The last time Debra Tate saw her sister Sharon was at her home in Beverly Hills in 1969. They played in the pool then cooked as the family gathered to watch the moon landing on TV. A heavily pregnant Sharon kept playfully elbowing 16-year-old Debra and calling her ‘aunty’, in reference to the baby she was about to have with her husband, the film director Roman Polanski. ‘She was dancing around and giggling, in and out of the pool,’ says Debra. ‘She was so nervous and excited about having a baby.’
But Debra, now 66, doesn’t like to think of this day, as the memories are so painful. ‘I can’t remember it without thinking about what happened next, what I lost,’ she says, speaking to Grazia from her home in LA. What did happen next – less than three weeks later – remains one of America’s most infamous murders. On 8 August, four members of the ‘Manson Family’ – the notorious cult led by Charles Manson – broke into Sharon’s home and murdered her and four others. It’s been reported Sharon, 26, pleaded with her killers to let her live long enough to have her baby, but she was stabbed 16 times. The word ‘pig’ was scrawled in her blood on the front door.
The murders were so shocking, many describe it as the moment a light went out in Hollywood. At the time, LA was in its swinging ’60s flow: Polanski was the director du jour and Sharon was a Golden Globe nominee. But overnight, the city went from free-spirited hedonism to high alert and locked doors. In the decades that followed, countless books and films were made about the massacre. Now, to mark its 50th anniversary, director Quentin Tarantino has added another. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood debuted at Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. In it, Margot Robbie plays Sharon, and Leonardo DiCaprioand Brad Pitt play a washed-up actor and his stunt double respectively. From what can be gleaned from the reviews – Tarantino asked critics not to reveal the plot – they end up embroiled with Manson’s clan.
But how does Debra feel as her sister’s murder is dramatised on screen for entertainment again - this time by a director known for his violence and gore? She admits she was worried when she first heard the film was being made, and initially wrote a scathing article about the director. ‘I was a mess,’ she remembers. Then Tarantino got in touch and reassured her it would be handled tastefully. The pair ended up spending three days together. ‘Quentin is a very stand-up guy; he has a lot of morals,’ she says, describing how he let her into his process. ‘When he presented me with the script I was very happy with it, but I won’t say one word about what happens. I promised him I wouldn’t.’ Still, she adds, ‘He pays attention to detail. I didn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement; he trusted me and I trust and respect him. I can see us being friends.’
Debra is also a fan of Margot. ‘I met her and I was very happy with her as an actress,’ she says, adding, ‘I just hope they do Sharon’s true character justice. My fear is that things will fall short as they always have in the past. With each film that comes out, I hope they will do it right and I’ve always been disappointed. But with this one I’m extremely hopeful.’
She and Margot even spent time together in California last autumn, discussing Sharon so that the actress could bring her sister’s personality to the role. ‘Since Sharon, I’ve never met anyone with her qualities, but Margot comes close. She was also extremely loving, giving, down-to-earth and takes her craft seriously. I’m hoping Margot having those qualities in common might shine through in her playing Sharon.’ However, despite Debra’s support for Tarantino’s film, she fears that retelling the Manson story could create a climate where those who murdered Sharon and her friends – as well as four others in separate killings that summer – become revered as ‘urban legends’.
Many previous retellings have altered facts and introduced elements of fantasy, she explains. ‘History is being re-written and the murderers are gaining popularity. Anyone with the facts would say, “These are extremely sick and dangerous individuals,” but instead, through movies and books, people become fascinated by them. That’s why, even five decades after her sister’s murder, Debra still lives in fear. She receives more than 10 death threats a month from people she believes are admirers of Manson’s cult. ‘I do everything I can to stay safe: I have 10 fences and very large dogs,’ she says. Although battling breast cancer, Debra still campaigns tirelessly to keep the remaining Manson Family members incarcerated, as they are eligible for parole. Manson himself died in 2017.
Most of all, though, Debra wants Sharon to be remembered for the potential she had – and suggests that her full story remains to be told. ‘She would have been a tremendous star on a global level. She was just such a heavenly light; full of life and vibrancy,’ she says. ‘I believe that a story needs to be told about her life, not her death. I don’t want Sharon to be remembered for her last moments. She wouldn’t want that either.'
Support Debra’s fight to keep the Manson family in prison at noparoleformansonfamily.com
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is released in the UK on August 15.