“Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go”—this is how Susan Sontag concludes her essay “Project For A Trip To China.” As I understand it, Sontag’s point is that she’s already “been” to China in advance of setting a foot there because of her preexisting “relationship” with the place, or at least with many elements associated with it. Well before planning her visit, she’d accrued a lifetime’s worth of thoughts, opinions, speculations, and received knowledge that filled her mental file labelled “China.” And Sontag’s not alone in this, because all of us carry our own Chinas in our heads, just as everyone has cognitive constructs of places we’ve never seen, things we’ve never touched, and people with whom we’ve never crossed paths.
That brings me to Sharon Tate, the glamorous young movie star who was murdered so terribly and tragically in Los Angeles fifty years ago this month. I never had any contact with Tate—I turned six years old in suburban New Jersey just one hour before she perished in the epochal Stonewall-Apollo 11-Woodstock summer of 1969—but my “relationship” with Tate is considerably more complex than that. In fact, next week I’m publishing a novel, Set The Controls For The Heart Of Sharon Tate, which recounts the struggles of an obsessive Tate fan. While this self-proclaimed “Sharonophile,” a decidedly lost soul, never personally encountered Sharon Tate, either, he’s built much of his existence around his notions and fancies and fantasies about who she was. Or who he is convinced she was.
* * *
My novel, I should point out, is not autobiographical. I have never been obsessed with Sharon Tate nor with any other famous person. Sure, I’ve been a fan of certain public figures (artists, musicians and writers, mostly) but I’m not the superfan type. Even so, with my novel I wanted to explore celebrity culture, and celebrity worship, and what it might mean to feel utterly beholden to another person—even one you’ve haven’t met, and won’t, can’t, ever meet.
Thanks to the latest grim anniversary of Sharon Tate’s murder as well as the release of Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (featuring Margot Robbie as Tate), the timing of my book’s arrival is certainly auspicious. Auspicious, yet pretty much accidental, because I first hatched the idea for the novel nearly thirty years ago. One night in 1990 while sitting alone with a cocktail in a nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I was trying to figure out why a bartender looked so familiar. She resembled an actress, but which one?
Once the answer hit me, I felt one serious chill. And felt so surprised by it that I even considered remarking to the bartender about her likeness to Sharon Tate. Fortunately, I realized right away how wrong this would be. Who wants to be told that she looks like a murder victim, even a gorgeous and talented and charming murder victim? So I kept my mouth shut, but my thoughts went into overdrive. What would life be like for a Sharon Tate lookalike? And for a relative of hers, or a friend, or a lover?
Brooding on such questions summoned up a memory of a different night, a night when I was eleven or twelve and sprawled across my sofa at home, watching a rerun of the late-60s movie The Wrecking Crew. (You can see excerpts from this bad James Bond knockoff in Tarantino’s own film.) Newly arrived in Copenhagen, Dean Martin’s secret agent character is checking into his hotel when a prim woman in tight slacks and pillbox hat and goofy square-framed spectacles comes dashing through the lobby and promptly does a pratfall, landing flat on her back on top of his luggage.
Wow. Blinking at my TV set, I felt my heart begin to hammer. Instantly I fell under this woman’s spell, tumbled into a major case of “puppy-love.” So you can imagine my horror when the movie’s credits rolled and my new beloved was listed as “Sharon Tate.” Having already skimmed the recently published Helter Skelter at my local bookstore, I knew exactly who she was, and gasped out loud.
Remembering that 1974 night from the vantage point of a New York nightclub in ’90, I thought about what a strange experience my “discovery” of Sharon Tate had been. Eros (“Wow, I’m so smitten with this movie star!”) got swiftly overtaken and pulverized by Thanatos (“But she’s forever out of reach. Dead. Murdered!”). Seriously creeped out, I turned my adolescent lust away from Tate and directed it instead toward Raquel Welch, Pam Grier, Angie Dickinson and other female TV and movie stars. They seemed safer, saner, to pine for. Yet my memory of first beholding Tate lingered. And as I sat in the Upper West Side nightclub decades later, I began to do what fiction writers often do in dreaming up their stories: I asked myself “What if?” What if, in this case, I had not “moved on” from Tate to other schoolkid crushes? What if I’d grown fixated on Tate instead, unable to grow past this late woman? What if I’d stayed focused on her, focused permanently and profoundly? What would such a lifelong yet fruitless devotion have done to me?
* * *
Inspired by the concept of a “Sharonophilia,” I developed a plot and got to work. I finished a first draft at breakneck speed, but soon lost faith in my ability to improve it. So I put the book aside. Then, a few years later, I picked it up, rewrote it, but lost that faith again. Back on the shelf it went. And during the following twenty-five years, alas, this became a pattern, a most frustrating one: Whenever I’d finish my latest writing project, I would turn once more to my Sharon Tate novel, telling myself that this time I’d get it right. I’d resume my labors, revved up with fresh excitement, yet always I would end up renouncing the book. Until, that is, my next go at it. Only a few years ago was I finally able to believe in my Tate novel enough to at last finish it (as much as any work is truly “finished”), and see it through to publication.Did I have the moral license to write about Sharon Tate, or any other victim of catastrophe?
Accompanying all of my work on Set The Controls was, I should mention, an insistent sense of guilt. Did I have the moral license to write about Sharon Tate, or any other victim of catastrophe? Wasn’t I, no less than my fanatic protagonist (though for different reasons, and by different means) disrespecting Tate’s memory by making a book about her? Shouldn’t I just leave her memory in peace?
Whenever I felt besieged by this guilt, I reminded myself that the moral of my novel, although I’ve tried not to make this moral explicit, is that “Sharonophila,” or any deification of a human being, alive or dead, will ultimately be injurious and dehumanizing to everyone concerned. Set The Controls, one might say, is a kind of machine designed to bring comeuppance down on my protagonist, to break him of his mad obsession, and guide him toward a healthier path.
Another justification I gave myself for writing about a “Sharonophile” was that I would make Sharon Tate an independent, and admirable, presence in my book. In order to evoke this presence, to give it integrity, I studied Tate’s life and career, reading books, scrolling through websites, and listening to podcasts, about her. This research was consistently a pleasure, although it was never free of the sad awareness of how brutally and abruptly that life and career had been halted.
In doing my research, I learned about Sharon Tate’s indulgent mother and her distant disciplinarian father; her “military brat” childhood; her early beauty contest victories; her teen years in Italy, where she found her calling as an actor; her move back to Hollywood, where a powerful producer signed her to a development contract; her hard work at her craft and her subsequent frustration at not breaking through to find success faster; her unsatisfying love affairs with actors; her work and travels in Europe and her solitary getaways to Big Sur; her friendships with other women in show business and her close friendship with ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring, who would ultimately die by her side; her artistic partnership with the Polish director Roman Polanski; her eventual marriage to him; their move from the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood to the house on Cielo Drive; and her strong desire to have a child.
Over the years I also got to speak with a few acquaintances of Sharon Tate. Among them was the fine writer James Salter, who died a year after we met. Like everyone who’d known her, Salter was struck by what a gentle, thoughtful, lively and unpretentious person Tate had been, and he wrote briefly yet warmly about her in his memoir Burning The Days.
“She was everything you think she was,” he concluded his conversation with me, assuming that I would grasp what he meant by this. And I did. By then I’d already come to feel affection for Tate not just as a literary subject and as an icon and as an artist but as a terrific fellow human being.
* * *
Within a few days of its release, I caught a matinee of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and found its ending—spoiler alert!—extremely poignant. It reminded me of something I’d witnessed a few months ago in Paris. As my wife and I sat at an outdoor café, I noticed a middle-aged pedestrian whose arm had been severed at the elbow. Poor guy, I thought. Yet then, to my surprised delight, the pedestrian moved that arm of his and I realized that it wasn’t severed, after all. No, he’d just been reaching with it behind his back, perhaps using his fingers to scratch an itch there, and because of an optical illusion, a trick of the Parisian light, it had only appeared to me as if his forearm was missing. Like Sharon Tate at the end of Tarantino’s film, the man’s arm had been restored to life.
If only the real Tate had been so lucky…
But what if she had been “so lucky?” Asking “What if?” is not merely a technique for fiction-makers, of course—it’s a natural question for anyone to ask about a twist of fate that could have twisted otherwise. Had Sharon Tate had been spared, I believe that she would have found ever-greater success in film, particularly as a comic actor, with romantic comedies perhaps becoming her métier. (The Wrecking Crew provides some proof of this.) It’s easy for me to imagine Tate as a ’70s version of “America’s Sweetheart,” the exquisite-looking-yet-personally-approachable” cinematic archetype.
* * *
Speaking of comic actors, one of them appears in the book Meditations by the ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Having been dismissed early from a dramatic production, the actor complains, “But I have not played my five acts, only three!”
“True,” comes Marcus Aurelius’ retort to him, “but in life three acts can be the whole play.”
In spite of Sharon Tate’s shortened lifespan—her “three acts” instead of five (not to mention all those losses that go with the years she was denied)—it’s gratifying for me to watch as her humanity and her work are still being honored half a century since her passing. That’s cold comfort, but comfort nevertheless. And for those of us who have a “Sontag/China”-style relationship with Sharon Tate, a cognitive construct of Sharon Tate in our minds, her early death, and the shocking nature of that death, are far from the only reasons that she is now remembered.