In 1980 I came up with the innovative (or, if you like, semi-crackpot) idea of doing a series of “oblique interviews” with celebrities. These would consist of lively Q&A sessions with well-known personalities on topics that fell totally and, it was hoped, comically outside their recognized fields. Hence, “oblique.”
For example, I would discuss the Concept of Evil with Zsa Zsa Gabor, American automobiles with Henry Kissinger (“What’s your all-time favorite muscle car, Henry?”), Roadrunner cartoons with William F. Buckley, and the game of baseball with Charles Manson.
It was my view that the juxtaposition itself would be so startling, so remarkable, these non-sequitur exchanges would more or less “propel” themselves. Indeed, I was so taken with the conceit, I assumed that national magazines would buy the articles and that I would soon become rich and famous (or, hopefully, enter the middle-class and remain there).
I decided my first target should be Charles Manson. Besides being the most “notorious” character on the list, I’d read that, as a young inmate, Manson had played baseball at McNeil Island Prison, in Washington. I set myself the task was of locating Manson and persuading him to talk baseball; and to do that I would need help of the Corrections Department.
Navigating the California prison system would be my first foray into officialdom. Other than getting my driver’s license renewed at the DMV and having dealt with low-echelon State Department officials when I was in the Peace Corps (India), I’d had zero experience with any government bureaucracy.
My first step was writing to J.J. Enomoto (Director, California Department of Corrections), a governor Jerry Brown appointee, introducing myself as a free-lance journalist and asking for information on how to go about getting an interview. All I really knew about Manson was that he was sentenced to life in prison and was incarcerated at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.
Someone from Enomoto’s office wrote back and advised me to contact the warden of Vacaville, a Dr. Thomas Clanon. I discovered during my research that Vacaville wasn’t classified as a prison, but as a medical facility, and that the California state charter required its warden to be a medical doctor. Dr. Clanon was a psychiatrist.
At that time, Vacaville was described as a facility where three types of inmates were housed: the mentally ill, those who couldn’t safely mingle with the general prison population (celebrities, ex-cops, certain gangsters), and “extremely aggressive or extremely passive” homosexuals.
While everyone I spoke to was courteous, no one was especially forthcoming until I came across Philip Guthrie from the California Public Information Office. Phil Guthrie turned out to be one of the coolest people I’d ever talked to. At my request he generously agreed to find out the name of Manson’s lawyer and call me back.
Having already learned that the only way I could see Manson was to have him place my name on his visitors’ list, I decided to make that request through his lawyer rather than by writing to Manson himself. My fear was that writing to Manson would get my name placed on some FBI “deviant” list, resulting in government agents pounding on my door.
Guthrie assured me that wouldn’t happen. He said that Charlie (everyone in the Corrections system referred to Manson, their most celebrated inmate, simply as “Charlie”) received, literally, “hundreds” of letters a month, from all sorts of people—everything from death threats, to fan letters, to women proposing marriage.
He also dropped a surprise on me. Manson didn’t have a lawyer. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?” Guthrie said. “The man has no chance of getting out of prison, he has no money, and he’s unstable. Why would he still have a lawyer?” He was right; it seemed so obvious once he said it.
So I composed a letter to Manson. I cheerfully outlined the project, listed the magazines I planned to query (e.g., Playboy, Esquire, Hustler, et al) and told him I’d cut him in on any fee I made from the sale—either as cash or in the form of a gift, such as a guitar or top-drawer tape-recorder.
Even though this arrangement probably violated the principles of ethical journalism, I felt, given the extraordinary circumstances, I could justify the move. Instead of Manson being a “subject,” I’d make him a “partner.”
Because I’d read that Manson considered himself a singer/songwriter, I thought the offer of the guitar and recorder made sense. And wanting to make the proposal as painless as possible, I gave him the choice of doing the interview face-to-face or by mail. As a further inducement, I offered to send along the list of 33 questions I’d already worked up, for his approval.
Sample question #1: “What is your opinion of the Designated Hitter rule?”
My optimistic, hoped-for reply: “I guess you could call me a purist because I still believe a pitcher should take his turn at the plate, just like any other player.”
Sample question #2: “When you were at McNeil Island, what position did you play?”
My hoped-for reply: “Mainly shortstop and second-base. I was a pretty good infielder, but a weak hitter.”
Before mailing the letter I checked with Guthrie one last time and asked what he thought the odds were of Manson reading it. “Charlie’s an unpredictable guy,” he said. “He might read it, and he might even answer you. Then again, he might not even bother to open the envelope. You never know.”
As it turned out, Manson did read it. Two or three weeks later I got a reply from a man I’ll call “Murray” (I think Murray is still alive, and if he is, he’d be just the sort of fellow to sue me). His opening sentence is still indelibly tattooed on my brain: “Charles got your letter and, as he often does, asked me to deal with the insanity of the outside world.”
Oh, Christ. So that’s how it was going to play out. Clearly, my ambitious project had backfired. America’s scariest and, arguably, craziest criminal was calling me “insane.”
In a scathing letter, Murray went on to accuse me of rejoicing in another man’s suffering, of attempting to “capitalize” on Manson’s name and notoriety, of being a disgrace to my profession, and (my favorite) “of making a mockery of the game of baseball” (his precise words)
Whoa. Maybe this Charles Manson dude really was a purist. I mean, even though he had no problem slaughtering a room full of people, when it came to messing with the national pastime, this man had some very serious objections. Well, they say Hitler loved his dog, so go figure.
In any event, I wrote Murray a rebuttal of sorts. While I confessed to trying to “capitalize” on Manson’s notoriety, I defended myself by noting that I wouldn’t be portraying Manson in any negative way, that the interview would, in fact, avoid the one lurid topic the tabloids were obsessed with—Manson’s murderous past. Wasn’t that a point in my favor?
I also reminded him that I’d mentioned in my letter that I was a baseball historian, that I’d written articles about baseball, and that if anyone had respect for the game, it was me. Indeed, the fact that virtually every American kid—college professor, truck driver, mass murderer—had played the game, was testimony to its universality. In a warped sort of way, “Manson on baseball” made sense.
Anyway, that was the end of it. I never heard from Manson himself, and the last I got from Murray was a reply to my rebuttal, telling me he didn’t accept my lame attempt at an explanation, and that I was no more than a naked, scum-sucking opportunist.
Years later, I saw that Murray had written a book. It was all about his association with one Charles Manson. Clearly there was money to made off the Manson franchise. I’ve often wondered if he had offered Charlie a split of the proceeds.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net