Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – and Switzerland

Fifty years ago, I didn’t see all the front-page headlines or the TV news coverage of the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends at the Beverly Hills house where she lived with her husband, director Roman Polanski.

He was in Europe making a movie in August 1969. I was in Europe too – in Bern, Switzerland, 22 years old, unemployed with a wife and a baby, bunking in my in-laws’ house on a bank of the River Aare.

Most days, I’d  walk across a small bridge to the medieval Old Town, and pick up the International Herald Tribune at a newspaper kiosk near the city’s famous clock tower.

I’d read the Trib at one of the many cafés at the Barenplatz, which, in the summer, was a magnet for young Americans and others bumming around Europe. 

This is where I met a couple of stoners from L.A. who said they had the straight dope on the slaughter at the Tate house in Benedict Canyon.

“Jimmy Coburn did it,” one told me.

“James Coburn?” I asked. “The actor?”

“Yeah,” the other said, “crazy fucker, that Jimmy. Still got the knife from The Magnificent Seven.”

“Are you saying that James Coburn, the actor, used a movie prop to carve up those people?” I eyeballed both of them.

They responded with shit-eating grins, rose from the table and tripped off into the city.

Ugly Americans, I thought. Too much money, too much free time to get high and goof on people.

This was the summer of Easy Rider and Woodstock, men on the moon, and the Zodiac killer in San Francisco; of Creedence Clearwater’s Bad Moon Rising  and David Bowie’s Space Oddity: Ground Control to Major Tom.

If Polanski could suspect Bruce Lee killed Tate and the others – as recalled in Quentin Tarantino’s new movie about the murderous episode and the era, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood – why not James Coburn?

To L.A. police and prosecutors at the time, the gruesome and macabre crime scene at the Tate house pointed to bad-tripping crazies. And did not exclude the rich and famous with a taste for drugs. Many in the movie business feared being inadvertently swept up in the hysteria.

“No one was sure who the police would question or when. An unidentified film figure told a Life reporter: ‘Toilets are being flushed all over Beverly Hills; the entire Los Angeles sewer system is stoned,’” prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote in his book on the case, Helter Skelter.

Of course, it turned out the motive – if you can call it that – could not be pinned on drugs, just the evil fantasies of a white supremacist cult leader.

Charles Manson preached a doomsday scenario that would leave only him and his followers alive. 

He called it Helter Skelter, saying he gleaned secret messages from Beatles’ lyrics and the Book of Revelation.

“Now is the time for Helter Skelter,” he told the four disciples he sent to 10050 Cielo Drive.

When the maid arrived on Saturday morning, August 9, 1969 – fifty years ago today – she found the bodies of  Tate, 26, eight months pregnant; her close friend Jay Sebring, 35, a celebrity hairstylist;Wojciech Frykowski, 32, a Polish friend of Polanski and aspiring screenwriter, and his girlfriend, Abigail Folger, 25, heir to the Folger coffee fortune. A fifth victim, found dead in the driveway, was Steven Parent, a teenager visiting the caretaker on the property.

It would be months before Manson and those who carried out the killings were identified as suspects, arrested, and charged with the murders.

Manson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1971 and spent the rest of his life in prison. He died in 2017 at the age of 83.

There’s much more fear and loathing – sorry, HST – in Europe and elsewhere, plus murders I covered and many interviews with celebrities in my book, The Expat FilesMy Life in Journalism, available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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