BOOK: “Sharon Tate: Recollection” by Debra Tate

For 45 years, it’s been virtually impossible for Sharon Tate fans to find any biographical information about her that does not primarily center around her death. Articles and books have simply painted her as the martyr and victim she was forced to become, instead of portraying her as the person she was in life. Now, for the first time since August of 1969, the public has a chance to see Sharon Tate as the woman she was.

Sharon Tate: Recollection is not a biography in the traditional sense. It is not a book filled with text to tell the story of its subject. Assembled by Sharon’s only surviving sister, Debra, and Debra’s daughter Arieana Tate Mussenden, the book is a coffee table-sized hardcover filled with photographs and short passages from Debra, Sharon’s co-stars, friends, as well as quotes from Sharon herself that set the scene for each particular portion.

In choosing such a non-traditional route in which to finally write about her sister, Debra Tate takes a major risk — which ultimately pays off in an exceptional way. Recollection serves one true purpose: illustrating the triumph of Sharon’s life, and paying tribute to a woman who was adored by so many, both during her all-too-brief life, and by people who are just discovering her today.

Before giving her own introduction to the book, Debra Tate awards the honor of the initial foreword to Roman Polanski, the man Sharon married in 1968. Over the years, he has rarely spoken about his relationship with Sharon, choosing to keep that period of his life private. He keeps his foreword brief, but his choice of words is touching. A portion of his contribution reads, “In those days, she was not just the love of my life, she was the love of everyone’s life, as you can see by reading the tributes paid by so many people throughout this book.”

Debra then discusses some of her reasons for publishing the book at this particular moment in time, and choosing this kind of original format. She writes, “I hope this will provide her legions of current and future fans with a well-rounded sense of who Sharon really was — of the gentle and supremely unique spirit that existed beyond her screen persona.”

The first two chapters center around Sharon’s life from 1943 through 1964. The highlight of the entire book is definitely the previously-unreleased photographs of her as a child and teenager. It is refreshing to see her as a six-year-old, smiling in her grandmother’s home, rather than the starlet who sarcastically dubbed her on-camera persona as “sexy little me.”

Meanwhile, many of the photographs from 1964 to 1969 are not new discoveries for fans, since they are readily available from various online sources. One full-page photograph is mis-captioned as taken at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, when it was actually shot a few months later at the Paris premiere of Rosemary’s Baby.

Debra Tate.

Along with the photos, there are quotes from Sharon and her mother, Doris, as well as extended remembrances from Debra. Debra’s memories are primarily responsible for tying together the ultimate story of Sharon, whom she lovingly still refers to as “Sis.” The tail end of the second chapter delves into her early days in Hollywood as an extra in films produced in Italy while she attended high school. It also ventures into her television career, which includes nearly nabbing a leading role in Petticoat Junction, and her recurring role as secretary Janet Trego on The Beverly Hillbillies. Her romantic relationship with celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring is also briefly explored.

The bulk of the book involves her film career; five of her six films are given brief chapters, while, predictably, Valley of The Dolls gets the most ink. Although panned by critics, Sharon’s performance was reviewed as being a highlight, earning her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer (Female). It was, without a doubt, the most successful film of her career. Many unseen photographs from the movie were reproduced from the 20th Century Fox archives for the first time, specifically for the book.

Some of the most interesting quotes, from an artistic and historical point of view, are in the Portfolio chapter, and come from those who photographed her. In the grand scheme of things, her career was quite short and Hollywood always has a supply of young starlets and actresses who have decades-long staying power in the industry. Which makes it all the more impressive when photographer Bert Stern calls Sharon “the most beautiful woman I ever met.” Stern, who passed away in 2013 after a career spanning more than five decades, is most well-known for his photographs of Marilyn Monroe, widely acknowledged by many of the most iconic images of her.

Another high point in the book is the chapter devoted to her relationship with Roman Polanski. Due mainly to Polanski’s desire to not speak at length about his relationship with her over the decades, apart from a few scattered interviews and the various unreliable tabloid tales, it’s been difficult to get a genuine look at what their relationship was like. Many of the quotes in the chapter come from Polanski himself, while Debra tells one of the only stories fans have ever heard about his interactions with the Tate family. Friends like Robert Evans and Joan Collins also give their thoughts on the couple.

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, 1968. (Photo by Andre Perlstein)
Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, 1968. (Photo by Andre Perlstein)

The poignancy of the final scene of Recollection is astounding: July 20th, 1969 — not only an historical date because of the moon landing, but also because it was the last time Sharon was with her parents and sisters. The book’s final paragraph feels like a tremendous blow to the heart; it is the memory of the very last time Debra Tate would see her older sister. “I looked over my shoulder to wave one last time and noticed her standing in the doorway,” she remembers. “She resembled Botticelli’s Venus with her hand under her belly and her corn-colored hair dancing gently in the breeze. She became smaller and smaller as we rounded the corner, until, finally, she disappeared.”

It’s quite the mental image, and, in many ways, the perfect way to end the book. Instead of going into the details of what happened on August 9th, Debra chooses to rise above and, instead, gives us the idyllic image of Sharon frozen in her memory. The image of a woman, ethereal and glowing. Of course, there is a retroactive sadness because of what would happen a short time later, but there is also a peacefulness, since, in that moment, Sharon was happy.

For as solid as the book is, there are some slight disappointments. Ideally, Abigail ‘Gibbie’ Folger and Wojciech Frykowski would have been included in its 1969 chapter, since the couple house-sat for Sharon and Polanski while they worked in Europe. Upon Sharon’s return to California to prepare for the birth of her child, they remained in the home to watch over and assist her in the advanced stage of her pregnancy. Sadly, they died alongside Sharon, Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent, a young man who had been there to visit the groundskeeper, on August 9th.

Over the years, Debra has spoken about her own friendship with Folger and Frykowski, and, while mentions of them would have been welcome, their exclusions are understandable. The book is meant to celebrate her sister’s life, and including an extensive supporting cast would have taken the focus off of Sharon and made it even more difficult not to delve into the tragic events of August 9th. Little is known about their lives, however, and it would be great to read about what they were like. Perhaps, at a later date, we could be treated to Debra’s memories of Gibbie and Wojciech.

Also, it would have been a more fitting choice to have her friends and co-stars give more detailed stories about her. Reading about her beauty and kindness is pleasant, but grows repetitive. One comes away from reading the book only really learning from Debra about who Sharon was as a person. While her memories are invaluable, details about how Sharon worked during photo shoots and on film sets would be fascinating.

Overall, though, any disappointments with the book pale in comparison to its accomplishments. In recent interviews, Debra has said that Recollection is just the first book that she plans on publishing about her sister, so it can be inferred that this is just the introductory volume for what could possibly be a series of books about Sharon Tate. That leaves a lot of time and room to add more content, both photographic and biographical.

Speaking purely as a fan, Recollection succeeded in whetting my appetite for more stories about the late star. This is truly the first book to come out about her without the ugliness and tragedy of her death permeating the entire creation. It is a more-than-worthy read and is, hopefully, just the first book we will acquire from Debra Tate.

About Kristen Parsons 2 Articles
Kristen Parsons is a perpetually curious and inquisitive American writer who has spent the majority of her 25 years on this planet researching the popular and political culture of the 1960s and 1970s. She resides in the Pacific Northwest, where she continues to work on various projects. For over four years, she has maintained a blog dedicated to the life of Sharon Tate.
  • melody

    Thank you Kristen for your review of Debra’s book. I found your opinions mirrored my own. And also thank you so much for your Sharon blog. It is always the first site I visit when I sign on.

  • melody

    Thank you Kristen for your review of Debra’s book. I found your opinions mirrored my own. And also thank you so much for your Sharon blog. It is always the first site I visit when I sign on.

  • Andrea Wagner

    Very informative Kristen ! Great job ! 🙂

  • moonmad

    A very good, and honest review from somebody involved in telling something of Tates life from her own blog, ” Love is something you feel” oh and she is really cute too .

  • Bulsara Faruk

    Finally I know who you are Kristen, who is behind http://sharontate-polanski.tumblr.com/ … 🙂 Thank you for your closeup review …