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Real subject of Tate biography is Charles Manson’s twisted family

It is nearly impossible to look at the image of Sharon Tate and not think about the slaughter that ended her life. That undeniable truth presents a major obstacle for any biographer. Everything that comes before her encounter with Charles Manson’s doe-eyed acolytes – her early days as a model and actress, her marriage to filmmaker Roman Polanski, her glamorous life in the public eye – feels like a grim coming attraction to the sad feature presentation.

Clearly, the public narrative of Sharon Tate’s life, sadly, is focused solely on her ending. And in many ways, the latest Tate biography is more of the same. However, “Sharon Tate: A Life” by Ed Sanders is not really about the life of Sharon Tate – despite its title. The doomed icon is instead an entry point for a chilling dive into a fantasia of violence, sex, drugs, and celebrity.

As a biography of Sharon Tate, then, Sanders’ book is a failure. As a gripping, comprehensive, relentlessly involving revisiting of the Manson murders, however, it is a stunner. Once Sanders turns his attention from Tate’s life and career to the story of her death, “Sharon Tate: A Life” becomes the most engrossing read I’ve encountered in 2016.

Before then, we have the standard chronicle of Tate’s life: Success in beauty pageants during her youth, discovery by producer Martin Ransohoff, stardom in “Valley of the Dolls,” falling in love with Polanski during the filming of “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”

Sanders – who wrote of Manson in the bestseller “The Family” – does unearth some unique, very personal details I’ve not come across before. For example, the first meeting between Polanski and Tate’s father Paul, aka “The Colonel,” was a telling view into the couple’s unconventional relationship:

“She’s too nice,” Polanski told Tate’s father. “I’ve been trying to toughen her up.”

“I wouldn’t try too hard,” he replied. “She doesn’t get mad too often, but when she does, oh, son, you better watch out. And when she’s done with you, then you’ve got me to reckon with.”

The author certainly captures the slightly menacing vibe of the time, especially as we draw closer to “that fatal night.” Anyone who has read “Helter Skelter” or watched any of the dramatic recreations of the Manson story knows the broad strokes of what comes next. But the skilled Sanders brings the era to vivid life. It all starts on page 115, in a chapter titled, with chilling blankness, “1969: Cielo Drive and Pregnancy.”

Sanders recounts the murders with fascinating detail, including the killers’ strange life at the Spahn ranch and the backstory of the small gathering at the Polanski household that night. It all culminates, of course, in a nightmare:

“Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were chatting in Sharon’s bedroom when the knife stabbed into the gray screen, slicing an entrance into the empty nursery at the far end of the house.”

The remainder of the book is a chronicle of real-life horror and its aftermath. And it’s enormously effective.

There are significant issues with “Sharon Tate: A Life,” and they start with the title. This is a book about death, not life. And as stated previously, Tate feels like a secondary character in her own story. At times the focus is so removed from Tate herself that things feel slightly disrespectful.

The illustrations by Rick Veitch don’t help matters. The work of the underground comic artist is generally fascinating, but here feels overly cartoony. A final illustration depicting Tate clutching her unborn baby in the clouds (called “Sharon in the Sky”) is particularly silly.

Interestingly, there was a very strong book about Sharon Tate released last year, one that focused on her life, rather than her death. “Sharon Tate: Recollection” is a lush, gorgeously composed visual appreciation by her sister, Debra, that restores Tate to her rightful place as the vibrant style icon of her era. This bold, bracing approach divorces her from the too-often-used classification of “Manson victim.” Debra Tate rescues her sister from being known by many as simply a casualty.

One image in particular – a shot of pregnant Tate in 1969, wearing a black headband – carries more emotional weight than any moment in “Sharon Tate: A Life.” She appears breathtakingly alive, a stunning force of power and beauty.

Comparatively, the Tate that appears in Sanders’ book is constantly surrounded by danger. She is emotionally scarred and threatened at all counts by a system that saw her only as a sex symbol. She is quite simply, doomed, and her collision with the Manson family feels almost predestined.

Was her murder, in fact, predestined? Was it a wrong-place, wrong-time scenario? Was Tate chosen? These questions haunt us, and Sanders. The author saves his final flourish for the afterword, nine pages of mind-detonating theories, rumors, and could-bes. It sent me racing to google “English Satanists,” and, typically, more dead-ends.

The book ends with Sanders reaching out to Charles Manson himself via letters. Sanders asks several key questions, but of course, these pleas go unanswered. This hammers home a sad truth. We’ll never really know why Sharon Tate was massacred. As Sanders puts it, “So far, no answer, no phone call.”

Interestingly, the finale successfully turns the focus back to Tate. The sad miasma of conspiracy theories that make up the afterword are, in a way, the author’s attempt at understanding and rationalizing something that can never be understood or rationalized. Whatever led to the murders, Sanders believes, is secondary to the result. In the end, it’s the deaths of Sharon Tate and her friends that truly matter:

“[E]ven though the world moves on, decade after decade, that does not prevent loose ends flapping in the multi-decade breeze, and no loose ends can prevent our sense of outrage and anger for the horrible injustice perpetrated upon Sharon Tate and her friends.”

In “Sharon Tate: A Life,” Ed Sanders brings that horrible injustice to life once more. Even if he fails to capture the life force that made Tate one of the 20th century’s most tragic icons, he succeeds in shedding new light on the horrors of 1969. This is true crime lit at its most grimly compelling.

Christopher Schobert is a frequent News contributing critic.

Sharon Tate: A Life

By Ed Sanders

DaCapo Press

304 pages, $25.99