Shadows on Cielo Drive

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By Stephen Sachs

In 1994, my friend Melanie was visiting from the Bay Area. It was her first trip to Los Angeles in a very long time and I was driving her through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, pointing out the iconic landmarks. The Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd, the Chaplin Studios on La Brea. After cruising by the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard I asked, "Do you want to see the Sharon Tate house?" She eagerly nodded. I turned right on Benedict Canyon Drive and drove up the curvy roadway into Benedict Canyon.

My family lived in Southern California when the Tate/LaBianca murders erupted in the news in August, 1969. My father worked for CBS News and covered the Manson trial in 1970. Dad sat in the courtroom in Department 104 on the eighth floor of the Hall of Justice in downtown LA and reported on the surreal spectacle that summer. I was eleven. Dad would come home each night, sit at the dinner table, and describe what he saw. How short Charles Manson was (barely over five feet tall). How Manson would choose someone in the courtroom to stare at each day. The band of Manson followers, heads shaved and foreheads marked with an "x", camped outside the court building on the sidewalk. The afternoon Manson lunged across the defense table, pencil in hand like a knife, shouting to Judge Older, "Someone should cut your head off, old man."

The 10-month trial was a three-ring media circus and an unforgettable dark journey into the evil soul of the tiny man with the shaggy beard and black, hypnotic eyes.

I turned my car left on Cielo Drive. I knew where the house was but had never been there myself. I remember my Dad telling me forty-eight years ago that he had arrived at the front gate of the house the morning after the murders, but police were not allowing the press inside. I was now driving up the same narrow roadway in 1994. At the dead end of the cul-de-sac was 10500 Cielo Drive. We were astonished. The gate was wide open. The home was for sale. A sign stated, "Open House."

I drove past the front gate where the Manson pack had cut the phone line decades earlier. I continued up the sharp inclined driveway, passing the spot where Steven Parent was killed in his dad's white Rambler by Charles "Tex" Watson. I parked in the wide car port. Switched off my car. Melanie and I got out. It was eerily quiet. There was no one else there.

We strolled up the walkway on the right, toward the front of the house. The early ranch-style home looked as it did in 1969. A sweeping lawn spread across the front, overseeing a sprawling panorama of Benedict Canyon and West Hollywood below. The lawn where the slaughtered bodies of Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski were found.

The front door was open. The door upon which Susan Atkins wrote "pig" in Tate's blood. I lead Melanie inside.

Everything was clean, empty, immaculate. The infamous living room, decades ago an unimaginable chamber of horror, its carpet soaked in blood, now shined with a varnished hard wood floor and walls painted a pristine white. Even the red brick fireplace, where Tate and Jay Sebring once lay butchered, was now overcoated completely white. As if the realtor hoped to whitewash what happened here, sanitize its history.

It's impossible to stand in such a room and not feel the ghosts, hear the voices, the screams. Workmen can remove the carpet and whitewash the walls but where does the inexplicable essence of human energies go? Can mortal fear and violent death stain a room forever like a vapor? Or do we bring that presence with us? It is, after all, just an empty room. Or is it?

We ambled down the back hallway and peeked into the master bedroom where Tate was first sighted that night, propped up in bed reading a book, by her killer. Beyond the bedroom I saw the swimming pool and guest house. The caretaker of the Polanski/Tate residence, William Garretson, lived in the guest house on the night of the murders. He claimed he heard nothing. The next morning, police showed him the bodies. Garretson said, "It was horrible."

The chic realtor from Weintraub, Casey & Zurkow now appeared before Melanie and me, inquiring if he could assist us in any way. "We're just looking," we answered, and headed back to the car. We were looking for something invisible. Something one feels, not sees. It was there.

The house was put on the market by its final resident, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He had moved out, explaining "there was too much history in that house for me to handle." The home sold for full market value. The new owner quickly demolished the house and built an enormous Mediterranean villa on the property. No trace of the original house now exists.

Now Charles Manson is gone. But wayward apparitions still float through the shadows on Cielo Drive, and memories from that hot August summer a near half-century ago will drift within me like smoke from hazy embers that will never quite go out.

Visiting blogger Stephen Sachs is a playwright, director, husband and father. He last wrote about the James Dean gasoline station in Sherman Oaks.


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