7 scenes in Hollywood
Tonight is the anniversary of a brutal mass murder. Here's the story of one who got away (and what it did to him). Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I was talking with Jay Alan Wolfe, who has written a few well-received newsletters for Understandably in the past. (Last appearance: Eh-ming-way.)
Jay: Did you know that actor Steve McQueen was supposed to be at Sharon Tate’s house on the night of the Manson murders?
(Tonight is the grim 53rd anniversary.)
Me: No, I did not know that. Do you want to dig into it?
Close Calls of the King of Cool
By Jay Alan Wolfe
“When I’m not making a picture, I spend all my time fixing my car,” the actor Steve McQueen told a reporter at the height of his fame, after playing a street-tough cop in “Bullitt” (1968). “My wife doesn’t have to worry about other women; she knows where to find me.”
It was a nice story. Like a lot of Hollywood stories, it had very little relation to the truth.
Scene 1: August 7, 1969. McQueen’s Hollywood haircut.
McQueen didn’t entrust his blonde hair and rebel look to just anyone, so he had Jay Sebring, stylist to the stars, come to his Hollywood home (known as “the Castle”).
These were Hollywood guys, making Hollywood plans. The next night, they agreed, they’d get dinner with actress Sharon Tate, then 26 years old and eight-and-a-half months pregnant, best known for her role in Valley of the Dolls two years earlier.
From there, they’d have drinks at her husband Roman Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.
This was back when Polanski could travel freely in the United States, of course, but he wouldn’t be there. He was in London scouting film locations. While he was away, he’d asked Sebring to keep Tate company along with other celebs: writer Voytek Frykowski and coffee heiress Abigail Folger.
It sounded good to McQueen. He told his wife, Neile Adams about his plans; possibly he asked her to come along.
But it was an empty gesture. Theirs was a marriage on the rocks.
Neile was no fool. A Filipina-American actress, singer, and dancer, she had worked as a child for the resistance in Manila during the Japanese occupation in World War II. She saw Sebring for what he was and resented his presence at the Castle.
Along with his hair-cutting tools, he often brought cocaine. He was not, in her view, a man who encouraged the loyalty of husbands to their wives.
Not that McQueen needed enticing. As one writer later put it, he picked up women everywhere—even hitchhikers.
Scene 2: August 8, 1969. McQueen’s life-saving motorcycle ride.
McQueen and Neile had an argument. She wanted a quiet night in. She said she was staying home.
But Sebring and Tate were likely already at El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant, and McQueen wanted to go. He stormed out of the house, Neile later recounted, and hopped on his motorcycle.
On the way, a young woman caught his eye.
Scene 3: August 9, 1969. McQueen cheats, and cheats death, too.
Around midnight, four members of the so-called Manson Family scrambled over the fence around Polanski’s estate—the place where McQueen would have been had he not picked up “a little chickie,” as his wife later put it.
One of the Mansonites, Tex Watson, confronted Steven Parent—a visitor who had been there to see the estate’s caretaker. He shot Parent dead.
Watson then broke into the main house through a window and let two of his female accomplices in via the front door. Over the course of several hours, a gruesome scene unfolded.
All four of the people McQueen had planned to meet—Tate, Sebring, Folger and Frykowski—were stabbed and bludgeoned to death.
Scene 4: August 13, 1969. McQueen gives Sebring’s eulogy.
McQueen lied to Neile; told her he’d run into an old friend and had drinks. He went to bed, and woke up late. By then, the bodies of his friends had been discovered by the housekeeper.
McQueen was doubly horrified when he heard the news: first at the grisly murder of friends and then at the realization of how narrowly he had escaped the same fate.
Hollywood locked down tight. Children were pulled out of school. Security guards were posted on driveways.
Sebring and Tate were laid to rest in separate ceremonies on August 13, hours apart, so that their mutual friends could attend both. McQueen spoke at Sebring’s funeral, a loaded handgun in his pocket the whole time.
He skipped Tate’s memorial. He told his wife that one funeral was enough for the day.
This was his life now: shaken up, nervous, looking over his shoulder. He installed security systems and alarms around the Castle, and hid guns and weapons everywhere. He was armed everywhere he went, and he required Neile to sleep with another gun under her pillow.
Scene 5: October 1969. McQueen on the ‘hitlist.’
Manson and his followers were rounded up and arrested on unrelated charges in October, and then finally indicted for the murders in December. This did little to put McQueen’s mind at ease.
There were rumors that Manson had made a hitlist with McQueen’s name on it—right next to Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor.
"In some ways I find it humorous, and in other ways frighteningly tragic," McQueen wrote to his lawyers around this time, asking for information on the Mansons and also for help getting his gun permit renewed. "It may be nothing, but I must consider it to be true both for the protection of myself and my family."
It wasn’t just the immediate threat, however. McQueen felt betrayed by the hippie movement, which he’d partially embraced: longer hair, the slang, the ideas of the counterculture.
McQueen had grown up on the streets and in reform school, and the hippies’ promise of peace, love and happiness had appealed to him.
He’d experienced little of that during his hardscrabble childhood.
Now, he worried that the movement that he thought might save him, might be hellbent on killing him.
Scene 6: February 1972. McQueen’s marriage undone.
McQueen’s drug use intensified. Behind the wheel, he often became convinced that he was being followed and would drive as though trying to lose a tail.
A 15-minute trip would become an hourlong zigzag, as Neile wrote in her memoir.
Once while intoxicated, he lost control of his car, seriously injuring a friend and a female acquaintance.
Neile eventually found out where McQueen had really been the night of the murders, and the real reason why her husband was still alive. The couple separated, and McQueen in Texas, on the set of the movie, The Getaway, when he got the official paperwork.
His serial philandering had saved his life, but doomed his first marriage and his next one. (Ironically or maybe not, McQueen’s second marriage was to Ali MacGraw, his costar on The Getaway).
“Drugs and girls,” Neile wrote of McQueen’s mindset then. Coupled with his increasingly erratic behavior and wild mood swings, his subsequent relationships were short-lived as well.
“He became suspicious of anything and everything,” said one friend.
End: November 7, 1980. McQueen finds peace.
By most accounts, the third time was the charm for McQueen. He underwent a transformation later in life, while in quasi-retirement from movie-making. He met his third wife, took up flying small airplanes, found God, and became a born-again Christian.
Shortly after his conversion he received a diagnosis of incurable mesothelioma. Roughly a year later, in 1980, having found peace and love, McQueen died at age 50.
In the wake of the Manson murders, a friend concerned about McQueen’s lifestyle had asked him to ease off the gas pedal. McQueen replied:
“My mother died when she was 50, my father died when he was 50, and I’m going to die when I’m 50. That means I have 10 years left to live it up.”
7 other things worth knowing today
Whoa. Former President Donald Trump said Monday that the FBI "raided" his Florida home at Mar-a-Lago and even cracked his safe, with a source familiar telling NBC News that the search was tied to classified information Trump allegedly took with him from the White House to his Palm Beach resort in January 2021. (NBC News)
The Biden administration's next security assistance package for Ukraine is expected to be $1 billion, one of the largest so far, and include munitions for long-range weapons and armored medical transport vehicles. This adds to about $8.8 billion in aid the United States has given Ukraine since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24. (Reuters)
David McCullough, a towering force in American literature and biography, winner of the President’s Medal of Freedom, two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, died on August 7. He was 89 years old. Also, singer-songwriter and actress Olivia Newton-John — a four-time Grammy winner and star of beloved movie musical Grease — has died. She was 73. (Vineyard Gazette; People)
The Economist Intelligence Unit released their Global Livability Index, ranking the top 10 best and worst places to live in the world in 2022. Top 5 on the good list: Vienna, Copenhagen, Zurich, Calgary, and Vancouver. (Global Citizen)
As inflation puts pressure on household budgets, consumers are taking a closer look at how much they spend on subscription streaming services. One way to bring that cost down is adopting the original TV technology—free, over-the-air antennas. But many Americans who grew up with cable TV and streaming don’t realize that free over-the-air broadcasting exists or understand how it works. (LA Times)
An 11-year-old boy in Everett, Washington, was scammed by a man who bought a drink from the boy's lemonade stand with a counterfeit $100 bill, police said. But in 2022, he who is scammed often gets the last laugh; a GoFundMe for the boy's benefit had raised $18,550 for him at the time I wrote this. (Everett Police, GoFundMe)
World bellyflop championships. It's a few years old; maybe these dudes have gone on to rehabilitate and lead productive lives, not sure. (YouTube)
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