Katherine Arcement is a producer at The Washington Post.
Sharon Tate was killed on a hot summer night in August 1969, a victim of the Manson Family cult. Nearly 47 years later, the fascination with Tate remains. So does the mystery surrounding the gruesome murder of the beautiful actress, who was 26 and pregnant when she was killed at her Los Angeles home along with four friends.
Ed Sanders’s “Sharon Tate: A Life” feeds on both the fascination and the mystery. Sanders, the author of “Family” (1971), a best-selling book about the Mansons, here mixes true crime and biography. Drawing on interviews with Tate’s family and friends — as well as on his previous book — he attempts to shed new light on the woman and the circumstances that led to her killing.
Tate’s life in the spotlight began at a young age. At just 6 months old, Tate was crowned Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas. It was the first of many beauty contests she won as she moved around the country with her military family. At 18, she landed in Los Angeles, where she was cast in a series of small TV roles; later she earned parts in films such as “Eye of the Devil” and “Valley of the Dolls.” During the filming of “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” she met director Roman Polanski, whom she married in 1968. At the time of her murder, Tate was carrying their child.
Sanders portrays Tate in a highly sympathetic light — as a quiet, beautiful, insecure woman who was attracted to domineering men such as Polanski. At one point, he reports, Tate was paying two agents because she was too timid to fire one who had helped get her started in Hollywood. Sanders shows her humble side: Even when she finally owned a Christian Dior dress, he notes, she told her father: “I don’t like it. Mother dressed me better from her sewing machine at home.” He also highlights her moxie. Tate, he writes, insisted on doing her own stunts during the making of the 1967 film “Don’t Make Waves,” and at one point, she “got trapped under the water and almost didn’t come up.”
As a biography, “Sharon Tate” is thorough if not especially revelatory. Unfortunately, so much has been published about Tate already — including a photo book by her sister just two years ago — that there is little Sanders can add. For similar reasons, it falters as a true-crime book. Between “The Family” and Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” (1974), the Manson story is well-worn ground. Sanders isn’t able to dig deeply into what he deftly refers to as “the quicksand of the past” to find much beyond the material in his first book. And it isn’t for a lack of trying. Sanders even wrote to Charles Manson in jail but got no response.
As Sanders notes in the book’s final chapter, there are many pieces of the Tate story that don’t make sense — and may never. “I am reminded of a quote from Graham Greene’s novel, ‘The Third Man,’ ” he writes, “One’s file, you know, is never quite complete; a case is never really closed, even after a century, when all the participants are dead.”
By Ed Sanders
Da Capo. 285 pp. $25.99