(Pictured: police look for clues in the house where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered by members of the Manson Family on August 10, 1969.)
In August 1969, I spent a few days with my favorite cousin at his house. I remember picking up the paper one afternoon to read a story about some terrible murders that happened in Los Angeles. I didn’t recognize the names of anyone involved, although they would become familiar to me as I read the papers over the next several months: Tate, LaBianca, Folger, Frykowski, Sebring, Parent, Manson, Van Houten, Krenwinkel, Atkins, Kasabian, and others. By the time I started listening to the radio in 1970 and hearing news on the hour, Charles Manson and his family members were on trial. Over the years, the Tate-LaBianca murders and the Manson Family held a grim fascination for me; at some point in high school, I would read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s story of the case, Helter Skelter, in a single weekend.
Fifty years after the murders—a half-century to the very weekend—I read another book about the case in a couple of days. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill claims that the theory of the case advanced by Bugliosi—that the murders were inspired by Manson’s interpretation of the Beatles’ White Album and were intended to start a race war—was simply not the reason, and that Bugliosi hid and/or distorted evidence in his desire to get a conviction that would advance his career. (One of Bugliosi’s colleagues, reviewing O’Neill’s research, told the author that it would be sufficient to get the 1971 verdicts against the Manson Family overturned.)
As to exactly what was the reason for the killings—that’s where it gets murky. O’Neill shows time and again the strange ways in which Manson was seemingly protected by the LAPD and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department and by various probation officers, but he never found out why. He explores Manson’s connections to music-industry figures Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher, but doesn’t connect many dots. Before he’s done, O’Neill gets into the possibility that the FBI’s political surveillance program, COINTELPRO, and the CIA’s Operation CHAOS program, which spied illegally on Americans perceived as domestic enemies, might have been involved in the case. O’Neill even suggests a possible connection between the Manson murders and the famous CIA mind-control program MK-ULTRA.
As it is my practice to look sideways at MK-ULTRA—it is frequently a one-size-fits-all explanation for all manner of lunacy—I found the last part of the book disappointing. The first half, in which O’Neill retells the story of the murders and the trial, and details his ten-year investigation into what happened, is much better. If you have an interest in the Tate-LaBianca case (and especially if you read Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter back in the day), O’Neill’s book is worth reading. It’s a well-written and fast-moving tale of events that still retain the capacity to shock, and the unsolved mysteries that still surround them a half-century later.
Also on the Reading List: If murder and mind control don’t appeal to you, read Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changed Hollywood Forever, by Nick de Semlyen instead. It’s about the period from Animal House through Groundhog Day, late 70s to early 90s, when Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, and John Candy were among Hollywood’s most prominent stars. Not every one of their movies was good—if Chase was offered more than one project at a time, he frequently chose the worst one, and Aykroyd had more misses than hits—but the best of them (Animal House, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Groundhog Day) are among the most reliably entertaining films ever made. They did not replay the same premise every weekend. Their stars and their filmmakers had recognizable personalities and styles. The movies were not focus-grouped into existence and marketed the same way.
Wild and Crazy Guys is a fast read, partly because you don’t want to put it down, not necessarily because it’s filled with previously unknown revelations, which it isn’t, but because it covers a bygone-and-much-missed era in pop-culture history, a time when Hollywood’s ambitions weren’t as small as they are today. It will make you want to dig into your DVDs, visit the public library DVD section, or find a stream to revisit movies you remember from decades ago.