In 1980 I came up with an innovative (or, if you like, crackpot) idea of doing a series of “oblique interviews” with various celebrities. These would consist of lively Q&A sessions with well-known people on topics that fell totally and, it was hoped, comically outside their recognized fields. Hence, “oblique.”
For example, I would discuss the Concept of Evil with Zsa Zsa Gabor, American automobiles with Henry Kissinger (“What’s your all-time favorite muscle car, Henry?”), Roadrunner cartoons with William F. Buckley, men’s fashions with Susan Sontag….and the game of baseball with Charles Manson.
It was my view that these non-sequitur juxtapositions would be so weird, so remarkably original, so outrageously appealing, that they would more or less “propel” themselves right onto the slick pages of national magazines.
My first interview would be Charles Manson. Besides being the most notorious name on the list, I’d recalled reading (in “Helter Skelter”) that Manson, as a young inmate, had played baseball at McNeil Island Prison, in Washington. And because I was an amateur baseball historian, it seemed a perfect fit. So I set out to contact him. To do that I would need the help of the California Department of Corrections.
Navigating the California prison system would be my first foray into officialdom. Other than getting my driver’s license renewed at the DMV, and having dealt with lower-echelon State Department officials when I was in the Peace Corps (India), I’d had zero experience dealing with a government bureaucracy. Dealing with the state government turned out to be an adventure in itself.
My first step was to write J.J. Enomoto (Director, California Department of Corrections), a governor Jerry Brown appointee, introducing myself as a freelance journo, asking for information on how to go about getting an interview. All I really knew of Manson’s status was that he was sentenced to life in prison and was incarcerated at Vacaville.
An assistant to Enomoto wrote back and (sensing I was a freak) tersely advised me to direct all future correspondence to the warden of Vacaville, a Dr. Thomas Clanon. I discovered during my research that Vacaville wasn’t classified as a “prison,” but as a medical facility, and that the California state charter required its warden to be a medical doctor. Dr. Clanon was a psychiatrist.
I don’t know if it’s still true, but at the time, Vacaville was a facility where three general types of inmates were housed: the mentally ill, those who, because of their notoriety, couldn’t safely mingle with the general population (celebrities, ex-cops, certain gangsters), and “extremely aggressive or extremely passive” homosexuals.
While everyone I spoke with in the state government was courteous and professional, no one seemed particularly eager to help….until I came across Philip Guthrie of the California Public Information Office. Phil Guthrie turned out to be one of the coolest people I’d ever met. Although he considered my baseball idea as squirrelly as Hogan’s goat, he generously agreed to ask around and find out who Manson’s lawyer was.
Having already learned that the only way I could see Manson was to have him place my name on his official visitors’ list, I decided to make the request through his lawyer rather than Manson himself. My fear was that writing directly to Manson would get my name placed on some FBI “deviant” list, resulting in government agents pounding on my door at 3:00 AM.
But Guthrie assured me that wouldn’t happen. He said that Charlie (everyone in the Corrections system referred to Manson, their most celebrated inmate, simply as “Charlie”) received, literally, “hundreds” of letters a month, from all sorts of people—everything from death threats, to fan letters, to political manifestos, to women proposing marriage.
Guthrie also dropped a surprise on me. He said that Manson didn’t have a lawyer. “It makes sense when you think about it,” he said. “Charlie has no chance of getting out of prison. He can’t get out, he has no money, no connections, and he’s unstable. Who’s going to agree to be his lawyer?”
So I sat down and carefully composed a letter to Manson. I summarized my background, outlined the project, listed the magazines I planned to query (e.g., Playboy, Esquire, Harpers, etc.) and told him I would cut him in for half of any fee I made from the sale—either in cash or in the form of a gift (such as a guitar or top-of-the-line tape-recorder).
While offering to pay for the interview was probably a journalistic no-no, I felt, given the extraordinary circumstances, that I could justify the offer. After all, Manson was a special case. He was a recluse. He didn’t give interviews. He was an enigma, a cipher, a mystery—a demonic mystery, but a mystery nevertheless. So instead of seeking to make him a “subject,” I chose to make him a “partner.”
Because I’d read that Manson had always considered himself a singer/songwriter, I thought the offer of the guitar and/or tape recorder would be tempting. And wanting to make the proposal as painless as possible, I gave him the choice of doing our interview face-to-face or by mail. Also, as a further inducement (and in violation of another journalistic rule), I offered to send along for his approval the list of 33 questions I’d already written.
Sample question: “What is your opinion of the Designated Hitter rule?”
My optimistic, hoped-for reply would be something like this: “I guess you could call me a purist, Dave, because I still believe a pitcher should take his turn at the plate, just like any other player.”
Sample question: “When you were at McNeil Island, what position did you play?”
My hoped-for reply: “Mainly shortstop and second-base. Although I was a pretty decent infielder, I was a weak hitter.”
Before mailing off the letter I checked with Guthrie again. Based on everything he knew, what did he think the chances were of Manson reading my letter? “Charlie’s an unpredictable guy,” he said. “He might read it; he might even answer it. Then again, he might throw it away without even opening the envelope. You never know.”
As it turned out, Manson not only read my letter, but he passed it on to a confidant. Three weeks later I received a reply from a man I’ll call “Murray” (I think Murray is still alive, and if he is, he’d be just the sort of fellow to sue me for using his name). Murray’s opening sentence is still indelibly tattooed on my brain: “Charles got your letter and, as he often does, asked me to deal with the insanity of the outside world.”
Oh, my God, I thought. So that’s how this tramp is going to play out? America’s scariest, creepiest, and, arguably, craziest criminal was going to initiate the exchange by accusing me of being “insane”? Clearly, my ambitious, harebrained project had not only backfired, but I’d managed to get Manson riled up. As my wife wryly observed, aware that Manson Family members were still walking the streets, “I don’t think Charles Manson is somebody you want to have mad at you.”
In a scathing letter, composed on a manual typewriter, Murray went on to accuse me of (1) rejoicing in another human being’s suffering, (2) attempting to “nakedly capitalize” on Manson’s name and notoriety, (3) being a disgrace to my profession (journalism), and, still my favorite, (4) “making a mockery of the game of baseball” (his precise words).
That baseball reference threw me for a loop. Could this Manson fellow really be a baseball purist? I mean, even though he apparently had no problem ordering his minions to enter a home and slaughter a room full of people, was it possible that when it came to the national pastime, he wasn’t going to put up with any bullshit? Well, they say Hitler loved his dog, so go figure.
In any event, I wrote Murray a rebuttal of sorts. Looking back on it, it was weak and mealy-mouthed. I wish I’d been more forceful. While I confessed that I was, in fact, trying to “capitalize” on Manson’s name, I also noted that I wouldn’t be portraying him in any negative way, that the interview would, in fact, assiduously avoid the one topic the tabloids were feasting on—Manson’s bloody history.
I also reminded both Murray and Manson that I was a baseball historian who’d written articles about baseball’s early years, and that if anyone had an abiding respect for the game, it was me. Moreover, because baseball represented a universal idiom, a sport that virtually every American male—college professor, truck driver, politician, mass murderer—had played as a kid, in a warped, sicko sort of way, an article entitled, “Manson On Baseball,” made perfect sense.
Anyway, that was the end of it. I never heard from Manson himself, and the last correspondence I received from Murray was a bitchy reply to my rebuttal, telling me he didn’t for one instant accept my lame attempt at an explanation, and that, in his opinion, I was still a lowdown, bottom-feeding, scum-sucking opportunist. Sincerely, Murray.
Years later, I saw a tiny blurb in a newspaper mentioning that Murray had written a book. A prison book. A book about his unique association with America’s most notorious convict, Charles Manson. Clearly, there was money to made off the Manson franchise. I knew it and Murray knew it.
I never read Murray’s book, but over the years I wondered if he had offered Charlie the same generous split that I’d offered him….half of all the proceeds.