How Charles Manson Nearly Made It in Hollywood

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How Charles Manson Nearly Made It in Hollywood

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For a fleeting moment in the confused swirl of the 1960s, Charles Manson, a diminutive ex-convict who had taken to hippie silks and a cosmic patter, somehow wormed his way into a plum spot adjacent the Hollywood A-list. He jammed with Neil Young, bunked with a Beach Boy and mingled with Mama Cass and Michael Caine at industry parties.

Before his Los Angeles experience turned very, very, very sour, Mr. Manson managed to pass himself off as enough of an insider to merit a thumbs up from Mr. Young. “This guy, you know, he’s good,” Mr. Young once told a Reprise record executive, in the days before the era-shattering murder spree. “He’s just a little out of control.”

The basic outline of Mr. Manson as a failed songwriter is familiar to anyone who has ever watched one of the dozens (hundreds?) of cable documentaries on the Manson family, or donned a Guns N’ Roses concert T-shirt (the band covered Mr. Manson’s “Look at Your Game, Girl” on its 1993 album, “The Spaghetti Incident?”).

But he came closer to success than one might expect.

After a lengthy musical apprenticeship plucking his acoustic guitar in a cell, Mr. Manson, a self-described member of the Bing Crosby generation, was released from prison in 1967, just in time for the psychedelic explosion. After a stop in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury for a hippie makeover, he headed with a few members of his budding so-called family to Los Angeles to find fame and fortune as the next Dylan, or at least the next really creepy Dylan.

In classic Los Angeles fashion, his big break — or what looked like it — came through a chance encounter with a celebrity. After Dennis Wilson, the hard-partying drummer for the Beach Boys, picked up a couple of Mr. Manson’s young female followers while hitchhiking, Mr. Manson did his best to bring Mr. Wilson, with his sports cars and gold records, under his messianic spell.

The drummer was open to mind expansion, having studied under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. As Mr. Wilson explained to Britain’s Record Mirror in 1968, he had met a new guru named Charlie, “who’d recently come out of jail after 12 years,” but had “great musical ideas.”

“We’re writing together now,” he said of the man he called the Wizard. “He’s dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.”

Mr. Manson and his family camped out at Mr. Wilson’s Pacific Palisades estate, once the home of Will Rogers. They mingled in the Beach Boys recording studio with the likes of Rodney Bingenheimer, the columnist and social arbiter of the Los Angeles rock scene who was eventually celebrated in the 2004 documentary “Mayor of the Sunset Strip.”

Mr. Manson was also trying out his mystical psychobabble on every rock star he met. Not all were smitten.

One night, Mr. Wilson invited his cousin Mike Love, the Beach Boys singer, over for dinner to meet the Wizard. It quickly turned into a “group sex kind of situation,” Mr. Love told ABC News many years later. “It wasn’t my cup of tea, so I excused myself to take a shower.”

“No sooner than I got in the shower, the door opened and Charlie Manson stood there and looked up at me and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Mr. Love recalled. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’” Mr. Manson apparently replied: “You can’t leave the group!”

Despite Mr. Manson’s unsettling behavior, the Beach Boys gave him his first taste of mainstream fame, including “Never Learn Not to Love,” an only slightly reworked version of the Manson necro-rocker “Cease to Exist,” on their 1969 album, “20/20.” With lyrics like “Cease to resist, come on say you love me,” it wasn’t exactly a surfin’ safari. Nevertheless, the band apparently thought enough of their Manson-inspired new direction to perform the song on “The Mike Douglas Show.”

Mr. Manson also managed to win over Neil Young, who was already attaining legend status in Los Angeles at that time. In his 2012 autobiography, “Waging Heavy Peace,” Mr. Young recalled a visit to his house by Mr. Manson and a few of the women, when Mr. Manson grabbed Mr. Young’s guitar and started strumming a few originals.

“His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along,” Mr. Young writes, “and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good.”

It wasn’t long before Mr. Manson was finding doors open for him at the most exclusive Hollywood parties. In his 1992 autobiography, “What’s It All About?,” Michael Caine, no hippie to be sure, recalled being introduced to a “scruffy little man” named Charles Manson at a party at Cass Elliot’s house. (Also in attendance: future Manson family victims Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, the celebrity hairstylist).

Not so different from the world today, an open-door policy was common in the late ’60s, particularly for colorfully dressed hipsters carrying acoustic guitars and drugs.

More than a few Hollywood players explored free love with members of the Manson family, perhaps even with Mr. Manson himself. According to “Manson In His Own Words,” a 1986 as-told-to book by Nuel Emmons, an old prison acquaintance, executives at a major record label supposedly were hooked when Mr. Manson started talking about his carefree existence “living in a bus with 12 girls.”

Based on six years of interviews with a convicted murderer given to wild hyperbole and self-contradiction (many reconstructed without the benefit of a tape recorder), some of the subject’s “recollections” need to be taken with a grain of salt, if not a pound of it. Nevertheless, Mr. Manson supposedly told Mr. Emmons that before long, he and his “girls” were on the “let’s-get-acquainted list of many of the not-so-straight idols of the movie world.”

“We had long ago chucked our inhibitions about sex,” Mr. Manson supposedly said. “But chains, whips, torture and other weirdness were not part of our routine.” The book also recounts a supposed ménage à trois with Mr. Manson, a male movie star and his television actress wife, after which the man, one “Mr. B,” “slipped five one-hundred-dollar bills in my pocket.”

Other members of the Hollywood firmament with actual names fell under his spell. In a 2014 interview with Britain’s Daily Mail, Angela Lansbury talked about how her daughter, Deirdre, who had struggled with drug addiction as a teenager in the ’60s, “was in with a crowd led by Charles Manson.”

“She was one of many youngsters who knew him, and they were fascinated,” Ms. Lansbury said. “He was an extraordinary character, charismatic in many ways, no question about it.”

All tales of Mr. Manson’s days living the Hollywood high life lead to Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day who was a heavyweight record producer for acts including the Beach Boys and the Byrds. Along with Mr. Wilson and Gregg Jakobson, an industry friend, Mr. Melcher, who died in 2004, was “part of an informal society known as the Golden Penetrators,” according to Jeff Guinn’s exhaustive 2013 biography, “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson.”

The group’s membership “was limited to anyone who had sex with women from one of show business’s most famous families,” but did not apparently stop there.

The “triumvirate reveled in their hedonism,” Mr. Guinn writes. “In a city that had long ago waived most moral or legal limits for the famous, their philosophy was ‘We’re us, there are no rules, we get to do this.’”

Little surprise, then, that they were soon hanging out in a celebrity booth at the Whiskey a Go Go, with one Charles Milles Manson, who one night managed to clear the dance floor with his maniacal gyrations: “He tipped back his head and threw out his arms,” Mr. Guinn writes. “It seemed as though electrical sparks flew from Charlie’s fingers and hair.”

“The crowd had surged off the dance floor as if driven by some irresistible force field,” the book continues. “Now it circled the floor, mesmerized by the sight of the whirling dervish.”

While Mr. Melcher was one of the music industry’s power players, he was also known in the late ’60s as one half of a celebrity couple, living with his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, in a secluded Benedict Canyon home at 10050 Cielo Drive.

Students of the period do not need to be told how things unfolded after Mr. Melcher met Mr. Manson. The producer initially showed interest in Mr. Manson’s music, but eventually distanced himself.

And as Mr. Manson watched his chance at musical fame evaporate, he grew increasingly desperate and began to sermonize with more fervor about a coming race war that he called Helter Skelter, a phrase he cribbed from the Beatles song about an amusement-park ride.

For decades, debate has raged about the motives of the so-called Tate murders, even among those involved in them. It seems clear that, at some level, Mr. Manson sought to strike back at the Hollywood elite that had spurned him.

Regardless, Mr. Manson was well aware that Mr. Melcher no longer lived in the Cielo Drive house where five adults and Ms. Tate’s unborn son died gruesomely. It was a house Mr. Manson knew well, and on the evening of March 23, 1969, fewer than five months before the murders, Mr. Manson had dropped by looking for Mr. Melcher, according to “Helter Skelter,” the 1974 book by the Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, with Gary Gentry.

He found new residents in the house, however, who directed him to Rudi Altobelli, a talent manager who owned the house, but who was then staying in the guesthouse. Mr. Altobelli informed Mr. Manson that Mr. Melcher had moved to Malibu, but offered no address.

Mr. Manson’s visit that day, it seems, would be the most fateful of his celebrity encounters. The next day, Ms. Tate mentioned the curious encounter to Mr. Altobelli on a flight to Rome. “Did you see that creepy-looking guy come back there yesterday?” she asked.

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