Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder
December 25, 1969
SAN FRANCISCO — “Is anybody besides me seriously worried about what the Hell’s Angels might do to us if they find out we’ve got footage of the killing?” Albert Maysles asked. “I mean, when that sequence is blown up, there’ll be a full-face picture of the actual slayer. Look, Stanley, if you were the particular guy in question … ”
“I’d kill your ass,” Stanley Goldstein shot back with a tart grin.
“I was never really sold on the idea of doing a straight tour film of the Stones,” David Maysles said. “What we actually have is a mystery story, you realize. A detective story, sort of.”
Last Thursday, I was awakened early by a phone call from David Maysles in New York. He explained that he and brother Albert, who had been authorized to film the gigantic free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, had just viewed a portion of their color footage showing the fatal encounter between Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black youth who was shown to be armed with a revolver, and a stocky, knife-wielding man dressed in a Hell’s Angels tunic. The two Maysles Brothers, along with a small technical crew, David said, planned to fly here that evening to resume filming and to confer with officials of Young American Enterprises, Inc., the company that claimed to represent the Stones during their American tour. Could I rent a limousine and hire somebody to handle their luggage, and meet them at the airport for a talk?
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I could, and I did. A jump-seated black Cadillac was secured from Gray Line Tours, and I engaged Greg Curtis, a young writer from Texas, to serve as chief baggage grip.
The TWA flight that night was late, and Greg and I were both a little antsy; in the course of our phone conversation, David had mentioned that his party would be traveling, at the insistence of the Stones’ management, under the protection of two armed bodyguards.
“The Stones’ mafia,” David had explained with a nervous laugh, and the pair of bodyguards lived up to the advance billing as they preceded the film crew off the plane; they were both big, tough-looking, taciturn men with coldly staring eyes and unmistakable bulges under their jackets.
The Maysles Brothers came out shooting,” with Albert, who resembles a kind of Mr. Peepers with character, manning a mammoth, shoulder-rig camera, and David, wearing head phones and a purple shirt with epaulettes, picking up the sound with a shotgun mike. David made the round of introductions. Others in his party included cameraman Ron Dorfman, all-around trouble-shooter Stanley Goldstein (one of the prime movers and shakers at the Woodstock Festival), and a freelance still photographer named Michael Alexander.
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After a series of stop-and-go camera takes, we all headed for the limousine. David, Albert, Stanley, and I rode in the lead Cadillac to the Hotel Mark Hopkins. A second car was hired to accommodate the bodyguards and the rest of the crew. Greg stayed behind to collect the luggage, most of which was scheduled to arrive on a later flight.
All the way to the Mark, which is located near the crest of Nob Hill, David and Albert plied me with questions about the after-effects of the Altamont debacle. I found the process of being “interviewed” somewhat bizarre and not a little bit disorienting; in the end, I felt something like a human out-take from “Medium Cool.”
Our appearance en masse in the sumptuous lobby of the ultra-staid Mark caused the night clerk to blanch. “I don’t think that cat appreciates us using his hotel as a movie set,” Ron Dorfman said, grinning lopsidedly and continuing to shoot away. Since there’d been no hostile welcome by the Angels, as had halfway been expected, the mood of the party quickly turned high carnival.
Somebody in the Young American organization — John James, Ronnie Schneider, or Michael Scotti — was supposed to have made reservations for the Maysles crew under the name “A. Hitchcock.” No reservations had been made. A doddering bellman let us into John James’s small apartment while the decision was made about what to do next. Albert wandered into the bedroom and came back out, laughing aloud: “Know what’s sitting on the table beside ole John’s beddy-poo? A can of Sof-Stroke. Do you suppose he’s trying to tell us something?” A call to the desk disclosed that Ronnie Schneider had turned in for the night: the desk clerk didn’t know where either James or Scotti were. Stanley — “Stanley G. Logistics,” as David called him — was dispatched downstairs to arrange for a suite. “Charge it to A. Hitchcock,” David called after him. “No, seriously, charge it to James — we’ve already sprung for the air fare out here.”
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Three stewardesses who had been on the TWA flight from New York knocked for admittance. “Let’s have a party,” they pealed in unison. The group crowded into the small room now numbered 10 people; there weren’t enough chairs to go around. After talking to somebody on the phone, Mike Alexander told David the crew had been invited to view some films the following evening. David frowned: “Well, thanks, but no thanks. I don’t like to watch films much any more, except what we’re actually working on. I don’t have any sense of the history of films, I guess.”
Everyone prepared to move to the suite Stanley had rented, two flights down on the 10th floor. “Oh, shit, man, what’re you doing?” Stanley roared at the bellman, who had removed all of John James’s clothes from the closet along with our coats. After the damage had been undone, we descended to the new quarters by the fire stairs to avoid waiting for the single elevator in operation.
“Yeah, this is much more like it,” David said, yawning and stretching out on the living room carpet. “Hey, I’m starving, though. Can we get a meal for everybody from room service?” ”It’s almost 2 o’clock, David — they’ll be closed up for the night,” Stanley said, shaking his shaggy head no. “Well, Christ, we can’t fast for the next six hours,” Albert complained. Mike Alexander volunteered to put together a movable feast at David’s Delicatessen. Stanley handed Mike $80 in bills: “Get enough food, beer, and soft drinks for 15, 16 people, okay?”
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Greg Curtis came in to report that 11 pieces of luggage had failed to arrive. “It may have been dropped off over in Oakland,” he suggested hopefully. “Shit, shit, shit,” Stanley raged, racing for the phone. “That’s most of our raw stock and equipment. We can’t function without that stuff.” Somebody began passing a small, elegant pipe around. “You may wonder why I’ve assembled you here at this unseemly hour,” David quipped, imitating Richard Burton. He followed up with an impression of Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden: “Well, all rot. New Yock Citeh. Far aht?” Somebody flipped on the color tv set; frequency patterns blipped up, up, and away.
Across the room, Stanley was attempting to place two long-distance calls at once. “Stan’s about to levitate,” Albert said, winking and grinning. Mike Alexander returned with two carts of food and $35 change. “Now just listen to me, man,” Stanley bawled into the phone, “If you don’t connect me with the flight operations officer in one minute, I’m going to call the fucking FAA.”
By now, it was early morning. Ron Dorfman was sprawled out asleep on the carpet, and one of the stewardesses periodically dozed off and snapped awake on the couch. After eating, I phoned for a cab. David suggested that I return to the hotel “around 9-ish” for the meeting with the Young American people. By the time I arrived home, that left me two hours to sleep.
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Nine-ish on Friday morning. Mike Alexander peered morosely out the window at the rain below. “It’s going to be a great day for shooting exteriors, Albert,” he muttered, scratching his bare belly. “All you’ll need to do is bounce your lights off of the sky and punch a hole in the reflector to let the rain pour through.”
Albert Maysles looked tousled and still half-asleep: “Has anybody seen my shoes? I can’t seem to find my shoes. Oh, well, I guess they’ll turn up. Listen Ron, maybe you’d better rouse Stanley, right? He’s going to have to get a move on after that lost luggage.”
Stanley was asleep on the couch. Gently, Ron tapped him on the shoulder: “Uh, Stanley old chap, could I talk to you about something? Could I talk to you about getting your ass up?” Irritably, Stanley rolled over onto his stomach and growled, “Fuck off.” A couple of minutes later, groaning piteously, he sat up and began to dress.
“Listen, we’re going to have to hire a public stenographer sometime today,” David announced to the room at large. “Yeah, to prepare that contract,” Stanley answered. “Have we retained Mel Belli to represent us yet, by the way?” “Public stenos cost $75 a minute,” Ron joked. David grimaced: “By the way, what’re we paying for this suite a day? A hundred dollars, you think?” He turned to me, spreading his hands: “Christ, we’re doing all of this on spec, you know. It was the same thing with ‘Salesman’ — we put all our own bread into that film, too.”
After various delays, Stanley hustled off to the airport to check on the errant luggage and the rest of us trooped up to Ronnie Schneider’s suite on the 14th floor. Also present at the meeting were John James, a cheerful balloon of a man, Michael Scotti, who resembles the young George Raft, and the two bodyguards who had escorted the Maysles crew from New York. One of the men carried his pistol in his hip pocket, and both took pains to stay out of camera range. Two tables littered with a dozen plates of coagulating breakfast remains gave the room an eerie, beggar’s banquet flavor. The ambience of power present was as strong as an odor; you knew that these men had only to lift the phone and whatever was asked would be delivered by someone with his hand stretched out for a crinkly tip. But the Stones promoters also exuded another air, sadder, wearier, as if they existed nowhere except in the airless anonymity of hotel rooms. I was suddenly glad that I lived out in the section of the city a friend bad once derisively dubbed “the Queens of San Francisco.”
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John James started the conversation by announcing that his organization had settled property claims with “perhaps 90 per cent” of the Alameda County ranchers who had complained of damages in the wake of the concert. The sum paid out, he said, represented “about a tenth” of the $500,000 originally sought. “Those damn idiot farmers, some of them were complaining that their cows had swallowed beer bottles,” one of the bodyguards sneered. “Cows with beer bottles in their stomaches. Sheeit.”
Ronnie Schneider was asked what the Stones’ reaction to the slaying had been. Speaking in a hoarse, basso rasp, he said, carefully: “Grief, disgust … the Stones didn’t really know what had happened at first, couldn’t grasp what’d occurred.”
“What happened, just happened,” James interjected. “There’s simply no infallible way to bring together 300,000 people without the possibility of violence arising. The Stones only wanted to thank their American friends for making their tour so successful. Every possible precaution was taken, given the hurry-up circumstances of having to move from the Sears Point raceway to the Altamont site at the last possible minute. I blame that development squarely on Filmways, Inc., which owns the Sears Point track. At the last minute, Filmways made exorbitant demands on the Stones for the use of the grounds, demands that were so outrageous they couldn’t be met. We did the best we could under the circumstances. Richard Carter, who owns the Altamont track, hired 100 uniformed security guards. We hired 100 more.”
What about Sonny Barger’s claim that the Angels had been hired as security guards for $500 worth of beer?
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“Nobody from any of the three organizations promoting the concert paid the Angels anything,” James snapped testily. “Maybe the Angels brought their own beer, who knows? But Sam Cutler, the Stones’ road manager, tried to get the whole bunch of them off the stage repeatedly throughout the day.”
“Look,” Schneider put in, “one lone guy pulled a gun, and in the ensuing confusion, he got himself killed. What if there had been regular city cops up on the bandstand? Five people might’ve been killed, see what I mean? The Stones paid out a quarter of a million dollars to put on an event for everybody to enjoy. Why shouldn’t the Stones get a film out of it to help repay some of their expenses?”
As the interview continued, a streak of stunning-looking girls paraded in and out of the room. “Our groupies in residence,” James snorted with a wry laugh. One of the bodyguards was clowning around with a woman’s red wig. “Let me know before you begin to shoot again,” he ordered Ron Dorfman, “so I can go and hide in the john or someplace. I mean it, I ain’t shittin’ you, kid.”
“You guys in the press,” Schneider said to me with a hint of metal in his voice, “you all say pretty much what you please, whatever we do or say. That’s why I — why all of us — rarely if ever give interviews. Hell, 17 or 18 different guys have tried to get through to us since we’ve been here, and we wouldn’t talk to any of them. You’re the first reporter we’ve seen, so I hope you’ll be fair and accurate about what’s being said here ”
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Scotti, who had remained silent until this point, asked to go off the record so he could freely discuss the legal and security problems the Maysles Brothers faced. After I agreed, David described the footage showing the slaying. James groaned: “Jesus, just having that sequence is like sitting on a powder keg.” David nodded: “Yes, I know. Death, we found out, is very quick.” “I saw the killing take place,” Albert mused moodily, “but I didn’t personally shoot it. It was so ugly, I just didn’t want to. The truth is, at this point, we don’t know precisely who did shoot the sequence. We had about 18 freelance cameramen working for us on the day of the concert.”
The off-the-record discussion followed. Concluding that simple possession of the film implicated the Maysles Brothers as material witnesses to a homicide, Scotti, looking pale and grim, called the Alameda County sheriff’s department, and within minutes two plainclothes detectives, Robert Donovan and J. N. Chisholm, arrived at the suite. Scotti described the footage to the officers in general terms, and then whisked his entire entourage, bodyguards and all, back to New York by plane. David made arrangements for his associate, Porter Bibb, to ship a copy of the sequence here from New York via air express.
“Wow — the old crud just hit the fan, didn’t it,” somebody murmured softly after the plainclothesmen had left.
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On Saturday afternoon, the footage was screened for the two officers and an Alameda County assistant district attorney at Francis Ford Coppola’s ultra-sophisticated new film facility, American Zoetrope. The sequence was shown repeatedly, frame by frame; it proved to be grisly, explicit, and harrowing to watch.
Afterward, David asked the detectives, “Can we film the grand jury, do you suppose? No? Damn, maybe we can get the foreman to talk outside the jury room, what do you think?”
Late in the afternoon, the officers left to take the film print to the Alameda County police lab for enlargement. When it was feasible, they said, the blown-up photos would be presented, along with any other evidence that had developed, to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment.
For the slayer of Meredith Hunter, the crud had indeed hit the fan.