Curt Gentry (Co-Author of "Helter Skelter") Has Died.
Curt Gentry, a San Francisco author who wrote or co-wrote 13 books including best-seller "Helter Skelter" about the Charles Manson case, died July 10 in a San Francisco hospital.
Curt Gentry in the study of his San Francisco home in 1991. He helped elevate the true-crime narrative into the mainstream. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Curt Gentry 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.”
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.
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 Mr. Manson. He and his followers were convicted; Mr. 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, who was 83, had been ill for some time with lung cancer.
A modest man with an easy manner, Mr. Gentry was a fixture on the North Beach literary scene for years. His books, which ranged from a guide to San Francisco to an account of the search for the fabled Lost Dutchman Mine ("The Killer Mountains," 1968) to his Hoover biography ("J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets," 1991) were always carefully researched and beautifully written.
"Helter Skelter," written with Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The Hoover biography won a PEN award for the best nonfiction book of 1991.
The Chronicle called it "a blockbuster." The New York Times said it presented Hoover as a man with "an unrelentingly harsh profile in vindictiveness and egocentricity."
The Hoover book took 15 years to write. Mr. Gentry interviewed hundreds of former FBI agents and reviewed 100,000 pages of previously classified information.
Mr. Gentry told then-Chronicle book editor Patricia Holt that before the Hoover book he had been turning out a book every nine months for 11 years, "complete with post-partum depression."
The Hoover book was his last. After that, Mr. Gentry wrote articles and started various projects, including unfinished biographies of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Steinbeckand a book on the origins of Las Vegas, said Tony Dingman, who was a friend for over 40 years.
"He was the perfect guy to do that book," Dingman said of the Las Vegas project. "It would have been great. Curt was the real deal, and people trusted him to tell their stories."
Curt Gentry was born in Lamar, Colo., in June 1931. "He always said Lamar was one stop west of Dodge City," Dingman said.
He served in the Air Force during the Korean War, mostly as a writer on the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper in Tokyo.
Among his books was "The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California," a novel featuring a giant earthquake that caused California to slide into the ocean. He wrote "The Madams of San Francisco" (1964), an irreverent look at the city's past.
He took a look at the noted Tom Mooney case in "The Frame-Up," which told how the government blamed labor leaders Mooney and Warren K. Billings for a terrorist bomb attack that killed 10 people in San Francisco in 1916.
He also wrote a book about the U-2 spy case, involving pilot Francis Gary Powers, and another about the 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korean forces.
Mr. Gentry was friendly with many of the city's writers, particularly Richard Brautigan, and loved to talk about books. "He could talk about anything," said Dingman. "We talked about books, we talked about spy craft - he was interested in everything."
Mr. Gentry is survived by a brother, Pat Gentry of Novato.
At Mr. Gentry's request, there will be no services.
"He hated funerals, but he deserves a tribute, so we're going to do something anyway," Dingman said. It will be held sometime in August at Gino & Carlo, his favorite North Beach bar.
Carl Nolte is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org