I first met Charles Manson in the summer of 1967 at a party in L.A. sponsored by the Sexual Freedom League. Most of the people there were nude with exuberantly painted bodies. Fresh from jail and in high spirits, Charlie was in his messianic phase, bearded, long-haired, with a seraglio of adoring girls who genuinely believed he was God. I was well acquainted with the type and saw nothing but a con artist who had come to believe his own con. Still, I found him fascinating in a forensic sort of way. He tried to come on to me and bragged about his acid trips and the large number of women he was required to satisfy sexually. Did I happen to want to do acid with him, come join his Family, and also be satisfied sexually? No, I said. I had sworn off acid in the belief it might tip me over the edge; I already had a dysfunctional family of my own; and I was doing okay in the satisfaction department. “Hey, keep in touch!” he said, this smooth-talking, manipulative little man with a kind of pathological charisma and a glint of madness in his eyes.
I bumped into him again a year later, on the Venice Beach boardwalk of all places, where I was taking pictures of the diverse and unusual denizens it was famous for—part of my plan to do a portrait of L.A. in a definitive collection of black and white photographs.
“Hey, Zoe!” he said, as if he’d known me all his life. “What’s happenin’, man?”
I told him I was impressed he had remembered me.
“Primo chicks like you, I don’t forget.”
“Hey, take a picture of this,” he said, as he proceeded to grin demonically behind an impudently raised middle finger. I took him up on his invitation. It turned out to capture not just the essence of the man but the essence of the time. “I wish I’d taken that picture,” Richard Avedon once told me, and then proceeded to take one of his own.
We chatted for a bit. Actually Charlie did most of the talking, telling me about his songwriting efforts that were sure to make him a force to be reckoned with in the world of popular music. “When this shit hits, man, I’m gonna be bigger than the fucking Beatles.”
I was feeling naughty and said, “Listen, why don’t you come to my parents’ anniversary party in Brentwood next Saturday. Sure to be lots of celebrities. Maybe you can make some useful connections.”
“Hey, baby, I got all the connections I need. But, yeah, maybe I’ll drop by. Do the Brentwood scene.”
My parents’ anniversary party was held at the end of August, after an unprecedented eight months of bad news: the Tet offensive in Vietnam—evidence that the war was probably unwinnable—followed by the My Lai massacre—evidence that Americans could be just as depraved as our enemies. Johnson announced he would not run again, and then the political debate turned murderous: first Martin Luther King was killed, then Bobby Kennedy after winning the California primary. The week before the party, the Soviet Union, thinking what the world needed was more military thuggery, invaded Czechoslovakia. None of this deterred my parents, who claimed there was plenty to be happy about.
The party was held outdoors on the back lawn under a gigantic air-conditioned tent. Brentwood, with its tucked-away mansions, was more rural in those days, more discreet, untainted as yet by the famous double murder on Bundy Lane that would result in the “trial of the century.”
My parents were extremely well connected on both coasts and in between. Everyone came. Society people mostly, but also artists, writers, lots of politicians, big-time lawyers, a couple of high-up clerics, the usual CEOs, some ambassadors, a Nobel Prize winner or two, and hordes of show business types.
. . .
Fashionably late, Charlie Manson arrived, dressed in full hippie regalia—embroidered bellbottoms, fringed jacket, love beads—and “Fuck U” written on his forehead with a ballpoint pen.
I offered to introduce him to my parents, but he demurred. “No offense, babe, but I don’t meet parents, okay?” he explained without explanation, as if the reasons were too obvious to go into. What he was interested in was the location of the open bar. On the way there, he kept looking around and saying, “Real freaky scene, man.” Just as we arrived at the bar, we encountered Spiro Agnew, a good friend of my parents (and another one of my father’s patients) then running for Vice President on the Republican ticket with Richard Nixon. Agnew grinned when he saw me and came over to say hello. I suspected that when I introduced the two men, as social etiquette demanded, the result would resemble the collision of matter and antimatter.
“Mr. Agnew, I’d like to introduce Mr. Manson.”
Tall, silver-haired, melon-headed with a politician’s crocodile grin, Agnew, towering above Charlie, was willing to extend his practiced schmoose to any voter with a pulse, and immediately shot out his hand.
I’m not sure Charlie, who was notoriously ignorant of current events, knew who Agnew was, but seeing the hand of friendship extended to him, reached out to seize it. Unfortunately, he was prepared to give the hippie brotherhood-in-arms handshake, not the conventional one Agnew offered, so that there was an awkwardly amusing moment as each man struggled and failed to grasp the hand of the other. In the end, like an adult having to deal with a small child, Agnew took Charlie’s hand entirely in his own and gave it a few hearty pumps.
“And what do you do, Mr. Manson?” Agnew asked.
It was apparently a question that had never been put to Charlie, and he had to think a moment to come up with an appropriate answer. You could almost see Charlie’s mind wrestling with the options—give the brutally honest response (felon, ex-con, parolee), or a fanciful lie (successful songwriter, esteemed guru, reincarnation of Christ).
“I don’t do shit, man,” Charlie finally said.
“Good for you!” Agnew said jovially. “Something I’ve always aspired to.”
“Oh, yeah, so what do you do?”
“Right now I’m running for vice president.”
“The United States.”
“No fucking shit!”
“Can I count on your support?”
“Hey, man, voting is for assholes and suckers. I wouldn’t even if I could.”
“Well, then, maybe you’ll mention me to your friends.”
“Sure, man. I’ll mention you,” Charlies replied, not quite conveying the sarcasm he intended.
Agnew's professional smile never waned. “Well, thank you very much. It was a real pleasure meeting you, Mr. Manson.”
“You can call me Charlie.”
“All right I will. Until next time, Charlie.” Then turning to me, he said, “Nice seeing you, Zoe—you’re even prettier than the last time I saw you. Keep it up!” In the end, not a very smart or honest man, but always a very charming one (of all the private nicknames my father had for his patients, I liked Agnew’s best—Spiro Gyro).
I left Charlie to his fate and wandered off to find something to eat.