In the early 1960s, Sharon was the luminously beautiful daughter of an army intelligence officer who decided to try and make it as an actress in Hollywood.
But over the next few years, she would become best known, first, as the girlfriend of well-known Hollywood hair-stylist Jay Sebring and next as the wife of hot-shot director Roman Polanski.
Even a co-starring role in one of 1967’s top box office hits, “Valley of the Dolls,” did little to boost Tate’s fame outside of being known as one-half of the internationally jet-setting super couple led by Polanski, who was basking in the acclaim of directing “Rosemary’s Baby.”
And, in the end, Tate would go down in history for her most tragic role of all: as the most famous victim of a grisly 1969 killing spree perpetrated by Charles Manson and his followers. The Manson family’s rampage, with its undercurrents of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, satanism and Manson’s proposed race war, would terrorize the Hollywood community and the rest of America as the 1960s came to an end.
News came Sunday that Manson died at a hospital in Kern County, near where he had been imprisoned for the 1969 killings of Tate and eight others. His death at age 83 will no doubt bring many retrospectives on his life and horrific crimes.
On Monday, an attorney for Polanski issued a statement saying that the murder of the director’s wife and unborn son “still remains too painful for him to make a statement.”
An excellent source for how Manson’s crimes fit into the larger context of American popular culture of the late 1960s comes in the meticulously produced 12-part podcast series “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.”
The 2015 series is part of “You Must Remember This,” an acclaimed Hollywood-history podcast by author and film critic Karina Longworth.
With her focus on Manson, Longworth makes the very convincing argument that his story isn’t just a true-crime saga, or a larger American saga, it’s specifically a Hollywood saga. She argues that Manson’s murders were his “fulfilled revenge fantasy” against a Hollywood establishment that frustrated and denied him his dreams of rock stardom.
In Longworth’s view, American popular culture of the late 1960s wasn’t just the backdrop for Manson’s crimes but may have been something of an accomplice.
Perhaps because of the eagerness of young Hollywood to embrace the counter-culture in films and music, Manson was able to gain a foothold in the Los Angeles entertainment scene. After the career criminal-turned cult guru learned to play guitar in prison, he became friends with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys and, more notably, with Byrds producer Terry Melcher, the son of actress Doris Day.
While The Beach Boys covered one of Manson’s songs, Melcher rejected Manson for a record deal. That rejection is considered to be one of the events that prompted Manson to target a certain house in Benedict Canyon, near Beverly Hills, for the start of his murderous spree on that August weekend in 1969.
The house at 10050 Cielo Drive had been Melcher’s house up until February 1969, after which Tate and Polanski moved in. In fact,the traditional-looking, wood-and-glass hilltop home had been Tate’s “dream house,” says Longworth in one of two episodes of “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” that she dedicates to Tate’s story.
Most people are vaguely familiar with what happened early in the morning of Aug. 9, 1969. Four of Manson’s followers broke into Tate’s house and massacred its occupants, including the 26-year-old actress who was eight months pregnant at the time. The other victims at the house were Tate’s ex-boyfriend Sebring, two houseguests, and an 18-year-old visiting the property’s caretaker.
Polanski was not in Los Angeles at the time but in London, finishing up work on a film script.
It turns out that Polanski’s absence, physically and otherwise, is one of the themes of the final months of Tate’s life, according to Longworth’s podcast.
At the time, Polanski and Tate were considered one of Hollywood’s golden couples.
They met in 1966, when he agreed to cast her in “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” a spoof of vampire movies. Tate, who was still dating Sebring at the time, later agreed to pose semi-nude for a Playboy magazine layout that Polanski shot himself to promote the film.
As Tate and Polanski grew close during the filming, a romance grew, fueled by “a sexual connection that was off the charts,” Polanski would later say, according to Longworth.
Tate and Sebring parted amicably. But he would eventually return to her life as a close friend and confidante as it became apparent that Polanski wasn’t committed to the idea of monogamy and was reluctant to settle down into the idea of starting a family.
Part of Tate was eager to go along with the so-called hippie life-style, which advocated for a free love ethos — which, Longworth points out, was mostly about serving the interests of men who wanted an excuse for playing the field.
“Women were supposed to be on the pill and were not supposed to have hang-ups but that often meant women had to sacrifice what they themselves wanted,” Longworth said.
“Sharon wanted to have a real relationship with Roman, she wanted to nest and have a baby and be a real family. But Roman convinced her that this was at least impractical if not impossible.”
Longworth quotes one of the interviews Tate gave at the time in which she openly condones Polanski’s playing around.
“This type of behavior is just part of the man,” Tate said in one interview. “Now I’ve got to think that there’ssomething wrong with a man who doesn’t have the drive to go out and see other girls. Any man who lets his wife tie him down or who takes him to task for following his natural instincts is a very meek man. He wouldn’t be the man for me.”
But Longworth questions whether Tate had been effectively brainwashed into buying Polanski’s free love attitude. “Those words also sort of sound like a woman who has been told a lie so many times that she comes to believe it,” Longworth said.
Maybe Polanski finally proposed marriage to Tate because he knew he wouldn’t get too much resistance from her in his desire to sleep with other women. They married in January 1968 in a hastily arranged wedding at the Playboy Club in London. Polanski was hungover from his bachelor party the night before.
Over the next year, they divided their time between Polanski’s apartment in London and homes in Los Angeles, where Polanski was known to hit the Sunset Strip most nights to pick up other women.
“Sharon and Roman’s love was real, but their relationship wasn’t perfect,” Longworth said. Despite Tate’s hope that marriage might tame her husband — it didn’t.
“One day he was driving his Ferrari around L.A., and he pulled up behind a woman, and yelled out a compliment to her on her beautiful arse,” Longworth said. “The woman turned around, and it was Roman’s wife.”
Longworth said the humiliations for Tate continued. Polanski, the film auteur, was an early adopter of the home video camera. One day, Tate and her friends found a pile of unmarked videos and decided to put one in the player. “One of the tapes was of Roman having sex with another woman — not Sharon — in Sharon and Roman’s bed,” Longworth said.
Polanski could also be highly critical of Tate, forcing her to sneak in her cigarette smoking, which Polanski hated. And when he hung out with his Polish friends, he would deliberately speak Polish with them, thereby excluding her.
Most of all, he wasn’t eager to start a family, saying his experiences in Poland during World War II, when he saw his mother rounded up and likely taken to Auschwitz, made him reluctant to bring a child into the world.
In the last year or two of her life, Tate had considered retiring from acting, especially after “Valley of the Dolls,” though a big money maker, was slammed by critics. The film follows the adventures of three young women — Tate, Patty Duke and Barbara Parkins — pursuing fame in music and in Hollywood.
The film has since gained a cult following for its “unconscious camp” and in the category of films like “The Room” that are so bad they are good, according to Longworth. Tate’s role in the film took on a tragic resonance in the years following her death: She plays Jennifer,a beautiful chorus girl who desperately wants to be taken seriously for something more than her perfect looks.
“(Tate) would say eerily about Jennifer, ‘She doesn’t mean anyone any harm, yet terrible things keep happening to her,'” Longworth said.
In late March 1969, Tate got a creepy visit from Manson to her house on Cielo Drive.Longworth cites an incident when the scraggly-haired Manson stopped by the house, looking for Melcher. Tate and a photographer friend told him that Melcher no longer lived there. He left.
The next day, Tate flew to Rome to shoot her final film, a comedy called “The 13 Chairs.”In Europe, she could also spend time with her husband, who was working in London.
She finally broke the news to Polanski that she was pregnant — something neither of them had planned. She was afraid he’d ask her to get an abortion, but he didn’t.
In his autobiography, Polanski confessed he found her pregnant body to be radiantly beautiful. But his appreciation didn’t translate into his usual sexual desire, he admitted.
“The cooling of her husband’s lust for her made Sharon feel bad,” Longworth said.
Still, Tate stuck around London through July 1969. But she finally booked passage on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to return to the United States where she planned to have her baby.
“Roman had to stay behind to work,” Longworth said. “When Roman drove her to the dock, both began to cry as they said good-bye.”
While Tate was upset that her husband, by staying in London, risked missing the birth of their child, Polanski was overcome with a premonition that something terrible would happen.
“A grotesque thought flashed through my mind: ‘You will never see her again,'” Polanski wrote, according to Longworth.
But he let Tate get on the boat. “As he walked off the ship and was walking back to his car, he told himself, ‘Snap out of it. Forget you ever had such a morbid feeling.'”
This story has been updated to include the statement of Roman Polanski’s attorney, following news of Charles Manson’s death.