Before Jay Sebring became a victim of the Manson Family, he was taking Los Angeles's beauty scene by storm.
On August 9, 1969, a group of Hollywood elites was brutally massacred by the deranged Manson Family in Roman Polanski’s now-infamous mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive on the outskirts of Los Angeles. One of these famous victims was 35-year-old hair whiz Jay Sebring, a celebrated stylist who worked with the industry’s hottest stars. He was shot several times at close range before being stabbed and hung with a rope on the other end of which perhaps the most famous of the victims, his ex-girlfriend Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate, was tied.
But before Sebring became a part of this Hollywood tragedy, he was just a middle-class kid born in Alabama and raised in Michigan. This is the story of his self-made rise and horrific murder.
Becoming Jay Sebring: The Early Life Of Thomas Kummer
Before Jay Sebring became the hair man of Hollywood, he was simply a middle-class kid from Detroit, Michigan, named Thomas J. Kummer. After he finished high school, then-Kummer enlisted in the Navy and ended up cutting hair for U.S. troops during the Korean War.
He served for four years until he left for Los Angeles to try his fortune. He reinvented himself and picked up a new name there, choosing “Jay” after his middle initial and “Sebring” as a tribute to a famous Florida car race.
Under his polished alias, Jay Sebring, the Navy vet-turned-hair stylist, started education at beauty school. He was so talented that by his mid-20s, Sebring had begun making waves in LA. He even earned enough to open up his own shop — a sleek, modern salon bearing his own name — on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax in West Hollywood.
Sebring’s salon was equipped with the most modern equipment in hairstyling, including handheld hairdryers that had yet become mainstream but were already popular among European women. He is also credited for popularizing the use of styling tools, like hairspray, among men and subsequently revolutionizing men’s hair.
“I quickly learned Jay’s products and his hair cutting methods extremely well,” said former Sebring protégé Jim Markham. “He told me that if anything ever happened to him, no one but me could take his place.”
Sebring’s charming personality — he was a notorious playboy and reportedly inspired Warren Beatty’s character in the 1975 film Shampoo — coupled with his good looks and innovative hair styling soon made him the golden boy of hair.
His expertise was so sought after that he was able to charge $50 when the average hair cut for men ran about $1.50 per session. Sebring eventually opened more branches of his salon in New York City and London, splitting his time jet-setting between them and working as lead hair designer on films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair.
Sebring’s warm personality also made it easy for him to make friends with the industry’s hottest talents, including Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, the latter taught Sebring martial arts.
Game show host Bob Eubanks later gushed about the stylist’s signature layered “Sebring Look” that broke through during a time of hippie-hair and Brylcreem, an oil-based styling product for men, writing in his book that:
“A few days later, Wink and a couple of the jocks at the station came in sporting cool hairstyles and I asked one of them where he got it cut. ‘Jay Sebring. It’s the hot spot in town.’ The spot was named after the founder, Jay Sebring, a slight, handsome guy with a lot of charisma. My dad cut hair for years so I knew something about barbering. The first time Jay styled my hair I knew he was gifted.”
Sebring’s reputation as Hollywood’s top hair stylist for men ultimately led to a star-studded client list as well. He tended the famous locks of heavyweights like Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Sammy Davis Jr, among others.
“Jay was on top of Mount Everest,” Elvis hair stylist and former Sebring mentee, Larry Geller, gushed of the later stylist, “I would love to watch him style hair — what he could do with scissors. Every movie I see from the ’60s, that was our work. We created the look of the ’60s.”
A Date With Sharon Tate
Sebring’s popularity reached the point where he became a kind of celebrity himself. He had a revolving door of actresses and models whom he dated and would allegedly bring into the private room in his salon for secret rendezvous. His playboy status was indeed legendary — that is until he met rising starlet Sharon Tate.
Geller added that Sebring first heard of Tate through fellow hairstylist Gene Shacove.
“Gene was telling us how beautiful this new starlet was, and Jay started pounding the table, saying: ‘I’m going to get her. I’m going to get her.'” Never short on influential friends to lean on, Sebring asked Joe Hyams, who was the West Coast bureau chief and columnist for The New York Herald Tribune at the time, to introduce him to Tate. So Hyams arranged an interview with the rising starlet.
The interview took place at a restaurant on the Sunset Strip called Frascati’s. As Hyams was finishing his interview with Tate, Sebring came into the restaurant and joined the two. Hyams lingered at the table before eventually leaving Sebring and Tate by themselves. It turned out to be a match made in heaven.
“The next day I called Jay to see how it went,” Hyams recalled. “And she answered the phone, so I assumed it went well.”
Novelist and regular hair customer Dominick Dunne remembered meeting Tate for the first time: “She would often be sitting in a chair, just to be with Jay as he worked. She looked so young that I thought at first she was coming there after school.”
Sebring and Tate connected instantly and developed a particularly special bond with each other. They dated for three years but never married. Some speculate that Tate didn’t want to be tied down because of her young age while others believe the cold feet came from Sebring, who had already been married briefly before.
Then, Tate met director Roman Polanski. The two apparently hit it off on the set of his 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers developing a bond after sharing an LSD trip, according to Polanski’s autobiography. There was just one catch: Tate was still technically dating Sebring.
Sebring was devastated by the news of Tate’s new love interest but they managed to break up amicably. Tate even introduced Sebring to Polanski and the relationship between the former lovers morphed into that of close confidants.
Even after Tate later wed and conceived a child together with Polanski, Sebring would continue to nurture a close relationship with his former sweetheart.
Unsuspectingly, Jay Sebring’s devotion to Tate would eventually lead to their coupled demise in one of the most gruesome homicide cases in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, In The Manson Family
By the late 1960s, ex-convict Charles Manson had collected a sizable following of men and women, all of who had become enamored of him and devoted to carrying out his every whim. Surprisingly, the man who had a criminal past and vagabond background was even successful in penetrating the bubble of Hollywood, making friends with influential musicians and producers in the industry.
According to Hollywood historian Karina Longworth, Manson was able to attract such a devout following and bewitch the rich and famous despite his shortcomings simply for two reasons: his gift of deceit and perfect timing.
“He was able to prey on young women because they had become disenfranchised from their lives,” explained Longworth, who covered the serial killer cult leader in an entire season of her podcast You Must Remember This.
She continued: “And he was able to wedge his way into the entertainment industry because that industry had lost touch with the youth movement and was desperate for guidance… That desperation clouded everyone’s ability to see that Manson was a snake-oil salesman.”
In 1968, the so-called Manson “Family” arrived at Spahn Ranch, an abandoned movie set surrounded by remote landscape on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The cult had been panhandling their way around the city moving from one temporary place to the next.
As a way to secure their new home at Spahn Ranch, Manson struck a deal with the elderly owner, George Spahn: in exchange for letting them stay on the property, the Manson Family members — mainly the women — would do work around the ranch and have sex with Spahn.
Thus, the abandoned set became an isolated sanctuary for Manson to continue indoctrinating his followers by using drugs, ordering mandatory orgies, and conducting repeat lectures on what he called “Helter Skelter,” a name Manson stole from a Beatles album to describe the impending race war he prophesized to his obsessive followers.
Manson prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, emphasized how the isolated nature of Spahn Ranch contributed to Manson’s crazy indoctrinations:
“There were no newspapers at Spahn Ranch, no clocks. Cut off from the rest of society, he created in this timeless land a tight little society of his own, with its own value system. It was holistic, complete, and totally at odds with the world outside.”
Leslie Van Houten, a member of the clan who would later be convicted in the Sharon Tate murders, said of her time at the ranch, “I became saturated in acid and had no sense of where those who were not part of the psychedelic reality came from. I had no perspective or sense that I was no longer in control of my mind.”
On the night of August 8, 1969, Manson announced that it was time for Helter Skelter to begin. Since no race war was actually underway, Manson planned to start one by framing black men for the murders of rich white people.
He sent four of his followers to carry out the homicides: Susan Atkins, Charles “Tex” Watson, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkle. He specifically ordered the women to do whatever Tex told them to do to make the plan succeed.
Since Manson had some clout within certain Hollywood circles, he had information about where some celebrities lived. He ordered his bloodthirsty pack to head to 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, where Manson believed music producer Terry Melcher would be living. Melcher had slighted Manson’s musical ambitions, and the cult leader wanted payback.
Unbeknownst to the Mansons, that house had been occupied by a different group of high-profile tenants. But that did not stop their murderous rampage.
Jay Sebring And The Murders At Cielo Drive
In the summer of 1969, Tate, who was very much pregnant with her husband Roman Polanski’s child at the time, returned early from her trip to Europe where Polanski had been working on another film.
The couple had planned for Polanski’s friend Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend Abigail Folger, the heiress to the Folger coffee empire, to stay at their residence to keep Tate company until the arrival of their baby.
Jay Sebring, who remained a strong support system to Tate, decided to make the drive to the secluded neighborhood of Benedict Canyon where the house was located and join the group to give Tate more company. Later on that night, members of the Manson Family broke into the house.
Ring leader Charles Manson, though not present during the massacre, had instructed the gang to “totally destroy everyone in that house, as gruesome as you can. Make it a real nice murder, just as bad as you’ve ever seen.” And they did.
All five occupants of the house — Tate, Sebring, Frykowski, Folger, and 18-year-old Steven Parent, a visiting friend of the groundskeeper — were brutally slashed and shot around the house.
During the violence, Sebring allegedly protested the Manson Family’s rough treatment of Tate. He was shot repeatedly with a .22 caliber revolver and then later stabbed multiple times until he bled to death.
Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant, pleaded to the killers to take her hostage instead for the sake of her baby. They stabbed Tate 16 times, then slashed and hung her over a rafter with a rope. The other end of the rope was tied around Sebring’s neck. The bloody scenes were discovered early in the morning by the cleaning lady.
Sharon’s sister, Debra, described the agony felt by the family for losing not only her sister but also Sebring, whom the family had grown to love.
“Jay was like my big brother. He was like a son to my parents,” Debra told ABC News. But the bloodlust didn’t stop there. The next night after the murders at the Tate house, Manson would order another hit: this time on the house of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who owned a chain of Los Angeles grocery stores.
A number of clues, including the Manson Family catchphrase “Helter Skelter” written in blood at the LaBianca crime scene, eventually helped tie both murders back to the cult.
In the end, Manson along with Krenwinkel, Atkins, Watson, and Van Houten were all convicted on murder charges in 1971 and sentenced to death. However, in a freak coincidence, their executions were commuted to life sentences when a California Supreme Court ruled to abolish the death penalty the following year. Manson died of natural causes in 2017.
As for Sebring’s legacy, his styling method continued to be a favorite amongst beauty technicians for decades following his brutal murder.
Jay Sebring’s tragic death, like all of the Manson victims, will forever be linked to the deranged acts that were performed against them. But in Sebring’s case, many who knew him during his heyday and are still around today continue to honor his legacy as one of the most innovative minds in the beauty industry that Hollywood saw.