Boy did I miss a lot of big news while I was away in Vietnam. Some fifty years ago I left the good old USA for a yearlong commitment in Saigon. I wouldn’t return to the World (a G.I. reference to the states) for 365 days, provided of course that I lived through the entire experience.
To allay that fear, one of the first things I did after arriving was to seek counsel from a soldier who was headed home. I asked him, “What are my chances of staying alive in Saigon for a year as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American English language instructor decked out in U.S. military jungle fatigues with an M-16 strapped to my back?”
He replied, quite casually, and with a grin to boot, “Your odds of surviving are probably better here than New York City.” Ludicrous or amusing, it was an answer I could handle. Good thing he prepped me, too, because two weeks later, one of our two schools was blown to bits. It was going to be a hell of a long tour.
While stories of that ilk, along with other in-country events like Ho Chi Min’s death and the My Lai Massacre, would continue to make headlines stateside for the next year, the news from the home front during that period wasn’t any less absurd, zany, or unbelievable: Armstrong’s lunar leap, Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick, Woodstock’s tune, Altamont’s dirge, Kent State’s bullets, Isla Vista’s bank blaze, and the Beatles’ swan song.
But the story that hit home the most involved a childhood neighbor I grew up with.
I read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle, sent to me four days late but providing me with a familiar sense of what was going on in my hometown and the rest of the country.
Taking a break from class one morning, I picked up the August 10 edition and saw the headline “Actress among five slain at home in Beverly Hills.” On the second page were photos of the victims.
One I immediately recognized. I jumped out of my chair.
“My Lord,” I stammered, “That’s Gibby Folger! What was she doing there?”
As I read further in amazement, details revealed that coffee heiress Abigail Folger, along with her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski, was indeed present at the Cielo Drive residence of actress Sharon Tate where five savage and brutal murders took place. Gibby was reportedly stabbed to death two days shy of her 26th birthday.
I was stunned. I looked away. It wasn’t that long ago when our paths had crossed. The last time I had seen her was two years earlier in San Francisco, where she lived briefly not far from my mom.
At the time, she was working at the UC Art Museum in Berkeley. I’d known Gibby for years. Our families were old friends, living not far apart from each other in Woodside, California, where we grew up.
The Folgers may have been wealthy, but you’d never guess it knowing Gibby. She was as down to earth as they come, as was her younger brother Peter, one of my more competitive playmates at that time. I always remember Gibby as being quite gracious, affable, and attractive. She was also intelligent, gifted, and very athletic, especially in tennis and horseback riding. Not a summer went by it seemed without our waving to each other as she would trot by on one of the many equestrian trails in our neighborhood.
With my cousin Caroline, who often rode with her, she attended Santa Catalina School in Monterey, later graduated from Radcliffe, and eventually earned an art history degree from Harvard, leading to the job she had when we bumped into one another. She hinted to me that she was thinking about moving to New York, just to get away for a while. That was the last time we talked.
I resumed reading. The rest of the sensational account in the Chronicle couldn’t offer much more information, the crime having just occurred. It was reported that Tate, like Gibby, was stabbed, along with Frykowski and hairstylist Jay Sebring, who were shot as well.
Steven Parent, who was visiting caretaker William Garretson, was also gunned down. Garretson was taken into custody as a suspect. The word “PIG” was scribbled in blood on the front door of the Benedict Canyon house. What the hell had happened, and why, I wondered.
The next night, the La Biancas would be murdered in similar fashion. Several months later Charles Manson and his family were linked to the crimes.
By that time, I learned that Gibby had followed up on her move to New York, where she met Frykowski. A year later, they moved to Los Angeles, where Gibby, the ever-compassionate socialite, got heavily involved in volunteer social work. It was Frykowski who introduced Gibby to Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate, who invited the pair to move in.
After several months, Gibby and Frykowski were all set to leave when Sharon asked them if they could both stay one more weekend until Roman got home from Europe. Never one to turn down a friend, Gibby more than agreed.
Little could she know it would be her last act of kindness.
:: King Harris