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Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship, Part 1 of 5

09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do. She was one of those notorious "Manson girls" who shaved their heads, carved X's in their foreheads and laughed, joked, and sang their way through the courthouse straight to death row without the slightest trace of remorse forty years ago. Leslie is hardly a "Manson girl" today. Sixty years old, she looks back from prison on her involvement in the La Bianca murders (the night after the Tate massacre) in utter horror, shame, and guilt and takes full responsibility for her part in the crimes. I think it's time to parole her.

I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case. I became obsessed by the Sharon Tate murders from the day I read about them on the front page of the New York Times in 1969 as I worked behind the counter of the Provincetown Book Shop. Later, when the cops finally caught the hippy killers and I actually saw their photos ("Arrest Weirdo in Tate Murders", screamed the New York Daily News headlines) I almost went into cardiac arrest. God! The Manson Family looked just like my friends at the time! Charles "Tex" Watson, a deranged but handsome preppy "head" who reminded me of Jimmy, the frat-boy-gone-bad pot-dealer I had the hots for in Catholic high school, the guy who sold me my first joint. There was Susan Atkins, a.k.a. Sadie Mae Glutz, devil go-go girl, with an LSD sense of humor just like Mink Stole's sister Mary (nickname: "Sick") whom I lived with at the time in Provincetown in a commune in a tree fort. And look at Patricia Krenwinkle, a.k.a. Katie, a flower-child earth-mother just like Flo-Ann who squatted with us that wonderful summer on Cape Cod. And, of course, my favorite, Leslie Van Houten, a.k.a. Lulu, "the pretty one". The homecoming princess from suburbia who gave up her title for acid. The all-American girl who went beyond insanity to unhinged criminal glamour just like Mona, my last girlfriend, who took LSD and shoplifted and starred in my underground movies all under my influence. Until, that is, the day she caught me in bed with a man (who looked kind of like Steve "Clem" Grogan, another Manson fanatic) and dumped the contents of an entire garbage can on us as we lay sleeping.

"The Manson Family" were the hippies all our parents were scared we'd turn into if we didn't stop taking drugs. The "slippies", as Manson later called his followers, the insane ones who didn't understand the humor in Yippie Abbie Hoffman's fiery speeches on his college lecture tours when he told the stoned, revolutionary-for-the-hell-of-it students to "kill their parents". Yes, Charlie's posse were the real anarchists who went beyond the radical SDS group's call to "Bring the War Home". Beyond blowing up their parents' townhouses, draft boards, even the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Sure, my friends went to riots every weekend in different cities in the '60s to get laid or get high, just like kids went to "raves" decades later. But, God, this was a cultural war, not a real one and the survivors of this time now realize we were in a "play" revolution, no matter what we spouted. But the Manson Family! Yikes! Here was the real thing -- "punk" a decade too early. Dare I say it? Yes, the filthiest people alive.

Even before the Manson Family had been caught, "The Dreamlanders", my gang of actors, took credit for the Tate/La Bianca crimes in a $5,000-budgeted movie entitled Multiple Maniacs which I wrote, directed and shot in Baltimore in the fall of 1969. Divine's character tortures David Lochary's with knowledge of the murders. "How about Sharon Tate?" she threatens, "How about THAT?!" "I told you never to mention that again!" David pleads but Divine won't let it go. "Had yourself a real ball that night, didn't you?!" she chortles. "Who's Sharon Tate?" Divine's dimwitted but studly teenage bodyguard character "Ricky" asks. "It doesn't matter, darling," Divine coos lecherously, dismissing his nosiness, "go fix yourself a sandwich."

Later, after Manson was arrested, I drove across the country for the first time in my life to Los Angeles for the California premiere of Multiple Maniacs and the next day began attending the insane LSD media-circus Manson trial which I've never really gotten over. After Manson and the three girls were convicted of the Tate/ La Bianca murders and sentenced to death, my rabid following of the subsequent but much lesser-known Manson-related trials never ceased. I needed to know more. How had these kids, from backgrounds so similar to mine, committed in real life the awful crimes against peace and love that we were acting out for comedy in our films?

In late 1971, still free, second-tiered Manson Family members robbed the Western Surplus Store in the suburbs of Los Angeles and stole 14 guns (supposedly to break Manson out of jail) and a shoot-out with the police occurred. All six robbers were arrested. At their trial, many members of Manson royalty, now awaiting the promised Helter Skelter end of the world from death row, were called as witnesses by the robber defendants so they could have a courtroom reunion of sorts. The nervous trial judge called the proceedings "the biggest collection of murderers in Los Angeles County at one time". There were only two court spectators the day I went to a pre-trial hearing; myself and a lower-echelon Manson groupie with a shaved head and a fresh X carved in her forehead who was furiously writing what looked like a thirty-page letter to one of her "brothers". When about fifteen of the Manson Family were brought into court, hand-cuffed and chained together, women on one side and men on the other, many with their heads shaved, the atmosphere was electric with twisted evil beauty. Not having seen each other in about a year, the cultists started chanting, jerkily gesturing, and speaking to one another in a nonsensical language that only the Family could understand. Sexy, scary, brain-dead, and dangerous, this gang of hippy lunatics gave new meaning to "folie à famille", group madness and insanity as long as the same people are together and united. It was an amazing thing to see in person. Heavily influenced, and actually jealous of their notoriety, I went back to Baltimore and made Pink Flamingos which I wrote, directed and dedicated to the "Manson girls", "Sadie, Katie and Les".

Then I went deeper into the Manson flame and started visiting Charles "Tex" Watson in prison. "What on earth were you thinking?" you may wonder and today it is a question I have to ask myself. In Los Angeles I had met his post-conviction girlfriend Lu, a German hippy girl with an obvious off-kilter sensibility who had come to America speaking little English and accidentally met some of the still-free "Manson girls" as the initial trial was taking place. "God, kids sure are wild in the United States," she told me she remembered thinking, not understanding how different these hippies were from the American love-children she had read about back in Munich and hoped to hook up with when she came to our shores. But Lu would only go so far. Refusing the demands to shave her skull, she broke away from the unincarcerated B-list Family members to the relative safety of a "jailhouse" love affair with "Tex", a convicted killer who was still clearly out of his mind and had almost no chance of ever being paroled.

Charles "Tex" Watson was perhaps Manson's best piece of work; a high-school football star who turned hippy and came to L.A. like millions of other kids to find '60s grooviness. Instead he met Manson and was turned into a killer zombie in just ten LSD, Belladonna-drenched months. "Tex" personally stabbed or shot all nine Tate/La Bianca victims. Lu and I would hitchhike to the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo from either L.A or San Francisco to visit him and I wrote about our times, rather inappropriately and with little insight, in my book Shock Value.

At that time, Charles Watson was no longer "Tex", but he was definitely still coming out of his Manson indoctrination. You could tell by the toy wooden helicopter he made me in jail, decorated with words like "Game is Blame", "Tweak", and "Fear". I used it in the credits of my next movie, Female Trouble, a fictitious biopic of a woman who is brainwashed into believing "crime is beauty". The film was also dedicated to Charles "Tex" Watson, and a few critics -- quite correctly, I guess -- were appalled by my flippant disregard for the terrible aftermath of these crimes. Maybe I had taken too much acid myself? How could these villainous murders seem so abstractly "transgressive" to me? Could a movie ever be as influential as these monstrous crimes?

Was Manson's dress rehearsal for homicide, known as "creepy crawling", some kind of humorous terrorism that might have been fun? Breaking silently into middle-class "pigs'" homes with your friends while you are tripping on LSD and gathering around the sleeping residents in their beds, not to harm them but to watch them sleep (the way Warhol did in that movie) and "experiencing the fear"? It does sound like it could have been a mind-bending adventure. When the Mansonites went further and moved the furniture around before they left, just to fuck with the waking homeowners' perception of reality, was this beautiful or evil? Could the Manson Family's actions also be some kind of freakish "art"?

When Charles Watson left behind his "Tex" persona for good, found Jesus Christ, and became saved, he and Lu broke up and I slowly drifted away from the visiting room. While I understand his need to find comfort and forgiveness I wasn't a born-again believer and I sometimes made insanely sacrilegious movies so we now had little in common. He then got married to a fellow-Christian on the outside, started a ministry, and through conjugal visits fathered three children (who have turned out fine), much to the horror of Sharon Tate's family and the citizens of California. Lu went back to Germany and had an un-Manson child of her own and we stayed in touch right up to her sad death from emphysema a few years ago. I remember once staying in some fancy hotel in Munich on a studio promotional tour for Cry-Baby where I invited Lu over for a visit, not having seen her in person for many years. The concierge called up to my room and said, "We're not sure if it's a man or a woman, but there's somebody here who claims you told them to come over and we're sure it's a mistake." "Is her name Lu?" I asked. "Well...yes," he stammered. "Send her up!" I bellowed. Lu had cut off most of her hair (not sure if for politics or fashion) and was now obsessed with Sarajevo refugees and I loved hearing her rant about jumping out of military helicopters (in her mind?) to spread the word for her new cause. Charles Watson is, to no one's surprise, still in prison and once or twice a year we correspond politely and he always sends kind words.

In 1985, ten years or so after Charles Watson and I had last seen one another, I was doing some journalistic pieces for Rolling Stone and they asked me to interview Manson. I had little curiosity about a man who had reminded me of someone you'd move away from in a bar in Baltimore, and was still much more interested in the followers who had come to their senses and were now definitely ex-followers. Leslie Van Houten always seemed the one that could have somehow ended up making movies with us instead of running with the killer dune-buggy crowd. She was pretty, out of her mind, rebellious, with fashion-daring, a good haircut, and a taste for LSD -- just like the girls in my movies. Instead of being a "good soldier" for Charlie and participating in the murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, which she certainly believed was the right thing to do at the time, I wish she had been with us in Baltimore on location for Pink Flamingos the day Divine ate dog shit for real (our own cultural Tate/La Bianca). Maybe she would have enjoyed cinematic anti-social glee and movie anarchy just as much as a misguided race-war entitled Helter Skelter designed by a criminal megalomaniac who believed The Beatles were speaking directly to him. If Leslie had met me instead of Charlie, could she have gone to the Cannes Film Festival instead of the California Institute for Women? Actually, I think if Leslie hadn't met either of us she might have ended up as a studio executive in the movie business in Los Angeles. A good one, too.

So I pleaded with Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, to let me interview Leslie, "the only one who has a chance of ever getting out", the one I could tell from press reports had broken from Manson's control and was beginning to see that the apocalyptical scenario Manson had preached was complete bullshit. What a painful, horrible realization that must have been!

In 1972, Leslie's death sentence (and those of her co-defendants) had been abolished by the California State Supreme Court and like all death penalty prisoners at the time, her sentence had been changed to life in prison. Not life without parole. The two other female death-penalty cases at the time besides the three "Manson girls", also murderesses with very serious cases, were paroled eight or nine years later with little fanfare or outrage.

In 1976, Leslie's original conviction was thrown out due to "ineffectual counsel" (her original lawyer drowned in the middle of her trial and was replaced) and she was given a new trial in 1977. This time, she was all by herself as a defendant in the courtroom. Remorse had started to creep in soon after she was imprisoned away from Manson. Locked away forever, Leslie, Susan, and Patricia were of no further use to Charlie and he dropped them quickly. The outsider voices of reason from the prison social workers started to seep in and Leslie began to see the holes in Manson's brainwashing. "When I'd be questioned," she later told author Karlene Faith for her very insightful and intelligent but little known book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, "I'd go blank and become frustrated like when a machine jams and just sits there making noise. In my head nothing was functioning. I was trying to understand, breaking down stiff little slogans that had been drilled into me." When two other "Manson girls", Mary Brunner and Catherine Shaw, a.k.a. "Gypsy", were sent to jail and placed with Leslie, Susan and Patricia, Leslie grew tired of listening to their Manson talk and confided to Patricia that "I've changed. I'm not into this." "It took three years to understand" and five or six years of therapy to "take responsibility" for the terrible crime she had helped commit.

Leslie finally had a good lawyer for her second trial. Taking the witness stand truthfully for the first time, she tried to explain her state of mind through the Manson madness and his control techniques. And the jury listened, too. After about twenty-five days of deliberation there was a hung jury; seven voted for guilty of first-degree murder, and five for manslaughter due to her cult domination and uncertain mental health at the time of the crime.

Refusing to offer a plea bargain, the prosecutor took her to trial for a third time in 1978 and added a felony robbery motive (clothes, a wallet and a few coins had been taken from the La Bianca home), a crime that now couldn't legally be excused by state of mind. But this time Leslie made bail and was released from prison. She found employment as a law clerk and lived in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. She was free for six months and lived quietly, unnoticed by the press. When a few of her new neighbors found out who she really was, after they already thought they knew her, all were "supportive" and "protective" of her anonymity.

When Leslie's third trial finally began, she came to court every day on her own. Long gone was the shaved head, and the X on her forehead was covered by bangs. No more trippy little riot-on-Sunset-Strip, satin miniskirt outfits either, like the ones she and her female co-defendants wore to the first trial. This time she was dressed tastefully and looked lovely, something that obviously didn't sit well with Stephen Kay, the prosecutor who had inherited all the Manson-related cases from Vincent Bugliosi. "All dolled up", Mr. Kay cracked to the press, giving Leslie one of her first, but definitely not last, opinionated fashion reviews. When she was finally convicted of first-degree murder at the end of the trial, life imprisonment suddenly became very real.

Rolling Stone gave me the go-ahead to pursue the Leslie Van Houten interview so, in 1985, seven years after her final conviction, I wrote to "The Friends of Leslie", a now-disbanded, loose-knit support group made up of Leslie's real family (Mom, Dad, brothers, sisters -- all glad to have her back from Manson even if it was in prison) and her jail-house teachers and counselors who had seen how this teenage girl had been completely dominated by one of the most notorious madmen of our time during the 1960s, a decade which may never be surpassed in misguided revolutionary lunacy. Susan Talbot, one of the organizers, who met Leslie through classes offered in prison through Antioch College wrote me back and told me that Leslie was not interested in being in Rolling Stone or any other magazine at the time, but recommended I write Leslie to see if there was any rapport. In other words, Susan (who did know who I was, whereas Leslie did not) was intrigued and slightly puzzled by my offer of support but mistrustful of my intentions. Who could blame her?

Excerpted from the book Role Models by John Waters, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010. Role Models is a self- portrait told through intimate literary profiles of his favorite personalities; some famous, some unknown, some criminal, some alarmingly middle of the road.