Jay Sebring
Jay Sebring, courtesy of 1010 Films and the Sebring Family Collection.

Documentary Uncovers Jay Sebring’s Legacy Beyond Manson Murder

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If you survey a list of the greatest Hollywood names and music powerhouses of the 1960s, you’ll find that they have one man in common: Jay Sebring.

The iconic hairstyles that came to define the era’s greats — Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr., to name a few — were all crafted by a young hair designer who, by 35 years old, had pioneered a then-revolutionary approach to men’s hair. Rather than selecting a haircut from a list at a barbershop, Sebring used methods that we now take for granted, such as using shampoo, conditioner and hairspray, or cutting a man’s hair to frame the unique features of his face.

But his accomplishments were overshadowed by an unpredictable and grotesque tragedy. On the evening of Aug. 8, 1969, Sebring and four others — pregnant actress Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, writer Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent, who was there visiting the property’s caretaker — were murdered in Tate’s Beverly Hills home by the Charles Manson cult.

For Anthony DiMaria, Sebring’s nephew and the director and producer of “Jay Sebring…Cutting to the Truth,” a documentary about Sebring’s life is a long-overdue means of restoring the legacy and humanity stolen from his uncle over 50 years ago. To create an authentic retelling of Sebring’s personal and professional life, the film features original ’60s footage and an extensive lineup of entertainment legends, from Nancy Sinatra and Quentin Tarantino to Quincy Jones and Dennis Hopper. DiMaria ultimately invested 20 years into creating the film.

“Jay Sebring…Cutting to the Truth” premieres Tuesday, Sept. 22 on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.

When did you first get the idea to create a documentary about your uncle?

It was definitely a lifelong endeavor, or odyssey, from the time I was told I couldn’t see him again. I was probably about 4 or 5. I saw a look of pain in my mother’s eyes, and it really kind of shook me to the core. Anyone that met Jay knew he was just a dynamic person.

Aside from the impact he had on me, it was also the fact that he was murdered. And that these murders that typically, for a family, would be very personal and private and painful, were treated on all kinds of platforms — every single year, multiple times a year — almost as a sensation or a form of entertainment. Even as a kid, it was in the forefront. I was reminded that my uncle was murdered in these horrible murders, but also that he was murdered by these particular people. And so I started seeing how, in a way, he was almost insignificant. But he was doing very significant things on cultural and historical levels. Meanwhile, the people who committed these horrible crimes got almost, like, propped up as rock star serial killers, like counterculture demigods.

When I started to get old enough, I started doing my own investigation, because I knew that if I asked my parents or grandparents — in particular my mother and my grandparents — that it would send them to that really painful place that our whole family wanted to protect each other from. So I kind of had to do my own journey, my own research, and though I didn’t know it was research, I think it started from a very, very early age.

Initially, I wanted to do a dramatic narrative, either a feature film or a television series, because we could really deal with the times and Jay’s professional and personal life. But then I also realized that, man, this would be like going through Madame Tussauds wax museum, like, “This doesn’t look like Frank. Is that Steve McQueen? Is that supposed to be Bruce Lee? Who’s that?” And I didn’t want people to get distracted. And our family has four 16 mm reels of a training film that Jay made months before he was killed. In fact, I don’t even know if Jay actually ever saw the final cuts. I realized that the whole point of the film was to restore the face to someone who is, in fact, culturally, historically relevant. And whose face better than his own face?

When I would visit for the holidays, my mother told me, “You’ve always asked about your uncle, and his things are under your bed — we had boxes of things — and in your closet.” So when I would come home to Vegas, I would look at these things, and they were astounding. They were telegrams from Steve McQueen and Sharon Tate. There’s letters from Bruce Lee. And then I started learning through Jay’s own appointment books this wealth of information that I never would have known [if] my grandparents, parents and Jay himself hadn’t saved all these things. They almost were like artifacts, and it was a treasure trove of source information.

Did you get a sense after a while that you were starting to come to know him from talking to all of his close friends and people he worked with?

That’s a really interesting point, because like I said, it’s so indelible in my head — the moment I was looking at our family photo album, saw that black-and-white, 8-by-10 picture: “That’s the cool guy.” He would visit from Los Angeles, and we’d chase each other in the front yard. He let me chase him as much as he’d chase me, and from that moment, he made me feel like he was my really cool best friend, and he didn’t feel like an adult.

When my mother told me that I wouldn’t see him again, it was a pull like a vortex. It was like, “I want to see you again. Why can’t I see you again? I want to know you.” I experienced those words viscerally, I don’t know that I articulated them in my head. That pull to know him and to see him — it never really left me.

As much as it was a gargantuan undertaking, it was always immediate and fresh. I often wonder that had Jay lived, if I would have gotten to know him as well. In lieu of him, in his absence, from everything that was shared with me, not just family and friends and Cami, Jay’s former wife, and his colleagues, I heard about his personal life, how passionate he was about living life to its fullest, and in many ways, he embodied all the different kinds of movements that were so pressing at the time.

And I knew that if we were to tell Jay’s story the way it deserves to be told and needs to be told, it has to be candid. It has to be with human dimension and not a tribute film. It can’t just be, “We’re gonna candy-coat this man’s life.” Although, I’d much rather have him with us and have all the times that we would’ve shared — that we should’ve shared.

There’s a dynamic to Jay, a context, that people don’t really realize, and I think it’s an inspiring one. He literally embodied the American Dream. He was influenced by the ’60s and, in turn, helped define the timeless, iconic looks of the ’60s. And I think that there’s a lot in his final moments, in these horrific murders, that the film will reveal.

You touched on this sense of sensationalizing, how audiences will see a crime like this and hyper-focus on the killers, and turn a blind eye to the victims. From the perspective of the victim’s family, what do you think are the consequences of this tendency to sensationalize violence?

I feel that true crime is obviously an industry unto itself. And I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but we can see it on all the Friday night shows, the news — there’s a lot of shows, whole channels, that are devoted to true crime. I think when it comes specifically to massively notorious true crime, that in itself is a whole other industry.

In my experience throughout the years, I’ve always wondered why people don’t know more about who Jay Sebring is and what he was doing and what he achieved — and yet, there’s so much that people actually know about the killers that they refer to them in the familiar. It’s not Charles Watson, it’s “Tex.” It’s not Leslie Van Houten, it’s “Lulu.” It’s not Susan Atkins, it’s “Sadie.” It’s not Charles Manson, it’s “Charlie.” And that in itself has been a kick in the teeth.

I think that is a typical kind of formula: “We’re gonna sell notorious, particularly sensational or horrific crime.” And the first thing that has to happen is strip the victims of their humanity. They are no longer like our children, our siblings, our parents. They’re a victim prototype. And one great way to do that is to marginalize, vilify and attack, so that somehow, if their lifestyle was intrinsic to their demise, then it starts to make sense. Then we don’t feel so bad about things: One, that I’m going to package and sell this for financial profit; two, I’m going to get off on these crimes and not feel guilty for it because they had it coming. “They deserved it, or they were creepy or weird.” I’ll give you several examples.

JonBenét Ramsey, 6-year-old girl. When that murder came out, I never saw a normal picture of her. She was always in adult poses with adult makeup, adult clothing, tiaras on her head. I never saw her blowing out her candles. I never saw her school picture. The only time I started to see those pictures is when her father actually came out with his book. So the narrative was, “Creepy kid with a really creepy family that allowed the creepy kid to do creepy things — well, what do you think was gonna happen? Let’s have fun with the mystery.” They assassinated that poor girl after she was killed. But if she’s like my daughter, if she’s like my little sister, it’s not fun anymore. And I can’t go buy the different magazines and watch the shows and really enjoy it because then I’m gonna question, “Am I sick? Why am I enjoying this? Why am I getting off on this?”

The Black Dahlia. No one knows her name, Elizabeth Short, but everyone’s heard of the Black Dahlia. What was the narrative in it? It wasn’t a horrific crime against a young, innocent woman. No, it was, “Some young woman moved to L.A., stars in her eyes, gets in over her head, can’t quite cut it, so she starts being promiscuous and allegedly soliciting money from older men.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but why is that part of the story? The woman was innocent. But the narrative was, “Nope. She was loose, she was doing illegal things, and that’s what happens to people who do that.” There’s so many examples of all this. At what cost does it come at? Well, it comes at a devastating cost to the memories and the legacies of the victims. And it comes at a very challenging cost in the judicial process.

Do a Google search on the internet. “Manson memorabilia,” “Manson T-shirt” — anything. You can buy bibs with Manson on it, you can get a shirt that says “Charlie’s Angels” on it with the three women singing on the way to trial, you can get all kinds of things. So when you ask, “What is the impact of the sensationalism and exploitation of these crimes?” That’s part of it.

It’s along the same narrative structures, and that is: “Strip the victims of their humanity. And now we can make money, and everyone can enjoy themselves. I can make money, and you, the viewers, can enjoy getting off on this.” And it really is the perfect storm because aside from the backdrop of what was happening during the ’60s and how that played into morality tales there, I think why it’s such a successful industry — notorious true crime, horrific notorious true crime — is because, in many ways, it also suits people’s insecurities on an existential level. So that if I’m not really doing much, I’m not really doing something to manifest my dreams or to do something that I’m really passionate about, to elevate my life or other people’s lives around me, and maybe I kind of took the safe path or maybe I’m just kind of living the mundane existence — and there’s nothing wrong with that, this is not a slam on that — then if I see people who were kind of jet-setters, people who were the beautiful people, who were taking a chance and doing things, and we see that they got slaughtered in the middle of the night, that somehow makes me feel better about my choices or lack thereof.

It’s almost like it fuels an insecurity. And it also insulates people, so they feel, “You know what? I wasn’t doing any of that freaky stuff, and I wasn’t a pervert, and I wasn’t breaking the law, and I wasn’t doing these things, so therefore, something random — horrific, unspeakable event in my house in the middle of the night with my family — that will not happen to me.” This is a way of insulating and making sense of things, and sadly, true, random, horrific fates, whether they be crimes or terminal diseases, more often than not, they are random.

And so the sensationalism and the exploitation and the narratives — it’s another way for us to make sense of things that scare the hell out of us. And if we can make sense of it, then it protects me from that happening to me. That’s one thing that I’ve lived with. And I know that all of my family and all of my family members and any family member of a murder victim, we all live with and we all know that at any moment in life, something beyond our control, horrific, can happen. And we do our best to protect ourselves as much as we can. I think that every one of us, in our own way, do.

You mentioned earlier that your family is very close. Do you think this documentary, in focusing so much on Jay, has been able to bring a sense of relief to them?

Oh, you know, there’s never going to be closure to murder — or a resolution. That will happen when Jay gets out of his grave looking the way he looked in 1969, and us recouping all 51 years back as we should have and sharing what we were meant to share. However, there is some comfort for our family to know that, finally, people will know who Jay Sebring is as a full-dimensional human being. They’ll know what he did in his business, what he did in his personal life. They’ll get a sense of the man that we enjoyed so much. It’s sad and twisted that Jay’s legacy so far has been known as “one of the others who was killed with Sharon Tate,” and that it’s kind of a sad, tragic story.

Actually, if we look at the substance of Jay’s 35 years — including what he did in the last moments of his life against all odds — his life is actually a rather glorious, inspiring story.

One of the things I know about how Jay lived his life was, “Work your tail off, but play probably a little bit, or maybe even a lot more.” And he had a zeal and a passion for life. So there is some sense of comfort and light — actually, providence, in this case — of knowing that Jay’s story will be out there now, forever.

Here was a young man, at 23 in 1955, who moves to L.A. with a dream, ideas and a sleeping bag. And then, in 1969, nearly 15 years later, he achieved what he achieved, and he defined the times. He created an industry that, today, is a $20-billion industry annually, on a global level. And there’s so many other things that he did. When I put it in that basic timeline, he just showed up from a Greyhound bus and did what he did. And I feel that he couldn’t have done what he did in any other city than Los Angeles.

What Jay did and what people don’t understand is that pre-Sebring, men went to barbers. They walked into a shop and picked one of 10 or 12 cuts and had it placed on their head with clippers and Vaseline. What Jay did is, “No, I’m gonna create a custom cut. I’m gonna apply cosmetology and hairstyling to men, and I’m gonna cut the ultimate cut for that individual’s face.” And his challenge was that he was implementing what was considered very feminine to men.

A man at the time, pre-Sebring, shampooed their hair maybe once a week or two weeks. They essentially slapped a lot of petroleum jelly on their head. And Jay, he got rid of all that. He wanted to shampoo the hair, condition the hair, cut the hair to the bone structure of the face, to the way the growth pattern of the hair was to bring out the positive features of the man’s face and diminish the unattractive features. No one was doing that. And so for him to shampoo another man’s hair, to color it, style it, use a blow-dryer, men are thinking, “Why are you doing that? We just go to barbers.” So he had to convince people that this was OK to do. And he didn’t technically call it hairstyling, he called it “hair designing,” because it was more acceptable and suitable from the male perspective at that time.

When people started seeing these very masculine film stars and recording stars showing up with a transformative, different look, that made it OK. And you never had that cross-section of film and recording artists like you had here in Los Angeles at that time. It was more suitable to entrepreneurs, revolutionaries and original thinkers.

Were there any memories or quirks about Jay that people told you about that surprised you or delighted you?

This didn’t even make it in the doc, but this was one of those kinds of stories that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this stuff really is true.”

Essentially, Jay was very independent-minded, and he and his father clashed in many ways. He was the son of German immigrants, and it was a very logical way of living: disciplined, coming out of the Depression. And Jay was this dreamer who really was very independent.

So, he got into trouble for something with his father. They had a white fence in the backyard, in Highland Park, Michigan, so his punishment was to paint the fence. It was supposed to take, like, a whole weekend or maybe three days, who knows. But it was not supposed to be a good thing, it wasn’t supposed to be pleasant. So Jay was in the backyard, and he was kind of painting this and that, and his mother would check on him, look out the window. Lo and behold, later in the day, she looks out the window and Jay’s sitting on the back patio, and he’s got five of his friends painting the fence, and he’s telling them how to paint the fence.

Now, that’s obviously the kind of Mark Twain story that sounds mythological in many ways. And it is. So in our trips, we went to Jay’s schools in Highland Park. We also went to a class reunion of St. Benedict’s Grade School, in which there was about 30-40 people. We were all talking, rolling the camera and interviewing all these childhood friends, and when I was telling this story, I said, “I don’t know if it was a metal fence or a wood fence.” And a real tall guy says, “It was a metal fence.” I said, “Oh, really?” He says, “Yeah.” So I’m telling the story and I say, “Jay had his friends painting the fence.” And he says, “That’s why I know it was a metal fence. I was one of the guys painting the fence.” To have this full circle, to me, was magical.

He was upwards of 80, so it had to have been over 70 years ago, and here’s this man affirming that he was there that afternoon in Jay’s backyard, painting the fence. It really was revelatory of who Jay was and how he was wired, how people liked him and wanted to be a part of what he was doing, and, also, how he was a leader.

One of the things that I’m grateful for is the way my grandparents and parents handled Jay’s murder and our family tragedy. They fought very hard to live with grace and strength. And they reiterated over the years that Jay wouldn’t want us to suffer any more than what is natural and that he would remind us to live life with the passion and zeal that he did.

In learning these things, it’s so shocking and perverse to know that a man who had such a positive impact in his profession and in culture and in his own personal life and was elevating things, that somehow, that was all erased, and he’s somehow, like, a tragic footnote in a very notorious murder. That is something that’s haunted me. That’s almost always been my feeling. I just didn’t cognitively articulate it to myself.

You know, shit, I can’t tell you how many times I’d be out in public and see somebody wearing a Manson shirt. I was on a set, and I was playing a killer, and I actually stabbed this guy to death. And the irony is the prop master, whom I really liked and worked with previously on another show, was wearing a Manson Unplugged T-shirt, and I was like, “Really?” And I knew to say something to him was distracting, and I just wanted to focus on what I had to do on set. But then later in the day, I saw a grip with a T-shirt of that iconic Sebring Jim Morrison cut. In a way, I was like, “You know what? I’ll take that as a sign.” That was a nice punch back, that even somebody that I respect who was wearing a Manson Unplugged shirt, and yet here’s somebody else on set who’s also wearing this shirt of Jay’s work that is so iconic. These have all been reminders to me, and I’m seeing it more and more.

Los Angeleno