The mass murderer, who died on Sunday at 83, turned one following into another.
“All of us are excited by what we most deplore,” Martin Amis wrote in the London Review of Books in 1980, reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the title piece in that collection, Didion’s second, the essayist recalls sitting in her sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills on August 9, 1969, when the phone rang. The friend on the line had heard that across town there had been a spate of murders at a house rented by the director Roman Polanski, on Cielo Drive. Early reports were frenzied, shocking, lurid, and incorrect. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly,” Didion writes, “and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
The killings orchestrated that summer by Charles Manson, who died on Sunday at the age of 83, after spending the past 48 years in prison, occupy a unique space in the American cultural psyche. All of the elements of the Tate–LaBianca murders, as they came to be known, seemed designed for maximum tabloid impact. There was the actor Sharon Tate, luminously beautiful and eight months pregnant, who was stabbed to death with four others at a rental home in Hollywood. There were the killers—young women, Manson acolytes corrupted by a sinister cult figure. There were the drugs, abundant both on the Manson Family ranch and at the house on Cielo Drive. There was the nebulous chatter about satanism and witchcraft and race wars ready to erupt. And, as Didion captured, there was a sense that something was rotten from the Hollywood Hills to Haight-Ashbury—that the Summer of Love had long since curdled into paranoia and depravity.