Rolling Stone contributing editor Erik Hedegaard has interviewed Charles Manson and his latest girlfriend, Star. Here's an excerpt:
He doesn't look how he used to look, of course, all resplendent in buckskin fringe, sometimes sporting an ascot or the Technicolor patchwork vest sewn by his girls, with his suave goatee and his mad Rasputin eyes and his fantastical ability to lunge out of his seat at the judge presiding over his trial, pencil at the ready to jam into the old guy's throat, before being subdued and thereby helping to cement a guilty verdict. Those days are gone. He's 79 years old. He's an old man with a nice head of gray hair but bad hearing, bad lungs, and chipped-and-fractured, prison-dispensed bad dentures. He walks with a cane and lifts it now, in greeting to his visitors, one of whom is a slender, dark-haired woman he calls Star.
"Star!" he says. "She's not a woman. She's a star in the Milky Way!"
He shuffles toward her, opening his arms, grinning, and she kind of drifts in his direction.
From a raised platform in the room's center, two guards armed with pepper spray and truncheons keep an eye on the couple. Star is 25 years old, comes from a town on the Mississippi River, was raised a Baptist, keeps a tidy home, is a prim dresser, has a fun sense of humor. Charlie is probably the most infamous convicted killer of all time. He's been called the devil for the way he influenced friends to murder on his behalf. He's spent the past 44 years in prison and nearly 60 years incarcerated altogether, meaning he has spent less than two decades of his life as a free man. He will never get out. For her part, Star has been living in Corcoran for the past seven years, since she was 19. It wasn't Charlie's murderous reputation that drew her here but his pro-Earth environmental stance, known as ATWA, standing for air, trees, water and animals. She has stuck around to become his most ardent defender, to run various give-Charlie-a-chance websites (mansondirect.com, atwaearth.com, a Facebook page, a Tumblr page) and to visit him every Saturday and Sunday, up to five hours a day, assuming he's not in solitary or otherwise being hassled by the Man. "Yeah, well, people can think I'm crazy," she likes to say. "But they don't know. This is what's right for me. This is what I was born for."
Visiting-room rules allow them a kiss at the beginning and end of each visit. They do this now, a standard peck and hug, then sit across from each other at a table...
Visits with Charlie are always taxing for Star, and she takes it easy driving the two miles from his door back to her own. It used to be she'd make the trip with a tall, gaunt, spooky-looking guy named Gray Wolf, 64, a Manson believer from the Spahn Ranch days who carved an X into his forehead at the same time Star did, but earlier this year he was arrested for attempting to smuggle a cellphone into prison for Charlie, and there went his visitation rights, leaving Charlie's weekend companionship almost all up to this slight, doily-thin girl.
How she got here is pretty much like how many of the Spahn Ranch girls got to where they were going, too, as a reaction to the world around them and how it made them feel. She grew up on the Mississippi River, near St. Louis, had an early fondness for I Love Lucy, had parents who were deeply religious and disliked all her friends. "They thought I was turning into a hippie," she says. "I was smoking marijuana, eating mushrooms, not wanting to go to church every Sunday, not wanting to marry a preacher. They are Christian Baptist and wanted me to be a preacher's wife." To keep her out of trouble, they would lock her in her room, which is where she spent a good portion of her high school years. And, like Charlie, she found a way to coexist with such solitary confinement. "I've never been lonely since those times when I got used to being alone." Then one day, a friend gave her a sheet of paper with some of Charlie Manson's words on it about the environment. She'd never heard of Manson, but she liked what he had to say – "Air is God, because without air, we do not exist" – and began writing to him. After their correspondence took off, she put her nose to the grindstone, saved up $2,000 while working in a retirement-home kitchen and in 2007, stuffed all the belongings she could into a backpack and took a train to Corcoran. And soon enough, Charlie nicknamed her Star, just as he had once named Squeaky (Red) and Sandy (Blue).
Her pad is not large, not well-lit and inexpensively furnished, with a bedroom too messy for her to let me into. A guitar and a violin case are in a corner. No television. On one wall is the great, evocative black-and-white photograph of Charlie at Spahn Ranch, wearing a beat-up side-tilted fedora with a crow on his arm, the rugged Dust Bowl guy who could tame birds. ("We became road dogs and ran together," he says. "I didn't give it a name. It was just a crow." Others have said its name was Devil.) On a nearby table is the computer where Star spends much of her time trying to rehabilitate Charlie's image in the public eye. She is especially rankled by the long-standing belief that Charlie is only five feet two – she says he is at least three inches taller – and thinks Bugliosi intentionally published that lie in Helter Skelter to further diminish Manson's stature. He's short, just not that short...
"I'll tell you straight up, Charlie and I are going to get married," she says. "When that will be, we don't know. But I take it very seriously. Charlie is my husband. Charlie told me to tell you this. We haven't told anybody about that."
It's one thing to be here, doing what she's doing, visiting Charlie, buying him his quarterly goody box, getting him apple-cider vinegar for his fungus feet and going to target practice. In a way, I can see all of that. I've felt his hand on my skin, listened to him speak, seen him say more with his body than with his words. I know. But marrying the guy? Are you going to take his name?
"Yeah," she says. "My parents like Charlie. We were just talking and they said, 'If Charlie gets out, you guys can come stay here. You could stay in the basement for a while, and you could maybe build your own little house down by the creek.'"
Will there be conjugal visits?
"No, California lifers no longer get them," she says. "If we did, we'd be married by now. You know, that's the only thing I want. I just want to be alone. I don't want to be always in that visiting room with people staring at me. But that's the only time I get to see him, in that room, with people staring. It's hard. But things change, you know. And who knows what could happen?"
Another day, another call from Charlie.
"Star, Star, baby on the floor," he says. "We started all over with this one. The other ones know it all now. I don't need to say anything. They're moving in colors."
The others being Squeaky and Sandy?
This doesn't sound good, him viewing Star as some kind of project, a baby on the floor that he's starting all over with, teaching her from the ground up. It sounds like he has plans for her. And historically, his plans have never turned out well.
What about the marriage?
He snorts. "Oh, that," he says. "That's a bunch of garbage. You know that, man. That's trash. We're just playing that for public consumption."
It's not exactly a surprise to hear him say this. I've spoken to Manson a lot, and I know this is the kind of thing he does. And Star, too, I see, which is more of a surprise. But even that makes sense, once you understand that she's Charlie's baby on the floor, not Charlie's wife-to-be, but another one of his children, just like Squeaky and Sandy once were, with her just now taking her first little baby steps, him holding her hand and showing the way. At least, that's my perception of how it is. But we all know how perceptions are.
"I've always been pretty truthful with myself, as much as I can be under the circumstances," Manson says later. "But I'll never tell on nobody, not even me, man, so that's why I ain't never told nobody what really happened back then. I can't tell you right now. It wouldn't work if I did tell you, because it would change by morning. Everything is constantly changing, man. The mind is a universal thing. Charles Manson and Beethoven," he says before hanging up for the night. "It's just one little thought."
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.