The brutal death of Sharon Tate marked a sad and sudden end to the 1960s: a decade defined by alternative living and idealistic values. It was a decade during which Tate thrived, starring in the cult classic Valley of the Dolls and becoming a recognizable face of the edgy era.
But on August 9, 1969, the pregnant 26-year-old was massacred by Charles Manson’s cult. And Hollywood has not forgotten.
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The Early Life of Sharon Tate
When Sharon Marie Tate was born on January 24, 1943, her beauty was quickly noted. The young Sharon won a pageant, “Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas,” when she was just six months old. The family was living in Texas at the time, but moved around often due to Sharon’s father’s work; Colonel Paul James Tate was an army officer. This made it hard for Sharon to maintain friendships. She was considered shy throughout childhood and adolescence.
That shyness, though, did not prevent Sharon from leveraging her good looks. As she matured, she entered more pageants and won “Miss Richland” while living in Washington in 1959. During the competition, she described her dream: studying psychiatry. She also planned to compete in the “Miss Washington” pageant the following year, but when her father was stationed to Italy, the Tate family moved once again.
It was in Italy, that Sharon began making lasting relationships. She befriended other American ex-pats and became something of a local celebrity when her swimsuit photo was published on the cover of the military newspaper. She graduated from a high school for Americans in Vicenza and soon became extra on the Paul Newman movie, Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, was was filming nearby. From there, she hired by the singer Pat Boone to appear on his TV show. At the time, it was popular for to shoot American entertainment in Italy.
But in 1962, the Tates moved back to the United States — this time, to Los Angeles. Sharon quickly found an agent but struggled to land parts due to her inexperience. She was a shaky young actress but eventually nabbed small roles in Mister Ed — alongside Clint Eastwood! — and the Beverly Hillbillies.
She became engaged to French actor Philippe Forquet but the pair broke up in 1964. The same year, she met Jay Sebring… another future Manson victim.
Sharon Tate’s Budding Career
A former sailor, Jay Sebring was a hot-shot Hollywood hairstylist by the time he took up with Sharon Tate. Sebring soon proposed and though Tate loved him, she declined, hoping to focus on her career. They remained friends until their untimely deaths.
After unsuccessful auditions for The Cincinnati Kid and The Sound of Music — Tate was considered to play Liesl! — she landed her first real film role in 1965: Eye of the Devil. It filmed in London, where Tate became immersed in the high-fashion, club-crazy culture. It’s also where she first crossed paths with the up-and-coming director Roman Polanski.
Tate was soon cast in Polanski’s horror-comedy Fearless Vampire Killers, but struggled on-set. Polanksi was a tough director and Tate was still an acting novice. But amid the collaboration, a friendship — eventually a love — grew. Tate moved into Polanki’s London apartment after filming completed.
Although they were important steps, neither Eye of the Devil nor Fearless Vampire Killers would prove to be Tate’s big break. That would come later, in 1967, with Valley of the Dolls. Based on on Jacqueline Susann’s immensely popular novel, it followed the story of three women succumbing to pill (er, “doll”) addictions while struggling to make it in Hollywood. The finished product was pulpy, colorful, tacky, sensual, over-acted, and oh-oh-so-sixties.
Tate starred in Valley of the Dolls alongside Barbara Parkins and Patty Duke, and the film proved to a be showcase for all the unique actresses who pranced about the screen with big hearts and big hair. Although it was maligned by critics (especially Roger Ebert) upon its release, Valley of the Dolls, with all its silly, dirty melodrama, had staying power. It was an instant cult hit that set Tate apart as a blonde bombshell to watch.
Life with Roman Polanski
With Sharon Tate’s star on the rise, she and Roman Polanski became a fascination of the American press. When they married at the start of 1968, it was a wedding for the age: Polanski wore a funky Edwardian suit while Tate donned in a white minidress. They were, at least on the outside, a cool and modern couple. But friends reported that Tate was not cool with one modern aspect of their relationship: Polanski’s infidelity.
“We have a good arrangement. Roman lies to me and I pretend to believe him,” Tate famously said of the set-up. Although Tate represented a certain counter-cultural image, she was, at heart, more traditional. But the free-loving Polanski urged her to get hip, saying he wanted “a hippie, not a housewife,” and to some degree, Tate listened. She moved back to Los Angeles with Polanski and embedded herself within his social world, bumping elbows with just about every major star of the era. Their house was always full of friends, a non-stop party.
That is, until the party really stopped.
The Manson Murders
Sharon Tate was eight months pregnant on the night of August 8, 1969, when Charles Manson instructed his disciples to “totally destroy” everyone inside 10050 Cielo Drive. Tate and Roman Polanski had recently bought the home from their friends, producer Terry Melcher and model Candice Bergen. It was tucked away in the hills of LA, and Tate looked forward to raising her first child there.
Polanski was out of town on that fateful night so Tate was staying at their house with a few friends: her ex Jay Sebring and the couple Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger. Frykowski, a writer, was close with Polanski and Folger was, famously, the coffee heiress. But the casual night in was interrupted when Manson Family devotees Patricia Krenwinke, Susan Atkins, and Tex Watson, broke into the house, reeking bloody Helter Skelter havoc.
Everyone inside the property, except caretaker William Garretson, was stabbed to death. (Another man parked on the driveway, Steve Parent, was shot and killed.) Folger tried to escape, running from the house but was assailed by Krenwinkel on the front lawn. Tex Watson, finished her off. In the end, Folger was stabbed 28 times. Tate and Sebring’s were found in the living room, a long rope tied around their necks, connecting them. Tate was stabbed 16 times. The word “PIG” was scrawled on the front door in her blood.
Remembering Sharon Tate
Of course, the grisly Manson murders have defined the late Sharon Tate’s legacy. While friends and family mourned her life, and the life of her unborn child, fans mourned a film career that had only just begun. And the nation mourned a tragedy which would forever color the age of experimentation and free love that preceded it. Still, we’re reckoning with the aftermath.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood marks one modern attempt to reflect on the violence, and the woman at its heart. In that 2019 film, Margot Robbie plays Tate with easy-going charm. She has the hair, and she has the legs for days. But when Robbie, as Tate, attends a theater solo to watch The Wrecking Crew, contemporary audiences are treated to the real-life Tate on-screen (on-screen) performing stunts with her delightful brand of energy.
The Wrecking Crew, which premiered in 1968, would be Tate’s last film that she lived to see. (12+1 was released posthumously.) It was also, interestingly, the American film debut for two enduring action stars: Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows viewers to relish, briefly, in that visual moment before presenting a full-on revisionist history. In this version, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters take on the Manson Family themselves, slaughtering the lot of so-called hippies. In this version, Sharon Tate lives on.