In this blood-curdling excerpt, writer Steve Sullivan interviews Erica about the eerie connection between Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the murderous Manson Family.
The blood-splattered final sequence of Dolls, dark and disturbing as it was to viewers, had a far deeper resonance to Erica because of the events in her own life. Meyer and Ebert based the finale on the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Charles Manson “family” on the evenings of August 9 and 10, 1969, just a few months before Dolls began shooting.
While planning to make Erica’s character one of the victims of the film’s murders, they had no idea of the multiple connection the real life events and people had—or would have—to her. “It’s scary when I think about Russ having an insight into people… it’s like someone looking into your head and your future, and viewing your life,” says Erica.
“I remember when those murders happened, and how shocked I was, because that was the circle in which I traveled.” Two of the victims (on the second night of the killing spree) were businessman Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. “I grew up with the LaBianca kids. They lived in Silver Lake, and I went to school with their daughter, Susan.”
Jay Sebring, one of the victims that awful first night, was well known to several of the women of Dolls. Cynthia and Lynn Carey had both dated him, and Erica (as we’ll see) had a memorable experience with this colorful and doomed character. One of most celebrated ladies’ men in Hollywood, Sebring was the foremost hair stylist to the stars, including Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen. Sharon Tate was one of the many Hollywood beauties he had romanced; she broke off her relationship with Sebring when she became involved with Roman Polanski.
“I knew Jay Sebring through my friend Bebe, who had been seeing him after he and Sharon had broken up. Jay had set up this little rendezvous with us and Steve McQueen, to get all of us in bed together. Jay was also Elmer Valentine’s best friend, and at one time Elmer was going to marry Bebe. [Note: Valentine was the owner of the trendy clubs The Roxy and The Rainbow.]
Erica recalls the day the first group of murders became public: “I remember when Bebe called me to say that Jay had been killed, along with Sharon and the others. I was in San Diego for a meeting in connection for some possible movie work. I was freaked out.” Bebe had seen Sebring just a month before the tragedy, on Sunset Boulevard. “Jay asked if they could start seeing each other again, and she said sure. But she never heard from him again.” Relating an even deeper connection, Erica continues,”what made [the Manson connection] come full circle is that I ended up dating one of the Manson attorneys.
Paul J. Fitzgerald was a brilliant and colorful attorney in the Los Angeles County public defender’s office. He was briefly assigned by the office to defend Manson; soon thereafter Manson was switched to another attorney, and Fitzgerald represented Patricia Krenwinkel, one of the three Manson followers accused in the murders. When told by his superiors three months later that he would have to give up the case because the office had a possible conflict of interest, he refused on March 24, 1970 resigned. For the next year he continued to represent Krenwinkle at no charge, and because he was the most experienced and skilled of the defense team, became the chief strategist for the other two Manson followers as well.
“I met Paul in court through Elliott Mintz who had a talk radio show on KABC and a TV show. Elliott was attending the trial because he knew Sharon and Jay, and he brought me in one day. Almost right away, Paul and I started seeing each other. It was one of my crazier times.” The trial itself began on June 15, 1970—just two days before the Hollywood premiere of Dolls, as fate would have it—and their affair began a few weeks later.
“Going through the whole trial was a bizarre experience. I would get letters from Susan Atkins and drawings that sort of showed mirror images of me and her. That was really hitting close to home, since I had re-enacted that same scene in Dolls!
“Having the Manson girls being a part of my life was so strange. [Note: Female members of the family not on trial basically camped out in a van near the courthouse and included the notorious Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.] We’d visit them on the street corner and give them money. I got to know them well. One night, they just crashed on the floor of our home. It was insanity, it was true insanity.”
Erica and Paul would remain together until about 1975, with a couple of brief reunions. Reflecting on the eerie synchronicities between her real and cinematic lives in this context, she mused: “Sometimes I don’t know if I’m really alive, or on the other side.”
-by Steve Sullivan
excerpted with kind permission from Glamour Girls