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My Encounter With Charles Manson

Photo by David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0

When Charles Manson died yesterday, he was a wizened 83 year-old man, short enough (at 5’ 3”) to blend in with a junior high school gym class, and deluded enough to believe that carving a swastika on his forehead would impress the parole board.  Compare this Manson to the Manson of 1970, the Manson who stood trial for the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders, and whose crazy, hypnotic eyes and long, stringy hair graced the covers of national magazines—the Manson who was portrayed as the Devil himself.

Which is where the story begins.  A few years after the Tate-LaBianca verdict, I came up with the innovative (or, if you like, crackpot) idea of doing a series of what I referred to as “oblique interviews.”  These would consist of lively Q&A sessions with American celebrities 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 former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (“So, Henry, what’s your all-time favorite muscle car?”), Tom & Jerry cartoons with conservative commentator William F. Buckley, men’s fashions with New York intellectual Susan Sontag….and the game of baseball with Charles Manson.

I wanted Manson for my first interview.  Besides being the most notorious name on the list, I’d read (in Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter”) that Manson, as a young inmate, had played baseball at McNeil Island Prison, in Washington.  Because I’d played some organized ball myself, and happened to be a baseball historian, it seemed a perfect fit.  So I set out to contact him.  And to do that I would need the help of the California Department of Corrections.

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 lower-echelon State Department officials when I was in the Peace Corps (India), I’d had zero experience dealing with a government bureaucracy.  Dealing with the state government turned out to be an adventure in itself.

My first step was to write to J.J. Enomoto, Director, California Department of Corrections (a Governor Jerry Brown appointee), introducing myself, presenting my proposal, and asking for tips on how to go about setting up a meeting with Manson.  All I really knew of Manson’s status was that he was sentenced to life in prison and was incarcerated at Vacaville.

An assistant to Enomoto wrote back and advised me to direct all future correspondence to the warden of Vacaville, one Dr. Thomas Clanon.  Vacaville turned out to be a rather unique place.  During my research I learned that even though Vacaville housed convicted criminals, it 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.

I don’t know if it’s still true today, but in 1979 I was told that Vacaville housed three general types of inmates:  the mentally ill; those who, because of their notoriety, couldn’t safely mingle with the general population (celebrity felons, ex-cops, certain gangsters); and “extremely aggressive or extremely passive” homosexuals.

While everyone I spoke to in the state government was courteous and professional, no one seemed particularly eager to help (who can blame them?)….until I came across Philip Guthrie of the California Public Information Office.  Phil Guthrie turned out to be one of the coolest people I’d ever met.  Although he considered my baseball idea to be just about the stupidest thing he’d ever heard, he nonetheless agreed to help me arrange an interview.  His first assignment was to find out who Manson’s attorney was.

Having already learned that the only way you could meet with a prisoner was to have him place your name on his official visitors’ list, I decided it would be safer to make that formal request through Manson’s lawyer than through Manson himself.  Call me timid, but I was afraid that writing directly to Charles Manson would get my name placed on some FBI “deviant” list, resulting in government agents pounding on my door at 3:00 AM.

But Phil Guthrie assured me wouldn’t happen.  He informed me 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 political manifestos, to women proposing marriage.  Years later, the notorious Menendez brothers (convicted of killing their parents) would both get married while in prison.  Indeed, Lyle Menendez got married twice while an inmate.

Guthrie also surprised me with something else.  After checking around, he telephoned back and reported that Charlie didn’t have a lawyer.  “It makes sense when you think about it,” Guthrie said casually.  “The guy has no chance of getting out of prison; he’s got no money, no connections, no future, and he’s unstable.  Who’s going to want to be his lawyer?”

So I sat down and wrote a letter to Manson himself.  In addition to summarizing my background, outlining the project, listing the magazines I planned to query (e.g., Playboy, Esquire, Harpers, etc.), I offered to cut him in for half of any fee I made from the sale—either in cash or in the form of a gift (such as a guitar or top-of-the-line tape-recorder).

While offering to pay for the interview was probably a violation of journalistic ethics, I considered Manson a special case.  He was a recluse.  He didn’t give interviews.  He was an enigma, a cipher, a mystery—a fiendish, demonic mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.  In my view, if the only way to reach this man was to make him a “partner” rather than a standard journalistic “subject,” then why not go for it?

Because Manson considered himself a singer/songwriter, I thought the offer of a guitar and/or tape recorder would be especially tempting.  Also, because I wanted the proposal to be as open-ended and non-threatening as possible, I gave him the choice of doing the interview face-to-face or by mail.  And (in violation of yet another journalistic practice), I offered to submit a list of 33 questions I’d already composed, guaranteeing him the right to choose only those he wished to answer.

Sample question #1:  “What is your opinion of the Designated Hitter rule?”

My optimistic, hoped-for reply would be something like this:  “Well, Dave, I guess you could call me a traditionalist, 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 had soft hands, and could move to my right, but I was a poor hitter.  Your classic good-glove, weak-stick.”

Etc.

Before mailing the letter I had my final conversation with Phil Guthrie.  Based on everything he knew, what did he think my chances were?  “Charlie’s an unpredictable guy,” he said.  “He might read it; he might not.  He might even answer you.  Then again, he might throw away your letter without even bothering to open it.  You never know with Charlie.”

As it turned out, Manson not only read my letter, he passed it along to a civilian confidant.  Three weeks later I received a reply from a man I’ll call “Murray” (Murray may still be alive, and if he is, he’d likely take offense to my using his name).  It’s been many years, but Murray’s 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.”

I was stunned.  America’s most notorious, creepiest and, arguably, craziest criminal had just intimated that I myself was “insane.”  Clearly, my harebrained project had not only backfired, but I’d somehow managed to convince Manson that I was nuttier than he was.  My wife was not amused.  Aware of media stories reporting that Manson Family members (still under Charlie’s “control”) were walking the streets of the Los Angeles looking for mischief, she said, “I hope you didn’t make him mad at you.”

Back to Murray.  His scathing letter in response to my proposal went on to accuse me of (1) rejoicing in another human being’s suffering, (2) attempting to “nakedly capitalize” on Manson’s name and notoriety, (3) being a disgrace to my profession (journalism), and, still my favorite, (4) “making a mockery of the game of baseball” (his precise words).

That baseball reference threw me for a loop.  Was it possible that this Charles Manson fellow was a baseball fanatic and purist?  I mean, even though he apparently had no problem ordering his minions to enter a private residence and slaughter a room full of people, was it possible that when it came to the national pastime, he wasn’t going to put up with any bullshit?  Well, they say Hitler loved his dog, so go figure.

In any event, I wrote Murray a rebuttal of sorts.  While I confessed that I was, technically, trying to “capitalize” on Manson’s name, I defended myself by noting that I wouldn’t be portraying Charlie in any negative way, that my questions would be subject to his prior approval, and that the interview would, in fact, assiduously avoid the one detail the tabloids were feasting on—Manson’s lurid, bloody history.

I also reminded them that I was a baseball geek, a historian who’d written numerous articles about baseball’s early years, and that if anyone had an abiding respect for the game, it was me.  Moreover, because baseball was a universal “idiom,” a sport that virtually every American male—college professor, truck driver, politician, mass murderer—had played as a kid, an article entitled, “Manson On Baseball,” made perfect sense (granted, in a warped, sicko sort of way).

Anyway, that was the end of it.  I never heard back from Manson.  And the last I heard from Murray was a bitchy reply to my rebuttal, telling me he didn’t for one instant accept my lame attempt at an explanation, and that, in his opinion, I was still a slimy, lowdown, bottom-feeding, scum-sucking opportunist. Sincerely, Murray.

Years later, I saw a tiny blurb in a newspaper mentioning that Murray had written a book.  A prison book.  A book about his unique association with the country’s most celebrated convict, Charles Manson.  So America got its lurid celebrity story after all….and baseball was saved.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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