Attorney Paul Fitzgerald, after many years' involvement defending the Manson women at various trials, said to The Los Angeles Times, "If Leslie Van Houten had never existed, the La Biancas still would be dead." But Leslie won't let herself off that easily. "I blame myself," she answered. "I'm part of what made him [Manson] a leader. If he didn't have followers, he wouldn't be a leader," and she later told Karlene Faith, "A follower is as responsible [as a leader] for allowing a leader to lead them foully."
As much as the sex angle was built up in the press, the truth was surprising to some. Leslie slept with Manson "maybe three times," she testified in court, and only "in the first month" she was with the group. Leslie would never admit this but she had better taste in Manson men. Bobby Beausoleil, a.k.a. "Cupid", was the most traditionally handsome of Charlie's boys and had starred in Kenneth Anger's movie Lucifer Rising and was Leslie's first boyfriend inside the Family. Even Charlie was a little in love with Bobby, and Leslie remembers being shocked at seeing Bobby orally service Charlie during one of their group sex evenings. "I didn't 'sleep with the devil,'" Leslie told Karlene Faith, "I slept with an ex-con who had an extensive record of pimping and abusing women. But I didn't know that." "The ranch," she remembers to Connie Turner, "was set up and run the same way as a stable of hookers although none of us realized it at the time."
"Are you crazy enough to believe in me?" Charlie asked Leslie and after months of LSD trips, isolation in the desert, and hours and hours of his continuous insane political rantings, Leslie, like most of the other "girl" converts, was. "'Bow like sheep,' Manson would order us," Leslie remembered in 1983. "We wore Bowie knives on belts around our waists and were only [dressed] in our underwear, I think, unless it got cold," she told Connie Turner. "We'd sit around on our feet and grunt...we were seeing how long we could go without drinking water...I was carrying a twenty-pound backpack filled with rice. We were building roads from nowhere to nowhere by moving rocks around...it was hard." Susan Atkins, Leslie's co-defendant, said in one of her parole hearings that they "were three young women clearly not in our right minds who lived in slavish obedience to a madman." Catherine Share, an early Manson Family member who finally managed to break free after serving time for the gun robbery, remembers Manson "just stealing everyone's soul." "Thinking is stinking," he used to say. And while Gypsy never killed for Charlie she understood the state of mind of the ones who did. "The killers couldn't even form a thought," she sadly remembered from her own experience. "Tex" Watson's psychological-reports doctor stated that "Tex" "had confusion as to who or what he was. Sometimes he 'felt like a monkey.' He actually believed that the victims were imaginary people." "Tex" told the shrink that he looked in the mirror at the Tate house, trying to figure out who he was. "I wasn't anyone," he remembered, "I wasn't Charles Watson, I was an animal. The end of the world was then. I was the living death..."
Seeing Leslie today in the visiting room, it's hard to imagine her with this past. The X on her forehead has almost faded away and she looks like an upscale intelligent woman I would definitely come across in my life in New York or Los Angeles. She could be seated next to you at any dinner party of professional people and it would never dawn on you that this woman has been in prison for four decades. She even went to the Oscars with a female friend in 1978 when she was out on bail and nobody recognized her! "But what did you talk about to the people you met that night?" I wondered, knowing she had been released from death row not that long before, not exactly a center of industry screenings or "For Your Consideration" Oscar campaigns. "If someone brought up one of the nominees," she shrugged, "I'd just say 'No, I missed that one' or 'I was away when that was playing.'"
Leslie and I have gotten older together in that visiting room and I've seen the prison rules constantly change. I used to be able to buy her three packs of cigarettes to take back to her cell but now it's illegal to smoke anywhere in jail in California. What used to feel so old-school-Women Behind Bars-cigarettes-as-money is gone forever. Now I get to buy her three cans of Pepsi! Stylistically, it's just not the same thing. Worse yet, about five years ago suddenly none of the women in Leslie's jail were allowed to use any kind of hair coloring.
Overnight the entire prison population aged ten years in appearance and on my first visit since the ban, I knew something was wrong but it took me several minutes to realize that everybody had two inch gray roots. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!
Leslie and I have shared good times and bad times. And yes, Leslie does have good times. She's taught illiterate women to read in prison classes, she's stitched a portion of the AIDS quilt, made bedding for the homeless, recorded books on tape for the blind. She has clerked for the administrators, the nurses, the associate warden, the head of education, the kitchen, and the priest. And it's not that she jumps from job to job -- rules restrict inmates from working longer than two years in the same position. She can be lighthearted, too. She even sang "Santa Baby" at the prison Christmas show one year.
Yet somehow Leslie continues to live through the bad times without despair and inspires others to do the same. When Divine died suddenly in1988, Leslie was one of the first to console me by letter. "I'm so sad and wish I could be closer for you. I know you loved him and enjoyed in the success of his life and helped him through his hard times... I am sorry I will not get to know him."
She counseled me on a personal level, too. After a relationship of mine ended, Leslie was a good shoulder to lean on and I hope I've given her good advice, too, when she's had crushes from prison on men in the outside world. I've met two of her longest-lasting roommates: Becky the bank-robber whom I adored and is now free, and another inmate I called "Little Miss Manslaughter" because she was so bubbly and was an actual fan of my movies before she was sentenced.
Since no cable TV is available in jail, Leslie has seen few of my movies but did finally get to see my version of Hairspray and it was nice to get her good review. "I loved it," she wrote to me, "I was really into the public dances and all that. I lived to go to the Harmony Ballroom in Anaheim. I bought my shoes by how well they slid on the wood floor. I'm telling you it was my life!" It was her life. From Mashed Potatoes to Manson's Monster Mash in just a few short years. Luckily for her, Leslie still has a sense of humor. She even joked about my role in Hairspray as an evil psychiatrist who uses a ridiculous optical medical tool to hypnotize a teenage white girl into never dating black boys. "I never had one of those spinning wheels flashed in front of my face," Leslie admitted after decades of therapy, "Do you think it would help?"
I've always secretly wondered if Leslie ever felt "cool" when she was with the Manson gang and I finally got up the nerve to ask. She looked at me in confusion. "Cool? We had no concept by then of any such possible word!" she answered. And now the "celebrity" was even more unfathomable. "There's nothing sadder than to be asked for an autograph because of infamy," she once wrote to me, "I've had to explain I'm not proud of what I have done or why they [people] are aware of me. It's an awful feeling. The 'unwilling star'" And when her autograph or letters are sold on murder memorabilia sites it makes her feel worse because someone she has written to has betrayed her, and she's not sure who -- "So creepy. All disgusting and distasteful."
We've always discussed current events, how paralyzed she was with sadness over the Waco tragedy and how similar David Koresh was to Manson -- even more so than Jim Jones. Or how she understands the mind-set of kamikaze suicide bombers because this is how she was trained by Manson to feel and act once. And when the riots broke out in L.A. in 1992, after the Rodney King beating, an event Manson loyalists likened to Helter Skelter finally happening for real, Leslie was so far away from the Manson ideology that the comparison never even occurred to her. "This has been a really emotional time for me," she wrote that week, "First there was the first execution in nearly half a century in California," (Robert Alton Harris who was strapped into the gas chamber for thirteen minutes, released due to appeals, and then put back in the same day and executed) "and then the days L.A. went mad. I sat watching on TV images usually seen in other countries. John, it was so frightening -- to think of what is supposed to be safe as totally out of control."
I've tried to be her "agent" in the world of Hollywood. She agonized with me whether to co-operate and be interviewed for the TV news magazine show Turning Point but after meeting Diane Sawyer, Leslie agreed this news correspondent was "a class act". After seeing the completed show, Leslie admits she "had been treated better than I ever have." When the distressing news came in 2003 that CBS was remaking Helter Skelter again as a new TV movie, I called the director John Gray, whom I didn't know, at his home. Probably wondering why I was calling, or worse yet, thinking I was happy about the news, he took my call and listened quietly as I begged him to realize what a terrible unfair effect this project would have on Leslie's parole chances, how she was ashamed and horrified about the crimes, how further notoriety on the case would only please Manson and hurt the privacy of victims' families. I think my call may have worked a little because when I saw the finished project, Leslie's character was minimal and her part in the crime was truthfully shown to have been ordered by a vengeful Manson. A year or two later, my hunch was proven correct. In Los Angeles, in a restaurant to meet my agent and five minutes early, I was shown to my table alone and the waitress approached me with an odd expression. "Can I ask you something personal?" she shyly requested. "Sure," I replied, realizing she recognized me but never expecting what was coming next, "Are you the head of that 'Friends of Leslie' organization?" "No, there is no 'head' and that group has been disbanded officially, but there are many people who support her parole chances," I answered. "Because I played Leslie in the newest Helter Skelter," she revealed. Only in L.A.! Her name was Catherine Wadkins and I suddenly felt bad realizing I might have contributed to making an actress' part smaller. "Yes, you did," she confided after I told her the story of my call to her director, which she already knew about. "That's okay," Catherine smiled. "I think Leslie should get out and I tried to play the part in a way to show how brainwashed she was."
Leslie never asked me for money or material goods over the years. I've sent her books I loved and together we've discussed James Purdy, Mary McGarry Morris, Michael Cunningham, and Anne Tyler novels. After maybe one too many of my intense choices, Leslie started requesting her own titles, many of which had to do with the history and plight of the Native American Indian and I was happy to oblige. The only reading material I sent her that was rejected by the mailroom was, oddly enough, an issue of Paper Magazine that contained a fashion shoot that must have contained a little too much nudity. Once I offered to buy Leslie a TV for her cell but she declined. My kind of gal.
I was lucky enough to meet some of Leslie's friends on the outside, too. She has a support group that is tireless and relentless. "I like that several people close to me are also now friends of yours," Leslie wrote me after years of visiting. The most dedicated is Linda Grippi, a friend of Leslie's since high school who began visiting her not long after she was convicted and has never stopped. Linda is practically a nun in the religion of Leslie's rehabilitation and the firmest believer that Leslie should be paroled. Linda has dedicated her life to the cause of Leslie's freedom. She is a kind but convincing, level-headed pit bull who goes after anyone who believes otherwise with a reasoned defense. If Linda could testify at Leslie's parole hearing as "support" the way the victims' families can, I think Leslie might have already received a release date.
But Leslie meeting my friends was more problematic because of the East Coast locations and the strict rules about visiting high profile prisoners like her. I am afraid I have betrayed Leslie, too. A long time ago she mentioned to me that she "hoped I never 'used' our friendship or her plight for freedom" as dinner party conversation in my travels around the world. And I am embarrassed to admit, in my enthusiasm for her rehabilitation and my pride in our friendship, I have. Leslie Van Houten is quite a name to drop and famous people are eager to hear her story. When we were filming Cry-Baby, Johnny Depp heard my pleas concerning Leslie's parole and offered to visit her. Leslie, like everyone else in the world, had great respect for Johnny Depp and was moved that he, as my buddy, cared about her case. But we must have been nuts! Can you imagine the press if they found out? Think of the headlines -- "Johnny Depp joins Manson Family". Luckily for all of us, Johnny's visiting form was turned down because of an "impending assault charge", probably a hot-headed reaction to paparazzi.
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.