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How the Manson murders changed Hollywood, explained by Joan Didion

“No one was surprised.”

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate, circa 1965.
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When five people were murdered at Sharon Tate’s house on the night of August 8-9, 1969, the reverberations went far beyond the elite Hollywood community of which she was part. They were felt far beyond Los Angeles, too. By that fall, when police connected the murders (and those of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the following night) to Charles Manson and his cult-like “family,” Manson was well on his way to infamy, becoming a murderous icon and a symbol of an age.

Similarly, the murders would, for many, feel like the definitive end of the 1960s, and their optimism along with it. As Joan Didion wrote in her essay “The White Album,” the title piece of her 1979 collection, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”

But right after the murders happened, it was the community surrounding Tate’s house on Cielo Drive, and the broader group of people involved in show business in LA — which included Didion and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne — whose nerves jangled most sharply. Didion explained in her essay:

There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin” — this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it — was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanksi’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.

The first sentence of “The White Album” furnishes one of Didion’s most quoted lines: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She goes on to explain, through the rest of the essay, what she means: that humans survive the confusion and brutality of life by trying to find connections between events and extract meaning from those connections. We’re constantly trying to force seemingly random happenings into the framework of a story that might teach or show us something. But Didion isn’t so sure that the meaning we crave is truly available to us.

“The White Album” isn’t only about the Manson family and the murders; in it, Didion writes about hanging out with the Doors in the recording studio, visiting Huey Newton in jail, and navigating her own anxiety and suitcase-packing practices as a reporter during the late 1960s.

But the title makes it clear that the shadow of Manson hangs over the whole essay. It’s a reference to the 1968 Beatles album best known by its pure white cover art. But Manson was obsessed with that album, and told his followers it was the Beatles’ way of sending coded messages to the Manson family, warning them of the upcoming race war apocalypse (which he called “helter skelter,” after one of their songs). It’s part of what inspired him to tell his followers to kill the “pigs” on the weekend of August 8.

Didion had more than a mild interest in the case. After the passage quoted above, she writes about visiting Linda Kasabian in prison, and later buying a dress for her to wear to testify in court during Manson’s trial. (Kasabian was among the four members of the Manson family who went to Tate’s house, but she was standing lookout and did not actually kill anyone, which meant she was a prime witness in the case later on.)

In the essay, Didion uses the story of Tate’s murder to demonstrate how, in the aftermath of the event, it felt as if everything in the world had stopped making sense. She writes about strange coincidences and links: She bought a dress to be married in on the morning JFK was killed; later, she wore it to a party that was also attended by Tate and Polanski, and Polanski spilled wine on it. These and other coincidences don’t mean anything, she admits, but “in the jingle-jangle morning of that summer it made as much sense as anything else.”

And she revisits the connection in the last sentence of the essay: “Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood [...] and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me see what it means.”

“The White Album” viscerally recreates the anxiety of the period: not just Didion’s, but the country’s. It locates the nexus of that anxiety as the summer of 1969, and especially the Tate murders. And while the country would go on to try to make sense of Manson and the murders in the coming months and years — people have been trying to make sense of them ever since — Didion suggests, in the end, that it’s an impossible task.