Ava Roosevelt could have been the Manson family's sixth victim — if it weren't for her faulty Rolls-Royce.
Around 11:45 p.m. on August 8, 1969, Roosevelt, then 21, was on her way to friend Sharon Tate's Benedict Canyon, California home on Cielo Drive for a nightcap, when her beloved 1955 Silver Dawn's gas gauge began flickering. She sighed, thinking her car might break down any second, and drove away. She had no idea her faulty vehicle had just saved her from meeting a gruesome fate.
Later that evening, Tate, the beautiful pregnant actress and wife of film director Roman Polanski, and four others were brutally murdered at Cielo Drive. The infamous crime was committed by Tex Watson with the help of Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel — all under the direction of Charles Manson. Manson died yesterday at the age of 83; he was serving a life sentence in California state prison.
"The guilt still lingers," Roosevelt, now 69, tells Town & Country. "I survived and they didn't, and it's haunted me for years, I never stop thinking about Sharon."
When news of Manson's death broke on Monday, Roosevelt felt "relieved, and, finally, safe," she says. "I ask God to forgive me, but the world is a better place without Charles Manson. It's a miracle I survived so long ago, and now I don't have to worry about him anymore.
"I can finally let the horror go."
MEETING SHARON TATE
Roosevelt moved to Los Angeles from her native Poland in 1969 to pursue a career in modeling. She soon reached out to her director-friend Roman Polanski, whom she'd first met back home. "Roman and I connected aftercame out," says Roosevelt, who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida. "He introduced me to his wife, Sharon, who was already pregnant when I met her."
Roosevelt and Tate hit it off right away, developing a deep friendship, she says. There was something magnetic about the actress' "sparkling" personality and "gorgeous" eyes. "She was the most loving and beautiful human being I had ever encountered," recalls Roosevelt. "I regarded her as a sister, it was like she adopted me and took me under her wing!"
The women spent most of their time together at Tate and Polanski's Cielo Drive home, where they tried on clothes and experimented with new makeup. "There was one day where she gave me a beautiful dress with flowers on it," says Roosevelt. "We were so innocent, just doing girly things together and talking about her baby, that dress is the most tangible memory I have of her—and that memory is one of the last I have."
THE NIGHT OF THE MURDERS
On August 8, Roosevelt was at her agent's home when she got a phone call from Tate, asking her to dinner. "Jay, Abby, and Voytek are going to join me at El Cayone at 7:30," she told Roosevelt, who had to decline the invitation. "I have to meet a German producer for dinner and tomorrow I have a commercial shoot at Universal," Roosevelt recalls saying. Tate insisted her friend swing by her home after dinner, around 10:30 p.m.
"I'll try!" Roosevelt said.
"Do that darling, love you," responded Tate, according to Roosevelt's account, which she first wrote about for . Once Roosevelt finished her dinner-meeting with the producer, she hopped in her Rolls-Royce and headed to Cielo Drive to meet Tate and their friends celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, screenwriter Voytek Frykowski, and coffee fortune heir Abigail Folger.
"I was in the car, chugging up a hill around 11:45 p.m., about to turn onto Cielo Drive, when my gas gauge flickered and dropped to empty," says Roosevelt. "It was a finicky car, so I wondered if the gauge was broken or if I was truly out of gas." By then, it was almost midnight and Roosevelt decided to call it a night. Completely unaware of the horror that would soon unfold, she turned her Rolls-Royce around, went home, and got in bed.
Fifteen minutes later, Tate, Folger, Sebring, Frykowski, and Steven Parent, a friend of the estate's caretaker, were slaughtered by Manson's murderous cult. Their bodies were discovered the next morning by Tate's housekeeper, Winifred Chapman. Tate, heavily pregnant, was found with a nylon rope wound twice around her neck and five deep stab wounds to her chest. Roosevelt, unaware of their deaths, went to shoot her commercial.
"It could could have been me," says Roosevelt. "I lived and she didn't, none of them did. And it was my pesky car that ended up saving me."
The next day, Roosevelt's agent drove her blue convertible onto the set of the shoot. "Her face was the color of the car, bright blue, and she was shaking," says Roosevelt. "She said 'You better sit down.' "
After finding out about the murders, Roosevelt sought safety in Malibu at director Michael Sarne's home. "I was scared for my life," she says. "I was hiding out, I had no idea if Manson was coming after me, too."
Roosevelt, who was questioned by the FBI one month later, says Polanski soon joined her in Malibu. "He was totally distraught," she explains. "We tried talking to him, but what can you say, really. There was no logical explanation for Sharon's murder, like there would have been for a car wreck or a plane crash. The next few weeks, the funerals, the ceremonies, well they're all a total blur, we were simply devastated."
Haunted by the close brush with murder, Roosevelt moved to New York City that year. "I was ready to get out of that state, no more California dreaming, my innocence was dead," she says. "I had this guilt, which I carried with me for a long, long time."
Roosevelt went on to lead a full life. She had four husbands, including a French count and President FDR's grandson, William Roosevelt. In 2011, she wrote a book titled , about a model who finds herself embroiled in a scheme to kill the U.S. president.
"No matter where my life takes me, I am thankful for every second that I'm alive," says Roosevelt. "I try to make the most out of every day."