In the years since Michael Jackson’s tragic death, passion for all things related to the brilliant, troubled superstar has only increased. From the profound—his peerless musical legacy, to the perverse—endless speculation about his nose and myriad of other personal eccentricities, it seems that no subject is beyond the interest of his ever-growing fan-base. In the early-2000s while running the music publishing company for songwriter/socialite Denise Rich, I had an unexpected and unforgettable opportunity to spend forty-five minutes in private audience with the “King of Pop” Though the circumstances were mysterious and the take-away confusing, it was certainly unforgettable. Here is my completely true, first-hand account of how I came to have a private audience with Michael Jackson, one of the greatest recording artists of all-time. I have written the entire story from notes that I wrote shortly after our visit; nothing is exaggerated.
The intercom buzzed. It was Denise…obviously. “Oh, oh, is this David? It’s Denise,” she said, always emphasizing the second syllable of her name in that breathy, singsong, little-girl voice, as if I might not be able to identify my boss, with or without the caller I.D. that said “bedroom.” Denise’s voice was a curious instrument that sounded like a B’nai Brith Marilyn Monroe and frequently made me feel like she’d stepped out of a photo session with Bert Stern just to tell me a secret. “Hi, Denise, yes it’s me,” said I, with an insincere air of surprise, in what had come to be our version of Rhoda’s daily routine with Carlton the doorman. “Oh…okay,” she’d say, trail off for a moment, and then return, breaking into a nervous but warm laugh, which seemed to celebrate the simple act of having clearly established our identities and proximity to each other within the spralling 5th Avenue triplex aerie she called “home” and I called “office.” Denise’s happy laugh was always a sign we were moving in the right direction, like the chortle of a baby that had only just discovered its toes.
This same bit of business played itself out every time we spoke—which is to say incessantly—but for Denise Rich, songwriter/socialite (that was the order she liked me to use), each time she spoke to me on the intercom was like our first hello. “Listen…what I wanted to say was…okay…be ready to leave…in about a half an hour..be ready, okay?” The word “distractible” did not begin to measure Denise’s level of conversational disengagement. “Sure,” I said. “Where are we going?” “I’ll explain on the way…I’ll come down…I’ll see you soon…Okay…Buh, bye!” Click.
As long as I wasn’t in urgent need of a cogent answer, I rather enjoyed my rambling conversations with Denise for their whimsy and good natured unpredictability—she was like Auntie Mame and Joey Heatherton rolled into one—which is to say: you often didn’t comprehend where she was going with an idea but it was fun along the way. Her admonishments about punctuality were ironic as I was unfailingly prompt and she was unfailingly late, but that particular morning she seemed determined to stick to a schedule, which suggested we were going to see someone unusual and important enough to make her mindful of time, an otherwise fluid concept. I learned this was not an uncommon characteristic in the very wealthy: there will always be another plane, another car, another opportunity for “one-percenters” like Denise Rich, who couldn’t have had a more accurate appellation. Although at that point I’d only been running her music publishing company for a few months, I’d known Denise since the mid-1990s and with her there there were two constant truths: she will always be late and anything is possible—no matter how fantastic—this was the coin of the realm in her caffeinated, bold-faced life.
Denise arrived in my office fifteen minutes late (shockingly prompt for her). We got into the car and Edward, her driver, turned east on 60th street. “So where are we going?” I asked again. She started laughing in advance. “We’re going to see Michael Jackson at the Palace Hotel!” she exclaimed with more than her usual percentage of detached bewilderment. Denise had two primary modalities: astonishment and annoyance. “Really? Why?” I inquired, a bit surprised because even for Denise’s world of non-stop parties, yachts, and red carpets, this was a rather massive dopamine spike—a red letter day! “Well..I’m not really sure,” she replied laughing, “he just called and said he wanted me to come over. I guess we’ll find out when we get there!”
“But are you and Michael friends?” I persisted, knowing that even in those pre-Facebook days the word “friend” had completely lost its meaning in the music business and other social worlds Denise moved through. “Well…I mean I know him…He came to an Angel Ball party with the Clintons a few years ago,” she added, referring to the charity she had founded in memory of her daughter Gabrielle that raised millions to seed research for blood-related cancer, “but we’re not really friends…well…I guess we’re friends,” she added, as if my line of questioning had now forced her to lose the meaning of the word herself.
Denise’s tone frequently communicated her own gusto for the adrenaline-dependent circus that was her life, a world that I had only just recently been sucked into, an unreal newsreel of torn-from-the-headlines drama that delivered bong hits of thrills and “don’t you wish you were me” moments to an always hungry, narcissistic appetite with addictive frequency. Despite its risks, her playful ridiculousness was infectious—sculpted as it was with her immense wealth—and few were impervious to its particular appeal. The metaphor I always used was that Denise was a huge fruit tree and everyone in her life was running in circles underneath with baskets, knocking each other over in desperate attempts to collect any low-hanging fruit.
Although it predated me working for her, I had heard about the Michael Jackson party she was referring to from other staff members who were in the house that night. According to the story I was told, it was very warm in the house that evening: so warm in fact, that the surgical tape that secured the singer’s prosthetic nose-tip began to peel off. My informants recounted how mortified Michael was as he ran to the bathroom to put his nose back on, which was understandable, because I feel embarrassed if I find an errant carraway seed in my teeth so I can only imagine what it feels like for your nose to fall off. I remembered this anecdote clearly because that was the first time I’d ever heard that Michael was missing the end of his nose and—at least for me—you don’t forget things like how the biggest star in the world has a taped-on nose.
As we headed down Fifth Avenue, Denise said, “I just hope he doesn’t want money,” referencing a familiar dynamic when she received unusual invitations from celebrities she only knew in that superficial “it’s-so-great-that-we’re-all-rich-and-famous” way. These invites often came with a price tag. Everybody in New York knew Denise was a pushover if her contribution promised access to an event or cause involving proximity to fame that exceeded her own, and—though it seems exceedingly unjust—I observed many people who were all-too-eager to treat her like a human ATM while simultaneously losing respect for her for acceding to their requests, as if they could sense the desperation Denise felt to purchase access. I saw this and would try to warn her off playing into the hand of fiscal predators of this sort, but it was simply impossible: like an addict, she was powerless over her need to purchase self-esteem. I think on some level Denise knew she was played for a fool, though she always acted irritated and somewhat surprised that her entire world revolved on a system of complicated ulterior motives and favor-swapping. The fact is she was always complicit in these transactions, which prevented me from thinking of her as a victim. I suspected deep down she herself harbored a certain sadness and sense of having lost something on the trip from the lobby to the penthouse, though in four years together she never completely admitted this was the case. Whatever awareness of her “friends'” duplicity Denise possessed was unilaterally ignored—she was truly a magnet for scoundrels, hustlers, and con artists who were so much grist for the mill on the Denise Rich Chaos Express.
It seemed appropriate that Michael Jackson—American royalty—would be staying at the Palace Hotel. It also was not surprising that though he was ostensibly in New York by himself, he was occupying an entire, vast floor, purchased to ensure that his world would be hermetically sealed and that he would have no contact with anyone outside of his entourage. We were met in the lobby by one of Michael’s attorneys, Samuel Gen (a con artist who was later disbarred for extortion—par for the course in this world), and exchanged pleasantries. As we rode the elevator up I was a bit nervous. Of course I admired Michael greatly for his prodigious gifts, but by 2003 you didn’t need to be a shrink to know that he was a mess. The cliche about the risk of meeting famous people you admire for fear that they might disappoint you occurred to me as we stepped out of the elevator and were led down a long corridor; I noted a queasy feeling in my stomach (not generally a good portent), but I simply had no reference point to prepare me for what happened next.
Mr. Gen knocked on a door and a faint voice said “come in,” and the door swung open revealing a huge club chair at the far end of a the suite where Michael was seated facing away from us. As he stood up slowly to greet us I emitted what must have been an audible gasp, such was Michael’s condition: he was tall—taller than I would have imagined—and an emaciated, wraith-like figure. He wore a baggy plaid shirt and nondescript trousers with loafers. His wig, messily nested atop his head and off-center, was like a dome that capped what might fairly be described as the saddest face I’d ever seen. Michael was pale and sickly looking. There was tape over his heavily made-up “nose,” his lips a gash of hastily applied red lipstick, which bled into his ghost-white face. Most upsetting of all were his big, glassy, brown eyes: sad pools that seemed to somehow project a lifetime of pain and an empty, unexpressive nothingness simultaneously. I never forgot his eyes because his eyes were dead. The whole introduction, which took less than 30 seconds, has lived on in my memory as a macabre moment worthy of a horror film whose impact could most accurately be compared to the unmasking scene in the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. And that was just our “hellos!”
Michael hugged Denise and shook my hand with his nursing-home grip and all four of us sat down around a coffee table. I was seated next to Denise on a love seat and Michael was facing his crook lawyer, a surrogate handler in this context, there, I suppose, as a security blanket and to make sure Michael wanted for nothing. Unfortunately, the crook lawyer was unable to provide the one thing we were all desperately in need of: the subject of the conversation that was about to begin. I could tell Denise was extremely nervous (I don’t really blame her as we had no idea why were were there and Michael looked like he’d walked off the set of George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead), which often had the effect of making her laugh more frequently and in the wrong places and say things that didn’t quite make sense. It didn’t really matter because, the situation being what is was, Michael didn’t make much sense either.
After the requisite “hello, it’s so good to see yous” there was an awkward pause, which Denise immediately began frantically stuffing with social anxiety landfill: her nervous laugh and the proclamation “this is so great,” which Denise nattered whenever she didn’t know what else to say. After a few false starts where Michael would say something that made no sense, Denise responded by also saying something that also made no sense; I would then chime in in a vain attempt to make some sense of what had just been said, and the crook lawyer would say absolutely nothing. This wasn’t working so I decided to be more assertive by changing the subject. I had noticed that next to the club chair that Michael occupied like Vincent Price there was some sort of large, framed object. “What do you have there Michael? It looks beautiful,” I said. “Oh this?” he whispered in his very strange, light voice. “This is a present from Shirley Temple. I love her so much.” “May we see it?” I asked.
The autographed picture that he showed us was indeed quite lovely and it struck me in that moment that I was witnessing an authentic Michael Jackson cliche: his obsession with other child stars. It was but the first of a series of Michael Jackson cliches that began to rain down on us: first a light sprinkling but, eventually, a full-blown hail storm of Michael Jackson show business tropes.
“It’s very beautiful, Michael,” I said, Denise cooing beside me. “Thank you. I’m so glad she sent it to me,” he added. I noticed his speech was a bit slurred and that he seemed extremely exhausted from the simple fact of receiving us and turning the photo around. I was suspicious and the long, uncomfortable pause gave me a chance to study his long, bony fingers and oddly blanched skin. The only part of him that still retained any vestige of his African American race were his brown fingernails. I looked up and studied his face, which was not awkward because Michael was now nodding—sleeping. Oh dear. Michael was high. Really fucking high. And he wasn’t black anymore.
“So, how are you Michael?” Denise asked chirpily. His head snapped back and his eyes opened lazily, like Janice, the stoner muppet from The Electric Mayhem. “Oh, I’m great,” he slurred. I thought to myself that from the looks of it Denise and I should only feel that good. “I really love children,” he added, a propos of nothing except, perhaps, his Shirley Temple reverie and its concomitant association to his own lost childhood. “Yes, children are so important,” Denise said. Pause: 1, 2, 3. “There should be a Children’s Day, don’t you think so?” Michael added, returning briefly to the conversation in order deliver this proclamation, which, as I predicted, primarily served as a segue to the inevitable treatise on having been robbed of his own childhood.
“Yes, we should try to make a Children’s Day, for all the children,” Denise added helpfully. “Shit, don’t encourage him,” I thought. Pause: 1, 2, 3. “Well…um..well, maybe someone should call someone to make it happen, we should all work together, right Michael?” Denise continued, trying to pull him back from the land of the horses and rescue the conversation from it’s alarmingly rhythmic fits and starts. Pause: 1, 2, 3. “Well,” Denise added in nonsensical desperation, “we definitely should do something Michael—you’re absolutely right, isn’t he David?—let’s do something for the children. I know Kofi Annan, maybe he could help us,” referencing the former Secretary General of the United Nations, the way Dorothy offered to help the Scarecrow get some brains and equally as fantasy-based. This moment struck me as deeply ironic, as Michael had played the Scarecrow in the 1978 film The Wiz and was presently giving us a shocking recreation of very late-period Judy Garland behavior—say 1968—with Esquire Samuel Gen cast in the Micky Deans predator/husband role.
After another conversation blackout, I attempted to steer the discourse back toward the planet Earth with a query I thought was so simple it couldn’t fail. I was wrong, it could fail and it did. “So how old are your kids now, Michael?” I innocently asked, waking him up for the fifth time. His muppet Janice eyes opened magically again. “Well,” he whispered, “Prince Michael is six, Paris is three, and Blanket is six months.” Denise and I reacted identically—we froze and looked at each other and silently asked “did he just say the word Blanket?” No one had ever heard of Blanket at that point—this was just before the media frenzy when Blanket’s doting father dangled the infant over the railing of a hotel like a rag doll—but at this point in the psychosis of this conversation anything was possible. “Oh, that’s so wonderful….Blanket….yes, well, that’s so nice…a little Blanket” said Denise and nervously defaulted to her meaningless, all-purpose, space-filling laugh that meant absolutely nothing, breaking into a flop sweat as she repeated her mantra: “this is sooo great, this is just great!”
“I never had a childhood,” Michael continued. “Here we go,” I thought as the M.J. tropes kept-a-comin’. What’s next, I thought, how his father abused him? “My father was very, very hard on us,” he continued. “He would sometimes beat us if we crossed him,” Michael whispered, beginning to doze again. “Oh, that’s terrible…that just isn’t right, no it’s not,” Denise rejoined, shaking her head back and forth and clucking like a disapproving aunt. At this point, I was too stunned to do much damage control. I sat there, slack-jawed and prayed silently for this hellish visit to somehow reach its conclusion, though—to be sure—it lacked a beginning and middle, so why should it ever end?
“I did like Christmas though,” Michael continued, “it was the one day of joy in our house.” As Michael began a longwinded, gauzy account of Christmas morning in the Jackson home, I did a little daydreaming of my own. I looked at this shell of man and my heart fairly broke. I thought of why he wanted John Merrick’s bones and how, in a way, he had become a sort of “Elephant Man” too; disfigured and completely isolated and the terrible psychic pain he obviously needed to medicate. I knew that this wasn’t a few oxycontin or a pain killer kind of high, this was more like there was a doctor in the next room who shot him up regularly kind of high (I was, sadly, prescient on that point). I thought of Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse—of all the wasted potential. I thought of the Grand Guignol horror of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, as I observed that his wig was slipping off his head, his lip stick was bleeding into the skin around his lips, and his huge hands cupping the edge of the club chair as he nodded were white with weird brown nails. The man was dying and this visit was haunting and, seemingly, unending. 40 minutes had passed and we as a group had failed to produce three consecutive cogent sentences, which I thought must be some sort of record.
There are a hand full of entertainers over time, you can count them on two hands, who by the time they’re in their teens years have a talent so fully expressed, so preternatural, that you suspect God’s handiwork: Sammy Davis, Jr., Judy Garland, Whitney Houston and, of course, Michael. How did the child who electrified the world in 1970 become the nodding junkie before us? My instincts were right, I felt sorry for having come.
By the time Michael finished his slurred, rambling soliloquy about Christmas Day and was moving on (slowly) to the press’ mistreatment of him and his hatred of Sony Music, I felt an urgent need to get Denise and me out of there posthaste. I looked at the crook lawyer/enabler and indicated with a nod of my head that it was time to let Michael do his own kind of nodding in peace. “Well Denise, perhaps we should let Michael get back to his day, I’m sure he’s quite busy.” Michael’s head snapped forward, Janice eyes opening. “Are you leaving?” he whispered, the tone of his voice made me think that he wouldn’t have minded if we stayed longer: anything but being alone, giving us a full-on “please don’t leave me here” Judy Garland moment. “Oh, Michael, we’ll come again soon, I promise,” Denise said, disingenuously, before reverting back to her nervous, meaningless laugh and what felt like an endless series of “this is great, this is so greats.” We stood up to leave.
On the ride back home we didn’t speak for a while. I was stunned and shocked and saddened. Denise just seemed confused, having no clearer idea why she was sent for now than she did before we went. The answer was there was no answer. Michael was a lonely junkie and Denise was someone he knew in New York. She is what passed for a friend in his world, a world clearly bereft of real friends.
For weeks and months after our 45-minute visit with Michael I would have weird daydreams about him and his haunting image even worked its way into my dreams at night. At one point, I ran into his brother Randy who I had met once or twice, and I told him about our disturbing visit with Michael. “Oh, is he at it again?” he asked. “Apparently, it seems pretty bad,” I said, feeling more like Louella Parsons than Florence Nightingale. It was obvious from his reaction that the family knew about Michael’s issues and that they’d been down this road before. It also seemed obvious that they’d given up. Truth is, when you’re as rich and powerful as Michael Jackson, there will always be another set of enablers just waiting to take over. My initial instincts were right: I regretted the meeting and wish I could have kept Michael in my imagination forever as the young and hopeful kid with more talent than he knew what to do with. For me the only surprise left was that he survived four more years, for if you’d told me he died the day after my visit with him it would have made more sense than the visit itself. There but for the grace of God go I.
More Michael Jackson:
Stargayzing Enola Gays Ola Ray’s Remember! The Girl From Michael Jackson’s Thriller Drops Bomb on Unsuspecting Public Leaving Diminished Fanbase Bewildered
And a Li’l LaToya Jackson:
Eating With The Stars: LaToya Jackson’s Quick and Easy Microwave Meatballs! The Recipe that Began the Collection!
The Worst Celebrity Exercise Video Ever? A Tribute to LaToya Jackson’s Step Up, Plus, (Paradoxically) Her Uber-Fattening Recipe For “Creamy Apple Dessert” in Eating With The Stars!
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