Obituary: Curt Gentry / Co-author of ‘Helter Skelter'

June 13, 1931 - July 10, 2014

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Curt Gentry, an author and well-regarded biographer of J. Edgar Hoover who had his biggest commercial success when he teamed up with Vincent Bugliosi to write the 1974 blockbuster “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,” died July 10 in San Francisco. He was 83.

His brother, Pat, confirmed the death, saying Mr. Gentry had been in hospice care. No cause was given.

Mr. Gentry had written books about California history and culture when he teamed with Mr. Bugliosi, who as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles had prosecuted the Manson case, among the most sensational of the 20th century.

Charles Manson and his followers were accused of the gruesome murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, over less than 48 hours in Los Angeles in August 1969.

As the prosecutor, Mr. Bugliosi was in a position to deliver an authoritative, exclusive account. He provided the facts and the documentation; Mr. Gentry, the driving narrative.

The book’s title was taken from words written in blood at one of the crime scenes, a reference to the title of a 1968 Beatles song that had resonated with Manson. He and his followers were convicted; Manson, now 79, remains in prison.

The book became one of the best-selling titles of the 1970s, helping to elevate true-crime narratives into the mainstream. In 1975, it won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best fact crime book.

The success of “Helter Skelter,” and the royalty checks it provided, gave Mr. Gentry the time to research and write “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets,” published in 1991.

With nearly 850 pages of text and documentation, including previously undisclosed internal documents, the book, a 15-year project, shed new light on the man who led the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years.

Mr. Gentry claimed that Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had both provided information to Mr. Hoover — Mr. Ford while he was a member of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Mr. Reagan when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Unlike some biographers, Mr. Gentry drew no conclusions about Mr. Hoover’s sexual orientation — an issue because of Mr. Hoover’s preoccupation with investigating the sex lives of others. “I could never find anything definitive,” Mr. Gentry told The Times. “He had very little human contact. He seemed to have no human feelings.”

Curtis Marsena Gentry was born in Lamar, Colo., on June 13, 1931. His father was a city clerk and his mother, who came from a long line of ranchers, worked in a bank.

Mr. Gentry was a reporter for several newspapers as a teenager and briefly attended the University of Colorado before serving in the Air Force during the Korean War. After moving to San Francisco, he graduated from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) and wrote freelance articles and a travel guide to the city.

In a 1964 book, “The Madams of San Francisco: An Irreverent History of the City by the Golden Gate,” he used a history of prostitution to explore the city’s social and cultural shifts since the gold rush days of the 1840s.

In 1970, Mr. Gentry collaborated with U.S. spy Francis Gary Powers on “Operation Overflight,” the story of how Mr. Powers was shot down in the Ural Mountains in Russia in 1962 and spent 21 months as a Russian prisoner before he was returned to the United States in a prisoner swap.

Mr. Gentry’‍s other books include “Frame-Up” (1967), about two California union leaders who spent more than two decades in prison for a bombing that killed 10 people in San Francisco in 1916 before being pardoned; and “The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California,” a novel that predicted a devastating earthquake.

United States - North America - California - San Francisco - Ronald Reagan - Vincent Bugliosi - Sharon Tate - Roman Polanski - David Johnston - Evan S. Connell


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