Tag Archives: Sharon Tate

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

(Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $27.50).

manson Prior to the publication of Jeff Guinn’s book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Vincent Bugliosi’s national bestseller Helter Skelter was the definitive volume on Manson, his followers, and the series of murders his minions committed (the most famous of which was actress Sharon Tate) in August 1969.  Guinn has written a fascinating and essential biography of the cult leader and notorious killer.  To understand Manson and his era, Guinn’s take on the 78-year-old infamous murderer is not only important but necessary.

Charles Manson was pure evil personified.  Guinn writes, “There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie—he was an opportunistic sociopath.”  Guinn begins by effectively charting Manson’s history of incarceration. Both Manson’s mother and his uncle were imprisoned, and their tendency to commit crimes seems to have been passed down to Charlie. Interestingly, Manson spent more time in jail than he did out of it.

It was in prison where Charlie first read Dale Carnegie’s self-help book How To Win Friends and Influence People.  This was the one instance in which Manson himself was a convert.  Guinn shines as he takes Manson to San Francisco in the late 1960s, where he used Carnegie’s methods on young girls who were down on their luck and desperately searching for something.  Or someone.

Manson convinced the young women that they were all looking for him; he knew just how to manipulate them.  Using sex and drugs, Manson eliminated their super egos and eradicated all their barriers.  This insured they would do anything he asked of them.  Although he had trouble reading, Guinn suggests that Manson was especially savvy and intelligent, especially when it came to influencing people.

Since Los Angeles was the center of everything in the 1960s, particularly music, Manson and his cohorts settled there.  It was not long before they were hanging out with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and even Neil Young.  In fact, Gregg Jakobson, talent scout, session arranger, and good friend of Wilson’s, first used the term “the Family” to describe Manson and his followers.  The name stuck.

Manson hoped to get a recording contract but producers, like Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, passed.  However, Manson and his devotees still managed to spend around $100,00 of Wilson’s money and also obtained funds from Didi Lansbury, daughter of actress Angela Lansbury.  Eerily, Manson sent his people off on “creepy crawls,” where they would break into a house at night and, while the owners slept, rearrange their belongings.  Manson ordered his disciples not to steal anything, and they obeyed him.  Only when the unsuspecting home owners awoke would they realize their homes had been violated.  On one such creepy crawl, Manson’s acolytes broke into the home of John and Michelle Phillips of the musical group The Mamas and the Papas.

Guinn convincingly places Manson within his historical era.  The author writes, “The unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.”   The atmosphere of the late 60s was perfect for someone like Charlie, and he took full advantage of the tumult, even instilling fears of a race war, “Helter Skelter,” into his followers.

When Manson’s hopes for a career in music were dashed, he feared he would become lessened in the eyes of his supporters.  For a cult leader, this was unthinkable.  He had to act.  He had to somehow bind them to him forevermore.  He had to make them kill for him, Guinn maintains.  And they, good little soldiers that they were, did exactly that.

A significant portion of Manson is devoted to August of 1969 and the gruesome Tate and LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial in which Bugliosi served as chief prosecutor.  I have read Helter Skelter eight to ten times, yet so much of what Guinn wrote was new to me.  He interviewed many of those involved, some of whom had never spoken to any other writer before.  Guinn’s never-before-revealed information kept a decades-old crime intriguing, fresh, and compelling.

Manson belongs right next to Helter Skelter.  The two books of true crime complement each other nicely and should be read together for maximum effect.  They are two very different books.  The emphasis in Helter Skelter was on the trial and its preparation.  Bugliosi provided sketches of most of the people involved from the victims to the perpetrators to those knowledgeable.  While Manson was an important part of Helter Skelter, he was not the primary focus.  Guinn’s chilling and informative book, in contrast, is all about Manson.  You may think you know the story, but Guinn’s new material will have you glued to the page.

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Book Review: Misfit by Adam Braver

Misfit by Adam Braver (Tin House Books; 304 pages; $15.95).

 

            Marilyn Monroe was not born; she was the creation of both Norma Jean Baker and Hollywood.  Marilyn became one of the most iconic figures of all time yet possessed a fragile, insecure psyche.  Adam Braver’s novel Misfit explores key moments of Marilyn’s past and how they shaped her and, ultimately, how they destroyed her.  Braver’s story is a character study of the twentieth century’s most prolific sex symbol who saw herself as a misfit.  Braver shows that Marilyn should have won Best Actress for starring in the role of a lifetime—playing Marilyn Monroe.

 

Misfit, Braver says, “should not be read as a biography, or as a record of actual events.”  Instead, it is a work of fiction, “meant to examine a struggle for identity in a very public world, and the rewards and pitfalls of conforming to meet others’ expectations.”

Braver concentrates on the last weekend of Marilyn’s life: the two days she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort on the border between California and Nevada, the Cal Neva Lodge.  In a series of flashbacks, Braver illustrates the moments that defined her.  His novel combines fact with fiction to help us better understand both the woman and the myth.

 

Even as a young girl, Braver maintains, Norma Jean felt like a misfit.  After her mentally unstable mother, Gladys, was institutionalized, Norma Jean was passed around from relative to relative and from orphanage to orphanage.  Sexual abuse occurred at a young age.  Norma Jean clung to the image of Clark Gable, an ideal man, surely a gentleman.  But Gable was a fantasy.  No wonder that she married twenty-one-year-old aircraft plant worker Jim Dougherty at the tender age of sixteen.  Norma Jean longed for a distraction, and she thought marriage to Jim could provide a means to escape her life.

 

While married to Jim, Norma Jean first slipped into the role of Marilyn Monroe.  In 1945, Norma Jean worked at Timm Aircraft plant at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, California.  Norma Jean is so desperate to be liked and to be noticed that when she tells her fellow workers, mostly women, about herself, “her stories don’t always match.”  At the plant, she does not stand out.  She is just another woman working outside the home to support the war effort.

 

One day, though, her life changes.  Captain Ronald Reagan arranges for a spread of pretty girls working on airplane fuselages to appear in Yank magazine.  “That kind of story is sure to raise morale.”  The photographer, a young army private, starts snapping photographs of the women.  He gets to Norma Jean.

 

“Then,” Braver writes, “something curious happens.  The private snaps a photo of her.  And then he snaps another.”  He is transfixed by her.  “Not only does he stop moving down the line, it’s as though he’s been walled off.  He drops his bag to the floor and kicks it forward; his legs go into a horseback-riding stance, and he brings the camera up to his face with both hands and starts clicking.”  He takes “one picture after the next.”

 

Under the photographer’s attention, Norma Jean becomes someone else.  “It’s like her bones have settled into something more solid,” Braver writes.  “Her walk is poised.”  The male workers “take notice like something around her is all sexed up.”  The little girl look vanishes, “leaving a womanly confidence that is at once stunning, alluring, and a little frightening.”  It is as if Norma Jean has “grown a little larger.”  Those around her stare.  Norma Jean is not Norma Jean anymore.  She has become Marilyn Monroe.

 

And so it began.  Later, more and more photos appeared in magazines.  She eventually divorced Jim and went on to make movies.  Marriages and divorces to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller soon followed.  Both men had an image of her that she just could not live up to.  DiMaggio wanted her to be a housewife and perhaps mother.  Miller wanted her to be an intellectual.  She tried and moved to New York with him.  Marilyn studied at the Actors Studio, but she still felt objectified and inadequate.  In her eyes, she was always less than.

 

In Braver’s story, we see the enormous amount of work it took for Marilyn to be Marilyn.  She could be anything or anybody, but her role took preparation.  Often, she did what she thought people expected her to do.  For example, while filming The Misfits, the movie Miller wrote for Marilyn, she was late for scenes.  She was also popping pills.  She played the diva, but it was not a natural role for her.  She spent most of her time not preparing for her parts in films but preparing for her role as Marilyn.  Sometimes it was frustrating for her, especially when the men in her life wanted her to be someone she did not want to be.

 

The most dependable man in Marilyn’s life, Braver implies, was Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra accepted Marilyn for who she was.  As Braver writes, Sinatra was the “one solid thing for her.”  If you are hoping to find a flashback that explores Marilyn’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, you will be disappointed.  Braver avoids mentioning any kind of relationship between Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers in Misfit, which is a real shame.  While such allegations can be controversial, ignoring them leaves a hole in this novel.  The Kennedy brothers, surely, shaped her just as much as the other men in her life.  Braver seems to be avoiding controversy by ignoring this subject.  Their inclusion would have made a good book an even better one.

 

During that weekend, Sinatra saw how fragile Marilyn was.  He ordered her to “pack her bags and go home.”  But even he could see she was spiraling out of control from alcohol and drugs.

 

The weekend she spent at Sinatra’s resort was the last weekend of her life.  On August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead, naked in her bed, by her psychiatrist.  The coroner ruled it a probable suicide.  In the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, Sharon Tate played the pill-popping actress Jennifer North.  Upon learning she has breast cancer, Jennifer overdoses on sleeping pills.  Before she dies, Jennifer says bitterly, “All I have is a body.”  Marilyn could relate.

 

As Braver writes, the embalming fluid caused Marilyn’s breast tissue to deflate, making her chest “flat as a twelve-year-old boy.”  Mary, a co-owner of the mortuary where her body rests, is horrified.  “I can’t send her out like this,” Mary cries.  “Not in front of Mr. DiMaggio.  Or her family.”  So Mary sets out to recreate Marilyn Monroe.  She gathers all the cotton she can find from the supply cabinet and fills Marilyn’s bosom with handfuls of cotton.  “Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe,” Mary affirms.  The embalmer initially thought it would make her body look freakish, but he is astounded as the cotton “makes her look strangely more lifelike…”  The embalmer cannot help but think of DiMaggio and how he will feel as he looks at Marilyn for the last time.

 

DiMaggio, the embalmer believes, will be pleased with how good Marilyn looks.  He thinks of what will go through former baseball star’s head as he looks at his former wife.  DiMaggio, the embalmer thinks, will blame her death on Hollywood.  He “can’t help but suspect that this version of her actually is the one Mr. DiMaggio wants to remember, and that has got to be a killer because it means he, Joe DiMaggio, is a part of it too.”

 

At the end, Marilyn is just a body.  To a lot of people, though, that is all she ever was.  But Marilyn was much more complicated than that.  Fact or fiction or something in between, Braver’s Misfit is fascinating.  When Marilyn exits stage left, you will be on your feet shouting “Bravo!”

 

 

 

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