Seeing Charlie Manson's scary old wizened face with the homemade swastika tattoo carved between his eyes (he looks like an elderly white supremacist) in the media Monday, accompanied by reports detailing his future wedding plans to a 26-year-old woman, gave me some pause. This is hardly your run of the mill engagement announcement. Some gay people still can’t get married in this country, yet this vicious jailbird freak is afforded the privilege? That's a little "off."
Manson, one of the most notorious mass murderers in American history, has been behind bars since 1971, when he was sentenced to death (later changed to life in prison) for his role in masterminding the grisly, random murders of actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends and, the next day, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The sensationalistic nature of the murders, along with the bizarre high-profile trial that ensued, both fascinated and repulsed the American public. His periodic parole hearings since his conviction have allowed Manson occasionally to re-enter the spotlight, at least for a brief moment, and that’s just where he wants to be—where he feels he was always destined to be.
I can't say this engagement announcement shocked me. I just finished reading Jeff Guinn's recent release, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, and one of the book's overarching themes is that Manson, above all, has always sought fame at any cost. This is Charlie's last stab at fame and he's not turning down the opportunity. When his original plan to become the world’s most famous rock star went awry, he went to plan B. Murder doesn’t take that much talent and can get you a lot of press. Getting married to a 26-year-old does take some talent when you're an old geezer behind bars, but who said Manson is without talent, however misguided it may be?
Guinn provides the reader with a detailed revisiting of America's most charismatic monster. A man who, while he often claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus, had much more resemblance to Hitler. Vincent Bugliosi wrote the classic book on Manson with Helter Skelter back in 1974 after serving as head prosecutor for the Manson murder trial. Guinn skillfully and thoroughly fleshes out Bugliosi's work through vigorous research and via interviews with numerous Manson relatives and an array of others who had come into contact with the future killer. The author adds dimension to the Manson story by paying considerable attention to his childhood, offering salient glimpses into the makings of a megalomaniacal freak.
Manson was a bad egg from an early age. His basic story is fairly familiar. No father figure and raised by a mother who spent time in prison and battled alcohol problems. Relatives caring for young Charlie tried whippings as discipline, but they seemed to have no effect on the budding sociopath. Nothing was ever Charlie's fault, if you asked him. By the time he was seven, Manson had taken a strong interest in guns, knives and music—interests he’d cling to throughout his life. Young Charlie graduated to breaking and entering stores at the age of 13. By the time he turned 26, Manson had been incarcerated for over half his life.
Lying, manipulation and deceit had become second nature to Manson—almost like breathing—by his early teen years. Prison would later become Manson's trade school for his chosen vocation of pimping. There were plenty of pimps among his fellow inmates and Charlie loved to pick their brains for tips. A major chapter in the pimping "best practices book" is devoted to separating your women from their families and keeping them in line with equal parts love and fear. Charlie would rely on this carrot and stick technique heavily in the coming years as he put together his group of blindly devoted followers that would become to be known as The Family.
Manson enhanced his prison education by taking a popular Dale Carnegie course, learning the effective trick of getting people to think your idea was actually theirs. Upon release from prison in 1958, Charlie went to work pimping on the streets of Los Angeles. He quickly ended up back in prison, where he studied the principles of master manipulator L. Ron Hubbard. Taking up the guitar as well, Charlie determined that once back on the street he’d become a rock star even more famous than the Beatles. It was during this stint in prison that Manson saw Black Muslims for the first time, noticing how they intimidated the white guards. His prognostication of the future race war which blacks would win, which was to be precipitated by a violent event he’d later call "Helter Skelter," was now percolating in his twisted mind.
Released again from prison at 32, Manson made his way to Berkeley. It was there that he saw the Black Panthers using intimidation techniques on the public, cementing further his vision of an eventual apocalyptic race war. The whites would lose this war, but Charlie was coming up with a plan to end up on top when all was said and done. All he needed was a band of loyal followers who would do his bidding without question. He had, by now, developed the skills to start putting together his small, deluded Family.
Manson eventually migrated across the Bay to the hippie haven Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco, where he studied street "gurus" who were skilled in mesmerizing and manipulating young, idealistic girls. He soon had several dedicated female followers. One of them was Susan Atkins, who’d become one of his permanent followers and come to believe that Manson was Jesus. Atkins, later known in The Family as Sadie Mae Glutz and Sexy Sadie (Beatles reference), held the pregnant Sharon Tate down while Family member Tex Watson stabbed her to death. When Tate (who was crying out for her mother) begged for her life and her unborn child, Sexy Sadie's reply was "Woman, I have no mercy for you.”
Charlie ran into a supply and demand problem pimping in the Bay area. There was too much free sex available to make much money selling it. Besides, San Francisco was a place of idealism, which was not his thing. He wasn't looking for Utopia. Fame was what he lusted for and Los Angeles was where you found that. He took his devoted girls with him, driving down to the other end of the state in an old school bus. L.A. was where you went to make it big, and Charlie knew he was going to be the biggest star of them all. He arrived there with his guitar, songs and his girls. The Beatles' White Album was always on his turntable.
Manson and his girls bounced around for a while, eventually ending up on the Spahn ranch, an old movie set ranch with plenty of shacks where Family members could crash. Spahn Ranch was run by Donald "Shorty" Shea. Shea had come to L.A. to become an actor, but ended up spending most of his time on the ranch. To appease Shorty so he’d have continued use of the ranch, Manson had one of his girls move in with him and provide the aging, yet still randy, rancher with regular sex.
Sexual favors from his girls was the currency Manson would use whenever he needed things he couldn't pay for, which was most of the time. Shea eventually got on the bad side of Manson. He’d once been married to a black stripper, which didn't sit well with Charlie. Manson also thought Shorty had become a police informant. One night Charlie, along with five other male Family members, took Shorty out for a ride in the desert and stabbed him to death.
Manson was the consummate hustler and he soon got busy pursuing his rock star fantasy. He befriended Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys' drummer, and through Wilson got to know Terry Melcher, music producer of a host of successful artists. Manson was short (5' 2") and scruffy and didn’t cut an impressive physical presence. Melcher merely tolerated him, as he had learned to do with the hangers on, but one night he got a surprise. On that evening he went to L.A.’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go with Dennis Wilson and Charlie tagging along. On the way to their table Manson said he wanted to dance. He walked out on the dance floor alone and proceeded to mesmerize the star-studded crowd with a stunning, impromptu performance. Melcher hadn’t imagined this aspect of Charlie. It gave him a taste of the weird, inexplicable power the unconventionally charismatic Manson could summon up on the spur of the moment. This was not your everyday scruffy hanger on.
Melcher saw something in Charlie, but musical talent wasn't it. Manson repeatedly tried to get an audition from the famed producer, to no avail. Charlie did collaborate on a song with Dennis Wilson that Wilson did eventually rework and get included on a Beach Boys’ album, but Charlie was given no credit. Manson was deeply disappointed and saw his stardom dream slipping away. He was concerned that his failure would hurt his hold over The Family, whom he had repeatedly assured that it was only a matter of time before he surpassed the Beatles. The plan was not working, so Charlie turned in another direction.
Manson had been listening to the White Album incessantly and felt the Beatles were trying to communicate with him through the song “Helter Skelter.” The song was helping him to see into the future. He cobbled together some ideas he "heard" in "Helter Skelter" together with passages from Revelations to form a picture of an apocalyptic future that culminated with him being the supreme ruler. His hardcore followers were crazy enough to accept this at face value. They were long gone in the sanity department.
Charlie told The Family that blacks were going to rise up and take over the country. Their revolution would be signaled by a violent event he called “Helter Skelter." What form this event would take wasn’t clear, but it was surely coming, Charlie assured them. After Helter Skelter, blacks would revolt and take over. Before this would happen though, Charlie was going to lead The Family into a “bottomless pit” somewhere in Death Valley where they’d hide. Blacks were not smart enough to hold on to power for long, Manson explained, and when the time was right The Family would emerge from the hole and fill the power vacuum. It would be Charlie's world then.
Manson had been involved in the murder of a man named Gary Hinman over a money matter. Family member Bobby Beausoleil had done the killing but Charlie was worried the deed could be traced back to him. He decided to make the police think the Black Panthers were on a killing spree—whites were the targets. He planned the Tate/LaBianca murders to provide additional smokescreens for the Hinman murder. Susan Atkins wrote "PIG" on a wall at the Tate murder scene and "WAR" was carved into Leno LaBianca’s chest. The police were supposed to assume that these murders were committed by the Black Panthers, and the heat would be off The Family. Charlie said this was going to be the start of Helter Skelter.
The problem was that the cops never fingered the Black Panthers. Charlie was appalled. He couldn’t believe the cops could be this clueless. He decided now was the time to go out to the desert with The Family and find the bottomless pit. Helter Skelter was happening soon, he told them, and it was time to hide. He was right about the hiding part.
They never found the pit, but it didn’t take too long for the police to find them. Charlie soon got indicted for murder and was up against District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, a highly ambitious man who worked tirelessly on the case. Charlie put on quite a show over the course of the trial, employing various antics in an attempt to make a mockery of the trial. One last hurrah, but the outcome was inevitable. Life in prison is no substitute for rock stardom or ruling the world after Helter Skelter. Yet Charlie still held sway over many Family members.
Jeff Guinn added context to his Manson saga by punctuating it with snippets portraying the political and social upheaval of those turbulent times. The Vietnam War was a major backdrop, and the Watts riots and student demonstrations figured prominently as well. The Black Panthers were in the full bloom of their power. Upheaval was in the air. The rules had changed. Hell, sometimes it even looked like there were no rules. You could make things up as you went along if you were clever or convincing enough. There were idealists, rebels, traditionalists, and quite a few hustlers there to take advantage of the chaos. Manson was one of the hustlers who saw his chance. A beady-eyed opportunist. So what if his scenario didn't play out according to plan? He made the six o'clock news over and over again. How many people can make that claim?
Richard Nixon tried to use Manson as a cautionary tale about how the "longhairs" were the scourge of society, but prescient social observations were not his long suit. Manson was not a hippie, even though he had some of the outward trappings. Nixon's eye wasn't keen enough to make the subtle distinction. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was his thing, but they were all tools of power rather than opportunities for unbridled hedonism.
Manson would dose family members with LSD (while taking a smaller dose himself) for their indoctrination sessions. He’d ramble on, blowing smoke up their asses and trying not to contradict previous lies he had told them. All female Family members were expected to consent sexually to any male at any time or with anyone Charlie designated.
So how can I be surprised that some poor broken girl, convinced of Charlie's innocence, moved to a town where she could visit him regularly behind bars and now has decided to "marry" him (with no conjugal visits, in case you were wondering)? That's the effect Charlie has on a certain wounded type of woman. You don't get in the position of being able to get people to murder random humans so you can create Helter Skelter in order to rule the nation unless you have some sort of evil, inexplicable power. Oh, and one last thing. Rumor has it that Charlie has listed on his wedding registry a $1200 shank from Williams Sonoma.
—Follow Chris Beck on Twitter: @SubBeck