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During summer college breaks back in the mid-1980s, I did some work for my grandparents — the typical light home maintenance stuff on their place in La Cañada, California. My grandfather was on his last legs, his breath stolen by emphysema, which he earned with a heavy smoking habit in his younger days and by working with asbestos and god knows what-all building Liberty Ships in Long Beach harbor during World War II.
At lunch we’d sit at the kitchen table and I’d ask him questions about his ranching days and the move to L.A. during the Depression. These were just conversations, not interviews — and I neither recorded nor wrote anything down. Though I was a history major and a lifelong history nerd, I didn’t really think then of my grandpa’s life as part of history. I know. Youth is wasted on the young.
Sometimes the conversation wound down odd paths. I don’t know how we got on the subject of the Manson murders of August 8–10, 1969, but I recall the conversation vividly. Because the killings freaked my grandpa out — and he did not scare easy.
My friend Paul McNamee probably ain’t going to be too happy to see this piece. Commenting over at Frontier Partisans on Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, he expressed his…
“…disgust with the continued fascination & borderline glorification of serial killers. Manson was a piece of shit. Enough is enough.”
I get it. I truly do. Manson WAS a piece of shit — and nothing more than that. He wasn’t even exceptional as a “cult leader.” His purported charisma and the sway he held over his “Family” were just run-of-the mill psychological manipulation of the vulnerable.
There is something endlessly fascinating about the killings set against the cultural context of the times. It was context that made the killings so chilling to the likes of my grandfather. Part of it was that he either knew or knew someone who knew Leno LaBianca through the grocery business (I can’t remember which it was, but I think probably the latter). The slayings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were the second set of gruesome “Helter Skelter” murders, and are usually treated almost as a footnote to the slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and four others in Benedict Canyon the night before. A shocking murder that hits within a couple of degrees of separation is bound to shake anyone.
But what my grandpa told me was that the killings made him and my grandma and their friends feel vulnerable in a way they had never felt before. Things still felt “innocent” and “secure” for them back in 1969, despite all the social turmoil of the era. Really, for a whole lot of middle class people just working to make a living and provide a decent life for their family, “the Sixties” weren’t really a thing. My brother was in high school, too young for Vietnam; my older sister was married to an Air Force man, but he was stationed in England. There was just no real personal point of connection to all the sturm und drang. My grandparents lived in a nice suburb that had not yet become an enclave of the rich. It was an actual neighborhood. They left windows open on hot August nights (a child of the Depression, my grandpa refused to pay for air conditioning. The week after he died, my grandma installed a unit).
It would be several months before the Manson Family was fingered for the crimes of August 8–10. The sensational killings and all their bizarre and gruesome iconography made my folks and countless thousands just like them feel personally vulnerable. “They” — whoever they were — might just come into your home and carve you up. We like to think of the media “back then” as sober and responsible, but it was rife with speculation and stoked fear and hysteria. People — and not just freaked out movie stars — started sleeping with guns on the nightstand.
All of a sudden, the turmoil of the ’60s, which my people viewed through the TV screen but seldom encountered in the real world, felt very present and profoundly menacing. Is that kid with long hair hitch-hiking at the freeway on-ramp a killer? Who is that driving that beat up car down the street? What horror is going to happen next?
This was all going down at a very unsettled time for my family. In July, the birth of my sister had gone terribly wrong, and she was left with severe cerebral palsy. That event rocked my family’s world — and the aftershocks would rumble on for three decades to come. The world must have looked upside down that summer. Hell, the world WAS upside down.
While my family was insulated in what the counter culture would describe as a bourgeois bubble, tectonic shifts were going on across America and in L.A., a drug culture that would be rife in my own high school by the time I got there in 1981 was percolating out of the counter culture and into the mainstream. And, bubble or no bubble, my middle class, Nixon-supporting parents had for some years been deeply involved in a church that was “New Age” before that term was coined. It was a nominally Christian church that adopted and adapted a hodgepodge of Eastern religion and philosophy. Kooky California shit that was banging around the Golden State long before the 1960s.
1969 was just Maximum California Weirdness playing out in blood. Manson was an avatar of a variety of pretty commonplace cultural influences and obsessions — drugs, sex, pseudo-religious self-actualization cons, “revolution,” all rolled up, lit on fire and inhaled in combination with the ultimate L.A. drug — the deepest belief that somehow, someway, if you can just get in front of the right person at the right time, you can be a STAR. As Karina Longworth notes in her outstanding podcast series Charles Manson’s Hollywood:
“…certain that Fame and Fortune are his Destiny, he arrives in Los Angeles in late 1967 at a time when the very idea of who was going to get to be famous was beginning to be redefined — and he still couldn’t find purchase in a community which, for all of its countercultural indulgences and lip service to tearing down the system, was still elitist, still essentially run by rich old guys and the kids of famous people. When the celebrities he rubbed shoulders with, hoping for an entree into the elites, ultimately declined to open those doors, Manson declared war on what he called — after The Beatles — ‘Piggies,’ advocating for the redistribution of their wealth by any means necessary.”
The gruesome events of August 8–10, 1969, are often tolled out as “the end of the Sixties.” You can take your pick of end points. Altamont in December 1969? The landslide reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972? Watergate in 1974? The final evacuation and fall of Saigon in 1975? Such punctuation is inevitably somewhat arbitrary and inadequate. This much seems clear, at least from the standpoint of my people: What happened on August 8–10, 1969, shook the sense of security that middle class Angelenos (and maybe Americans writ large) had retained through the weird and wild times of the 1960s. Whether “the Sixties” ended then or not, a certain sense of the world did. Open windows and unlocked doors seemed mighty risky. Long hair and rock music wasn’t just distasteful — it was downright sinister. It may be putting too much weight on a single episode, but the way the killings went down — and the way they would continue to be obsessively recounted for another two decades and more — pushed a wedge into cultural faultlines that had already cracked open around Vietnam, the sexual revolution and a broad culture clash. It raised the stakes. They weren’t just rebelling — they were murdering us.
Those faultlines still remain 50 years down the line, and no number of security cameras can quite relieve the fear instilled — just as that piece of shit had wanted.
Paul McNamee says
Hat tip to you and your grandparents. Well written piece.
Jim Cornelius says
Agreed. Breadth and depth. Well done.
This was before my time, but I’ve seen and read about it. I think the sheer weirdness of it all is the reason for people being continually fascinated by it. I know that in junior in the 90s we talked about it in class. I did not know then but the Columbine massacre was waiting in the wings. (About a month before I moved to Colorado.)
Jim Cornelius says
Every generation has its defining crime, I think.
I think that for me Columbine was frightening because I could see myself as one of the victims. I was their age. I was moving to Colorado. It home.
There was also, of course, 9/11. My family spent a scary few hours wondering if my uncle who worked in the Pentagon was okay. It turned out he was out of the building at the time. Oddly, people seem to forget that the Pentagon was also attacked that day.
Both events seem to enforce a metaphysical sense of evil of the world that I have.
Fine writing, I thank you…as for yer buddy Paul, I have to counter, if indeed he was meaning Tarantino’s ‘OUATIH’ that irked him and yes the very idea of ANY kind of continued media fascination with such vicious and aberrant creatures is repugnant and maddening to me as well, I’ll never get the idea of why so many regular folk who claim with pride a ‘fascination’ with serial murderers with countless films,books, t‑shirts and posters and social media pics,etc , that in my layman’s opinion, Tarantino purposely DID NOT give ‘Charlie’ any honorifics at all ( including his, I think, lil ‘fuck you’ to Rob Zombie’s film ‘The devils rejects’ ( Zombie is self professed ‘ Fanimal’ of such vicious pop culture histories ) near the climax in ‘OuATIH’ just allowing him les than 30 seconds of screen time and virtually NO dialogue…I have not wanted go back to the cineplex to rewatch a film in about 10 years ( including Tarantino’s last few, although I enjoyed them greatly ) but this one I will…this is his most interesting and ‘mature’ film.…and warrants us, You, Paul, myself, another ‘Butchers look’…
Jim Cornelius says
Yeah, Tarantino’s movie overcame my own animus toward him over the Martin guitar incident in hateful 8. It’s really a great piece — and it does not give Charlie Manson anything at all. A Twinkie truck in a cul-de-sac.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Tarantino. I found Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction (the films of him that I’ve seen) entertaining, but kind of shallow. Tarantino the person has aspects of his personality that I don’t like.
This subject still fascinate many. I’ve had a number of younger students who have chosen this topic for research papers.
Rick Schwertfeger says
Terrific, intriguing article for one who lived through all that, though from all the way on the other coast. Interestingly enough upon thinking back, the Tate-Manson gig didn’t affect me that much. About to enter my senior year of college, Vietnam was way, way more on my mind (and rugby!) It just seemed like Hollywood celebrity whacko madness — people I couldn’t relate to pretty much in any way. Then just after Thanksgiving I got hammered with a very, very low number in the Great Red, White and Blue Vietnam Draft Lottery — and I had a lot of very immediate shit on my plate. 1970 was not a fun year for me.
But it is interesting from this 50 year remove to think back to those times. My feeling now is that I can’t really recapture how chaotic, painful, and stressful they were. The country certainly was in an upside down uproar almost daily. And, I’ll give my vote to Altamont as “the end of the Sixties.”
Saddle Tramp says
Good piece Jim!!!
Twinkie truck! Great scene!!
Yes, I went to see ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD in Hollywood for the added affect of it, and not because I am a fan of the area as it has mostly become these days or for a very long time as far as that goes. I relate to almost nothing there anymore. You can also still score some good music at Amoeba Music just across from where I saw the film blown up from 35mm to 70mm film on the historic CINERAMA DOME’S special curved screen. Might as well take the opportunity when given. I don’t run with the Hollywood crowd and never have, but I do take in films that interest me in the special events offered. Let me emphasize that I am no acolyte of Quentin Tarantino but did take a particular interest in some of his films with so much being touted about him. I try to look beyond what I object to (or really find outright disgusting) about them for what artistic value there is. You don’t have to dig far to find fault with almost anybody these days. I do have my limits though. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD had a different attraction for me this time, and most definitely not for glorifying Manson in any way, shape or form, or for any other decadent and vacuous elements of the scene at that time. As I said before, the Manson murders were very impactful on me. Having been brought up with the glories and heroics of World War II (and the only war since then that we have won) not that far behind, but with the Korean War lost in the shadow of the escalating Vietnam War that was covered on the daily tv news and radio with more and more increased intensity war was everywhere. This along with all the assassinations. We were engulfed in violence as the American way. I remember clearly hearing on the transistor radio when I was 9 years old the urgent broadcast and seriousness in the broadcaster’s voice about the “escalation of the war” in Vietnam. It is stuck in my memory as powerfully as hearing a year earlier the announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination over the loudspeaker in my 4th grade classroom. Later seeing on tv Oswald being shot while in police custody. This was the tv generation. Modern America.
I can remember flying on the 727 jetliner when it first came out in 1963. The golden age of air travel. Then later came the Watts riots. This was contrast. We could see the rising smoke from our house in the suburbs. These were intense times for a ten year old’s impressionable mind. In the summer before going into the 6th grade a corporate transfer moved us to the suburbs of Chicago. This was during the time of the Richard Speck serial torture, rape and murder of eight nurses. The police sketch came across the news. He was still at large and it loomed over us in a very dark and sinister way until he was finally apprehended. When the Manson murders occurred on the heels of the landing on the moon it was another surreal moment that stole the innocence away in a profound way for me. I had no real background knowledge of any of the victims. I knew one was a Folger’s coffee heiress and that Sharon Tate was an actress known for Valley Of The Dolls. Yes, she was a beautiful actress and that no doubt enhanced the the imagery, but it was her being 8–1/2 months pregnant that horrified me. This was a time before I was as informed about human atrocities other than the horrific images of holocaust victims. This however was someone in her prime seen alive on the movie screen in color. It was different. My grandfather, besides being a Louis L’ Amour fan would also (when he could) read all the True Detective type magazines much to the chagrin of my grandmother. I would read them if only because I will read anything when a lack of choice is at hand. It was not because I was attracted to the subject so much as a curiosity driven and my the lack of any choice after consuming everything else in sight. Never bought them. I did get Louis L’ Amour to sign a book for my grandfather though. My grandfather only went to the 8th grade and had to quit and go to work in the coal mines to help support the family. My grandmother on the other hand was raised in an eleven bedroom house and went to the University Of Minnesota and then graduated from Grinnell College attending at the time Gary Cooper was there.
This would explain the difference in their tastes for literature. She introduced me to the classics. I myself had no singular proclivity or interest in murder and mayhem which is the point I am trying to make. Now, back to QT and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. I wanted to see what it had to say. I wanted to revisit the era and face it again. As I said before, I was repulsed just hearing or seeing Manson. I did read the books about the murders to face my disgust about him. This was not any different than how I took the film THE EXORCIST seriously at the time. I faced that too by buying the TUBULAR BELLS soundtrack album. My younger brother walked out of the film. He could not handle it. I never would see ROSEMARY’S BABY and still have no plans to. The truth is that over the top gratuitous violence does not appeal to me. I tolerate it for the artistic affect, but not by choice. Tarantino thrives on it. I don’t take lightly depictions of people being torched to death. I really don’t. There were cringe moments in this film, but I don’t want to spoil any virgin moments for those who may want to see it. I had to overlook those cringe moments. That said, I liked it for the spirit of it on a deeper level representative of the fallacies of glamour and the movie world. They don’t call it an industry for no reason you know. I don’t look for it as a morality film, even though that is in there in it’s own eccentric way. This was the handoff from a clash of eras and culture. It takes poetic license (lots of it) in a entertaining way for me. It was both a catharsis and a guilty pleasure. What is vulgarity? For some it might be THE WILD BUNCH for others it’s something else. It does not drive me to violence or bloodlust or glorifying it. It is the human condition. I explore it, but do not exalt it for what it is not. I try to look for inspiration when I can, but there are times when you just need a little escapism. Films have always served that purpose. We know our heroes have feet of clay. You could even go into what appears to be some credible evidence that Manson was a patsy or tool for the LAPD or the FBI or whoever you want. I usually stay clear of the conspiracy theorist at least on a grand scale of events. On a smaller scale it is much more feasible. Could anyone doubt what has happened in our illustrious history of covert activity. I think not. I however prefer to spend my time and energy otherwise. We all need our scapegoats though. It’s usually a slow insidious creeping along that elevates and escalates rather than some grand highly organized plan like the NEW WORLD ORDER for example. Plenty of shit does happen though. You make your own choices on where to lay the guilt and blame. I could no doubt find ways to criticize ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD if I so chose to, but for now I am still holding onto the enjoyment of it and recommending it. Political correctness put on hold for now.
Jim Cornelius says
Thanks ST. A lot to chew on there.
Thom Eley says
Great article, Jim. 1969 going on active duty in the Marines after being a reserve Sgt. while in college. A weird time for all of us. On a sad note thinking of your Grandfather. Four of my uncles died from asbestosis from working in the ship yards in Pascagoula, MS and one uncle from the same disease from working on boilers in the US Navy for 20 years–before the atomic age!
Jim Cornelius says
Yeah, they just didn’t know.
Saddle Tramp says
To add to your smoking comment.
My mother died of lung cancer at 61 years old. That is typically the expected age to succumb to lung cancer from a lifetime smoker. I quit at 20 and never looked back. My dad fortunately quit too. My great uncle wounded in WW I smoked until he was 99. There are always exceptions to the rule. David McLean who plated TATE the one-armed bounty hunter in the 1950’s tv series was also the Marlboro Man. Ironically he died from lung cancer and he was not the only Marlboro Man to do so. They actually promoted cigarettes for your health back in the day. Radio Classics plays all the old ads still. It all seems insanely funny now. Cartoon characters sold cigarettes too. American freedom of choice. But then they knew and then they lied and covered it up about the health risk. We know better now about both cigarettes and asbestos. At least you have to give it a second thought before purchasing smokes now.
Jim Cornelius says
That generation smoked like chimneys.
That’s a weird connection to that whole terrible scenario. I don’t know if it actually happened(hope it did), but in the original movie he tells the detective post trial in essence, “Well I almost did it didn’t I?”
The detective responded, “No Charlie, you just killed some people.”
They should have put him down decades ago.
Haven’t seen “Hollywood” yet but I hear they cast Dewey Crowe as Manson which seems exactly right.
There’s a great Rebecca Solnit essay “Rattlesnake in Mailbox” detailing what came next when she was growing up in the 70s and seeing the fallout first-hand. Great piece–and this is too, Jim!
Saddle Tramp says
For Peckinpah fans another once upon a time in 1960’s tv land with the 13 episode run cancelled for low ratings. This one is called Line Camp. Pretty damn good for a 30 minute program with a decent cast.Judge for yourself. Times were changing though. Timing is everything. This series holds up for me just because the west and westerns have never run out for me. More available on YouTube for only 30 minutes of your time. Hell, it’s Peckinpah cutting his teeth…
Jim Cornelius says
Saddle Tramp says
Thought it worth mentioning, if you are not already aware, that the 13 episode run was produced by Peckinpah with his help in all the writing, but not always directed by him. Peckinpah is all over it though. This came out during the transitioning period (Rick Dalton) away from westerns and it was too gritty for most viewers of the time. The first episode in particular demonstrates that.Consider the time. Both of those reasons lowered it’s viewership. Also, one episode has a very prominent symbol that might be misconstrued in the context of today along with so many other tropes or themes. The WESTERNER starred Brian Keith and was far removed from what he became best known for. He was also a decorated WWII USMC aviator. He too suffered with emphysema (and had advertised for Camels as well) and sadly took his own life. The show has some outstanding co-stars being that of an Appaloosa, a dog and Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite rifle. There are humorous episodes too. John Dehner who is also known as the radio voice of Paladin on HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and as Jeremy Kendall on FRONTIER GENTLEMAN as a London Times newspaper reporter exploring the Wild West frontier. I always kind of related him to you on that one. You can find them if you look. Two of my favorite old time radio shows that are very well done all things considered.
I take it where I find it.
Here’s another obscure tv western episode starring Chuck Connors long before he became the RIFLEMAN. He was also a uniquely and very talented athlete. In this one he has the initials of T.H. so the implication is obvious. Yes it can be a little overwrought and even inane as any tv show can be in those days, but it packs a lot in it’s short time of less than 30 minutes. Snack westerns you might say…
Saddle Tramp says
P.S. Jeremy Brian Kendall was his full name but he always referred to himself as J.B. Kendall. He was as adept with fists and pistol as he was with pen and paper. Like Paladin, he always tried diplomacy first. Between the two of them I could find a very satisfying life.
Saddle Tramp says
Found this for you:
All 41 episodes of FG.
Not bad for a short ride if you want to take a jaunt:
Saddle Tramp says
If you burn out on or burn up all the FG episodes you can turn to the more expansive HGWT episodes. May I suggest episode no. 72 (Shanghai Is A Verb) for a taste of Paladin close to home. Again, take it for it’s time and what would not necessarily play well today no doubt. You even get a cigarette advertisement in this one, but obviously not for Red Apple. Also, the graphic shows the tv version of Paladin played by actor Richard Boone on a soap box with a calling card inside. A trademark lawsuit against the program eventually was won by the rodeo performer who had many of the attributes of the tv Paladin. Such is the nature of show biz…
All 106 radio shows:
Saddle Tramp says
Not to be remiss.
John Dehner was also General George S. Patton Jr.’s publicist following him throughout his African and European campaigns. No easy task was that I’m sure (Patton that is). John Dehner was very multi-talented individual including being an amateur Fencing champion.
VIA: Just off the North Mountain Trail Road in the foothills of Sierra Madre stocking up on various jams, etc. (including Rhubarb Conserve) at E. Waldo Ward & Son (since 1891) very well hidden up an unmarked dirt lane. People who have lived around here for 50 years have just recently found out it was here. It don’t get no more old fashioned than this…
Jim Cornelius says