Under the surface

Gay Talese on Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, Spahn Ranch, westerns and Italian directors

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gay Talese comparing Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino to Italian painters working for the Popes during the Renaissance: "These painters now are directors."
Gay Talese comparing Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino to Italian painters working for the Popes during the Renaissance: "These painters now are directors." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In early 1970, Gay Talese drove up unannounced to the Spahn Ranch. It was less than a year after the murders of Sharon Tate, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Jay Sebring by members of the Manson family that had lived there. The journalistic adventure of meeting George Spahn was turned by Gay into the Esquire magazine article Charlie Manson's Home On The Range. The location is featured in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt with Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate and Bruce Dern as Spahn.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, starring Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, TV episodes of Bonanza with Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker, The Lone Ranger with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, all were filmed at the Spahn Movie Ranch.

On a stormy evening in late August, 50 years after the events in the Hollywood Hills on Cielo Drive changed America, I met with Gay Talese at his home to talk about Tarantino's movie and Gay's memories of the place pestered by flies and haunted by soft-spoken murderous maidens.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I loved Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

Gay Talese: Every second of that film makes reference to something that happened in Hollywood in the last half century. It's amazing. For scholars like you it has certain meanings the average filmgoer doesn't see.

AKT: The Spahn Ranch episode made me think of your article.

GT: I gave you the book [High Notes] and you actually read it?

Gay Talese on Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth at the Spahn Ranch: "The people who constructed the set did a fabulous job."
Gay Talese on Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth at the Spahn Ranch: "The people who constructed the set did a fabulous job."

AKT: I actually read it. I was thinking of you when Brad Pitt arrives at the ranch. I wondered what you thought of Bruce Dern's portrayal of Spahn.

GT: Well, it was written in 1970.

AKT: It was super close.

GT: 1970. March. When did the murders take place?

AKT: August 9, 1969.

GT: Wow.

AKT: The fiftieth anniversary was this month.

GT: In 1970 I was doing some pieces but was already in California thinking about Thy Neighbor's Wife. I started in 1971. I was living in California. I didn't full-time, but I had an apartment. I guess someone told me about Spahn Ranch. It was probably in the papers. I didn't have an appointment, but I described what I did. Which is what I do. I show up. Sometimes I just knock on the door, nicely dressed guy, they let you in or they don't let you in.

AKT: But Spahn couldn't see how nicely you were dressed. He was blind at that time already, wasn't he?

Gay Talese on Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and the West: "it is continuing what has a lifespan over seven or eight generations since the beginning of silent film."
Gay Talese on Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and the West: "it is continuing what has a lifespan over seven or eight generations since the beginning of silent film." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

GT: I didn't know that. First of all I describe this guy who is having sort of clothed sex with this woman on a hitching post. I just drove in. That's the opening scene. I'm not a cinematographer, I'm not a movie director, I'm not a writer of the screens, but I do have a scenic sense. Some of what I write - you've read some of what I write - begins with a scene. Sinatra having a drink at a bar or something.

So this is a picture of a guy driving down a dusty road in a rented car, me, and seeing this dusty place, this ranch. Seeing this young guy, ranch hand, with this sexy girl that was wrapped around his waist. And I sort of did ask directions, you know. "Where is the headquarters of the Spahn Ranch?" "Down there." So I drive down, park the car. And I met this woman. Ruby something. I thought she was interesting and she told me a lot. Mr Spahn is blind, but he lives there. "Can I talk to him?" "Yeah, sure." She gets Mr. Spahn, or whatever she called him. "This is a man from New York. The writer Gay Talese."

He tells me about these young women, part of Manson's gang, and how nice they were to him. It was only recently after the murders and he's describing them in such lofty, such admirable terms. Contrary to what you read about their viciousness and the murders and all that Sharon Tate stuff.

Actually, parenthetically, I had met those people.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate going into the cinema to see herself in The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate going into the cinema to see herself in The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin

AKT: You had?

GT: I tell you why. The people that were murdered, I knew four of them. I knew Voytek Frykowski, Polish guy. I knew Abigail Folger, the coffee heir. The reason is, across the street from me [in New York] at that time, in 1970, lived my best friend David Halberstam. His wife was Polish, a Polish actress, Elzbieta Czyzewska. She was like the Marilyn Monroe of Poland. Her first major part was After The Fall, the Arthur Miller play in Poland.

When Halberstam met her, she was a star, a beautiful Polish actress. He married her and she came here and they were living across the street and she was so in touch with people from Poland. Anybody who came here looked her up. This Frykowski guy, and Folger and some other people and they all came here upstairs and we had lunch one afternoon. Then they'd gone out to California, that's all I know.

Now we jump six months ahead. I'm in Spahn Ranch and I'm hearing about the murderers' coop. And Mr. Spahn was so blind to their viciousness. He was a man whose solitude was softened by the presence of these soft-spoken, congenial, and very helpful young women. They cleaned after him, because no one was paying attention, but the flies.

What I was aware of during this interview, the flies were all over the place. All those horses and the flies were just insufferable. So I'm getting eaten by the flies, sitting on a cart, which was really a Coca-Cola container, one of those boxes that have soft drinks stacked in them, talking to Spahn who was spread out on an old flea-bitten sofa in this shed in this ranch.

AKT: Did the shed resemble the one in Tarantino's movie?

GT: The people who constructed the set did a fabulous job. I have photographs. There was one in the article. It was just the same. So I talked to Spahn and then I talked more to his woman friend who at one time had been a lover when he was younger before he went blind. She had an interesting history, she trained animals.

Gay Talese on Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt: "DiCaprio, we've seen him, so it's not surprising. But I was surprised by how versatile Brad Pitt is."
Gay Talese on Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt: "DiCaprio, we've seen him, so it's not surprising. But I was surprised by how versatile Brad Pitt is."

AKT: It's so much a story for you. A show dog trainer …

GT: It's the kind of story I love. I'm doing one right now. Off the record I'm telling you about it. Or the Voyeur. Creepy little people. I'm drawn to them because I'm drawn to people who were it not for my curiosity would not be known. Who, were it not for my curiosity and writing about them, would never get an obituary. The people that are under the surface of our awareness.

AKT: Before I forget, yesterday I was at Metrograph and saw a Minnelli film, Kismet [35mm print], which I had never seen before. An Arthur Freed musical from the Fifties.

GT: Howard Keel.

AKT: With Howard Keel, yes. And there's a great voyeur scene. This is the harem and a character says "This is where we watch" and it's close to what you're describing in the motel. But I interrupted you.

GT: It really is a form of short story writing, except factual. Real names, nothing is embellished. It is a visual description of what an observant person sees and the capacity to write so that the reader can see the story. And the story here is a rather isolated lonely blind man to whom history was visited upon in a way that did not affect him in the slightest.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) for a drive.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) for a drive.

In fact, it was like a soft wind blowing past him. And then going on to murdering Sharon Tate and the whole household of her guests - in the course of that transferring from the taciturn or the tranquil tranquillity of this man on the ranch to the turmoil up the hill to the Sharon Tate mansion you have this other end of the blood coming out.

It's a story that's only a small part, of course, in the Tarantino film, but it is a vignette. It is so wonderful as a setting because it's so evocative of Hollywood. Because the western was really the bedrock. One of the most identifiable forms of American filmmaking is the western. There's no western in China, there's no western in Czechoslovakia.

AKT: Italy tried.

GT: Tom Mix and Tonto and Kemosabe, and Lone Ranger and all those people.

AKT: On this particular movie ranch, I think you mention in the Esquire article, is the coach from High Noon that Grace Kelly was driving.

GT: Yes, and Bonanza and all that.

AKT: And King Vidor's Duel In The Sun was filmed there?

Gay Talese with Anne-Katrin Titze on Quentin Tarantino's use of the historical events in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: "Brilliant."
Gay Talese with Anne-Katrin Titze on Quentin Tarantino's use of the historical events in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: "Brilliant." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

GT: That's right. Duel In The Sun, was that not where a small part was played by Bobby Evans? It's Tyrone Power, isn't it?

AKT: No, It's Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. I don't know about Robert Evans. [Gay had another 'Sun' film on his mind: Henry King's The Sun Also Rises, the Hemingway adaptation, starring Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner, featuring Robert Evans].

GT: The idea of the West - I mean, the West was conquered 200 years ago, but in films it's like it started yesterday. Because it never ends. And in this Tarantino version it is continuing what has a lifespan over seven or eight generations since the beginning of silent film. I mean, Charlie Chaplin was into some of the stuff like this.

AKT: What Tarantino does with the historical events here I thought was brilliant.

GT: Brilliant.

AKT: Everybody - that is everybody with the least bit of knowledge about the history - is sitting at the edge of their seat, wondering how he is going to do this. And then what he does! We don't want to spoil it for anyone reading this.

GT: It is brilliant. I love his films. My wife [Nan Talese] sometimes finds it too violent to watch. Pulp Fiction is extraordinary. It's like three movies. The boxer, and who's the guy? Bruce Willis? That's one story and then you have Travolta and the other guys, crazy. Did you ever know him?

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood poster in New York
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood poster in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I spoke with him twice briefly, once about Django Unchained and the other time about The Hateful Eight. I wish I could have talked more. Have you ever met Quentin Tarantino?

GT: Tarantino, no. I've met every other director. As an Italian, I'm aware. I'm Italian American, as you well know. The Italian Americans have made a real impact in visual arts. Not in the written word. I'm one of the few writers, except for gangster [fiction] like Mario Puzo who is best known. Literary writer Don DeLillo, then there's me and there's not much else, that have made a living out of writing in English.

For Italian Americans it's very unusual. They make a living out of films. They're visual people going back to the Renaissance where you had Italian painters working for the Popes, of course. Being sponsored by the Pope, and those paintings endure and the cathedrals. These painters now are directors like Scorsese and Coppola and Cimino.

AKT: You read that Scorsese's The Irishman is opening the New York Film Festival?

GT: I read about it. I read he's having trouble now with Netflix.

AKT: Why do you think this particular story, Manson and the murders, has had such an immense impact, that people still talk about it half a century later? We still can't really wrap our heads around what happened.

GT: It's like the Lindbergh kidnapping. There's certain events, even if a person is three generations, four generations away from the event. The kidnapping was in the 1930s. Or Amelia Earhart's crash - right in the papers today, someone thinks they might know where Amelia Earhart crashed. That is one of those events.

AKT: The Titanic.

GT: The Titanic, of course war events like Pearl Harbor. This is in that special category of forever memorable. Little events, the little Spahn Ranch. For some reason it has an enduring persevering element to it that attracts interest to any new generation. How many people know the name Sharon Tate? If you're 50, you do. If you're 60, you do. But not if you're 25.

Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew
Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew

A 25-year-old filmgoer - unless you're the new Bogdanovich or Tarantino who are historians, critics - they don't know Sharon Tate. They still don't know Sharon Tate. What they do know is because of this vignette in the Tarantino film. It's a beautiful little set piece, it's a beautiful little jewellery box of information.

AKT: I love the scene where she [Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate] is watching herself in the cinema.

GT: Oh isn't that wonderful?

AKT: And the real Sharon Tate is on the screen [in The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin].

GT: I've been in films sometimes and I watched people who are actors watch a film. It's interesting. You never know what's in their head because as actors and actresses they never let you know.

AKT: Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio made a wonderful team. Who would have thought?

GT: Brad Pitt especially. I mean, he was a comic character, he's a different … Many things he did in that role of his. DiCaprio, we've seen him, so it's not surprising. But I was surprised by how versatile Brad Pitt is.

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