Introduction: First Goodbyes
Jack Nicholson, a boy, could never forget sitting at the bar with John J. Nicholson, Jack’s namesake and maybe even his father, a soft little dapper Irishman in glasses. He kept neatly combed what was left of his red hair and had long ago separated from Jack’s mother, their high school romance gone the way of any available drink. They told Jack that John had once been a great ballplayer and that he decorated store windows, all five Steinbachs in Asbury Park, though the only place Jack ever saw this man was in the bar, day-drinking apricot brandy and Hennessy, shot after shot, quietly waiting for the mercy to kick in. Jack’s mother, Ethel May, told him he started drinking only when Prohibition ended, but somehow Jack got the notion that she drove him to it.
Robert Evans, a boy, in the family apartment at 110 Riverside Drive, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, could never forget watching his father, Archie, a dentist, dutifully committed to work and family, sit down at the Steinway in the living room after a ten-hour day of pulling teeth up in Harlem and come alive. His father could be at Carnegie Hall, the boy thought; he could be Gershwin or Rachmaninoff, but he was, instead, a friendless husband, a father of three, caught in the unending cycle of earn and provide for his children, his wife, his mother, and his three sisters. But living in him was the Blue Danube. “That wouldn’t be me,” Evans promised himself. “I’ll live.”
Robert Towne, a boy, left San Pedro. His father, Lou, moved his family from the little port town, bright and silent, and left, for good, Mrs. Walker’s hamburger stand and the proud fleets of tuna boats pushing out to sea. More than just the gardenias and jasmine winds and great tidal waves of pink bougainvillea cascading to the dust, Robert could never forget that time before the war when one story spoke for everyone—the boy, his parents, Mrs. Walker and her customers, the people of San Pedro, America, sitting together at those sun-cooked redwood tables, cooling themselves with fresh-squeezed orange juice, all breathing the same salt air.
There was the day, many raids later—a hot, sunny day—when Roman Polanski found the streets of Kraków deserted. It was the silence that day that he could never forget, the two SS guards calmly patrolling the barbed-wire fence. This was a new feeling, a new kind of alone. In terror, he ran to his grandmother’s apartment in search of his father. The room was empty of everything save the remnants of a recent chaos, and he fled. Outside on the street, a stranger said, “If you know what’s good for you, get lost.”
When these four boys grew up, they made a movie together called Chinatown.
Robert Towne once said that Chinatown is a state of mind. Not just a place on the map of Los Angeles, but a condition of total awareness almost indistinguishable from blindness. Dreaming you’re in paradise and waking up in the dark—that’s Chinatown. Thinking you’ve got it figured out and realizing you’re dead—that’s Chinatown. This is a book about Chinatowns: Roman Polanski’s, Robert Towne’s, Robert Evans’s, Jack Nicholson’s, the ones they made and the ones they inherited, their guilt and their innocence, what they did right, what they did wrong—and what they could do nothing to stop.
Sharon Tate looked like California.
Studying her from across the restaurant table, Roman Polanski could see it was impossible. She was laughably wrong for the part. He needed a burnished, preferably Jewish look, the kind of wintry shtetl waif Chagall might have painted onto a black sky. Polanski had named his character “Sarah Shagal”—Shagal—for that reason—and, with Roman, there was always a reason. He had deliberately set The Fearless Vampire Killers against the heavy, fragrant bygones of the Eastern Europe of his childhood, his home before the Nazis, before the Polish Stalinists. But this girl was as Eastern European as a surfboard; casting her, he would desolate, again, all that they had desolated before.
There was no reason, therefore, to continue the meal. In fact—as Roman had explained, quite clearly, to Sharon Tate’s manager, Marty Ransohoff—there really was no reason to have this dinner in the first place. But Ransohoff, in addition to managing Tate, was executive producing Fearless Vampire Killers, and had insisted on the meeting. Forget her inexperience, he implored Roman. She’s a sweet girl and she’s very pretty and she’s going to be a big, big star. Trust me. I’ve seen thousands of girls, and Sharon’s different. She’s the one. Trust me. “Ransohoff is a perfect example of a hypocrite,” Polanski would come to understand. “He’s a philistine who dresses himself up as an artist.” Why hadn’t Roman recognized the type earlier? He had never worked with a Hollywood producer, but he was no naïf. He knew the stories; they were all the same: Well, the producers always said, we love the rushes, we love the dailies. What you’re doing is great, but can you do it cheaper and faster? “Creative” dinners like these were precisely the sort of feigned artistic roundelays, so agonizingly familiar to Hollywood code and conduct, that made him want to throw down his napkin and run screaming, back to Repulsion, back to Knife in the Water—films he made his way, the European way, according to his reasons.
But Roman did not throw down his napkin. Instead he let the girl know—in little ways, silences, mostly—that he did not want to be there.
When Roman reported back to Ransohoff the next day, Ransohoff insisted on a second dinner. Find something for her, Roman, he said.
They had another dinner, this one worse than the first. Polanski could see she was trying to impress him, an Oscar-nominated director, talking, babbling, laughing too much. But he was not impressed.
Still, after dinner, walking through London’s Eaton Square, he tried to embrace her. She recoiled and ran home.
This, Polanski recognized, was his old behavior. He knew that his attraction to Sharon, or any woman, stirred in him feelings of terrible sorrow as ancient as long-lost wars. For years now, the certainty of loss had corrupted his every longing, and his resultant sadness summoned up the worst in him; for it was better, life had showed him, to be sorry than safe. So he would make himself superior. He would be arrogant, callous, abrupt; with women, and there were many women, he would lie and cheat and hurt. Over the course of those first two dinners, he would reduce Sharon to the size of her own waning self-esteem, and then, in the days and nights to follow, he would admonish himself for doing it. It was a pattern. He knew that. And he knew the reasons. He didn’t like it, but it made sense.
At their third dinner Polanski apologized. This time he seemed to take a dedicated interest. Where did she come from? Texas. Who were her parents? Dolores and Paul Tate, an officer of the U.S. Army. They moved around a lot, she said, depending on where he was stationed. By the time she was sixteen, in fact, she had lived in Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Francisco, and Richland, Washington. In Italy, in high school, she learned Italian. Moving as often as they did, Sharon didn’t make many friends, but the friends she made were real friends. At home, the oldest of three sisters, Sharon found herself assuming parental responsibilities, helping with the cooking—she loved to cook—and tried to shoulder her father’s absences and her mother’s loneliness. “What Sharon was,” her sister Debra Ann said, “was extremely dutiful.”
Duty was her pattern. She was a smiler, an actress.
Sharon signed with Ransohoff at nineteen. Dutifully, she faced Hollywood with professional dedication, taking courses in singing, dancing, and acting, the latter with Jeff Corey in the fall of 1963. “An incredibly beautiful girl,” Corey reflected, “but a fragmented personality.” Self-disclosure was a problem, so Corey one day put a stick in her hand and demanded, “Hit me, do something, show emotion!” Beauty was not enough. And she knew she wouldn’t be beautiful forever.
She was twenty-three.
She was seeing someone, Jay Sebring, a hairstylist to the stars. They’d been together about three years, almost since she had arrived in Los Angeles. He was there in London now, waiting for her to finish this film, Eye of the Devil. He had the most beautiful, the sweetest, home in Benedict Canyon on Easton Drive. It was Jean Harlow’s old house, the one where her husband, producer Paul Bern, shot himself (unless he was murdered) two months after they were married. But it really was the sweetest house, the kind you would discover if you got lost wandering a forest in a fairy tale, like the cottage where Snow White found the Seven Dwarfs. It actually looked like that. To think that someone would be shot, or shoot himself, in a place like that—it didn’t make sense.
Sharon and Roman, party people, could agree that they loved mid-sixties London. The city still bounced to the beat of the Beatles—their sound, their look, the cheeky enthusiasm that remade stuffy old London into the mod capital of the world—and in flooded an international miscellany of the young and creative, decked out in long beads, billowy shirtsleeves, and miniskirts, to enjoy a little of the goofy good time they saw in A Hard Day’s Night. They were musicians, photographers, Warren Beatty, Twiggy, Vidal Sassoon, the debonair production designer Richard Sylbert, fledgling producers like Robert Evans—dispatched by Gulf & Western’s chairman, Charles Bluhdorn, to shake the postwar dust off Paramount’s London office. They all crossed paths at the Ad Lib Club, one of swinging London’s hot spots. Most of them liked a little grass, only a little. But—as Polanski told Sharon—he couldn’t stand the dropouts at the margins of the city, the bleary-eyed, perpetually drugged grass smokers with their pedantry and fogged reasoning.
Sharon smoked grass a little.
Had she ever tried LSD?
Yes. A few times. With Jay.
Copyright © 2020 by Sam Wasson