This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family Murders – which included the horrific death of actress Sharon Tate – making Charles Manson an unfortunate household name. His name is now coming back into conversation with the anniversary, the new flick, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and a book about his final words.
James Buddy Day was the last person to interview Manson, and has recently released his new book, Hippie Cult Leader: The Last Words of Charles Manson. We spoke with Day about his new book and his encounters with Manson.
The Tidbit: It’s been almost 50 years since the infamous and tragic Manson Family murders. Everyone is horrified yet fascinated by this story, but what catapulted your interest to take the step of reaching out to Manson for interviews?
James Buddy Day: As an adult, my fascination with crime evolved into a career as a documentary producer and director. I’ve had the unique opportunity to travel across America more than a few times curating stories about disturbing cases. Through all the years of preoccupation with real-life monsters, one particular fiend always stuck with me: Charles Manson. I was fascinated by the idea of the Manson Family, a sixties-era cult fueled by sex and drugs in which the members would abandon their personalities and take nicknames like “Squeaky,” “Tex,” and “Lulu.” The idea that Charles Manson was an insatiable genius who could get into the minds of his followers and bend them to his will was haunting.
TT: What was it like speaking to one of the most dangerous people in recent history? What were some of the takeaways of his final interview?
JBD: I don’t believe Manson was “one of the most dangerous people in recent history,” that’s the caricature that he was goaded into being—which is what I found interesting about him. At some point the mythology of Charles Manson replaced the person who actually was Charles Manson. Manson himself encouraged this, and used it to better his status in prison. My major takeaway was that the real Charlie Manson was nothing like the performance he sometimes put on. Manson would reflect people back to themselves, and if media came to him looking for a crazy serial killer, then that’s what he’d give them.
TT: What did you learn from speaking with Manson and your research for your book, Hippie Cult Leader: The Last Words of Charles Manson, that most people may not know?
JBD: I learned a lot, specifically the untold stories of the Manson murders, which is the majority of the book. Aside from that, it would surprise people to know that Manson was a steadfast environmentalist who had been speaking about things like animal rights, and climate change since the sixties. I always found this an interesting dichotomy, because on one hand Manson had little respect for human life—he always said his own survival was all that mattered to him. On the other hand, he cared deeply for the environment, even coining his own mantra “Air Trees Water Animals.” There were many things about Manson that conflicted with each other.
TT: If you’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s recent film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, how accurately do you think the film portrayed Manson and his followers?
JBD: I did see it and I really enjoyed it. As far as historical accuracy, it’s not even close. It’s complete fiction—almost none of the characters are portrayed even remotely similar to their real-life counterparts. I thought it was fantastic historical fiction and really captured the zeitgeist of the sixties. I appreciated how Tarantino interwove Rick and Cliff’s journey into the Manson story as a pinnacle event of the time, but it’s not historically accurate (and I would assume it’s not meant to be).
TT: How does your book differ from other material on the subject?
JBD: There’s been a lot of movies, TV shows, and books made about the Manson murders—I’ve now made three documentaries, and written this book. While making the first documentary I realized that the actual people who were part of the so-called Manson Family, had a completely different perspective than what was made popular in almost every movie, book, or TV show I’d ever seen. Throughout my work I’ve strived to bring these untold stories to light, and this book is a culmination of those efforts.
TT: What are your thoughts on the Helter Skelter concept? (For those who may not know, it is said that Manson was convinced by The Beatles song “Helter Skelter” that there was a race war about to break out and his murders were inspired by this notion.)
JBD: There simply isn’t much truth to it, at least not in the way it’s been portrayed for the past fifty years. Bits and pieces have some merit, but the theory as a whole doesn’t make sense, and isn’t supported by the facts of the case. I’m not the first person to point this out. Read the book Helter Skelter for yourself, it’s a great book but you’ll be left asking a lot of questions, and if you go down the rabbit hole you’ll start to see that author and lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi had a knack for cherry picking facts to support his version of events.
The plain truth is that “Helter Skelter” came from the mind of Vincent Bugliosi, because he lacked the proper evidence to convict Manson. This is not to say that Manson was innocent of the crimes, but the prosecution wasn’t able to criminalize Manson’s actions within the guidelines of the law—so they created a narrative that would.
TT: How do you go about writing on such a heavy topic, without letting it negatively impacting you?
JBD: I’ve been lucky to have great opportunities as a producer, writer/director and been able to work with great people in true crime which is something I’m passionate about. I like telling stories that bring insight into the darker side of humanity. Aside from Manson I’m really proud of my work with Oxygen in shows like The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell.
At this point the majority of my life is true crime. I am constantly talking to detectives, lawyers, killers, and victim’s families. I read confessions and police reports over breakfast. I’m lucky to have a cool job.
TT: Where can readers find your book?
JBD: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and wherever fine books are sold. Hope you like it.