Sexy Sadie and Charles Manson

How a 19-year old stripper wound up as part of the murderous Manson Family

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Susan Denise Atkins

Charles Manson was 32 years old in 1967 when he was released from Terminal Island, a federal penitentiary in San Pedro, California. That spring, upon release, he relocated to the San Francisco area where he met a 23-year old librarian (Mary Brunner) who offered him her couch to stay. Soon, the two were in a sexual relationship and yet Manson, a former pimp, couldn’t help adding more girls to his ‘stable’.

That summer Mary was joined by Lynette Fromme and Patricia Krenwinkel, among the other young people who drifted around Charlie. They called him ‘the Gardener’ for his kind, nurturing, wise ways but today, we recognize him as a sex trafficker, a master manipulator, and the most infamous former prisoner in America.

In the fall of ’67, Charlie and the women spent most of their time traveling around in an old school bus they’d painted black and turned into a mobile love pad. The goal next was to set up stakes in Los Angeles, where Charlie could work on meeting influential contacts in the music and recording industry. But before the group left the Bay Area, they met one more person — a former stripper later nicknamed Sexy Sadie.

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Atkins during her December 1969 grand jury testimony

The following is excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story (published June 2019 from Swann Publications) —

The first week of November, the four attended a party in the Haight. Charlie pulled out his guitar and began singing The Shadow of Your Smile, a jazz standard performed by greats like Tony Bennett. Across the room, a dark-haired girl with haunted eyes started to float toward Manson, drawn to him and his music.

19-year old Susan Denise Atkins, born in San Gabriel, California, was very much a wild child. Her parents were drunks and their home was filled with volatility. She had one older and one younger brother. During her childhood, she was molested by her older brother. Susan’s life was further turned up-end at 14 when her mother died of cancer. Her older brother was in the Navy when her mom died, and Susan was expected to act as the ‘mother’ within the family.

Susan likely began her formative years resenting the men she loved. But she might also have realized that she was stronger than them, that the normative distribution of power between the genders was profoundly unfair. She became a habitual shoplifter — her form of rebelling. Getting caught only made her bolder.

Later, she began to dabble in recreational drugs. A frightening LSD trip in her teens did not deter her from continuing to numb herself with pharmaceuticals. When her father moved out of town, Susan was shuttled between relatives. She relocated to San Francisco and got involved with petty criminals, drug dealers, Satanists, all while putting herself in difficult personal situations. She hopped from man to man, always seeking someone who would take care of her. The autumn of 1967, she and her friend Ella Jo Bailey were living with two men in an apartment at the intersection of Oak and Lyon. Janis Joplin lived just a few doors away and sometimes they heard her sing the blues from their kitchen.

Susan already had ninety-nine miles of hard road behind her when she met Manson. She also had a criminal record by that time. She drifted toward the guitar-player like a moth to the flame. “I wanted Charlie to grab me and keep me from falling,”[1] she later wrote.

She squatted beside him, listening to Manson sing as though he were speaking into her soul. He was short and had a blue-ink prison tattoo on each forearm. As though in a trance, she felt the need to get up and dance for him.

After a while, slowly gyrating on the floor, she realized that the music had stopped and the man was staring at her, smiling. She reached out and touched his guitar and said, aloud, “I’d like to play it. I bet I can play it.”[2] Charlie told her to go ahead, play the guitar but she didn’t know how.

Someone passed a joint and the conversation drifted. But Susan’s eyes kept returning to Manson, sitting on a chair with a girl flanked on either side. While the music of Jefferson Airplane filled the room, Susan stood again to dance. This time, Charlie joined her.

They danced slowly, mirroring each other’s moves. Finally, at the end of the song, they introduced each other. He told her she was beautiful. He told her to always be free.

Two days later, Susan and her roommate were sitting dejectedly in their apartment. The men they’d been living with had just gotten arrested for dealing dope. She walked out into the hallway and there stood Manson.

He invited her to take a walk with him. She followed, uncertain but drawn to his forthrightness. They wound up in front of the apartment on Cole Street. He invited her inside. Mary, Pat and Lynette were not there. Susan slowly removed her clothing, with Charlie’s help. He pulled her toward a full-length mirror and ordered her to look at herself. He told her again that she was beautiful. She giggled and said that he was crazy. But he held her and demanded that she really look at herself in the mirror.

She felt like he could see inside her. She felt equally afraid and excited.

He told her she wanted to have sex with her father, and she agreed. He demanded that she break free from the past. He laid her down in the bed and made love to her.

The next day, Charlie and Susan went walking along the Haight together. He told her exactly what she needed to hear: that there was a place for her with him and that he would never let her fall. Then he said that he and the others were leaving for Los Angeles the next day. He invited her to meet the women, and to join them.

On the morning of November 10th, Susan visited her parole officer. She asked for permission to travel with her new friends. He said he’d think about it. By the time he decided the answer was ‘no’, she was already gone. She brought Ella Jo and another friend, Barbara, with her. Ella Jo and Barbara joined Manson and the women on the road for a few weeks before returning to San Francisco. Sometimes, Ella Jo’s boyfriend came along too.

On November 12th, Charlie turned 33 — same age as Christ when he died.

While in Los Angeles, Charlie met again with Gary Stromberg. Stromberg set Charlie up with a recording session at Universal. He got to lay down a few tracks, get a feel for the studio. He was impressed, and excited about working on the film about Jesus. Then Stromberg dropped a bomb: in the movie, Christ would be a black man. Poor Charlie couldn’t backpedal any faster!

The group packed up the black bus and hit the road again. They went to the Mojave Desert, then back to L.A. on November 26th. Then Santa Barbara on the 27th. Then San Francisco. Then back to the Mojave. And around and around and around again, getting to know each other more intimately.

Lynette recalled that, “Susan opened up on the bus. She talked so much, and laughed so loud, I reconsidered the prospects of living with her. There was a haunted loneliness about her that she covered with careless flippancy and daring, with sly silences, and brash bombast. Charlie chuckled, telling me that Susan was not crazy but ‘coming from another side.’ I thought she was embarrassing.” But beneath Susan’s cries for attention, Lyn soon discovered a sad little girl. “As we lay resting in the moving bus, having stayed up late the night before, I felt her hand on mine, alerting caution. But it was not a sneaking or lustful hand, only a hand that wanted to be accepted, so I did.”[3] Atkins also proved useful — when the bus broke down, she quickly jumped out to find a mechanic, flirting to gain free repairs.

  • From The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including the following citations: [1, 2] Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins with Bob Slosser ©1977 Logos International; [3] Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press
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Susan with her siblings

It was Charlie who nicknamed Susan (first) ‘Sadie Mae Glutz’ as though she were putting on airs. Later, that morphed into ‘Sexy Sadie’ after Manson listened to the White Album. In the summer of 1969, Susan Atkins was involved in the murder of six people, and that November she bragged about her exploits to inmates at a Los Angeles jail, helping to solve the Tate/LaBianca murders.

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Susan and Charlie during the 1970 Tate/LaBianca trial

She was sentenced to death for those crimes, along with Manson and several others, although their sentences were all converted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

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A final photograph of Susan Atkins, taken during a special parole hearing in 2009

Neither Charlie nor Sadie ever had another day of freedom. Atkins died in 2009 and Manson died in 2017 — each from cancer.

To learn more about the Manson Family, please visit

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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