Mr. Theroux has been writing fiction and nonfiction books since 1967. He has traveled the world and talked with celebrities and politicians.
Now, he will show us a birds-eye glimpse into his personal encounter with the King of Pop.
My trip to Neverland, and the call from Michael Jackson I'll never forget
I heard the news today, oh boy, that Michael Jackson had a heart attack–and died of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50, in Los Angeles. I am reminded of a long conversation I had with him at four o'clock one morning, and of my visit to Neverland. The visit came first, the conversation a few weeks later, on the phone.
Neverland, a toytown wilderness of carnival rides and doll houses and zoo animals and pleasure gardens, lay inside a magnificent gateway on a side road in a rural area beyond Santa Barbara. Nosing around, I saw pinned to the wall of the sentry post an array of strange faces, some of them mugshots, all of them undesirables, with names and captions such as "Believes she is married to Mr. Jackson" and "Might be armed" and "Has been loitering near gate".
A road lined with life-sized bronzed statuary – skipping boys, gamboling animals – led past an artificial lake and a narrow-gauge railway to Michael's house. Neverland occupied an entire 3,000-acre valley, yet very little of it was devoted to human habitation – just the main house with its dark shingles and mullioned windows, and a three-bedroom guesthouse. The rest was given over to a railway terminus, Katharine Station, named after Jackson's mother, a formidable security headquarters, various funhouses, a cinema (with windowed bedrooms instead of balcony seats), and almost indefinable sites, one with tepees like an Indian camp.
Sprawling over many acres, the Jackson zoo of bad-tempered animals. The giraffes were understandably skittish. In another enclosure, rocking on its thick legs, was Gypsy, a moody five-ton elephant, which Elizabeth Taylor had given as a present to Michael. The elephant seemed to be afflicted with the rage of heightened mush. "Don't go anywhere near him," the keeper warned me.
In the reptile house, with its Frisbee-shaped frogs and fat pythons, both a cobra and a rattlesnake had smashed their fangs against the glass of their cage trying to bite me. The llamas spat at me, as llamas do, but even in the ape sanctuary, "AJ", a big bristly, shovel-mouthed chimp, had spat in my face, and Patrick the orang-utan had tried to twist my hand. "And don't go anywhere near him, either."
Other Neverland Amenities Including A Helicopter Flight
In the wider part of the valley, the empty fairground rides were active–twinkling, musical – but empty: Sea Dragon, the Neverland Dodgem cars, the Neverland carousel playing Michael's own song, Childhood("Has anyone seen my childhood?…"). Even the lawns and flower beds were playing music; loudspeakers disguised as big, grey rocks buzzed with show tunes, filling the valley with unstoppable Muzak that drowned the chirping of wild birds. In the middle of it, a Jumbo tron, its screen the size of a drive-in movie, showed a cartoon, two crazy-faced creatures quacking miserably at each other – all of this very bright in the cloudless California dusk, not a soul watching.
Later that day, I boarded a helicopter with Elizabeth Taylor–I was at Neverland interviewing her – and flew over the valley. It says something for Miss Taylor's much-criticized voice that I could hear her clearly over the helicopter noise. Girlish, imploring, piercing, the loud yak-yak-yak of the titanium rotor blades, she clutched her dog, a Maltese named Sugar, and screamed: "Paul, tell the pilot to go around in a circle, so we can see the whole ranch!"
Even without my relaying the message–Even with his ears muffled by headphones–Her voice knifed through to the pilot. He lifted us high enough into the peach-coloured sunset so that Neverland seemed even more toy-like.
"That's the gazebo, where Larry [Fortensky, her seventh husband] and I tied the knot," Elizabeth said, moving her head in an ironising wobble. Sugar blinked through prettily-combed white bangs which somewhat resembled Elizabeth's own white hair. "Isn't the railway station darling? Over there is where Michael and I have picnics," and she indicated a clump of woods on a cliff. "Can we go around one more time?"
Neverland Valley revolved slowly beneath us, the shadows lengthening from the pinky-gold glow slipping from the sky.
Even though no rain had fallen for months, the acres of lawns watered by underground sprinklers were deep green. Here and there, like toy soldiers, uniformed security people patrolled on foot, or on golf carts; some stood sentry duty–For Neverland was also a fortress.
An Interview With Elizabeth Taylor
Paul:"What's that railway station for?"
Elizabeth:"The sick children."
Paul:"And all those rides?"
Elizabeth:"The sick children."
Paul:"Look at all those tents..." Hidden in the woods, it was my first glimpse at the collection of tall tepees.
Elizabeth:"The Indian village. The sick children love that place."
(From this height, I could see that this valley of laboriously recaptured childhood pleasure was crammed with more statuary than I'd seen from ground level. Lining the gravel roads and the golf-cart paths were little winsome bronzes of flute players, rows of grateful, grinning kiddies, clusters of hand-holding tots, some with banjos, some with fishing rods; and large bronze statues, too, like the centerpiece of the circular drive in front of Michael's house, a statue of Mercury (god of merchandise and merchants), rising 30 feet, with winged helmet and caduceus, and all balanced on one tippy-toe, the last of the syrupy sunset lingering on his big bronze buttocks, making his bum look like a buttered muffin.
The house at Neverland was filled with images, many of them depicting Michael life-sized, elaborately costumed, in heroic poses with cape, sword, ruffed collar, crown. The rest were an example of a sort of obsessive iconography: images of Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin – and for that matter of Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan, all of whom, over the years, in what is less a life than a metamorphosis, he had come physically to resemble.)
Paul:"So you're Wendy and Michael is Peter?" I had asked Elizabeth Taylor afterwords.
Elizabeth:"Yeah. Yeah. There's a kind of magic between us."
(The friendship started when, out of the blue, Michael offered her tickets for one of his Thriller Tour concerts – indeed, she asked for 14 tickets. But the seats were in a glass-enclosed VIP box, so far from the stage "you might as well have been watching it on TV". Instead of staying, she led her large party home.
Hearing that she'd left the concert early, Michael called the next day in tears apologizing for the bad seats. He stayed on the line, they talked for two hours. And then they talked every day. Weeks passed, the calls continued. Months went by. "Really, we got to know each other on the telephone, over three months."
One day Michael suggested that he might drop by. Elizabeth said fine. He said: "May I bring my chimpanzee?" Elizabeth said, "Sure. I love animals." Michael showed up holding hands with the chimp, Bubbles.)
Elizabeth:"We have been steadfast ever since".
Paul:"Do you see much of Michael?"
Elizabeth:"More of him than people realize–More than I realize," she said. They went in disguise to movies in Los Angeles cinemas, sitting in the back, holding hands. Before I could frame a more particular question, she said: "I love him. There's a vulnerability inside him which makes him the more dear. We have such fun together. Just playing."
)Or role-playing–Her Wendy to his Peter. In the hallway of her house, a large Michael Jackson portrait was inscribed "To my True Love Elizabeth. I'll love you Forever, Michael".
She gave him a live elephant. Dr Arnie Klein, his dermatologist, showed me a birthday snapshot taken in Las Vegas, Michael looking distinctly chalky as he presented Elizabeth with a birthday present, an elephant-shaped bauble, football-sized, covered in jewels.
What began as a friendship with Michael Jackson developed into a kind of cause in which Elizabeth Taylor became almost his only defender.)
Paul:"What about his"–(And I fished for a word)–"eccentricity? Does that bother you?"
Elizabeth:"He is magic. And I think all truly magical people have to have that genuine eccentricity." There is not an atom in her consciousness that allows her the slightest negativity on the subject of Jacko. "He is one of the most loving, sweet, true people I have ever loved. He is part of my heart. And we would do anything for each other."
(This Wendy with a vengeance, who was a wealthy and world-famous pre-adolescent, supporting her parents from the age of nine, said she easily related to Michael, who was also a child star, and denied a childhood, as well as viciously abused by his father. There was a "Katherine" steam engine, and a "Katherine Street" at Neverland; there was no "Joseph Street", nor anything bearing his father's name.
Elizabeth:"He'll talk to you if I ask him to". And at a prearranged signal, Michael called me, at four one morning. There was no secretarial intervention of "Mr Jackson on the line". The week's supermarket tabloids' headlines were "Jacko on suicide watch" and "Jacko in loony bin", and one with a South Africa dateline, "Wacko Jacko King of Pop Para sails with 13-year-old". In fact, he was in New York City, where he was recording a new album. This was 10 years ago.)
Stay tuned for part two where he get's to interview Michael Jackson himself!
Source: The U.K. Telegraph!