In 1994, the French Normandy-style house at 10050 Cielo Drive, a dead-end street about halfway up Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, was demolished. But the memory of what happened there in the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, endures.
Charles Manson’s name has become synonymous with evil, and the most horrifying representation of what he was capable of happened inside the now-razed home that hosted a revolving door of movie stars, rock gods, and other notables for five decades.
But its greatest legacy lies in who died there: namely, rising actress Sharon Tate (eight-and-a-half months pregnant), celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and recent high school graduate Steven Parent.
For those who have seen them, widely available photos of the crime’s aftermath are impossible to forget. Overnight, the house itself became indistinguishable from the horrors that took place inside it, its burgundy exterior serving as an eerie reminder of the bloodshed. What’s perhaps most shocking is how long it took to tear it down.
Nearly 50 years later, the cult of fascination surrounding the crimes remains potent. No less an obsessive than Quentin Tarantino has attracted an impressive cast for his Manson-adjacent film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film in part tells the dark story of 10050 Cielo Drive through the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), next-door neighbors to Tate (Margot Robbie) and her director husband Roman Polanski.
Like so many “murder houses” before and since, 10050 Cielo Drive’s association with terror and death belies the fact that for every day of its existence but one, nothing that happened there would have set it apart from any other house on any other street. Still, it is fascinating to consider both the slow chain of transactions and life events that led up to its single night of infamy, as well as the psychic darkness that has plagued it in the decades following.
From its early origins as the home of a glamorous European star to its modern-day incarnation as a mega-mansion owned by the man who ushered in the era of TGIF, here is a history of 10050 Cielo Drive.
The early years (1941 to 1945)
In 1940, Michèle Morgan was a young French movie actress who had appeared in such films as Heart of Paris, Port of Shadows, and Stormy Waters. Forced to flee during the German invasion, she emigrated to Hollywood that same year and signed a contract with RKO Pictures, which hoped to mold her into the next blockbuster European import in the vein of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. But her American films never made an impact, and within a few years she was ready to return home.
Still, Morgan remained in Los Angeles long enough to buy a house. Situated on a 3.3-acre plateau above Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, the Robert Byrd-designed property (which included a 3,200 square foot main residence and 2,000 square foot guest cottage) was meant to evoke a French countryside home with its beamed ceilings, rustic exterior, and fairy tale windows.
Completed by builder J.F. Wadkins in 1941, the property—complete with backyard swimming pool, wishing well, and “enchanted woodland garden”—was idyllic and remote, located at the end of a cul-de-sac. Surrounded by trees, the rural oasis also featured stunning views of the LA basin, from Downtown to the ocean. Morgan’s purchase of the home for $32,000 was reported in the Los Angeles Times.
Publicity images of Morgan on the property are plentiful. In one, the starlet sits in an upstairs window looking off at the horizon. In another, she reclines elegantly on a lounge chair in the master bedroom over a caption that boasts of its “utterly French, feminine, and charming” qualities.
Morgan appears to have lived in the house until 1944 or early 1945, after which she returned to France. It was subsequently sold to LA society-page regulars Dr. Hartley Dewey and his wife Louise, who rented out the home and guest cottage to high-profile tenants, from the Baroness de Rothschild to silent film superstar Lillian Gish.
Decades later, Gish fondly recalled her time at the house in an interview with writer James Grissom, which he included in his 2016 book Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog: “I was perfectly happy there,” she said. “The air was clear and sweet. The view was gorgeous. I rested and read and took care of myself.”
From “love house” to death house (1963 to 1969)
From 1946 through the early 1960s, the property’s record is spotty-to-nonexistent. It picks up again in 1963, when Rudolph Altobelli, a Hollywood business agent whose clients included Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, purchased the home for $86,000 (or about $700,000 in today’s dollars).
Soon Altobelli was renting out the home to high-profile clients and celebrity friends, including newlyweds Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon, who reportedly spent part of their honeymoon there in 1965. In the summer of 1966, he leased it to music producer Terry Melcher (the son of actress Doris Day), whose time at the house would set the tragic events of August 9, 1969 into motion.
Melcher entered the music industry in the early 1960s, first as a performer and later a producer, composer, and songwriter for acts including The Byrds, The Ventures, Pat Boone, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. But it was his close association with The Beach Boys—and particularly the group’s drummer, Dennis Wilson—that instigated the nightmarish events to follow.
Melcher, during one of the Manson trials, testified that was introduced to Manson at Wilson’s Sunset Boulevard home in the summer of 1968. Famously, Wilson befriended the cult leader after picking up two of his followers during a drive through Malibu. Later that day, Manson accompanied Wilson to drop Melcher off at his home on Cielo Drive.
Melcher lived at the house for roughly two and a half years, at least part of that time with then-girlfriend (and future Murphy Brown star) Candice Bergen. Paul Revere and the Raiders lead singer Mark Lindsay, who resided at the home for a time with the couple, told The Houston Press in a 2011 interview that the house became a center of the Hollywood social scene in those years, with a battery of bold-faced names passing over its threshold. Manson, he alleges, was one of those names:
I walked into the kitchen to get a drink and there was this guy squatting against the refrigerator on the floor wearing this work shirt and jeans and looking really scruffy. So I said “Excuse me” and tried to open the door, but he wouldn’t move, he was just like a doorstop and stared straight ahead. After trying a few times, I walked into the other room and said “Hey, who’s the weird dude in the kitchen?” And someone said “Oh, that’s just Charlie. He’s okay!”
Bergen, who lived at the house with Melcher until January 1969, compared the the hillside property to a Hollywood fairytale in her 1984 memoir Knock Wood:
At Terry’s house on Cielo Drive I felt at home. Surrounded by tall, thick pine trees and cherry blossoms, with rose-covered rail fences and a cool mountain pool grown over with flowers, it snuggled up against a hillside—a gingerbread hideout that hung high above the city. There were stone fireplaces, beamed ceilings, paned windows, a hayloft, an attic and four-poster beds.
...There was a cartoonlike perfection about it: You waited to find Bambi drinking from the pool, Thumper dozing in the flowers, to hear the dwarfs whistling home at the end of the day. It was a fairy-tale place, that house on the hill, a Never-Never Land far from the real world where nothing could go wrong.
The dream was destined to end.
Following Melcher and Bergen’s abrupt move (they relocated to a Malibu beach house owned by his famous mother), Altobelli, the owner, rented the home to rising Hollywood director Polanski and his wife Tate, who was already pregnant with the couple’s first child.
In a sad footnote, the 26-year-old actress was said to have dubbed the soon-to-be-infamous getaway “the love house.”
Melcher’s association with Manson would prove fatal for Tate, Sebring, Parent, Folger, and Frykowski in the early morning hours of August 9, the grisly details of which have been described too often to rehash.
Having managed to track Melcher down, rock star wannabe Manson convinced the producer to audition him on two separate occasions at the cult leader’s Spahn Ranch headquarters. Melcher’s ultimate refusal to sign him to a recording contract was the final straw, angering the unhinged cult leader to the point of murder.
Contrary to popular belief, Melcher and Bergen were never the targets of the August 9 murder spree carried out by Manson’s followers.
Manson was reportedly aware that the two had relocated to Day’s house in Malibu when he plotted the murders. Consequently, the logic behind his orders to kill everyone (or lack thereof) at Cielo Drive has become a matter of much debate. Whatever the case, when Tate and Polanski’s maid, Winifred Chapman, ran down the long driveway screaming of murder and death and bodies and blood on the morning of August 9, 1969, 10050 Cielo Drive’s reputation was sealed.
The downward spiral (1969 to 1994)
In a photo published in Life magazine just days after the murders, Roman Polanski crouches solemnly on a long veranda, feet away from the front door that has been vandalized with his wife’s blood. According to the photographer, Julian Wasser, Polanski wanted the Polaroid shots to be given to a psychic to track down the then-unknown killers.
For Altobelli, who had been traveling at the time of the murders, the spread was an egregious overstep, and in November of that year, he sued Polanski and Life Magazine, claiming the pictures hurt the home’s resale value (he also went after the director for three months of back rent he alleged was owed him).
Enraged and horrified by what had occurred on his property, Altobelli went even further. As recounted in the 2012 book Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice, the owner subsequently sent an “enormous” repair bill to Tate’s parents for damage done to the house in the course of the murders.
When Tate’s father sent back a sarcastic letter, Altobelli sued the dead actress’s estate for $480,000, including $300,000 for “embarrassment, humiliation, emotional, and mental distress.”
The court ultimately awarded him a comparatively-meager $4,350. Following the judgment, Altobelli proclaimed to the press: “This was not a personal vendetta against Sharon Tate or her family, it was just business.”
Just three weeks after the murders, Altobelli, likely resigned to the address’s overwhelming stigma, moved back into the main house, a process he later described in surprisingly glowing terms.
“When I came back to that property, I felt safe, secure, loved and beauty,” he told ABC’s 20/20 in an interview decades later. He proceeded to live there until September 1988, when he very publicly put the house back on the market (where it had been “quietly” put up for sale on and off over the last two decades) for an asking price of $1.99 million.
“I don’t anticipate any problems [selling it for that amount],” Altobelli’s real estate agent Adam Jakobson told the LA Times at the time. He was wrong. In November 1988, investor John Prell purchased it for $1.6 million, roughly $400,000 below the listing price.
Prell owned the house for less than two years. In March 1991, he sold it to real estate investor Alvin Weintraub for a reported $2.25 million.
While drawing up plans to replace the notorious home with a much larger residence, Weintraub put it on the market again in March 1992, offering to sell it “as is at $4.95 million.”
10050 Cielo Drive stood long enough to host one final bizarre chapter. In 1992, the main house was rented for a reported $11,000 a month to Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who subsequently constructed a recording studio in the home’s expansive living room.
Reznor later claimed not to have known of its tragic history when he decided to rent; it was only after reading the lease agreement, which included a legal disclosure about what had happened there, he said, that he learned the truth.
In a morbid flourish, the star musician dubbed the studio “Pig” and used it to record his landmark 1994 album The Downward Spiral (in addition to a music video for the track “Gave Up,” included on Nine Inch Nails’ 1992 EP Broken).
In an interview included in the 2000 book Dissecting Marilyn Manson by Gavin Baddeley, Reznor offered an unsettling anecdote about his first night in the home
‘The first night was terrifying,’ Reznor confessed. ‘By then, I knew all about the place; I’d read all the books about the Manson murders. So I walked the place at night and everything was dark, and I was like, ‘Holy Jesus that’s where it happened.’ Scary. I jumped a mile at every sound—even if it was an owl. I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a coyote looking in the window at me. I thought, ‘I’m not gonna make it.’
Later, Reznor was apologetic. He denied rampant speculation that the murders in any way inspired The Downward Spiral (the tracklist for which included such song titles as “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy”), but in a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone, he expressed regret for renting the house at all.
Reznor moved out of 10050 Cielo Drive in December 1993, making him its last known resident. Knowing that the home would be razed, in a macabre final gesture (and one that slightly undercuts the change of heart he claims to have had) he removed the front door and installed it at the New Orleans headquarters of his record label, Nothing Studios, which had been converted from a funeral home.
Early the following year, Robert Byrd’s bucolic urban getaway—once noted for its adherence to his famed “knotty pine” aesthetic—was demolished.
In a further effort to discourage trespassers and lookie-loos, Weintraub then changed the street address to 10066.
“We went to great pains to get rid of everything,” he told Los Angeles Magazine in 1998. “There’s no house, no dirt, no blade of grass remotely connected to Sharon Tate.”
‘A Dream ReImagined’ (1994 to present)
A Mediterranean-style mansion replaced the pastoral home above Benedict Canyon; at 18,000 square feet, it was nearly six times larger. While the original house had just two bedrooms, its gargantuan replacement, nicknamed “Villa Bella,” had nine, in addition to 13 bathrooms, a screening room, a wine cellar and a commercial kitchen. The spectacular sand-to-skyscraper views remained the same.
Weintraub believed in the land’s ability to rise above its horrifying past. “Ninety-eight percent of the people don’t give a damn,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 1997. Valued at a whopping $12 million in 1996 (or $8.9 million unfinished), Villa Bella sat on the market for the next three-plus years. By December of 1999 and with no buyer in sight, the price for the estate had dropped to $7.7 million.
Enter Jeff Franklin. As the creator of such hokey family sitcoms as Full House and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, the writer-producer’s legacy could hardly have been further from that of the land he was about to buy. But when he happened upon 10066 Cielo Drive while searching for an upgrade to his 2,500 square foot home in the Hollywood Hills, he was smitten.
“What I fell in love with here was the setting, the view, the privacy and the amount of flat land,” he told Architectural Digest in 2010. “But the existing house was probably the most poorly conceived structure I’d ever been inside of.”
With Olsen twins money to burn, Franklin purchased the property for an undisclosed sum and hired architect Richard Landry to bring his dream home to life. The result, profiled in the pages of the magazine, was pictured under the headline “A Dream Reimagined.” Notably, it included no mention of the brutal crimes committed there more than 40 years earlier.
Along with his project architect Todd Riley, Landry took inspiration from the architecture of southern Spain, adding in “Asian elements” to fulfill the look and feel that Franklin desired.
The result was an ornate palace featuring a “graceful vocabulary of columns and arches, volutes and finials,” a “domed and titled entry tower,” a 15-car underground garage, six bars, five aquariums, two tropical-themed swimming pools (complete with a 35-foot slide), and a museum devoted to Elvis Presley. Michèle Morgan, who died in 2016 at the age of 96, could scarcely have imagined it.
10050 Cielo Drive may be gone, but pieces of the house remain, scattered to the four winds. The infamous door no longer appears to reside at 4500 Magazine Street in New Orleans, but stones allegedly salvaged from the living room fireplace following the home’s demolition are regularly put up for sale online (“This small, but substantial chunk… is still sealed in its original packaging…”).
In an anecdote that would be darkly humorous if it weren’t so sad, a bed frame that was purportedly in the house at the time of the murders sold for $14,000 at auction in Georgia. The buyer was a woman who was, according to reports, a “huge” fan of Tate.
It is a measure of the crime’s continuing cultural resonance that even the land the original house sat upon has become forever associated with the murders, becoming a point of pilgrimage for Manson obsessives, paranormal researchers, and true-crime aficionados. Those interested in visiting the site can even purchase tickets for Dearly Departed’s weekly “Helter Skelter” tour, a three-and-a-half-hour “multimedia” jaunt that includes Cielo Drive on its itinerary.
As for the victims, they will forever be remembered for their connection to the tragedy that befell them and, by extension, to the house on Cielo Drive. And that is, in its own way, a tragedy.
Editor: Jenna Chandler