Jerry and Mary Neeley used to own the best video store on the east side of L.A. That’s where I met them, and since they closed shop two years ago to sell movie collectibles online, we’ve occasionally met for coffee and talk of, among other topics, true crime. We’ve also kept in touch by e-mail, and last week Mary sent the following message:
As you know, the 40th anniversary of Tate/LaBianca is this August 8th & 9th. (Technically, the 9th & 10th because both parties were killed after midnight.)
I wanted to go to the LaBianca house around 1am on the 10th to see if anyone else shows up. Would you be interested? I don’t want to walk up there alone at 1am.
Yes, I wrote back, I was interested. As her message indicates, she lives near the former residence of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, who, around two in the morning on August 10, 1969, received a surprise visit from a hirsute, diminutive stranger — an erstwhile party guest at the house next door and a convicted pimp with a harem of runaway girls, some of whom were waiting in a white and yellow ’59 Ford parked at the curb. Also in the Ford were a couple of boys who’d been drawn to the diminutive man in part because they, too, were serviced by the harem. They lived together, all of them, on a Western-town movie set on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where, under the influence of massive quantities of drugs, they were convinced that black militants aimed to destroy them, and the diminutive man, who called the shots, proposed to counterattack by perpetrating a series of gruesome murders and planting clues that would implicate the militants.
The diminutive man was Charles Manson, and the LaBiancas were fodder for his far-out blueprints. The previous night, others had been killed, though Manson wasn’t present. Three of his retinue, including two who would participate in the LaBianca murders, invaded a house near Beverly Hills, where the actress Sharon Tate and four guests were shot, hung, stabbed, and bludgeoned. Tate was famously pregnant at the time, and her blood was used to paint the word PIG as a “clue” on the front door.
The Tate residence, at the crest of Cielo Drive, was designed to look like a French farmhouse. I went there a few times, though it couldn’t be seen without scaling the gate or the embankment that concealed it. I could just make out the edge of the garage, and once, from the top of a nearby hill, I got a good look at the roof, where workers were shingling, the reports of their hammers echoing across the canyon. I repeatedly dreamed of being inside the house. In my dreams, I’d often see the headlights of the killers as they drew closer and closer, and I’d rush about in a vain attempt to find and warn Tate and the others. You can’t change history, I suppose those dreams were saying. You can’t save what’s impossible to save.
Nor could the house itself be saved. It was torn down at some point in the nineties, and a McMansion was raised in its place. The McMansion, as far as I know, has almost never been occupied, possibly due to superstition or fear of lookie-loos — a legitimate fear, though people continue to visit. Last year a friend from Providence flew out to L.A. for the first time, and I asked if there was anything he particularly wanted see. As a matter of fact, there was: the house on Cielo Drive. I drove him to where it used to be and pointed to the telephone pole climbed by one of the killers to snip the wires before the murders commenced.
I also drove my friend to the LaBianca house, which has been renovated since the terrible events of 1969. The front lawn has largely been paved, and a heavy gate stands between the house and the rest of Waverly Drive. According to Mary, who’s something of a Manson-case expert, a visitor to the house, years after the murders, was shown the blood of the LaBiancas, which, though hidden by new carpeting, forever stained the floorboards.
I picked up Mary on Sunday the 9th, just before midnight. Jerry, who suffers from diabetes, wasn’t feeling well, so he couldn’t come with us, but I’d invited two friends who live near Waverly to meet us there later. I circled the LaBianca house and, seeing no other lookie-loos, drove to a 7-Eleven, where Mary got a Coke and I got a coffee. Then, returning to Waverly, we parked as close as possible to the spot where Manson had parked forty years before, and as soon as I cut the engine, we heard a heavy rattling sound and saw a man in silhouette chaining the gate in the LaBianca driveway. Was that something the occupants did every night, or were they especially wary due to the anniversary?
No matter; we sat in the car and talked, waiting for possible others. We were both struck by how quiet it was, and I was concerned about cops, since my car registration has lapsed, so we kept our voices low. Every so often a car would appear, but none slowed as they passed the house, where the occupants had retired, or so I assumed. All the windows were dark, but at this moment forty years before, some of the windows would’ve been lit, since the LaBiancas had just returned home and Leno was reading the paper in the living room when Manson walked inside, possibly accompanied by his chief assassin, Tex Watson. (Accounts differ as to when Watson entered the house. Some say he helped Manson tie the LaBiancas, while others say Manson tied them alone and returned to the ’59 Ford, where Watson and the others were waiting to learn which of them would be selected to kill.) And what story was Leno reading in the paper? Conceivably the one about the Tate murders. Leno and his wife had bought the paper at a newsstand on their way home, and they had an exchange with the newsstand owner in which Mrs. LaBianca in particular expressed horror at the headline story. Now, an hour later, she and her husband were about to meet those responsible.
The friends I’d been expecting texted to say they weren’t coming, and I noticed a small, dancing light maybe fifty yards away. I’d brought along binoculars, which Mary trained on the light. It was just a guy smoking, she said. We continued to talk, and she told me a story I’d never heard: when Manson strolled inside the LaBianca living room (the door was unlocked), he saw a dog beside Leno on the couch and said, “Who you got with you? Sophia Loren?”
“I believe it,” Mary said. “It sounds like something Manson would say.”
It does for a fact. Manson had a sense of humor, unlike Hitler, whose ideology formed part of the basis of Manson’s.
Living in L.A., I’ve met several people who encountered Manson’s victims and followers and others associated with the case.
My friend Harry, for instance, had a brush with Sharon Tate when he was a teenager and dining in London with film director Nicholas Ray and Ray’s son Tim, whom Harry had befriended at school. Ray, meantime, was friendly with Roman Polanski, who stopped by their table to say hello, and with him was Sharon Tate, whom he would later marry but was then his girlfriend, as well as his co-star in The Fearless Vampire Killers, which he was also directing. At one point he and Ray broke off, leaving Tate alone with the boys, and though she sweetly did her best to engage them, her beauty rendered them mute.
The day before the massacre on Cielo Drive, my friend Burke’s stepfather, Joel, had his hair cut by Tate’s former boyfriend, Jay Sebring, who was killed while trying to protect her. (Sebring was a noted men’s hair stylist, responsible for Jim Morrison’s lion mane; and indeed, on the day Joel had his hair cut at Sebring’s salon, a celebrity was on hand: Jim Backus, who played Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island.)
Francis Schwartz, a wonderful man who practiced law well into his eighties, often observed Manson’s girls outside the downtown courthouse, where they daily held vigil during Manson’s trial, shaving their heads and carving Xs on their brows to court attention.
My friend Michael once had lunch with Vincent Bugliosi, Manson’s prosecutor and the co-author of Helter Skelter, the most celebrated account of the case. Bugliosi was shocked when Michael told him he’d read Helter Skelter by way of lifting his mood, but he chuckled at Michael’s explanation: he’d just been through a painful breakup and wanted to read about people who’d suffered worse.
And there are others, including Eve Babitz, a terrific writer whose books, save one, are inexplicably out of print. On separate occasions, Mary and I both spoke to Babitz, who attended grammar school with Catherine Share, the Manson girl known as Gypsy, and later became acquainted with Bobby Beausoleil, also known as Cupid, whose arrest for the murder of musician Gary Hinman sparked the Tate-LaBianca horrors.
“He was really beautiful,” Babitz said of Beausoleil, “but he was such a downer. We used to call him Bummer Bob.”
Beausoleil, incidentally, was briefly in the band Love, and he and Gypsy appeared in a Western-themed nudie flick that ends with a man being fatally knifed by Beausoleil.
Gary Hinman was fatally knifed by Beausoleil, after having his ear nearly cut off by Manson.
By 1:45, it was starting to look like Mary and I were the only people curious enough to turn up at the LaBianca house. And maybe that was a good thing — I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about somebody else doing what I was doing. It was morbid, but I’m not morbid typically, as Mary isn’t either, so I cut us both slack. Besides, it was a bit like being in a movie about a stakeout at a haunted house — and if ever there were a house that deserved to be haunted, it’s the one on Waverly Drive.
Headlights appeared at the far end of the street. They slowly got closer, and the car came into view. It was an eighties-model white Cadillac, and I glanced through the rolled-up windows as it moved past my car and saw four people — possibly teenagers — staring at the LaBianca house. There was a girl in the backseat who seemed to be keeping her head down, as if afraid of being seen. Then the Cadillac backed up and, halfway down the street, it began to move forward again, so obviously the people inside it must be looking for the house number, which had been changed years before to confuse the curious. Yet, seeing the headlights slowly advance, I flashed back to my dreams of Cielo Drive: the killers getting closer and impossible to stop. I wasn’t scared, but I was spooked.
The Cadillac moved past us again, and I glanced at the girl in the back. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, with the hood now covering her head, though she continued to duck. The Cadillac idled for a moment by the LaBianca gate before it moved down the hill and disappeared. I listened and heard a door slam shut — or at least I thought I did. I asked Mary if she’d heard anything. We both listened to the deathly silence, and in my rear-view mirror I saw a silhouette walk up the hill and toward the house.
“Someone’s coming!” I said.
“Shhhhhhh!” Mary said.
It was two people, actually. I couldn’t determine if they were male or female or one of each, but I could make out two shapes by the gate. Then, for a split second, the house and the street close to it were filled with flashing light — the strobe of a camera — and a girl standing in front of the gate was illuminated. She wasn’t the one in the sweatshirt — or maybe she was, but she’d left it in the Cadillac — and the person with the camera was a guy. I decided it would be fun if I got out of the car, to possibly scare them or exchange a few words, and I did indeed get out, but they didn’t seem to notice or care. They walked away in their own good time, two moving shapes in the darkness, and disappeared down the hill. I never heard them speak — not even a whisper along the lines of: “Got the shot? Here, let’s take another.” Maybe they, too, were concerned about cops. Or maybe they thought I was a cop. But they managed to snap a picture of what had once been 3301 Waverly Drive at almost the precise minute when, forty years before, the unspeakable was occurring inside; and just before I drove her home, Mary took a picture of her own.
There’s something uniquely L.A. about Manson: an aspiring rock star who lived on a movie set and, like a filmmaker, directed those eager to be molded. I think that partly accounts for my interest in him: he embodies something about the city I’ve come to call home.
But there’s more to it than that. In my novel, Banned for Life, the narrator speaks of visiting the Tate house and, expressing sorrow that it was later destroyed, he adds: “In my view, considering the turning point it symbolized, it should have been preserved as a cultural landmark.”
The narrator isn’t me — not entirely — but I agree with him about the Tate house; and the “turning point” he mentions is the close of the sixties. My friend George once said that “the men who play golf” were deeply shaken by the sixties, and took steps to make sure they weren’t repeated. He was vague about those steps, but I’m inclined to believe him, in part because it’s obvious, to me at least, that Manson was used to frighten people already unsympathetic to youth culture. Some called him the most dangerous man alive. Really? Richard Nixon’s body count exceeded Manson’s by untold thousands. Nixon and his ilk were the true bogeymen, but Manson looked the part as they didn’t — not to Joe Grabasandwich.
Meantime, there’s only one other true-crime case that intrigues me as much as the Manson case: the JFK assassination. For a long time, I saw no connection. I was interested in the JFK case largely because of the enigma of Lee Harvey Oswald: did he do it or didn’t he? I was inclined to think he did — alone, in fact. Then I had an exchange with my friend Demetri, who said, “Well, if Oswald did it, you could say he started the sixties, just as Manson ended them.”
So there was a connection. It explained a great deal.
But not everything. I think, finally, it goes back to Sharon Tate. But for her, I probably would never have thought much about Manson. She’s the reason I dreamed about the house on Cielo Drive. As a child, I thought Tate was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. And that leads to another quote from my friend George. We were talking about Greek mythology one night, and he said, “You know, I don’t think a lot of those stories are relevant anymore. I mean, killing your father and fucking your mother and plucking out your eyes — that’s a perfect myth for two thousand years ago. But a beautiful blonde movie star being murdered at her mansion in the Hollywood Hills — now, there’s a myth for our time.”
And so in that way she stands, along with the house that used to be 3301 Waverly Drive.
A reedited version of this piece appears in the nonfiction collection Subversia.