A Tragic Trip to the House on the Hill
Friday, August 29th, 1969
After a harrowing tour of his house, Director Roman Polanski sits on the bloodied porch, beside door where the killer scrawled “PIG” in blood.
Now it was quiet, and the Sunday afternoon washed by the August sun. The police had done their work and gone away and there was an eerie suspension of time and motion at the place in Benedict Canyon where the five were killed.
“This must be the world-famous orgy house,” said Roman Polanski with bitter sarcasm as he parked in his driveway. He pointed to a white rail broken on the fence bordering the drive and speculated that the boy, Steven Parent, had backed his father’s car into the fence in a desperate attempt to flee the bullets that destroyed him.
He walked into his yard, past the fake wishing well with the stone doves and squirrels perched on the rim, past the beds of marigolds and daisies dying from a fortnight of inattention, past the crumpled blue bedsheet which lay on the grass under one of the great pine trees. Someone must have put it there to cover Abigail Folger in her death, and they left it there.
He walked around to the rustic swimming pool, now crowded with leaves and debris, the floats and air mattresses silently bumping into each other as a soft breeze stirred the water. “You see that big tube,” he said, pointing to a transparent plastic ring, “Sharon bought that so she could prop up her big belly and float around.”
The front porch, where Voityck Frokowski’s body had been, was bad – the blood dried and darkened to a mahogany brown and strewn about the flagstones like a Jackson Pollock painting, the blood epitaph “PIG” dimming now on the white Dutch door – but the living room was the dark side of the moon.
Here was a spacious, wonderful room – white walls and white beams, an open loft overhead with a redwood ladder leading to it, big fireplace with novels and scripts strewn on the hearth, baby grand piano, a scattering of chairs to sit in not to look at, a place of warmth and taste and – as the eye looked closer – impossible horror.
In front of the beige velvet couch were the two major smears of blood, the one where hair stylist Jay Sebring fell next to the crumpled zebra rug, the other where Sharon Tate, stabbed a dozen times, slashed so brutally that murder became atrocity, collapsed and died in a jumble of oddities – a yellow candle stub, a teach-yourself-Japanese instruction kit, a mauve bedroom slipper, a book on natural childbirth. Sharon’s first baby would have been born within the mouth. Doctors took it from her body, but the perfectly formed infant son had died with its mother.
Roman speaks English well, even though he learned it just four years ago, but when he is tired the words come out with difficulty, each one separate, each one painfully located, each one punctuated. “Why?” he said, and he said it again and again and again. And, after a long while, “Sharon…was…the supreme moment…of my life… I knew it would not…last.”
The Sudden Stillness of Their Swinging World
Eighteen months ago, in a London registry office, Sharon Tate married Roman Polanski. She wore a taffeta minidress, he a Regency suit with a white cravat. It was the union of two different worlds. Roman’s world until that day had been laced with tragedy and horror. When he was a child in Krakow, Poland, his mother disappeared one day and he learned that she had been taken to the place called Auschwitz, and he never saw her again. One afternoon his father, who wore the yellow Star of David armband, took him to the barbed-wire fence which ringed the ghetto and cut out a small place and told him to run, run for his life, run from the Germans until the war was over and people stopped disappearing.
After he had survived what so few other Polish Jews had, a man attacked him in Warsaw and savagely clubbed his head in a quarrel over a bicycle. Roman survived one more, but his assailant – who, it turned out, had already murdered three people – was hanged.
When Roman became a film director and made it to the West and started building his credits – Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby – they all seemed to deal with death and the macabre. Several months ago in London I asked him why he made so many horror films. “What is horror to you,” he answered quietly, “may not be horror to me.”
While Roman was fleeing from the Nazis, Sharon was growing up first in Dallas – where her father, an Army officer, had been stationed in 1943 – then a dozen places around the country. At six months, she won the “Miss Tiny Tot” contest, and two decades later, trailing beauty crowns, began the long climb up to the high place where she would die.
Many thought she was the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. She had almond-shaped eyes and the high cheekbones that go with being photogenic. She had the legs that miniskirts were created for (she would be buried in a Pucci print mini). Her voice was soft, her manner gentle. She smoked a little pot because the others did, and she did not pursue her career with the ravenous ambition indigenous to her business. When she became pregnant this year, she announced the news, said a friend, “as if she had invented having babies.” She was not nor had she ever been promiscuous. “Sharon was out of bounds,” said one of the town’s most successful bachelors. “You just looked, and God it hurt to look, but you couldn’t touch.”
Roman and Sharon – the words quickly went together – became one of the most popular couples on two scenes, Hollywood and London. In London they kept a small mews house sparsely furnished (the living room had two busts, one of Napoleon, one of Roman, side by side), and their mates were the Beatles and the Stones and Victor Lownes of the Playboy Club there and whoever was in town. When Sharon was away for any extended time, Roman was not averse to an evening out with somebody else. “He has the European attitude toward sex,” said a friend. “It’s no big deal, nothing to get nervous about. But there was never any doubt that he loved Sharon and only Sharon.”
In Hollywood they moved smoothly through many layers of film society – dining at Garson Kanin’s house, where Roman was introduced to Artur Rubinstein and fell emotionally into his arms, inventing wild and funny situation comedies to act out at home on Roman’s TV tape machine with French Director Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda, running with the young and sometimes troubled newcomers, the rock singers, the friends of friends whom Roman often found at his table in a nightclub and rarely sent away.
Futile Search For A Missing Thread
Roman walked now through the living room into the master bedroom. “Sharon must have been asleep that night,” he said. “Look, there, the pillows – she always put them that way when I was gone.” The big double bed with the gaily printed lime-green and orange sheets had been slept in on one side only; two big pillows cut it in half, rather like a bundling board. “She hugged the pillows instead of me,” he said shyly.
His eyes caught the shuttered door leading to the pool. There were dried spots of blood there and the black grime left when police dust for fingerprints. “She must have been awakened by the noise and got up…” Roman followed a path through the hall into the living room. “They hit her here…” He went back into the bedroom. “She tried to get out that door…” He returned to the hall and pointed to tiny drops of blood flecking the baseboard. “And they dragged her into the living room and did…it.”
He went into the second bedroom where Frokowski and Miss Folger slept in a magnificent antique bed. “I should have thrown him out when he ran over Sharon’s dog,” he said. Sharon had owned a Yorkshire named Sapirstein (after the sinister obstetrician in Rosemary’s Baby), and several weeks earlier Frokowski had run over the animal in the driveway and killed it.
How long had Voityck and Miss Folger been house guests here? “Too long, I guess,” he answered.
Roman’s success in the West was a beacon to many creative friends in Poland. Several of his generation managed to leave the Communist country and, in most cases, their first letters and calls were to Roman Polanski.
“Roman became sort of a Polish Y.M.H.A. in America,” says a friend. “He loaned them money, he even borrowed money to loan them money, he read their scripts and got them jobs, and it didn’t matter if some of them had no talent and no promise. What was important was that they were Polish. There was this incredible bond.”
Roman prowled through his house as the afternoon wore on. “There is something here,” he said. “I can feel it. Something the police missed. I must find the thread.”
All week long he had tried to put some of the pieces together. He heard the Hollywood gossip: that the killers were devil-worshippers, that it was a Mau-Mau type slaughter. Drugs? “We smoked pot at my house,” said Roman. “But I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Hollywood party where it wasn’t.” (One film figure wryly noted a few days after the crime, “Toilets are flushing all over Beverly Hills; the entire Los Angeles sewer system is stoned.”) Roman learned from John Phillips, the rock composer and co-founder of the now disbanded Mamas and the Papas, that Frokowski was reportedly “into a harder drug scene than just pot.”
Sharon and Roman spent most of this spring in Europe, she doing a film in Rome, he preparing several new films in London. In their absence, Frokowski and Miss Folger had stayed in the house – at Roman’s request. They remained there after Sharon returned, keeping her company until Roman could join her.
“Roman didn’t know what the hell was going on at his house,” says a friend. “All he knew was that one of his beloved Poles was staying there. Sharon probably knew, she had to, but she was too nice or dumb to throw him out. If any creeps and weirdos went up, it wasn’t by Sharon’s invitation.”
Roman found a smashed lantern in the flower bed near the front porch. He held it for a minute, wondering if the police had overlooked it, if it was perhaps a clue. He looked at the nail on the front door where it had once hung. He threw it back to the flower bed.
He was drawn back once again to the bedroom. He opened the door of an armoire, and baby things almost tumbled out. There were stacks of blankets, diapers, formula bottles and warmers, basinet, books – Naming Your Baby, Let’s Have Healthy Children, How To Teach Your Baby To Read. He came across a stack of publicity photos of Sharon, posing in the front yard, the spectacular view behind her, below her. And he cried for quite a long while.
In the driveway, Roman stopped to examine briefly the black Porsche of Jay Sebring and the yellow Firebird of Miss Folger. Then he got into his car and hurried out. The trip down the hill was much quicker than the trip up.