When Danny Fields invited me to go to a book signing Debra Tate was doing in the Meatpacking District in 2014, I jumped at the chance. I already had her book, Sharon Tate Recollection (thanks Jeff Roth!) and loved it. When I met her, I liked her immediately, and was over the moon when she agreed to let us interview her for the website.
GILLIAN: So I’ve read the book cover to cover, and I want to tell you I think it’s one of the most beautiful coffee table books I’ve ever seen. You did such a great job…
DEBRA: Oh, thank you so much. My thing was that there are no do-overs for Sharon so I fought very hard for it to look the way it looks and to have the quality and the content and the artfulness of the whole thing. I really fought for it—she deserves it!
GILLIAN: So you had to fight with the publisher to get all those things?
DEBRA: Oh, yes. I mean, they wanted originally to do this in the paperback!
GILLIAN: Oh god!
DEBRA: So I said I’ll just walk right now. I’ll start over with another publishing company, thank you—which became my mantra.
GILLIAN: But it’s meant to be a hardcover book… paperback just wouldn’t do it justice!
DEBRA: I agree. And the other thing I fought for was to keep the quality up and the price point down. That was important to me because I wanted it to be affordable to young people—that was the whole reason in the first place, was the new demographic of fifteen to twenty-five year olds—but they might not have money if it was a hundred dollar coffee table book, but for thirty dollars I think everybody can afford it.
“My thing was that there are no do-overs for Sharon so I fought very hard for the book to look the way it looks and to have the quality and the content and the artfulness of the whole thing. I really fought for it—she deserves it!”
GILLIAN: And what did they originally want to price it at?
DEBRA: Well, for the quality of the paper, and the color separation and all of that it was looking more like eighty dollars.
GILLIAN: And you got them down to thirty?
DEBRA: It all worked out fantastic, I really can’t complain or say anything bad about the publishing company because they were amiable, you know? They’re creatures of habit like everybody else and they get peg-holed into a particular frame of mind. Sometimes they don’t see outside the box and that’s what I’m all about is seeing outside of the box. So it was really great, I’m really happy they gave me what I wanted.
GILLIAN: I mean every detail—like the bubble gum pink cover when you take the dust cover off? Gorgeous, it’s just gorgeous…
DEBRA: Thank you.
GILLIAN: And as far as the text goes, what I like about it is that it doesn’t interfere with the photographs but is enough to make you want to read on. I’m just wondering did you ever consider just including your words—or your and Sharon’s words—and no outside quotes?
DEBRA: No, it was important to me to keep a balance so that the reader could get a true feeling—an unbiased feeling—of who Sharon was and what she was about and if it contained just my words it might not be as weighty as…
GILLIAN: You’re right…
DEBRA: … as far as expressing this is really who this woman was. I think it was very important that I include as many different takes on Sharon’s personality as possible, and then with the layout it had to flow between the words and the pictures. You just had to move things around until you think THAT’S IT!
GILLIAN: I love the font… I mean, just every little detail is amazing. When we had spoken at the store I asked you about the cover photo and you said you were definitely going to use that as a cover photo, there was no…
DEBRA: Nope, no doubt. No doubt. Because it’s an older photograph the negative had to be cleaned up a little bit, but that is Sharon’s face unaltered, un-Photoshopped. The only Photoshop work we had to do on that was to take out some of the discoloration due to the age on the negative.
DEBRA: So the young people—or people that are new to Sharon—need to know that that face existed before plastic surgery, and before Photoshop… this is 100% pure Sharon.
GILLIAN: Were there any photos that you wanted to put in but you couldn’t get the rights?
DEBRA: Ha! Well, I was working on a budget so I had this book at about five hundred and some odd pages—five hundred and eighty I believe? And it broke my heart when the publisher said no, you have to whittle this down to two hundred and thirty pages… But at one point in my life I had been a photo editor so I just sucked it up and edited it down to the current book you see—all in one day.
GILLIAN: I’ve done photo editing and it’s a brutal task… You just gotta be really tough and go I’m not gonna second guess myself—that’s gotta go, and this has gotta go…
DEBRA: Right, there are all kinds of criteria that you latch onto, and then some of the photos you have to take out a magnifying glass and see if there are flaws because you have to realize when you’re dealing with somebody that has been gone for forty-five years… there is always a flaw that you can find in any negative… so in order to pick the best photo, you just have to be really diligent and take the love out of it and look at it critically and that’s what I did and the book is as you see it; there’s the results.
GILLIAN: You must have been really good at negotiating with the photographers because the photos must have cost a fortune…
DEBRA: The Valley of the Dolls photos are particularly expensive… Some of the photographers were gracious enough to actually not charge, but not all of them and some rights come with limitations like they couldn’t be included in if it were to be sold at a foreign language bookstore; it has to be renegotiated at that point. Everybody has their stipulations. It was a huge learning curve for me and I’m not making any money on it, this is a labor of love.
GILLIAN: Who was Sharon’s favorite photographer to work with?
DEBRA: Well, I’m gonna have to say Shahrokh Hatami, and the reason I say that is he practically lived in Sharon and Roman’s house. I mean, every time I looked up Hatami was there and always clicking a camera so he certainly photographed her the most… she had a very rich relationships with each and every one of her photographers that were mentioned to me. However, that being said, there were certainly photographers that I never knew about—I have no idea exactly how large Sharon’s body of work was. There were between two hundred and twenty and two hundred and thirty magazine covers that featured her! So there are certainly photographers that I never knew about. But the ones that are most prominent in the book are the ones that she had commented on… and certainly the photographers that are still alive have reiterated their feelings for Sharon and their impressions of Sharon, some of these are included in the book. They adored her!
GILLIAN: I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about your sister in print…
DEBRA: You know, I can’t think of anybody either! No one!
GILLIAN: Was Hatami hired by film studio? Or by a magazine? Or was it just that he and Sharon were great friends?
“So the young people—or people that are new to Sharon—need to know that that face existed before plastic surgery, and before Photoshop… this is 100% pure Sharon.”
DEBRA: He and Sharon and Roman were all great friends. He didn’t live with them but it seemed like he did because he was there from early in the day to late in the evening photographing absolutely everything—cramming in wardrobe and little shoots in-between—as well as shooting her everyday life, so he had an UNBELIEVABLE quantity of photographs of Sharon. And a lot of them I’ve been familiar with since I was very young. Some of them I was not aware of but I have not been able to go through all of them yet but he has opened his heart and his archive to me and I’m sure I will be going through the photographs for the next five years!
GILLIAN: Oh that would just be heaven!
DEBRA: It is, it’s a lot of fun.
GILLIAN: What are you going to work on next?
“Sharon was my everything, was my world. Some people often confused her as my mother because of the ten year age difference and the maturity that her character and persona always had…”
DEBRA: The next book is going to be things that have to do with after Sharon’s murder. We don’t need to go over the circumstances of her death, I think that’s been looked into far too many times. I mean, it’s an old subject now, but some of the things that happened that I’m very aware of are discrepancies with how the police worked and how the legal team worked and how it affected my family… and the insanity. I call it the three-ring circus of the press, the sensationalism and it became an entity of its own, there were a lot of leads that were phoned into call stations for things that actually drew the police off track—and made it a bit of a nightmare.
GILLIAN: And you were sixteen? Or fifteen?
DEBRA: I was sixteen; it was just before my seventeenth birthday. And Sharon was my everything, was my world. Some people often confused her as my mother because there was a ten year age difference and the maturity that her character and persona always had… she was just my everything and I had been included in her social circle as an equal for years and years but in particular I was at that [Cielo Drive] house that whole summer when she was not there, she was in Europe and Roman was in Europe doing their separate film projects.
GILLIAN: Were you kind of house sitting…
DEBRA: Well, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski were actually house sitting, but there were circumstances in my family where Sharon felt that it was best for me to be out of the house so…
GILLIAN: That is a good older sister…!
DEBRA: Yeah. It was like she was the best older sister ever. So I was at the house and because of that I was the first one interviewed by the FBI and the police department and I just have a lot to add to the story behind the scenes that people aren’t aware of and also how that has parlayed into this whole other thing over the years.
GILLIAN: What, like the whole industry of it…
DEBRA: Yeah, the whole industry of it. The whole industry of it. You have two very separate entities here: you have the industry that came out of it, and you have what I call a predatory justice system. And then you have the personal aspect of it that I think people are very interested to hear.
“She worked her butt off, you know? She really devoted herself to her craft and was always busy, therefore she didn’t have the room for that free spirit.”
GILLIAN: Definitely! I don’t know how much of this you really want to go into but I just can’t imagine being like sixteen and that happened, it’s on the news every day, you’re going to school… I mean how did you do it?
DEBRA: One foot in front of the other at a time, that’s all any of us can ever do when tragedy strikes. You can’t make a plan and you can’t be coached because your emotions run up and down, hot and cold and there is no controlling it so you just put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time and try to assess where you’ve been, not where you’re going and keep a handle on yourself, you know, be self-aware and eventually you come out of the fog and you’re able to deal with things I’m not gonna say properly because that would be a misnomer—you deal with things in the best way possible for you.
GILLIAN: Yeah, it just must have been hard. I lost my brother when he was forty and it’s hard because you don’t feel like you can really be in your own grief because your consoling everyone else—so it’s all wrapped up and complex and–
DEBRA: Exactly! That is exactly right. I mean, my mother obviously, the lights were on but nobody was home. She was functional some days and then totally dysfunctional on others so I picked up the everyday tasks of caring for my little sister, making sure her lunch money was there, got her off to school on time… Dad was off doing his part in the investigation so pretty much it all landed on my shoulders for the longest period of time.
GILLIAN: How did your parents, or even you and your sister, react to the more provocative shots of Sharon getting photographed… were your parents okay with it?
DEBRA: Yeah. What could they do, it was all in good taste and for example, the Fearless Vampire shots that appeared in Playboy were actually taken by Roman.
GILLIAN: Right, and they were totally tasteful…
DEBRA: Oh, totally, and you know whether they agreed with it or not it—it is what was happening during that period of time. I certainly had no problem with it because, once again, that was part of the period of that time. I had a swimming hole that all of us kids would go to after high school in Sausalito and everybody would skinny dip up there, it was part of what was going on, we were all comfortable in our own skin–at that point in time so it’s no big deal.
GILLIAN: Did you consider Sharon a flower child…
DEBRA: Hmmm, not as much as me, because I was more carefree, truly carefree, than she was. She worked her butt off, you know? She really devoted herself to her craft and was always busy, therefore she didn’t have the room for that free spirit.
GILLIAN: She sounds like an amazing sister…
DEBRA: Yeah, she was the best. She rocks. Somebody else asked me the question do I think that having almost ten years between the two of us made a difference and it absolutely did. Because I could look at her and enjoy her without any of that sibling rivalry crap that goes on. There was no competition, she appreciated me for my talents and gifts, and I appreciated her for her talents and gifts. We saw each other very clearly without that competition that often happens between sisters and brothers when they’re closer in age. I got the best of everything with her and it was a wonderful privilege to have it happen that way.
Sharon Tate Recollection by Debra Tate (Running Press, 2014)
Get it at Barnes & Noble HERE
More from PKM:
WILLIAM HELBURN: THE PKM INTERVIEW
ANOTHER EXCERPT FROM “DESCENT OF THE DOLLS”: CANTO FOUR BY JEFFERY CONWAY, GILLIAN MCCAIN AND DAVID TRINIDAD