The exquisite Sharon Tate makes today’s starlets look like the lukewarm leftovers of a half-hearted meal. Yet no matter how much we want to focus on the perfection of her beauty, the warmth of her personality or the effortlessness of her style, her horrible end, at just 26 years old and eight and a half months pregnant — 45 years ago this week — looms like a deadly, dark tsunami about to re-crash into our consciousness. It never goes away.
It never goes away for her younger sister Debra Tate, either, but in her gorgeous new photography book, Sharon Tate: Recollection (Running Press), she manages to hold that monster wave at bay for just a little while. Leafing through the pages of what is meant to be “a celebration of Sharon’s life and career,” you become so engrossed in Sharon Tate’s brief life and stark physical perfection that, for an hour or so, you forget about that little brute named Charles Manson.
And yet, oddly, Debra Tate doesn't want to talk about Sharon Tate. She had originally agreed to an interview with the Weekly, but bailed at the last minute for unknown reasons.
Back when the interview was still a possibility, her publicist sent us “suggested interview questions,” and instructed us not to ask about another book about Sharon Tate, Restless Souls (It Books, 2012) by Alisa Statman and Brie Tate. While Recollection is more of a tribute to Tate's film and fashion career, Restless Souls describes what the publisher calls “the gruesome slayings,” the hunt for the killers, the drama of their trials and the long-lasting effects on the Tate family.
The publicist also instructed us not to ask more than one question about Manson or Mad Men (which included some subtle Sharon Tate references this season).
In the questions submitted to Tate's publicist we did ask, however, about Sharon's widower Roman Polanski and his rape conviction, and about why Debra Tate cares what nominal starlets such as Kelly Osbourne think of her sister today (Osbourne is quoted in the book). We asked how she felt about Sharon Tate being reduced to some sort of t-shirt icon for the Millennial generation, and if she felt that cheapened her memory. We asked if her book was an attempt to counteract that.
And, since we couldn't ask about the Statman book, we asked Debra Tate what she thought of the biography by Greg King, Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders (Barricade Books, 2000). We wanted to ask how the murders had affected her family, but Debra's publicist asked us to delete that question. In the end, Debra did not answer any of the questions.
But as the publishing of her sister's book shows, Sharon Tate is “in” again, an odd position for the victim of one of the grisliest murders of the 20th century. Models walk down the catwalks in looks inspired by her most famous film, Valley of the Dolls. Celebrities like Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Blake Lively, Jessica Pare, Lohan and Adele reference her style – forever frozen in the heyday of the ‘60s, yet anchored by a timeless beauty that could leapfrog backward or forward into any decade. (She was a Coppertone girl and the inspiration for Malibu Barbie.) She had “It”: People called her the next Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor. Whether that was wishful thinking we will, of course, never know.
Debra Tate refers to Sharon’s brutal murder 45 years ago only once in the book, calling it “an event that changed the country in ways that still resonate,” and adding, “I always felt it was very unfair for her life to be remembered primarily for its final moments.” Indeed, Sharon Tate has been the subject of nearly 400 books, most focusing on the sordid details of her murder.
Of the most recent of those, Restless Souls, subtitled The Sharon Tate Family's Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice, Debra Tate wrote in 2012 “I reject this book. I regard it as an insult to the memory of my parents and my two beloved sisters, filled, as it is, with un-attributed conversations, imagined thoughts, and demonstrably false incidents. It represents merely the latest in a long string of efforts by Ms. Statman to insinuate herself into my family’s life and history, present herself as an expert on the subject, realize her long dream to write about my family’s tragedy, and diminish my continued role as guardian of our family’s legacy. Soon I will make the full story of my family and our tragedy public in a definitive way.”
Statman, who was in a lesbian relationship with Debra's late sister Patti, appears to have tromped on hallowed territory. Debra Tate, who at one time worked as a Hollywood makeup artist, seems to have forged an identity for herself through her glamourous, tragic sister, creating and maintaining the fan site sharontate.net. Even her Twitter handle, @trustedsister, references herself only through connection to Sharon; in her profile photo she looks like a sort of bizarre high priestess, forever tending the flame of her immortal goddess sister.
Her book opens with a brief but touching forward by Polanski, who calls Sharon “the love of my life” and directs the reader to his favorite photo of her (on page 263). Following are original and retrospective quotes and recollection essays by such notables as David Niven (who starred with Sharon in Eye of the Devil and called her “a great discovery.”), Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Kirk Douglas and George Harrison.
“Sharon had a fragile, incandescent quality that brought oxygen into the room,” Yul Brynner said. “She was such an innocent, and unspoiled by her success,” said George Harrison.
We also hear from Sharon herself, who tells us: “I’d like to be an American Catherine Deneuve. She plays beautiful, sensitive, deep parts with a little bit of intelligence behind them,” and “I’m very sensitive to ugly situations. I’m quick to read people, and I pick up if someone’s reacting to me as just a sexy blonde. At times like that, I freeze.”
But mostly, there are photographs, from Sharon’s beauty pageant-filled childhood in Texas, her discovery in Hollywood, her years at MGM and her brief, troubled marriage to Polanski. An entire chapter is devoted to the cult classic Valley of the Dolls, with never-before seen or published images.
The few interviews we found that Debra Tate has done for Sharon Tate: Recollection are puff pieces, such as one for InStyle magazine that consists of questions like, “What were Sharon's favorite things to wear?” (antique camisoles, big hoop earrings) and “What were Sharon's favorite beauty items?” (Vaseline). This is Debra Tate's book and this time, she is controlling the way her sister is portrayed — even if that means not talking about her at all rather than answering difficult questions.
In the short story “Venus Is Blue” by Mary Hood, Hood writes: “Imagine a photograph album, with a bullet fired pointblank through it, every page with its scar. Murder attacks the future; suicide aims at the past.” Despite the ravishing beauty shown on every page of Sharon Tate: Recollection, in the bigger picture, you realize that, 45 years after Sharon's murder, this family is still very damaged. There is a phantom bullet hole piercing every photograph.
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