Some years ago, my editor at Playboy called to say that they had a connection to Charlie Manson, who was in prison at San Quentin, and he wanted me to take a few days to consider whether I would like to interview him for the magazine. This was the first time he had ever asked me to think about an assignment. Usually it was, “We’ve got Marlon Brando, when do you think you can be ready?” Or, “Al Pacino has agreed to do his first major interview, you have to be in New York in two days.”
But Charlie Manson? “Give it some thought,” he said. “You just had a baby, and those Tate/La Bianca murders took place in the hills near where you live. If some of his followers wanted to get a message to him through you, they wouldn’t have a hard time finding your house.”
My initial reaction was, “Charlie Manson? Of course, I’ll do it. Would I have turned down Hitler or Mussolini or Pol Pot if they were willing to talk? Of course not.”
“Just talk to your wife over the weekend and let me know on Monday,” he said.
My wife didn’t like the idea, but she never stood in the way of my work and left the decision to me. I called some people I knew who either wrote about or had some contact with Manson. The one I most remember was Larry Schiller, who had written about Susan Atkins, one of the Manson “girls,” for the L.A. Times. “You have to do it,” he said. Then he related that after he wrote about Atkins some of the Manson nutcases had found his house and had blown up his mailbox. “But they never came into my house,” he said.
All the other men I spoke to said I owed it to my profession to do the interview, and to try and get into the mind of Manson. All of the women I had asked felt the opposite. And then, on Saturday night, I got a surprise call from Dolly Parton. I had interviewed Dolly for Playboy, and then for Redbook, and we had become friends. She was just calling out of the blue, she said. Wanted to know how I was doing.
I told her that I was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to interview Charlie Manson.
Her tone changed immediately. “Is that something you really have to think about?” she said. “Well, let me tell you what I think. And I in no way mean to interfere with your decision. But…” and here she stopped to ask me whether or not I had already had any contact with that monster. I said I hadn’t. “Well, here’s what I think. You’re a sensitive man, and he’s evil incarnate. If you have anything to do with him—if you see him, if you talk to him—then I will never see or speak to you again, because that man is the devil, and his evil will affect you in some way, and I don’t want to have anything to do with anyone who has had any contact with him. Now, as I say, this is your life and your decision and I don’t mean to influence you in any way, I’m just telling you how I feel. And to tell you the truth, that you even have to think about this concerns me.”
Well, that pretty much put the kibosh on my interviewing Charlie Manson. In truth, I was leaning towards doing it, in spite of what Schiller had told me about his mailbox being blown up. But to lose Dolly, well that would have been a big loss. So, I told my editor on Monday that I’d pass and he understood.
A few years later Charlie Rose won an Emmy for his interview with Manson. And a few years after that I was interviewed by Charlie Rose for my book on John Huston and his family. None of Manson’s evil that might have touched Charlie (and with the recent suspension of his show, perhaps it did) touched me. At least, I don’t believe it did. As for Dolly? She kept her distance.
Oh well, it was once the beginning of a beautiful friendship.