the show would be watched attentively at Fort Hill, may have been wary of repercussions. In fact, when another guest, Mel Brooks, asked if their commune was like the one in Easy Rider, Daria finally perked up, eager to exhibit her training or retraining, while Mark corrected Cavett’s misapprehension, deploying the Lyman lingo to define the purpose of the community, not “commune.” The Dick Cavett Show was an oasis of intelligence on mainstream American television in 1970, but showbiz banter was its bread and butter, and because he had to wrench it from Mark and Daria, Cavett mocked them on camera and decades later in interviews, though I would say they gave him something better. He had scores of cooperative guests who aren’t memorable precisely because they were cooperative.
On a legendary episode of The Merv Griffin Show, Mark and Daria were joined by combative guests: Abbie Hoffman, the anarchist cofounder of the Youth International Party, or “Yippies,” and Tony Dolan, a conservative journalist and folk singer. Yes, you read that accurately. Either in earnest or to parody progressive folkies like Joan Baez, Dolan would accompany himself on guitar while deploring the liberal bias of the New York Times or opponents of McCarthyism. Young conservatives are absent from the popular narrative of the sixties, but Dolan, who later became a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and adviser to George W. Bush, was twenty-one at the time he appeared on Merv Griffin. Abbie Hoffman, meanwhile, wore a shirt fashioned from an American flag, and lest the shirt offend viewers, the network erased Hoffman electronically. Everyone on the panel was visible but him, a blurry pattern heard arguing with Dolan. Mark got a piece of the action, siding with Hoffman. The argument continued backstage when the taping was over, and Mark punched Dolan in the face; but a gossip column reported that they met accidentally a few nights later at a diner in Connecticut and discussed their differences amiably.
Despite the failure of Zabriskie Point, and for roughly a year following its release, gossip columns covered its stars in a forgotten format, the items about them separated by ellipsis from items about others: “…Mark Frechette and his wife got the divorce…” “…Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette say they’re moving from their Boston commune to Manhattan’s East Village…” The Family’s New York branch was in the East Village, and Mark and Daria moved to it to pursue their film careers. Los Angeles was “such a vacuum,” Mark said, that he couldn’t imagine himself living there, but when the commune began its Hollywood expansion in July 1970, he and Daria were among the first residents at the Family’s rented house in L.A.; and that September, Daria moved out of it and into the apartment of a girlfriend who lived in the area. She never returned to retrieve her car: that’s how finished with the Family she was. Lyman had recently landed in L.A., which “sort of brought it all to a head,” Mark told David Felton, so Daria seems to have a problem with Lyman in particular. Was it sexual? The Family practiced serial monogamy, save its polygamous leader; but if he desired Daria, surely he wouldn’t have acted on it and risked losing Mark, who earned $20,000 while working abroad and made his usual endowment. Mark furnished no details of Daria’s decision to leave, only that she “just didn’t want to give what was asked of her.”
But she still wanted Mark, as she let him know, and he was forced to choose between her and the Family. It was “a terrible situation,” he would say. “I was really a basket case—boy, was I torn.” Wisely and shockingly, he chose her—for the moment. If a romantic relationship is inevitably a cult of two, it undermines a cult at large, so Lyman discouraged couples from spending time alone. Now this couple had some time alone. They had no real chance of longevity—they were too young, and he was lost and irascible—but, picturing them free of hovering meddlers, it’s impossible not to root for them. They lasted less than a week: three Family members knocked on their door and handed Mark a plane ticket to Boston. The moving spirit had spoken, and Mark obeyed, flying back to Fort Hill, where he would “let time wash away the pain.” It may never have washed away entirely. When he returned to L.A. a few months later, he called on Daria, but she was gone and he left her a book by Lyman. He had learned nothing.
Daria, terrified of the Family, had moved twice in the interim. “They came after her and threatened to beat her up,” a friend informed Felton. “She kept calling home, saying she was afraid she was gonna get killed.” She had very nearly stolen the commune’s chief breadwinner, though he was about to be eclipsed by the Fort Hill Construction Company, the Family putting its carpentry skills to profitable use. At a film festival in Yugoslavia in early 1971, Daria met the director of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper, and she married him, pregnant with his daughter, a year and a half later. Out of the fire and into the frying pan! Hopper, addicted to drugs and alcohol, was given to shooting guns indoors, and Daria fled home to San Francisco, where she became interested in movement therapy and cofounded, with her mother, a dancer’s workshop. Her interest in therapy, she said, “came out of my commitment to save myself”—she was “very close to burnout”—and one wonders if she ever, in hindsight, considered Mark in clinical terms and concluded that he was salvageable or too far gone, a casualty of his past and temperament, if not the times or constellations.
I forgot to mention this. I should go ahead and say it now. This is the chart of an extreme individual. This is not a casual person. This is a person of extremes. And part of that—with Pluto in the twelfth house, this is kind of the signature of a fanatical nature—if they’re going to participate and go into something, it’s going to be all the way or nothing. This is not someone that is going to be at peace with mediocrity, for example. Mediocrity is death to this kind of individual. So this person is going to have extreme reactions because his soul depends on it.
“When Mark is just standing there,” a Lyman Family member once remarked, “he’s handsome but rather bland; but when Mark is excited or angry, something extraordinary takes over.” Movie rebels are usually excited or angry or both, and Mark always played rebels, but he was languid, in the Antonioni way, in Zabriskie Point and stoical as an army officer in Uomini contro, which was released as Many Wars Ago in English-speaking countries. Only in his third and final film, La grande scrofa nera, or The Big Black Sow, is he as combustible as he was in life. It was made in Italy at some point in 1970, and its plot paralleled his dilemma with Daria, as he must have recognized. His character in the film, the forward-thinking son of a domineering peasant farmer, marries a city girl who fails to mesh with his insular family, and when they brutalize her, he retaliates with patricide, fratricide, and sororicide, as if to articulate Mark’s unacknowledged rage at Lyman and the rest for driving Daria away. Italian films of the period often featured foreigners who performed in their native languages and were dubbed in postproduction, and that may have led Mark to feel like a puppet and limit himself to American projects; but with his lacerating reviews for his flop debut, how many projects came his way, and what kind? Most actors in his shoes would have accepted small roles in mainstream movies, lead roles in exploitation movies, and guest-starring roles on television shows like Gunsmoke—Mel Lyman was a huge fan of Gunsmoke—but such jobs wouldn’t have paid much or elevated Mark’s stock in Hollywood. The latter was of no concern to him, but it mattered to Lyman, who must have decided that it was better for Mark to wait for a vehicle that proved his value than it was to work and depreciate irredeemably.
Mark was lucky to have a simpatico agent: Joe Funicello, the brother of Annette Funicello, famous in the fifties as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club and in the sixties as the star of beach-party movies, Beach Blanket Bingo and so on. Joe Funicello knew the sort of material that would appeal to Mark, and somewhere around the beginning of 1973, he received the very thing: an adaptation of Crime and Punishment set not in nineteenth-century Russia but a contemporary American suburb. It was written by its attached director, Dezso Magyar, a young Hungarian émigré, and inspired, Dezso told me, by the climate of violence in the U.S. at the time: “I personally saw a couple of frightening episodes in Santa Monica, where I lived.” Only the strange tragedy of Mark Frechette could mix Annette Funicello, Dostoevesky, and political oppression in Hungary: Dezso was under surveillance there after directing three films that were considered subversive and banned, though praised abroad. He had been in California for less than a year when his reputation attracted a pair of novice producers with the funds for a movie if there was one he wanted to make. Crime and Punishment? Okay, fine. Now they needed a cast, and the script was sent to Joe Funicello, who recommended Mark, of course, and Dostoevesky would doubtlessly have agreed that Mark was the perfect Raskolnikov, described in the novel as “remarkably handsome,” “taller than usual, slim and well-built,” with “dark, chestnut-colored hair.” Mark had something of the mind-set of Dostoevesky’s soulful killer as well. Funicello was eager to introduce him to Dezso. “I believe that you guys will hit it off because you are not like a typical Hollywood guy who wants to make a movie,” Dezso remembers him saying.
He was dead on. It’s refreshing to hear Dezso’s take on Mark: “a totally natural human being” and “a very sweet man, certainly to me,” who was “low-key and very real” as well as “innately intelligent” and “sensitive; but I don’t think that he was terribly cultured, you know; I don’t think that he had the literary curiosity to go read Russian novels.” However, Mark did read Crime and Punishment to compare it to Dezso’s version, and he liked that Dezso injected politics into the moral inquest at the core of the novel: is a crime—in this case murder, with incidental theft—truly a crime if society is improved by it? Having worked with nonprofessional actors in Hungary, Dezso was unfazed by Mark’s lack of formal training, and he believes that his “naïve and honest and enthusiastic” approach endeared him to Mark, as did his confidence that Mark could pull off the Raskolnikov part, easily the most layered and challenging of his scant career. This film would correct Zabriskie Point, not in the sense of commercial triumph or making an idol of Mark; rather, he was treated as a full partner, often meeting with Dezso to analyze the script, sometimes at Mark’s house, meaning the Family’s house, though—and this too is refreshing—Dezso never once mentioned the Family to me. They had purchased two houses in Hollywood, but Dezso couldn’t recall the street of the one where he got together with Mark, only that it was in Laurel Canyon or someplace like it “where the people lived in a typical hippie lifestyle,” and Mark would strum a guitar, everything “nice” and “laid-back,” while they planned their film. They even scouted locations.
Then the inevitable happened: their producers were revealed as frauds. They had never had the money to make the film; they were hoping to secure a bank loan, which had been denied. Mark and Dezso were devastated. Joe Funicello, who “loved” Mark and was “very attached” to him, Dezso said, tried to find new funding, and Mark and Dezso did the same on their own, but they were unsuccessful and Mark’s master was calling him out of town. He left in July 1973, and Dezso never saw him again, not in person, though he would see him soon on television.
Mark headed to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lyman was holed up at the summer retreat owned by one of his most devout disciples. He and the Family had circled the wagons following the publication of the Rolling Stone article at the end of 1971. They mirrored each other so intently, their reflections seemed distorted in David Felton’s mirror. It was all lies, they claimed, with a single exception: Felton had written fairly about the moving spirit after finally gaining access to him. But Lyman was cannier than his flock, of course, who spoke too freely with the journalist embedded among them, differentiating themselves from another commune thus: “The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don’t preach peace and love. And we haven’t killed anyone—yet.”
In fact, thousands of communes were established across America in the late sixties and evacuated in the early seventies by hundreds of thousands of young people weary of being bullied by their “brothers” and “sisters.” Daria Halprin wasn’t an anomaly. The collapse of the commune movement contributed to the end of the sixties at least as much as the popular catalysts, the shootings at Kent State and the Manson murders. Idealism turned to cynicism. The pace of pop culture slackened. Activism continued in hotspots like Berkeley, but Russ Little, a founding member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was disgruntled by the mood there: “We were pulling out of Vietnam [and] a lot of people were going, ‘Well, everything is over, we’ll go back to college,’ and it wasn’t over at all. The same stuff was going on, you know; the same criminals, murderers and stuff, were still running the government.” Russ Little “couldn’t believe that Nixon got reelected in ’72”—and it wasn’t a narrow victory as it had been for Richard Nixon in 1968, when the nation was polarized. In 1972 college-aged voters and older voters both supported Nixon overwhelmingly, tuning out news reports that linked him to the growing Watergate scandal, which by the summer of 1973 couldn’t be disregarded: the game shows and soap operas of daytime television were preempted by live coverage of the Senate Watergate Committee’s hearings about the case, a miniseries with a stern audience on Martha’s Vineyard, where Mark and other Family members were remodeling Lyman’s retreat.
Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Dezso was still trying to raise the funds to make his film, and every so often Mark would call for an update and offer encouragement. Then one day he called and said, “Good news: I found the money, man. It’s all done, and I’m arriving tomorrow in L.A. with the financing.” Dezso is almost certain that he received the call on Wednesday, August 29, and that night, watching the eleven o’clock news, Dezso was “floored” by the headline story: Mark Frechette, the star of Zabriskie Point, had been arrested with an accomplice at the scene of a violent bank holdup in Boston. “It was a rather traumatic introduction to America” for Dezso.
Mark had two accomplices: Sheldon “Terry” Bernhard, the thirty-one-year-old pianist in the Lyman Family band, and Christopher Thein, a husky twenty-two-year-old known in the Family as “Herc,” short for Hercules. Thein was a drifter who wandered into the Family orbit in New Orleans, its sole recruit there, and while he’s identified in some accounts as Mark’s “best friend,” they met for the first time on Martha’s Vineyard that summer. They traveled to Fort Hill a week prior to the robbery, a “spur-of-the moment idea” Mark told the FBI, and enlisted Bernhard who, interviewed decades later in Death Valley Superstar, Michael Yaroshevsky’s half-hour documentary about Mark, said “they were going to do it without me if they weren’t going to do it with me” and he went along only because “I always tried to look out for them.” There were no cameras inside the branch of the New England Merchants National Bank they robbed that day, but more than half of Mark’s eighty-page FBI file consists of witness statements, and Mark and Bernhard were semi-cooperative with investigators, anxious to quell any question of the Family’s complicity before it was broached.
They had walked to the bank, a mile from Fort Hill, and “planned to escape on foot,” Bernhard stated, and leave town immediately afterward, “possibly going to the West Coast.” Thein wore a security-guard shirt, and Mark and Bernhard both wore fake moustaches, Mark well dressed in a dark suit and tie. All three men carried fully loaded .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolvers, the FBI file confirms, contradicting folklore that their guns were unloaded. Family members were armed of necessity in their early days in Fort Hill—the neighborhood was lethal and they were under near-constant siege—but Mark and Bernhard naturally said that the revolvers used in the robbery were obtained elsewhere. They entered the bank around five p.m., and Thein pretended to fill out a deposit slip while Mark sat with a bank officer and talked about a loan before quietly announcing the robbery to her, directing her to beckon to the security guard, whose post by the front door was assumed by Thein. Mark disarmed the guard and prodded him to unlock the door that led to the tellers’ area. Bernhard joined them now, slipping past the door with the guard and Mark, who, sotto voce, instructed the tellers to stand and line up next to the vault. Few customers at this point had any inkling that a stickup was underway. Some noticed that the arm patch on Thein’s shirt said MEDICAL CENTER, but there was a hospital across the street, so the patch didn’t appear odd, and his .38 was hidden in a paper bag with his hand inside it. Mark covered his own hands with gloves before touching anything, and Bernhard guarded the guard in an adjacent anteroom, waiting for Mark to fill their briefcases with cash.
If this all sounds like a professional bank heist, it wasn’t. Mark had one of the tellers collect the cash, but he “did not check to see that [the teller] got all the money,” another teller stated, “and further did not know which drawers contained the cash” and “was not very attentive” to the packing of his briefcase, since he was simultaneously watching the tellers beside the vault, none of whom could open it. Only the head teller, gone for the day, knew the combination to the vault, Mark was told, and again the guard opened the door to the tellers’ area so that Bernhard could hear what Mark had just heard about the vault, and together they decided it must be true. Because they hadn’t seen or heard anyone set off an alarm, they assumed it hadn’t happened; but two tellers had triggered the alarm surreptitiously, and though Bernhard, unlike Mark, expressed concern about the time factor within earshot of the tellers, he “then stated that they had enough time” to seize more loot—$10,150 was stolen altogether—and this is where they made their critical mistake. The robbery lasted as long as eight minutes, and “when we got to prison,” Bernhard recalled in Death Valley Superstar, “the bank robbers all came up to Mark [and] said… ‘We could’ve told you you’ve got to be out of there in two minutes, you dumb fucks.’” Even fleeing was silent-film comedy. They struggled with the door that led to the lobby while the tellers advised “that the handle had to be turned to the left.” Finally the guard opened the door for them, and as they approached Thein in the lobby, the comedy ended. Two policemen had just entered the bank, and the person they took for the security guard ordered them to drop their weapons. He had, one of them saw, “a brown paper bag in one hand and his right hand inside the bag,” and the second cop lunged for him and lost his balance, falling to the floor. Then Thein’s “hand came out of the bag holding a gun,” and he was shot twice in the chest by the fallen cop’s partner. Mark and Bernhard surrendered without further incident. Thein was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital across the street.
When the Symbionese Liberation Army held up a bank eight months later in San Francisco, the robbery lasted just over a minute and netted $10,700 with no fatalities. Its real success, however, was the spotlight role it afforded Patricia Hearst, now Tania, the SLA’s manufactured star. They wanted to make an agitprop movie using the bank’s security cameras, while Mark’s ruse of enquiring about a loan was, consciously or unconsciously, a restaging of the loan application for the arthouse movie he wanted to make, with a decidedly different outcome: the loan is approved, motherfuckers! Were his accomplices aware of the movie? The Boston Globe, quoting unnamed “friends,” reported that Mark was “worried about whether the film would be made” and “edgy for most of the summer,” which, of course, he spent alongside Thein on Martha’s Vineyard; but this does not mean that Thein knew he was robbing a bank on behalf of a screen adaptation of Crime and Punishment, or that Mark would have delivered the money to Dezso once he realized that had hadn’t stolen nearly enough—and he couldn’t have stolen nearly enough even if the vault had been opened, not with two briefcases. It’s hard to believe he thought otherwise, though his phone call that day to Dezso, now an eminent film teacher, would seem to be the smoking gun. Neither Mark nor Bernhard ever spoke of Crime and Punishment to the FBI or the media. They didn’t discuss motive at all with the former, and questioned by the latter, Mark defined the robbery as “an act of political protest” against the ultimate bad father: “We had been watching the Watergate hearings on television and…saw the American people sinking deeper into deeper into apathy and we felt an intense rage… Because banks are federally insured, robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon without hurting anybody.” He was echoed less effusively by Bernhard and with gusto by other Family members. “To me,” one of them declared, “robbing a bank is like robbing the government. Everybody’s money is insured.” Did she get that line from Mark, did he get it from her, or did they both get it from Mel Lyman?
The Family started the folklore about the unloaded weapons, telling the Globe that “the first chamber of Thein’s six-chamber pistol was empty” and “this is evidence that he did not plan to use it,” which is rather like saying that no noise was intended because one of six firecrackers wasn’t lit. The FBI file notes that they harassed the bank staff for a few days, demanding to know which teller had set off the alarm, but apparently it dawned on them that they might get more bad publicity that way and they backed off. Lyman craved fame, not infamy, and for that reason, if no other, I assign authorship of the robbery to Mark, who had effectively confirmed that, yes, the Family was the dangerous cult portrayed in Rolling Stone. Of course that wasn’t his conscious intention, but Mark was fractious by nature while servile to Lyman, a conflict that possibly festered beneath his awareness till it exploded in passive-aggressive form, with Nixon as the patsy.
Dezso believes that Mark had pondered Crime and Punishment ever since he read the book—what exactly is crime?—but Mark may finally have aspired to play Robin Hood, not Raskolnikov, after judging Dezso a worthy recipient of righteously liberated funds. Then too the cash wouldn’t be as easily traced to Dezso in California as it would be to the Family in Boston, though Mark would probably have shared some of it with them—or all of it, once he saw how little he had stolen—to affirm his value as a breadwinner. His reduced stature in the Family has been floated as another motive, and still another is that Mark aimed to authenticate his revolutionary character in Zabriskie Point; but the character was him—that’s why he was chosen—and as Bernhard pointed out in Death Valley Superstar, “we never expect anyone who’s played a bad guy”—an outlaw—“to live out the role.” The outlaw was a heroic role to Mark, obviously, as it was to the SLA and, we can guess, Hercules Thein. We can also guess that Hercules was powerless to resist the “something tremendous” that overtook Mark in states of excitement or anger, and that Mark was haunted by Thein’s death, even if he never addressed it in the interviews he gave at the Charles Street Jail in downtown Boston, where he and Bernhard would languish for eight months. But ghosts are often unaddressed, as if the silence will hold them at bay, and Mark himself would be a ghost a little over two years after his “personal revolutionary act.”
So we’re looking at the death chart, and there’s a particular transit happening that month, and that is what astrology calls the transit of Neptune. This is a once-in-a-lifetime transit, and when Neptune crosses an area, often this will bring about experiences of either apathy or depression. The other transit that happened right around his death, Saturn was starting to enter his twelfth house, approaching his natal Saturn, what we call his Saturn Return. See, Saturn Return represents an era, kind of a rite of passage that happens to everybody between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty. A lot of people who become famous young never make it to the Saturn Return.
Robert Dole had moved from England to Ireland and eventually became an English professor in Quebec, but he made an annual trip to the U.S. to see his parents, and in 1973 the trip coincided with the bank robbery. Robert learned that Mark was in the Charles Street Jail and visited him there, sidestepping talk of the robbery “because I did not want him to think that I was judging him.” Afterward they corresponded by mail, Robert writing at length on a typewriter, Mark responding tersely by hand. In one note he sounds like the biblical prophet of their Cambridge days, asking if Robert has “any notion of the blood that will soon flow” in America: “She is going to bleed & burn & crumble.” Mark had enjoyed listening to Robert read poetry when they lived together, and Robert approximated the experience in letters by transcribing poems like W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a vision of the apocalypse that Mark must have devoured. He updated Robert about his case: “we pleaded guilty” with “no deal involved” and “the judge followed the DA’s recommendation of 6-15.” He and Bernhard ended up at Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, an hour’s drive from Boston, and this struck Robert as “lucky”: “The man who started it, as an experimental progressive place, is a friend of my parents’, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him praise the ideas that are behind its liberality.” He went on to advise Mark to “let your prison be your university”: “I assure you that there is much more to human knowledge and wisdom than what Mel Lyman and astrology can offer you.”
To some extent, Mark heeded the advice. In the lengthiest article written about him during his time at Norfolk—it ran in Oui, the sister publication of Playboy—it’s mentioned that he “has set himself a regular program of reading” and “read Solzhenitsyn straight through and clearly sees himself as the prototypical Solzhenitsyn hero, the political prisoner.” He met with the journalist—Julia Cameron, the future wife (and ex-wife) of Martin Scorsese—in the prison library, in fact. But the slant of the article is the Lyman Family, and Mark speaks of Lyman with the ardor of an alcoholic who attends twelve-step meetings three times a day. He was visited by Family members three times a week, the article says. It doesn’t say if Julia Cameron attempted to interview them, but regardless, the Family shunned the media till it tentatively lifted the veil fifteen years after the robbery, by then “less a commune” and more “a conglomerate,” People revealed in 1986, with “income from the family-owned construction business expected to reach $3.5 million this year.” The business renovated celebrity homes—Steven Spielberg and Dustin Hoffman were clients—while in their own homes, still shuttling from one to the next in areas they helped to gentrify, the Family savored “good food and wine,” “happy we no longer have to eat radish soup.” Mel Lyman had died in 1978, but they were cagey about specifics because he “pleaded for privacy” and it was “still too painful to talk about.” The living can’t be sainted, however, so he may have been more valuable to them as the holy spirit invoked every time they watched Gunsmoke, as they did faithfully, or one of the films he had catalogued in “The Lord’s List of All Time Movie Greats.” Every Family household had a copy of the list. Zabriskie Point wasn’t on it.
In her profile of Mark, Julia Cameron describes him as having bulked up since his Zabriskie Point days—“Frechette attributes this change to the prison diet, mainly starch, and a weight-lifting regime”—but he doesn’t look any heavier in our final glimpse of him in March 1975, when he directed a theater production, The White House Transcripts, which recreated Nixon’s tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office with aides played by thieves and murderers at Norfolk, an amusing concept that made national headlines. The project was proposed to Mark by its creator, a public-relations man in Boston, possibly the one assisting Sally Dennison that fateful evening in another life. Here was Mark’s chance to correct the bank robbery, characterized by some as political theater, with unmistakable political theater and to do with others as Antonioni had done with him, coaxing performances from amateur actors. It was “amazing how Mark got us into our parts,” one of them told People. Terry Bernhard, interviewed for CBS Evening News in the putty nose he wore as Nixon, spoke of the irony of impersonating a figure whose actions had ostensibly motivated robbery. Mark was interviewed in the same broadcast, his convict number appearing beneath his name on the screen, too beautiful to be a convict and a blatant class act who might finally have found his calling, though he downplayed the production in typical fashion, saying it was simply a way to pass the time and “we all have a lot of time on our hands.”
Norfolk may have been “an experimental progressive place,” but it was still a prison, the most daunting of all institutions, and Mark had repudiated institutions in the wake of the Father Brett business, so it isn’t surprising that a court-appointed psychiatrist warned at his sentencing that he would become “increasingly depressed” in prison, or as Bernhard would say: “Confinement’s not easy for anybody, but being in that kind of a place for somebody like Mark was absolutely hell, just intolerable.” He applied for early parole at the beginning of 1975, and the parole board favored it, but it was vetoed in June by the Norfolk superintendent, who declared Mark of “questionable stability.” Robert saw him once at Norfolk, and Betsy would visit with their kids and think, “Gosh, I hope he makes it through,” or so she recalled in Death Valley Superstar; but that summer, as the second anniversary of the robbery approached, he hit rock bottom. He didn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. He stopped working out. All that stood between him and parole was a good mental-health report and, after the anniversary passed, he scheduled an appointment to begin psychotherapy. He seems to have wanted to prepare for it by resuming his workout regime, and though he had lost weight and muscle, he may have assumed that he was capable of lifting what he had lifted weeks earlier. Whatever happened, another inmate discovered him dead on September 27, lying on a bench in a rec room with a 150-pound barbell squashing his throat. There were no signs of a struggle, and he was “well-liked by the other inmates,” the Boston Phoenix said, with “only relatively minor hassles with the Norfolk guards,” so “for now” nobody was “seriously doubting the official explanation” of accidental asphyxiation.
I’m satisfied by the official explanation. I was almost asphyxiated once when my arms suddenly buckled while I was bench pressing alone, and Mark’s deterioration was confirmed by the person who knew him best in the last two years of his life, Terry Bernhard, without innuendo of foul play. If his death was deliberate, I tend to think that Mark surrendered to despair when his arms gave out; but of course there have always been fingers pointed at shadowy assassins. Joe Funicello, in a phone conversation with Dezso, speculated that Mark had been murdered by guards because he “organized some protest plays and whatnot.” Robert Dole, in his correspondence with me, theorized “that some fellow inmate put the make on Mark and Mark rejected the advances and the man then killed him,” citing “a friend who was in prison in Concord, Massachusetts, at the time” and told Robert “that all the rumours going around the Massachusetts prisons claimed that Mark had been killed.” It’s possible, though I’m as skeptical of jailhouse rumor as I am of jailhouse religion, and more intrigued by Robert’s reading of the death as symbolic crucifixion, with the bench and the barbell forming the shape of a cross. I view Mark as the Family Messiah and Lyman as the Moses, the lawgiver who led the elect to Mount Sinai—that is, Fort Hill—and from there spied the Promised Land, which they settled later, after Mark arrived. As much as they refused categorization with the other communes of the period—they were, again, a community—they might have gone the way of the rest if bad publicity hadn’t united them in indignation at the decisive moment. Mark doubled down on the bad publicity and ultimately died for their sins, freeing them to become the yuppies they may always have been at heart, with their real-estate prescience and foodie affectations. They earned their perks, to be sure, and maybe it’s true that they were never like other communes—and that’s what they were: semantics don’t determine reality, contrary to fallacy more popular today than ever—but they personify the distrust that younger generations have of theirs. If a conservative is a liberal who got mugged, as the old joke goes, a bourgeois baby boomer is a revolutionary who got scolded.
It was cinephiles born in the sixties and seventies, for the most part, who rescued Zabriskie Point from ignominy. It didn’t matter to them—it didn’t matter to me—if it was or wasn’t a bona-fide record of boomer radicalism; they granted the film the poetic license it wasn’t afforded in 1970, certainly not by Mark, whose notorious act in life is a footnote to the film, just as his death was only newsworthy in 1975 because of it. Cinephiles are a moribund breed, and long after the last copy of Zabriskie Point has vanished, its titular location will remain; but for as long as film archives exist, Mark will exist as Antonioni’s idea of the young male American revolutionary circa 1968, and that accords him an artistic legacy that surpasses anything achieved artistically by Mel Lyman and, for that matter, skilled actors who worked in countless movies that were considered good, even excellent, and are now forgotten except to a handful of aging cinephiles. Mark never sought an artistic legacy, of course, and when cinephiles and pop-culture fans write about him, they usually do so sneeringly. That stupid, untalented pretty boy! That crumb, that zero, who got lucky! But Mark was impetuous, not stupid, and he demonstrated real talent as the director of The White House Transcripts, from every account I’ve read of it; and to me the saddest thing of all about his sad but exasperating life isn’t just that he didn’t live to realize his talent but that he probably wouldn’t have tried to realize it had he survived. Terry Bernhard returned to the Family after being paroled, and Mark would unquestionably have done the same, but I prefer to believe that he would have felt uncomfortable watching Gunsmoke while sipping chardonnay and snacking on foie gras. The same month he died, there was an attempted assassination of Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, by a die-hard member of the Manson Family, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Tania and two other members of the SLA were arrested after a year and a half on the lam. Six more SLA members had been killed in a ferocious shootout with police in Los Angeles, and two others, including Russ Little, were already in prison. “I just felt like, you know, we got to keep something going,” Little would say years later of the SLA’s inception, referring, of course, to the radical spirit of the sixties, and in that way alone Mark was similar to the SLA and Squeaky Fromme, though Tania instantly reverted to Patricia Hearst behind bars—a victim of mind control, she claimed, and it must be admitted that few heiresses would commit armed robbery voluntarily. I’ve been robbed at knifepoint and twice had guns trained on me, so I don’t defend violent crime or the threat of it, but I will submit that Mark, unlike 99 percent of his generation, took its anti-establishment rhetoric to its logical extreme, or as he said when he and Bernhard were interviewed in September 1973 at the Charles Street Jail, now a luxury hotel: “In 1966, ’67 and ’68 there was something happening. There was incredible interchange. We haven’t changed. Everybody else is gone. Where did they go?”
Now, the transits that are happening today are really quite fascinating. His spirit or his character, even though he’s passed away, is returning. There’s a ripeness for that part of his character I would call a misanthropic critic of society. One of the effects of this oversaturation of the media culture can be like a numbing down of people, their sensibilities. There can be also a kind of isolating, isolationist tendency where people actually go to their computers for their social life because it’s easier, more comfortable online. Back then, people hung out, they talked, they went out to the pub or to the bar; and people still do that today, but not nearly as much. So there’s something about him that I’m thinking may relate to a certain mind-set today of a misanthropic critiquing of society not necessarily to make society better, but it’s almost like a more anarchistic death wish for society so that we can rebuild something after the annihilation of all that has gone wrong.
The “predictive part of astrology,” Camille Paglia wrote in Sexual Personae, “is less important than its psychology, which three thousand years of continuous practice have given a phenomenal subtlety.” It was the unexpected subtlety of Antero’s reading—the complexity of it—that most impressed me. If I was less impressed by the accuracy—and that impressed me also—it was because, again, it wasn’t a blind reading and I knew that I wasn’t immune to confirmation bias. But I could understand now what Mark saw in astrology, and when I told Antero that he might have made a believer of me, he was ready with a standard joke: “I always say I don’t believe in astrology—except it works.”
That was in 2014, and for that year and the next, I postponed writing about Mark while I worked on other projects. I still hoped to interview a few people other than Robert Dole who knew him, especially Dezso, and the more I researched him, the more I decided that to somewhat do his story justice, I would have to expand on the sketch I had in mind at the outset. The fragments of his life were scattered like the dismembered body parts of the Egyptian god Osiris—here in this gulch was Father Brett, and over there was Daria Halprin, and so on—and nobody aside from Michael Yaroshevsky, in a different medium, had tried to locate them all and reassemble them, as far as I could tell, since Mark didn’t warrant the effort. That wasn’t my position, obviously, and whenever I studied the pieces I had collected so far, I was struck by new insights and questions. I wondered, for instance, how Mark might have reacted to two lines in “The Second Coming”: The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. Was he as perplexed by them as I was when I first read the poem at age twenty or so? Passion and intensity were the traits I prized most in myself and others. Surely Yeats had it backwards and the worst, not the best, lacked all conviction.
I wrote very little in 2016, paralyzed by the spectacle of an election as ghastly as the one I witnessed in Yugoslavia when I lived there in the waning days of the Slobodan Milošević regime. My memory of the late sixties is hazy, since I was a child at the time, but the polarization of America was plain to me, with longhaired young people, whom I identified as “students,” not “hippies,” inexplicably clashing with older people like my Southern Baptist grandfather. I never thought I would see anything like that again, not in America, not on that scale, but I was corrected by the election of 2016 and its aftermath. A young woman protesting a rally of white supremacists in my hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia, was mowed down by one of them, while in Alexandria, Virginia, where I lived briefly at eighteen, a fanatical progressive shot and wounded conservative lawmakers. I removed myself repeatedly from social media because I couldn’t take the rancor it permitted and, as far as I was concerned, instigated by isolating people rather than “connecting” them. Everyone was so fucking certain they were right, including me. I lost friends because of the election and may never speak again with certain relatives by mutual agreement.
Mark Frechette’s spirit was returning, Antero augured in 2014; the transits favored the reappearance of the “misanthropic critic of society.” Maybe now his relevance can be appreciated as it wouldn’t have been three years ago, and maybe I was by guided by intuition when I postponed writing about him. Mark himself had prophesied that America would “bleed & burn & crumble,” though he saw it happening sooner rather than later, unlike the architect of his celebrity. “Perhaps in fifty years things will arrive at a crucial point and these forces that are now underneath will explode,” Antonioni said when asked if there would be a violent revolution in America. He said that almost forty-eight years ago, as I write these words, and by now I agree that, yes, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, but corrections won’t work in my case: it’s in my blood or stars.