I’m just a poet who lives in a little town in the Catskills,” Ed Sanders says with a laugh. And, though the year has only just begun, that might be one of its biggest understatements. Activist, archivist, author, editor, founding member of the satiric rock band The Fugs, Sanders is also a noted poet, yes. But the poem he is currently working on is more than 200 pages long and focuses on the assassination of Robert Kennedy — a piece that, like most of his work, is large in scope and staggeringly ambitious. Sanders simply doesn’t do anything half-way.
That’s clearly true of his newly released biography, Sharon Tate — an immersive journey into the life of the doomed actress that also touches on everything from New Age mysticism to the moon landing to the RFK assassination (including a possible link between Tate, the Manson Family and Sirhan Sirhan.) The book will be the subject of a Sanders’ reading at 6 p.m. Saturday, January 16 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock.
In all of his non-fiction writing, Sanders is big on context, focusing not just on the subject at hand, but on the period it sprung out of. He quotes liberally from newspapers and magazines of the time and details anecdotes through a variety of perspectives, sometimes allowing his sources to contradict each other.
It comes from a desire for accuracy. “The past,” he is fond of saying, “is like quicksand,” the facts of it sinking away as time elapses. So rather than just give one account of an event, Sanders prefers to present all versions, knowing that the truth probably lies in the combination. It’s a highly unusual approach that gives his books the feel of a lengthy, albeit fascinating, group discussion. And it requires mountains of research.
To write about the life and death of Sharon Tate, he dug into his own archive, which consists of 500 carefully catalogued banker’s boxes full of magazine and newspaper clippings, tapes and photographs he has been collecting for more than five decades. While he’s joked in the past about being a candidate for Hoarders, Sanders’ archive is actually very organized and has attracted the interest of several universities. “I learned how to do it from my guru Allen Ginsberg,” says Sanders, who wrote about the legendary beatnik in the epic poem, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg, published by Overlook Press in 2000. “Allen began clipping during the Spanish Civil War in the 30s and was a Jack the Clipper all the way until he died in 1997. He taught me to clip and file.”
For his bestselling 1971 book The Family, Sanders says, he had amassed “20 or 25 boxes of research on the Manson group.” And he reopened those boxes to write about the Manson Family’s most famous victim. “There was a lot there on Sharon Tate, and so I jumped back into that ocean of information.”
He also contacted Tate’s former friends — a task that proved somewhat daunting, considering the time that has elapsed since her murder. “She was killed at the age of 26, but she would be in her 70s now,” Sanders observes. “A lot of people she hung out with in the 60s are dead, and some of them are in various stages of mental decline. But I was able to reach out to key friends who agreed to talk to me.”
Sharon Tate seems a natural choice for Sanders to write about. Out in Los Angeles to record a record in the late 60s, he felt the shockwaves caused by the tragic murder of the actress and four of her friends in 1969. He spoke extensively with Charles Manson and his followers for The Family and has investigated several different theories as to why they may have murdered the heavily pregnant Tate and her houseguests — for all intents strangers — at her home in the Hollywood Hills on August 9, 1969.
But it was his friendship with Tate’s now deceased mother Doris that eventually made him revisit her story. “She was sort of like Demeter, who roamed the earth looking for her daughter Persephone when she was seized by the god of the underworld,” Sanders recalls of Doris, a campaigner for victims’ rights who passed away in 1992. “I had visited her and interviewed her. And she knew I was corresponding with Manson. She wanted to know the real reason why his group killed Sharon Tate. She didn’t believe the accepted theories. And so she asked me to probe into it.”
That request led to the two updates of The Family, the latter of which came out in 2002. And when he was offered a two-book deal by Da Capo press, which had also bought a memoir by Sanders on his years with The Fugs, he thought again of Doris’ request. “I was in a way obeying her mother’s hunger to know what really happened.”
For three years, Sanders set about researching the book, which is told not just from Sharon’s point of view, but from that of her family members, her husband, Roman Polanski, Hollywood friends like Jay Sebring and Steve McQueen, and, of course, the notorious cult members who invaded her property and took her life.
In the course of that research, Sanders learned of some surprising theories, the most shocking of which is the Sirhan Sirhan-Sharon Tate connection. “There was a federal investigation by the department of immigration and naturalization services, the FBI and other investigative agencies in the 1970s looking into the possibility that Manson was given a contract to kill Sharon Tate because of something she may have learned about Sirhan Sirhan,” says Sanders. “I covered it a little in my update to The Family in 2002. But this is the first time I went into it in detail because I felt like I owed it to Sharon’s mother, and also to history. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But there was an investigation, and if [what was being investigated] did happen, it was a powerful group of people that wanted Sharon Tate dead.”
It’s a haunting element in the book, and one that’s fitting for the onetime 60s radical to include. But he urges readers to draw their own conclusions — and he’s fine with them not buying into the conspiracy theory. “I am more or less retired from banging the drum too loudly,” says the Woodstock resident of 41 years, who, along with his artist/writer wife Miriam, lives a life that’s far removed from the barn-storming, East Village youth that found him jailed for protesting nuclear warheads and editing a newsletter with an unprintable title. “I’m living quietly,” Sanders says. Though indeed, that’s yet another understatement.
The Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock, hosts Ed Sanders at 6 p.m. Saturday, January 15 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock. For more information, call 679-8000.
Alison Gaylin is the author of eight published novels including the Brenna Spector suspense series, which is available at the Golden Notebook. Her next book, What Remains of Me, will be out February 23 from William Morrow.