Curt Gentry, a California historian who wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen books, including a bestselling biography of J. Edgar Hoover and the true-crime classic “Helter Skelter” about the Manson family murders, written with former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, died July 10 in San Francisco. He was 83.
His brother and sole survivor, Pat Gentry, said the cause was lung cancer.
Gentry had wide-ranging interests as a historian. His works included “The Madams of San Francisco” (1964), an irreverent history of the city, and “Frame-Up: The Incredible Case of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings” (1967), about two labor leaders convicted and later pardoned for a notorious 1916 bombing in the Bay Area. He also co-wrote memoirs by American gun designer John M. Browning and U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers.
He was best known for “Helter Skelter” (1974), a spellbinding chronicle of the grisly murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in Los Angeles in August 1969, flaws in the official investigation, and the sensational trials of Charles Manson and his gang that followed.
Gentry conducted extensive interviews with Bugliosi and reviewed thousands of pages of trial transcripts to help the prosecutor produce what Time magazine critic Paul Gray called “a valuable book on a lurid subject … a record of savagery and official bungling.” The New York Times praised the authors for telling the tale “in the language of a D.A.: methodical, tight, occasionally ironical and rising to emotional pitch only on rare occasions.”
“‘All I want is the facts, ma’am’ — Curt was that type of writer,” Bugliosi said Monday, adding, “I could not have done this without Curt.... He had a way of telling people they were going to be surprised without telling them what it was.”
The book won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and, with 7 million copies sold, remains one of the most widely read works of true crime in American publishing history.
Gentry’s most unusual book was “The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California” (1968), an imaginative portrait of California’s culture and politics under Gov. Ronald Reagan, which opens with a dramatic account of the state falling into the Pacific Ocean after a massive earthquake. Although much of it was factual, editors at Putnam debated whether to classify it as fiction or nonfiction. Los Angeles Times critic Art Seidenbaum praised it as “a wild sort of obituary — death in the form of future fantasy.”
His most consuming project was “J. Edgar Hoover,” the 1991 biography of the controversial, long-serving FBI director. He spent 15 years researching and writing about the powerful, eccentric man who ran the bureau for almost half a century.
Based on more than 300 interviews, including with scores of former FBI agents, and 100,000 pages of previously classified documents, the book included new information about Hoover’s tactics and obsessions, including running a school in the Justice Department attic where agents learned to conduct burglaries.
“I was inundated” with material, Gentry told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1991, including private files of Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson and reams of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Gentry’s harsh portrait of the vindictive and egocentric director was praised for its attention to detail but left some critics wishing he had gone deeper. “What he lacks,” David M. Oshinsky wrote in the New York Times, “is a willingness to analyze his subject or the culture in which he lived.” In addition, although Gentry documented Hoover’s close relationship with longtime deputy Clyde Tolson, he drew no conclusions about his subject’s sexuality.
The son of a clerk, Gentry was born June 13, 1931, in Lamar, Colo. He briefly attended the University of Colorado before entering the U.S. Air Force in 1950. His tour of duty included a year in Korea during the Korean War as editor of an Air Force newspaper.
After completing his military service he returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957 from San Francisco State College. He worked in a bookstore for several years until he decided to devote himself full time to writing. He became a stalwart of the literary scene in the city’s bohemian North Beach district, where his close friends included writers Evan S. Connell Jr., Don Carpenter and Richard Brautigan.