The Tragic Love Story of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski

How they met, fell in love and married

Sharon Tate was a 23-year old starlet starring in her second film, and Roman Polanski was her 33-year old director and co-star when they fell in love.

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A still from the 1967 film “Fearless Vampire Killers” starring Sharon and Roman

Sharon had been toiling for several years in Hollywood, hoping for her next break. In 1962, she signed with talent agent Martin Ransohoff, who was currently producing the television show The Beverly Hillbillies. He secured Sharon a role there as Janet Trego, the secretary for stuffy spinster Jane Hathaway. Sharon’s beautiful blonde hair was obscurred by a short black wig, and her talents were also dulled there. But Ransohoff was paying quite a bit of money to enhance her skills — sending Sharon to dance, etiquette and fitness classes.

His Pygmalion efforts began to pay off in 1965, when Sharon was chosen for a significant role in the film Eye of the Devil, filmed in Italy and the UK, which would star film legends David Niven and Deborah Kerr. At the time, she was dating notable hair stylist Jay Sebring. Her next movie role would have a dramatic impact on her personal and professional life, however.

The following is excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story:

Sharon’s next role again took her to Europe for filming… Ransohoff was producing The Fearless Vampire Killers with quite the cinematic ‘get’: recent Academy Award winner Roman Polanski had signed on to direct and co-star. Fearless filmed in England and Italy during the fall of 1966. It’s a rather silly blood-sucking romp, but it is how Roman and Sharon met.

Sharon, still dating Sebring, traveled to London for early shoots. She was excited about the film because her hunch told her that she might be most talented at comedy. She saw herself in the same vein as Carole Lombard — beautiful but with a stellar wit. It’s tragic that her film career ended so abruptly because she was likely correct about where her greatest opportunities might lie.

When Sharon was introduced to the diminutive but amusing Polish director, it was not love at first sight. Nor was Polanski impressed with her acting talents, claiming it took seventy takes to get a decent scene out of her. However, Roman was taken with her beauty. He pursued her aggressively, although he was dating actress Jill St. John at the time. Finally, Sharon agreed to spend time with her director one afternoon. The two dropped acid at her hotel room, had sex and then fell in love.

Sharon then had to make the difficult call back to the States to break off things with her fiancé. Jay more than took it in stride — he accepted her decision with grace and dignity. He told her they would remain friends and they did. He even became friends with Roman, which couldn’t have been easy.

…Roman… was a player. He had multiple sexual partners during most of his adulthood and nothing, even falling head over heels in love with his leading lady, was going to change him. I have no doubt that he wanted to be true to Sharon, but he knew who he was, and he explained to his girlfriend that he required multiple lovers. Roman had an attraction to many different types of women. One of those desires would later put him on the run from the law.

Sharon tried to be a modern woman. She allegedly had at least one affair after she and Roman were married and at no time did she put her foot down with her husband, about his philandering. But she was deeply uncomfortable with the infidelity. Social morés of the time may have led many Americans to open up, to experiment, be less rigid and repressed about their lifestyle but in the end, Sharon just wanted a traditional relationship.

Early in their romance, Sharon left Roman to honor a film commitment in Los Angeles, set up through Ransohoff. She filmed the beach-comedy Don’t Make Waves with Tony Curtis. Sharon’s character Malibu was exactly the kind of ding-a-ling beach bimbo that she didn’t want to play. She wore a bikini in nearly all of her scenes, to give some perspective. She was embarrassed by the picture, which did poorly at the box office, and she remarked to more than one person that it was a ‘shit film’. Meanwhile, during filming, she was dealing with Roman’s many indiscretions. She often turned to Jay in solace.

Sharon’s next movie would posthumously become her cinematic landmark, which is a shame. Based upon the popular pulp novel, Valley of the Dolls was another box office dud despite the talented stars on the marquee. Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, Lee Grant and Sharon — none of these beautiful, talented women could save this campy catastrophe.

Sharon’s character, Jennifer, is so vain and desperate to be loved that she’d rather kill herself than fight breast cancer. Granted, 1967’s medical advances were far behind ours today and many women then did die of breast cancers. But the cheesy script (based on Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller) was literally laughed at in theaters across the nation.

1967 should have been Sharon’s year. Instead, it was Roman’s.

That March, Roman began shooting Rosemary’s Baby in New York City. Featuring winsome young actress Mia Farrow (then married to Frank Sinatra) along with actor and filmmaker John Cassavetes and stage/screen star Ruth Gordon, this film adaptation had all the right ingredients. It went on to win several awards including an Oscar for Gordon (in her role as nosy neighbor Minnie). Rosemary’s Baby was exactly what Americans were eating up — good, interesting horror flicks that tapped into our primal fears. This film really put Roman on the map in Hollywood. If he hadn’t agreed to make Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski today would simply be known as an interesting European auteur.

Roman actually considered casting Sharon as the young wife and mother-to-be, Rosemary. But producers, including Hollywood legend Robert Evans, chose Farrow (just off the success of the series Peyton Place).

Despite her misgivings about Roman’s infidelities, Sharon agreed to marry the playboy director. Their wedding, held in London on January 20, 1968, was attended by many celebrities including Joan Collins and Michael Caine. The Polanski’s spent the next week in London, followed by a skiing trip in the Alps.

By February ’68 the newlyweds were in Los Angeles, in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmônt. Sharon spent that spring trying to extricate herself from Ransohoff’s contract. Gossip columnist Sheilah Graham wrote, “I bet that if she asked in a nice way for her release, she’d get it. The producer spent two years building Sharon to the point where she could act. One of the provisos was that she would not marry for several years. You can fight everyone except Cupid!”[1]

That June, Sharon and Roman joined director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) at his Malibu home to welcome presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel. Sharon was an enthusiastic supporter of the former Attorney General. The following night, Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Less than a week after RFK’s death, Rosemary’s Baby was released in theaters to critical acclaim and box office success. Roman and Sharon moved that month into a house on Summitridge Drive owned by her Valley costar Patty Duke. They stayed there for the next seven months.

Roman may have had an eye for other women, but he was deeply in love with his wife. She had promised to never demand that he change for her, but her gentility and kindness certainly had an impact upon him. “She never had a bad temper, she was never moody,” he insisted. “She enjoyed being a wife. The press and the public knew of her physical beauty, but she also had a beautiful soul.”[2]

That summer, Sharon began filming a new comedy The Wrecking Crew with Deane Martin and Elke Sommer. She played Freya Carlsson, a clumsy tour guide assigned to help Martin’s superspy character. There wasn’t much to the script or her role but, true to form, Sharon added a whimsy and comedic charm to her performance and there were some spectacular martial arts sequences, choreographed by Bruce Lee. But again, Sharon’s talents and determination seemed to go for naught — the film was panned.

Sharon learned that she was expecting just before she and Roman moved to Cielo Drive. A year into her marriage, despite her agreement not to try to change her husband, she was struggling. Allegedly, she found a home movie of Roman and another woman, having sex in their marital bed. She considered ending the marriage at that time, but when she discovered she was expecting (thinking the news would change her husband) she told Roman. His response was apoplectic.

A friend of Polanski’s later explained Roman’s reluctance to have kids. Novelist Jerzy Kosinski (a fellow Holocaust survivor) told a reporter, “When I heard that Polanski was going to marry Sharon I was not surprised. But I was truly surprised when I heard that Polanski was going to have a baby. Anyone with our background… would be very apprehensive over anything lasting too long, including ourselves.”[3]

Sharon then called Jay Sebring, who listened as she talked about the state of her marriage. She told Jay that Roman had encouraged her to have an abortion. When she refused, he had a very public affair with Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas — a good friend of Sharon’s.

Sharon asked Jay if she should have an abortion and leave her husband. Jay supported Sharon, who ultimately chose to keep the baby and remain with Roman. Sadly, the last year of her life Roman treated her abysmally, taunting her lack of talent and allegedly calling her ‘a dumb hag’.

This was the situation that Sharon Tate was in at the start of 1969. Pregnant, deeply in love with a man who would not be faithful to her and settling into a new home. Sharon pinned her hopes on her coming baby and on 10050 Cielo. This peaceful, beautiful place was a nice distraction from her personal woes.

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including the following citations: [1] Sheilah Graham, copyright information unknown; [2] Roman Polanski quoted in Sharon Tate Recollection by Debra Tate ©2014 Running Press; [3] Jerzy Kosinsky quoted in “The Sharon Tate Murders” by Peter Maas ©April 1970 Ladies Home Journal magazine
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Sharon and Roman at their January 1968 wedding in Chelsea, London

Sharon and Roman had so little time together, after they moved to Cielo Drive in February 1969. The following month, both flew overseas for separate film projects. Sharon did not return until June, and Roman fatefully did not make it back to Los Angeles until a few days after his wife was murdered, along with four others, by members of the Manson Family.

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Photo of Sharon and Roman courtesy of AP (Associated Press)

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

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