Ed Sanders’ book “Sharon Tate: A Life,” is in some ways an odd biography — not so much for the subject matter, but for the author’s style of writing. Although in a technical sense the book does recount the life of the actress who was tragically murdered, Sanders actually seems far more interested in using Tate as a symbol of something else: the 1960s.
Sanders, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., and wrote an earlier book about the Manson case called “The Family” in 1972, almost certainly had his life formed in that turbulent decade, and it’s reflected in his biography of the actress known less today her movies like “Valley Of The Dolls” or “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” but for the fact that on Aug. 8, 1969, Tate and four other people were brutally slaughtered at their Cielo Drive home by followers of Charles Manson.
Forty-seven years later, what’s Sanders motivation in revisiting this tragic case? In some ways, it feels like the book could have been subtitled (or even retitled) “The Death of the 1960s,” in the sense that he, along with many others, appears to see the Manson case as the incident that soured the Hippie Movement dream of an entirely different lifestyle outside mainstream culture. When Manson got tagged as a drug-crazed “hippie” who decided to commit several shocking murders, it was as if the entire movement got such a nasty black eye that it collapsed.
In fact, 11 of the 17 chapters are devoted to the Tate murder — including a chapter on the summer of 1969 and what was happening culturally and politically, another on the Manson cult living at Spahn Ranch, another on Sharon Tate’s final days in August 1969. Then chapters on the murders, the aftermath, the investigations, and how it was solved. That leaves seven chapters devoted to Tate’s early years.
Sanders’ style is unique. He conducts only a few interviews with people who knew Tate at the time, mainly to jog their memories on minor details, and otherwise gathers most of his information about her from early magazine and newspaper clippings, as well as earlier biographies, and the autobiography “Roman by Polanski” by Tate’s husband, film director Roman Polanski. He quotes liberally from entertainment and pop culture magazines from the decade on Sharon Tate’s rise in the film industry, but as Sanders gets closer to 1968 — the year Sharon Tate and Polanski got married, and the year that Polanski’s blockbuster hit “Rosemary’s Baby” got released — his interests begin to wander a bit away from the actress and, more engagingly, to the turbulent late 1960s themselves.
Although Sharon Tate’s sadly brief life may have been the initial focus of the book, it appears that Sanders views her case as one that speaks volumes about a decade that seemed to ravel out on control as it approached the start of the 1970s.
As an example, he mysteriously devotes lengthy pages to the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy on the night he won the California democratic presidential primary. How this fits into the life of Sharon Tate isn’t entirely clear, outside of the fact that she appears to have been a Kennedy supporter, and may or may not have attended a party for Kennedy at the home of film director John Frankenheimer shortly before the assassination.
There are also plenty of pages devoted to Satanism — whether the success of “Rosemary’s Baby,” for example, may have prompted a kind of chic renewed interest in Satanism, something that one of the other Manson victims, hair stylist Jay Sebring, may or may not have dabbled in. Sanders’ approach is sort of like a “dig beneath the surface of the 1960s and it was even wilder than you think” narrative.
He also brings pop culture into the mix as often as possible — including recounting in intricate detail the ways that John Phillips and Cass Elliot, leaders of the Mamas and the Papas rock group, were considered potential suspects in the Sharon Tate murders (Phillips because of an alleged hot temper, Elliot for her connection to a drug dealer) before the spotlight turned to Manson himself.
But while Sanders has an interesting style — more like a rambling dialogue, in a sense, than a more classically structured piece of journalism — why he opted to write a book about Sharon Tate to begin with, nearly 50 years since her death, isn’t entirely clear. Sanders admits at the end of the book that there are still mysteries about this case, including what Manson’s motives were, as well as whether Manson may have had bad information that Sharon Tate wouldn’t be at the house that night but would be staying with a friend.
And while he revels in looking back at the controversies of the 1960s, it’s interesting that the book — which was just released by Da Capo Press on Jan. 5 — doesn’t make any attempt to connect this case to where we are today. That’s odd considering that the country is in the midst of a presidential race, where Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders is seen by some as a throwback to the 1960s, a “Woodstock” candidate seeking to revive 1960s liberal values; or that GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has been seen by some as a reemergence of one of the leading candidates in the 1968 presidential campaign, independent George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama who ran a populist campaign, vigorously attacked anyone who criticized him, promised to boost the working class, and loved to goad and snap at the media. It’s as if the 1960s were coming back — in the sense of the rising angst among the people, anyway.
“Sharon Tate: A Life” is really one of the continuing series of books that looks back at the Manson case — and it’s probably not possible to write a book about Sharon Tate that doesn’t become almost entirely wrapped up in the gory details of her murder, anyhow.
But it’s also clear that Sanders maintains a healthy obsession about the late 1960s. Considering how much this one case continues to fascinate so many, that shouldn’t be surprising.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..