Sharon Tate’s light still shines

New York TimesMay 14, 2014 

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Actress Sharon Tate was just emerging as a star of screen and style when she died in 1969.

STF — AFP/GETTY FILE PHOTO

It was as if Twitter had slipped into a 1968 time warp, and Sharon Tate, the star-crossed ingénue of the flower-child era, was suddenly the hot new thing in Hollywood.

“Can’t believe I just discovered this person,” a high school student in South Carolina recently tweeted, alongside the hashtag #obsessed.

“Sharon Tate, we love this short sleeve baby blue dress with a small collar and an open back,” tweeted one online women’s wear retailer.

“So pretty, so pregnant, so pointless, tragic,” chipped in Evan Dando, the frontman for the Lemonheads.

A sun-dappled Deneuve. A star-spangled Bardot.

Oh, what might have been.

Tate, known for her saucer-like hazel eyes and once-in-a-generation ability to fill out a minidress, was only beginning to emerge as a screen and style icon when she became a household name for the grisliest imaginable reason. In 1969, the 26-year-old starlet, then more than eight months pregnant, was murdered in her hillside Los Angeles home, along with her unborn son and four others, by followers of Charles Manson.

While top billing eluded the “Valley of the Dolls” actress in life, the honey-blond siren has enjoyed a posthumous renaissance, embraced as a ’60s style avatar by a new generation of style blogs, Pinterest boards and fashion spreads, not to mention a recent off-Broadway show and a lavish photo hagiography by her sister Debra Tate due next month. The actress’ second life online got a major boost recently with a widely dissected conspiracy theory involving “Mad Men,” which some speculate may be building toward a tragic Tate-style climax.

‘Mad Men’ connections

Certainly, Sharon Tate had not disappeared from public consciousness in the 45 years since her death. The ghastly “Helter Skelter” murders have been replayed endlessly in cable documentaries, made-for-TV movies and books, including “Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice,” by Alisa Statman and Brie Tate, Tate’s niece, from 2012.

But the latest burst of Tate fascination seems largely traceable to “Mad Men.” In Episode 8 of last season, the Megan Draper character (a rising starlet played by Jessica Paré) squared off in a tense scene with her husband, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), wearing a seemingly incongruous white T-shirt emblazoned with a red communist star. Fans quickly made the connection to a 1967 William Helburn photo from Esquire of Tate in a similar shirt. “Is Megan Draper Sharon Tate?” screamed the headline on Entertainment Weekly’s website.

Before long, fans and bloggers were freeze-framing episodes like remote-wielding Sherlocks scanning for clues, just as Beatles fans once scoured album jackets and lyrics snippets for “Paul is dead” hints. Why was Don’s daughter, Sally, shown reading “Rosemary’s Baby,” a book adapted for the screen by Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski? Others saw sartorial hints. (Megan’s baby doll dress, for example, could have been plucked from Tate’s “Valley of the Dolls” wardrobe.)

Were the show’s creators hinting at Megan’s demise? Its costume designer, Janie Bryant, and creator, Matthew Weiner, brushed off the speculation – sort of.

“No one’s going to die,” Weiner told The Los Angeles Times last summer. “This season,” he added, with a chuckle.

Well, it’s next season now, and the conspiracy theory, however far-fetched, has only gained steam. In recent episodes, Megan, her acting career on the rise, has resettled in Los Angeles, in an eerily isolated hillside house not unlike Tate’s infamous Benedict Canyon home.

“It’s like Dracula’s castle up here,” observes Don, on a visit from New York (Tate and Polanski met on his 1967 film, “The Fearless Vampire Killers”), as coyotes howl in the distance. (Tate’s last meal was at El Coyote Mexican Cafe.)

By this point, dissertations on the topic are seemingly in order. A television blogger on Uproxx, a social news site, compiled 15 last month. “Bright green phone, just like Sharon Tate used to own,” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum tweeted, adding the self-mocking hashtag #trolling.

‘She has a light in her’

Still, while “Mad Men” brought new attention to Tate’s legacy, her revival as a style paragon was underway well before Megan started popping up in Sharon-esque embroidered caftans and headbands. Blake Lively, the “Gossip Girl” actress, channeled Tate in a tangerine miniskirt and Cleopatra eye shadow for a 2011 Glamour shoot. In couture gowns from Chanel and Givenchy, Drew Barrymore paid sartorial tribute to Tate in a 2010 spread for Harper’s Bazaar.

“Younger style mavens are able to separate the horror of her death from the magic of her beauty and her style,” said Simon Doonan, the Barneys New York creative ambassador and columnist, who added that Tate “was one of those beauties like Jane Birkin or Charlotte Rampling or Marisa Berenson who was able to make the transition from the hard-edge mod looks of the swinging ’60s to the softer bohemian vibe of the hippie era.”

Style bloggers seem forever smitten by Tate’s sartorial panache. “Have you ever tried to pull an inspiration board together of Sharon Tate?” read a 2013 post on For the Love of the Moon. “It is very hard to narrow down your choices since she looks stunning and perfectly dressed in just about every single one.”

Such fans will find no shortage of inspiration in Debra Tate’s coming book, “Sharon Tate: Recollection,” which features never-before-published family photos, glamour shots from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and musings from the likes of Steve McQueen (“the most beautiful woman I ever saw”) and Richard Avedon (“just dazzling”), as well as a foreword by Polanski.

“I wanted to chronicle the positive things in her life,” Debra Tate said. “That’s what she deserves to be known and remembered for, not just the last few moments of her life.”

Such timeless grace was a quality that Jen Danby, a New York actress, sought to capture in “Sharon Tate in Heaven,” a one-woman show off-Broadway last winter. “She was beautiful, and in ways European in elegance, but she was an all-American girl, born in Dallas, Texas, sun-kissed and corn-fed looking,” Danby said.

“She has a light in her,” Danby added. “It still shines.”

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