“That first time around L.A. I questioned why the entire world didn’t want to become famous.”
No one really knows what she ate. Today, the menu boasts a Kahlua-infused chocolate cake, but 50 years ago patrons didn’t dine at El Coyote Café on Beverly Boulevard for the promise of dessert—not even a beautiful blonde two weeks from her due date.
I grew up in a household of beautiful women who never ate dessert, or much of anything at all. The grapefruit diet. The scrambled egg diet. The one Granny Smith every other day so my sisters could squeeze their long, lean, baby-powdered legs into hot pants before catching the drumstick at a Molly Hatchet concert diet. In my home, thin ruled like a sovereign dictator who continually frightened away flour, sugar and fat. No one actually took diet pills, because no ate enough to need Dexadrine to rev up their metabolism, but The Valley of the Dolls still lounged its worn, light pink cover on the coffee table next to the lukewarm, half-empty cans of Tab.In my home, thin ruled like a sovereign dictator who continually frightened away flour, sugar and fat. Click To Tweet
The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I felt almost glamorous, holding the book in my chubby six-year-old hands. So much pink, three cut-out silhouettes of barbiturates, “dolls,”—Seconal, Nembutal—with two brunettes and one blonde filling out each hollow pill. The two brunettes didn’t do much for me, but who was that blonde in the middle, curvy enough to fixate on her chest, thin enough to wear a gold bracelet halfway up her upper arm? I could only manipulate one of the two bracelets I owned barely up my forearm, and even then only with the clumsy force of a desperate girl.
The murder of Sharon Tate is synonymous with L.A. A few summers ago when I drove past El Coyote on a very hot, late June afternoon, invited to Los Angeles to audition for the third round of a reality baking show, I recognized the red awning with the white font from true crime websites. In the minutia of morbidity surrounding the Tate murders by members of the Manson Family, no one remembers what Sharon ordered for her last meal. Rumor has it when tourists, fresh off the bus in search of lunch, ask what Sharon Tate ate, they are steered towards the most expensive menu item. Shrimp fajitas, $18.95 before tax.
1990 in a Central Oregon study hall we took turns memorizing the names Susan, Patricia, Leslie—boring good-girl names—in my Goth group, which included my boyfriend, Sky. Sky brought the book Helter Skelter to school, about the Tate/LaBianca murders. Sky and Sharon Tate shared a similar, cool alien-like beauty and a penchant for black eyeliner and hairspray.
By senior year we ruled the Gothic posse at Bend High, dubbed The Curitans by semi-freak outsiders. One thing Sky, with his rail-thin body and his architecturally arranged, dyed black hair, hated more than anything were outsiders. He taught me to shun these “posers,” who he said were trying to “starfuck” him. Me, too embarrassed to ask what he meant, wrote down the word starfucker in my notebook and spent an entire afternoon searching through the public library’s microfiche.
In a 1969 interview for Eye Magazine, Sharon Tate said, “Everything that’s realistic has some sort of ugliness to it. I’m sensitive to ugly situations.” I too, am sensitive—especially to boys like Sky who move away to art school because I don’t know if I want to get married. Back then, barely twenty, I didn’t want to get married. I just wanted to harness the power to collect men who wanted to marry me the way my grandmother collected all those plates not meant for food. Sharon Tate also said, “My whole life has been decided by fate.” She designed her own pale yellow micro-mini wedding dress. I wore a pale yellow wedding dress for my first wedding, too.
Being married for the first time, at 33, to me meant teaching myself how to do things like bake. In my late teen laziness, I had scanned the Betty Crocker Cooky Book with the thought to bake something for Sky, or for the boyfriends that followed, its red cover stained and taped back together after years of my mother or grandmother flipping open the book to wedge in random recipes clipped from magazines, recipes they never actually baked that came to represent forbidden delicacies just barely out of reach. Stained Glass Window Fruitcake. My Pink Heaven. During my first married years, I did teach myself how to bake, one cookie and cake and pie at a time. There were many kitchen disasters before each bake turned out almost edible, then actually good.Everything that’s realistic has some sort of ugliness to it. I’m sensitive to ugly situations. Click To Tweet
Through all my baking experiments I was still unaware that baking—the celebrity cookbook, being a judge on a baking reality show kind—can be synonymous with starfucking. Maybe Top Chef started the trend, then Top Chef Desserts, or even cable television devoting an entire channel to food. Starting a few years ago, the media began selling the preparation of food as competition. All this competition seemed to require was a little skill in the kitchen and a few, or a lot of, tattoos. I have a few tattoos and I do love to bake. This even led me to compete, and win, Best of Show baking competition ribbons in my county fair and the next county over. My first little taste of fame.
Sharon Tate first tasted fame at the age of six months when she won the Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas pageant. It would take 16 more years for her to win the title of Miss Richland before her Army father’s transfer to Italy curtailed her goal of becoming Miss Washington, then Miss America. The psychology of beautiful women who compete against other beautiful women for prizes mirrors the psychology of wanting to be famous. Rank-ism abounds in our culture, the somebodies vs. the nobodies, the overwhelming desire to crawl up from the ordinary sludge of everybodies to the upper echelon of somebodies. Doesn’t everyone secretly want to be famous, at least in their field, whether that means becoming the next beautiful extra in a movie to subsequently launch a film career, or the best folk singer in L.A., a thwarted dream of Charles Manson that would end Sharon Tate’s dreams, too?
When I received an email encouraging me to try out for a reality baking show, I filled out the application, attached a headshot, and didn’t think I’d hear back. On a cold March morning a call from a New York area code woke me three hours early. The woman at the other end of the phone bombarded me with questions. How does one make meringue? What are the three ingredients in a basic piecrust? What is ganache? Would I be able to attend an audition in my nearest audition city in June? I slogged through the interview, second-guessing each answer. An over-achiever since kindergarten, in my sleepy haze I tried to count my wrong answers, the most glaring mistake being my inability, at 8am, to recall how to make choux pastry. Then I remembered I’ve never made the dough, most commonly recognized as the golden puff of an éclair.
On my first visit to L.A. four years earlier, I never made it to a French bakery for an éclair. I never made it to any bakery. Staying with a couple whose newfound religion of choice, veganism, and their church of choice, the farmer’s market, put a crimp in my ardor for baked goods. A tour of the Tate murder house at 10050 Cielo Drive, or at least the property where the house stood before being razed in 1994, was out of the question as the couple spent my vacation searching for the best organic grapes.Rank-ism abounds in our culture, the somebodies vs. the nobodies, the overwhelming desire to crawl up from the ordinary sludge of everybodies to the upper echelon of somebodies. Click To Tweet
The couple, an aspiring journalist and an aspiring filmmaker, didn’t attempt to hide their propensity to starfuck. The aspiring filmmaker insisted on trying to meet anyone famous within his reach, from the person who did the lights at The Largo after a comedy show to a shock comic who performed a weekly gig at the clothing store Vlad the Retailer.
For a central Oregon girl with no experience interacting with famous people, I am fascinated with famous people and the people who love them. The shock comic singled me out during his show for my “pillow lips.” It’s what shock comics do, the expected sexual innuendo. But afterwards, the comic said how gracious I was to go along with his act. He asked me out to coffee the following afternoon. With my first husband by my side coffee didn’t seem like a very good idea, but what struck me was the kick in the guts delight to be acknowledged by celebrity.
At a diner after the show, the aspiring journalist of the starfucking couple told me, “He just wants to sleep with you in the back of his limo. I certainly hope you don’t think you’re special.”
Special? Los Angeles seemed nothing but special to me. That first time around the city I questioned why the entire world didn’t want to become famous. Where else but L.A. could Sharon Tate, starring in the beach comedy Don’t Make Waves, supposedly inspire Malibu Barbie?
I selected my audition outfit. Black dress, tasteful rabbit and deer forest print, a sort of Kawaii version of William von Aelst’s still-life hunting trophy paintings, and a Betsey Johnson purse shaped like an oven in my aim to be cast as “The Quirky One.” Before my invitation to audition I’d often wondered if every reality show hired the same casting director. How else could one explain the same nearly identical tropes tapping into the American zeitgeist? Strong Single Mom, Openly Gay Man, Angry Black Woman, Republican Redneck, Quirky One.
As I packed my outfit for the long car ride to L.A., I had wondered how many other quirky girls I’d have to compete against. After months of baking practice I determined an airplane ride, and the TSA, were nothing to risk passing my signature chocolate pumpkin cake past. We decided to drive the 820 miles, a portable plug-in cooler transporting my baked goods south in a heat wave, 116 degrees at a gas station stop near Stockton.
By the time we reached L.A., temperatures cooled to 112, my treats frozen for the trip unthawing in the cooler we carried to the bungalow where I could prep before the audition the way an actor preps for a movie scene.
Sharon Tate and Patty Duke became friends while filming The Valley of the Dolls. Sharon even moved into Patty Duke’s vacant Beverly Hills home. Though Sharon called 10055 Cielo Drive, where she met her demise, the “Love House,” some say Sharon preferred the Summit Ridge address but had to find another residence when Patty took the property off the market. A drive through L.A. is a drive through every imaginable twist of fate.
Would being invited to this city end in opportunity or disappointment? Did I really want to become one of those reality show “personalities,” half rooted for, half despised? Then, even if I won the show, forgotten in a day or two?
Beyond teaching myself how to bake bread my pre-audition packet included a prompt to identify my style or “brand.” Much the way Sharon Tate was destined to become the tragic blonde for eternity, my branding idea seemed obvious. The bookish woman who knew the recipe for Sylvia Plath’s tomato soup cake. But the thing was, did I actually love to bake and really want to star on competition TV?A drive through L.A. is a drive through every imaginable twist of fate. Click To Tweet
Traveling over 800 miles with a cooler full of cake to a bungalow steps away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame felt like an obvious next destination. The bungalow, a renovated crack house, sat on a street lined in lemon and lime trees. Any direction I looked, I saw palm trees leaning into the sun and helicopters hovering above, the glamour and brutality of the city magnified by the sex worker applying make-up steps away from our door in a broken piece of mirror while the Primetime Emmys billboards blocked the rest of our view.
Our landlord, host of a home renovation show, greeted us in front of the hedge with an ingratiating television intimacy, a single-serving “friend” who spoke like we’ve known each other for years. His intoxicating confidence matched his tan skin, ice blue eyes, dark, slicked-back mop of hair, an honorary Baldwin brother before the bloat. He knew ahead of my check-in why I was staying at one of his four attached bungalows, knew that I’d be using the art deco, period correct kitchen for the first time since he began renting the little light pink houses to a rotation of aspiring starlets.
He and I discussed the network I’d be auditioning for while he recommended the hottest food trucks and took intermittent texts from his agent about upcoming parts. How exciting to be in the orbit of someone actively participating in the L.A. hustle. I wondered what had happened to the aspiring journalist and the aspiring filmmaker, long estranged from my life, when my landlord for the week stopped me as I turned to change in my room before heading out to the first restaurant on his list.
“You look beautiful just the way you are, kiddo. Go try Le Big Mac at Petit Trois and report back.”
And I did try the $18 burger conceived by a French food cart star turned celebrity from another cooking competition show. The longer I sat in the small strip-mall restaurant, though, the more I worried about my motivation for being in L.A. Did I really want to be known as a possible dessert cookbook author instead of, in my mind, an author author, anymore than Sharon Tate, who studied with Lee Strasberg, father of method acting, wanted her acting legacy to be suicidal showgirl Jennifer North in The Valley of the Dolls?
While the rest of Hollywood buzzed I preheated the tiny bungalow oven. Baking away from home means losing the dance of where to reach out and make contact with my flour canister or my cardamom or my stack of decorated baking cups. But I beat on, waiting for my yeast to activate, kneading until my wrists ached, baking loaf after loaf of bread until the audition-worthy loaf rose and showed itself.Would being invited to this city end in opportunity or disappointment? Click To Tweet
After a short and sleepless night of gunshots mixing with the lime tree perfume out my windows, I woke ready to conquer the world of reality TV. Retro dress, fresh baked bread in the back seat and a four-layer cake balanced on my lap, air conditioner cranked in the 100 degree heat, we drove to Santa Monica, where baking dreams either burn up or come true.
Maybe everything in my life led up to this moment—the mom who gave me my very own copy of Valley of the Dolls in my Easter basket one year; the sisters who towered their model-thin bodies above me, breath smelling of wheat germ and Herbalife; my desire as I got older to use the power of sugar to turn my house into a home.
Release forms signed at the audition prevent me from divulging what goes on behind the closed doors. I can say one women in the lobby, where we sat for hours waiting our turn for an interview, quit her job to try out, how another left her daughter in an Arizona hospital after emergency surgery.
I can also say, when the show aired months later, none of those 50 women milling about the holding room made the cut, just like I didn’t make the cut—the judge who interviewed me not sold by my four-layer cake or my pretty dress or my ability to dissect the narrative arc of reality TV. I had never made puff pastry from scratch. One “no” to puff pastry and the casting director showed me the elevator to the bottom floor where all the everybodies waiting to be half-rate, low-rent television somebodies threw their rejected baked goods in a trashcan the size of a king-sized bed after their turns.
I struggled in the parking lot to change out of my dress and leave my dreams of baking stardom behind. The world of potential swirled around me, but that shiny edge of promise, after a few hours in one casting call, had already dulled a little.
I refused to cry about my rejection as my first husband and I wandered the city in search of dinner. When our meal came at an Italian restaurant known for its collection of autographed celebrity photos, I glanced to my left to a framed picture of Sharon Tate. A colored movie still of her, dressed in a patterned nightgown answering a white telephone, the infamous gold bracelet I envied in my youth gripped around the perfection of her upper arm. A single tea candle in a small glass holder diffused its light across the picture to rest softly on that bracelet until a girl almost as dangerous in her loveliness approached the table and took a photograph of us. She sold the photo, framed in gold cardboard, Sharon Tate and her gold bracelet in the background of me in the middle of an Italian restaurant in the middle of Melrose Avenue in the middle of a city with the ability to cause one to dream impossible dreams that can almost never come true.I struggled in the parking lot to change out of my dress and leave my dreams of baking stardom behind. Click To Tweet
I finished my spaghetti as the girl with the camera ended her shift and sat on a barstool, drinking. More than anything I wanted to tell her as she counted the money from her tourist mementos not to get caught up chasing fame, her symmetrical face longing to be filmed and photographed and hanged on the very wall where she worked while hundreds of people just like me passed through, and sometimes, when the light of the candle hit just right, almost looked up.