By Fred Dewey
It is hard to imagine that, once upon a time, quite a few Americans, young and old, tried to free American society from its ruinous trajectory of violence, greed, propaganda, and war. These forgotten radicals were the hippies. While scorn has been leveled against them, some of it deserved, some of this is also because, on one very dark night indeed in the summer of 1969, in Los Angeles, the American counter-culture narrative changed apparently forever. The System produced the evidence it needed to show that hippies were a fraud.
The Manson Family spree, in the hills of Los Angeles, would spread the image of long-haired drop-outs in the dark scurrying over fences and breaking into homes to butcher pregnant women, all to Beatles’ lyrics and lots of blood. RFK had been murdered in LA a year before. Now the rich, the connected, anyone could be a target. LA came completely unhinged. In reality, the Manson murders were not the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one. Nixon’s playing on fear and trickery stuck; soon his crimes would be publicly pardoned. Carter restarted the military build-up, and under Reagan, lying, materialism, war, and culture war became relentless. By Bush II, yuppie culture had turned greed and conformity into rebellion; government now openly violated the Constitution. America’s export of choice was chaos, helter-skelter style. Two slogans of Manson, a student of military intelligence methods, encapsulated the post-’68 American argument: “Submission is a gift, give it to your brother,” and “if you fit in you can stay.”
This summer, on Saturday, August 8t, Maureen Cotter, a former actuarial talent-scout turned writer, returned to Beyond Baroque, which filled it with food, drink, conversation, friends, and colleagues eager to hear more of the “Prison Stories.”
On a makeshift stage, Cotter told of coming out as a lesbian, swimming naked with her partner in a castle pool as word of the murders spread, and how, employed at the California Institute for Women in the Psychiatric Treatment Unit, she found herself suddenly sworn to secrecy, protecting none other than former Sinatra mistress Virginia Graham. Cellmate Susan “Sadie” Atkins, a key Mansonite, had confessed to Graham about the gruesome murder of Sharon Tate and others. Graham, who’d gone to the authorities, was now the state’s prime witness against the Family. Cotter’s job: keep her alive.
The audience was spell-bound, as Cotter shared humor, wisdom, and humanity to weave an astonishing tale. The night ended with Cotter bringing Graham herself forward to receive a letter from Elizabeth Taylor, on behalf of all those on Manson’s list, thanking Graham for her courage and risking her life. Graham in turn thanked Cotter for “the second nicest thing that has happened to me in my life,” and went home with real laurels and a little financial help. Virginia Graham and Maureen Cotter, we owe you. You have shown us the virtue of real courage. Though you didn’t say it, and contrary to all the propaganda, Manson was what the System wanted, and needed, and, in its way, has finally now become. And forty years ago, you broke him. You are our immortals, and we need you.
Fred Dewey is the director of Beyond Baroque.