Any list of California's most notorious criminals would surely include Charles Manson. He and his cult of followers were convicted of orchestrating the Tate-LaBianca murders, which took place in Los Angeles on two consecutive summer nights in 1969. In his new book titled "Manson:The Life and Times of Charles Manson," writer Jeff Guinn follows his tracks through Berkeley and San Francisco, describing how Manson's obsession with the Beatles and landing his own recording contract led to the notorious murders that shook Hollywood more than 40 years ago.
SCOTT SHAFER: Jeff Guinn joins me now. Thanks for coming in.
JEFF GUINN: Thank you.
SHAFER: Charles Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1934. What kind of a childhood and home life did he have?
GUINN: Part of the Manson mystique has always been that he was a child of the streets – the illegitimate son of a teenage prostitute who tried to sell him for a pitcher of beer. None of that really is true. His mother did serve a short prison sentence for a botched armed robbery, but he lived with relatives comfortably in West Virginia in a small town, and by the time he got here, to San Francisco, he had a long record of violent juvenile delinquency; then as an adult, everything from car theft to being a very unsuccessful pimp in Los Angeles.
SHAFER: And, as you say, he gets here after getting paroled from a prison sentence in Los Angeles, arrives in San Francisco just before the Summer of Love, 1967. And while he was in prison, you write that among the things that influenced him were Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and then also Scientology.
GUINN: He was entranced by the Dale Carnegie course he got to take in prison because he thought it would make him a better pimp. He could get more women to cooperate. He liked Scientology because he was fascinated with how they could talk to people and try to recruit them. But then he heard the Beatles, and he knew what his dream was. He was going to be a bigger star than they were. When he was released from prison, Terminal Island down in Los Angeles, came up to Berkeley because he knew somebody here, but the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, it was just too much for him -- he looking for gullible followers, where better could you find them?
SHAFER: So he was, in a sense -- he was charming and charismatic. And a con man, obviously.
GUINN: He was, and what we have to remember most about Manson in San Francisco and later in Los Angeles – he was never crazy. Everything he did was calculated. He’s a sociopath, and his whole game was to be what he called “the man of a thousand hats,” that he could change personalities to charm whoever he was talking to. And it was never any effort for him. But he had these followers. He wanted to be a rock and roll star. He also wanted to be a preacher, talking about an apocalyptic race war called Helter Skelter. And unfortunately in August 1969, the threads came together and people died.
SHAFER: Before that, he goes down to Los Angeles in a converted school bus that was painted rainbow colors and black, and had “Hollywood Productions” written on the side of it. He wanted to get a music contract. In fact, he became friendly with some of the Beach Boys.
GUINN: Dennis Wilson, specifically. The other Beach Boys loathed Manson. Manson glommed onto Dennis Wilson, gave him all the girls and drugs that Dennis wanted, which was a considerable amount, and Dennis, who was a very friendly, helpful guy, did what he could to get Manson signed to the Beach Boys’ Brothers label, but the other Beach Boys wanted no part of him. But Manson also befriended other famous stars -- Neil Young, John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas -- he had plenty of chances to audition his music for some of the great talents, and none of them found him anything more than mediocre.
SHAFER: The night of those first murders in Hollywood, the Sharon Tate murders, he wasn’t there. He didn’t really kill anybody, but he orchestrated it and he ordered it. And as you point out, he manipulated everyone into thinking it was their idea and made sure they all had, so to speak, blood on their hands -- that they participated.
GUINN: Very much so. That’s the way Manson always controlled his followers by using the Carnegie precept, let the other fellow think that the idea was his. The reason they picked that house was not because they intended to kill Sharon Tate specifically, or Terry Melcher, the record producer who lived there before her. It was simply because Tex Watson, who was driving the car, knew how to get there from Spahn Ranch because he and Manson had driven there once or twice previously. We now know that after the murders were committed, Manson himself went back to the house because he didn’t think they made the scene sufficiently shocking enough and moved some things around -- stage-managed it, so to speak.
SHAFER: I think there’s a popular perception that Charles Manson is crazy. And, in fact, he used to play something he called the “insane game” from the time he was very young. What was that? Describe that, what it was and how it developed in time as he got older.
GUINN: Charles Manson is a very small, slight man. As a full-grown adult, he was only 5’4”. When his mother, not because she didn’t want him but because he was so violent and incorrigible, put him in the first in a series of boys’ homes, he’d act worse and worse until he ended up in some really bad facilities where he would be preyed on as a small boy. That was when he told people he started playing the insane game, acting so crazy, like such a lunatic, that the bad kids would leave him alone. And I think the most telling story was told to me both by Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkle -- that just before the final arrest in Mojave, that Manson called the family around him and said, “If I’m ever arrested again, I’m going to play Crazy Charlie as long as it takes until they decide I’m insane and let me go.” And Krenwinkle and Van Houten, those who know him since, say he’s been doing that since 1969.
SHAFER: The book is called “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson,” writer Jeff Guinn. Thanks for coming in.
GUINN: My pleasure.
MANSON: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by KQED News