Some of you may have heard about that ridiculous “Urban Legend” British TV series.
Along with other questionable tales, the show regurgitates the flat-out lie that Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando attempted to flee New York Cityafter the 9/11 attacks. (They were in the city for Michael’s concerts, celebrating a coming album and a reunion with his brothers.) One of Jackson’s children, daughter Paris, objected so strenuously to the trailer, that Sky News, which produced the series, junked that episode. For now.
However, it reminded me that I attended the first Jackson concert, in New York, just three days before the New York and Washington terrorism. I had taken a hiatus from my job with Liz Smith (I quit, in a huff, much high dudgeon). But hard feelings had softened in the months I’d been away, and Liz, who was then working for Newsday, suggested that I cover the concert. Or as she put it, “Denis, you do it. I’d rather set myself on fire!” (I had already been providing items for the column again, much as I had back when Liz and I first connected in 1981. I saw this as a failure on my part—I still felt righteous indignation over the events that led to my quitting– but the connection with her was too strong—and it had been my only real job, in my life!)
And so, to prevent Liz from putting herself to the torch, I did it. Newsday wanted 500 words. I gave them considerably more. They printed it, much edited, in the Saturday edition. Miss Smith called to compliment me, and asked if I had “any more?” She said, “I’ll use it in Monday’s column and credit you.” I assured her I had plenty more.
And, good as her word, she used it, and wrote kindly of my talent. Of course, nobody was reading gossip on September 11th. I’d gone to my therapist that morning, on 14th Street and Fifth Ave, happy about the column, the Newsday credit and maybe things were looking up?
That was 8:45. Fifteen minutes later I stepped out onto the street and realized things were not looking up at all.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s the original version of that night, which I have never forgotten, because of what it was—nuts!—and what it came to represent, in the aftermath of 9/11.
Within a couple of months I was back in Liz Smith’s office. Like chicken feathers to tar…
September 8th 2001
TO BE honest, Michael Jackson didn’t need to throw himself a party Friday night, after the first of his two Madison Square Garden “Happy 30th Anniversary/I’m Still Here/I’m Coming Back, Don’t Try To Stop Me” concerts. The concert itself was quite enough.
What possibly could have topped such jarring extremes as a painfully skinny, wildly energetic Whitney Houston opening up the show—with help from muscular, fur-vested Usher—followed immediately by a swollen, supine Marlon Brando?
Brando, perversity incarnate, nearly brought the crowd to riot as he rambled on about dead babies, “killed by machetes…” Yeah, he finally got around to the children’s hospital Michael Jackson was financing, but by that time, the audience was ready to machete Marlon. A great moment, folks.
But as nothing succeeds like excess, surely the motto of Michael and his closest friend Elizabeth Taylor, an intimate fete would never do on this night of nights. So under the aegis of David Guest, Tavern On The Green was transformed into a country carnival, complete with candy stalls, games, a lemonade stand (conveniently next to one of the bars, so the innocent lemonade could be spiked with vodka should the revelers so desire.)
There was an innumerable supply of lush stuffed animals to take away, a man penciling, portraits, even “Michael’s Freshen Up” counter. (Everything was titled “Michael’s this or that”—I guess to remind us why we were gathered.) “Freshen Up” was a spot where ladies and gentlemen could, paste themselves back together as the humidity caused coifs to collapse and make-up to slide off siliconed cheeks and into siliconed valleys.
Of course this was a Michael Jackson production, and there was no mistaking his magic touch. For the first hour or so, little people were assigned to welcome the guests, trilling a verse from the famous song performed by the Munckins in “The Wizard of Oz.” You know, the one that ends, “We wish to welcome you to Munchkin Land!” The snippet of song also blasted out of speakers. Over and over. Over and over the little people had to sing along, looking cheery. After some time, the loudspeakers were getting very angry glances. The one verse, repeated endlessly must have been amusing to whoever thought of it. The incoming horde was not amused. Even the cheery little people looked to be getting cranky, not to mention being knocked around as the entrance became increasingly clotted with celebs and looky-loos. Eventually, we were treated to the entire “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack, which wasn’t exactly get up and boogie music, but at least the songs began and ended. (Later a live band performed vigorously but it was getting to close to 2:30, and many guests were carnivaled-out by that point.)
There was also no mistaking Jackson’s hand in the eclectic guest list—a fantastic goulash of stellar lights. Jon Lovitz…David Hasslehoff…Ann Miller… June Haver (Miss Haver a 1950’s Twentieth Century Fox star, appeared to know the lyrics to every Jackson song performed during the show. She also stood and shrieked like a teen-ager at some points!)…Jane Powell…Jane Russell…Margret O’Brien
…Gina Lollobrigida (“loved you in ‘Solomon and Sheba’ said a fan. “You remember that?” replied the Italian icon, who still pouts convincingly. This is no mean feat at 70-plus)…Montel Williams, cheerfully submitting to having a glittery tattoo painted on his neck…Yoko Ono…Caroll Baker, she of the unmistakable honky tonk voice (devotees might want to know that Baker’s sweaty 1963 potboiler “Station Six Sahara” was snapped up by the British film industry and put in a vault. Though the way Baker told it, she didn’t seem to mind that this one might never be screened again)…Cory Feldman and a lady in a formidable hat, under which, it was suggested, hid Cory Haim…Angie Harmon and her new hubby. The handsome couple had nuzzled affectionately at the concert during Billy Gillman’s rendition of Michael’s passionate ode to a rat, “Ben”…Janet Leigh…at least one member of the made-on-TV band, O’Town
…”One Life To Live” soap queen Erika Slezak. “Have you ever wondered how long a soap opera year is?” asked a “OLTL” fan (considering that on soaps, one day can last weeks). Erica replied with a good-natured laugh, “56 days. We figured it out once. But no matter what, the soaps always celebrate the major holidays. After all, we have to stay grounded!
…Liza Minnelli, looking more like herself, having removed the big, poofy, un-Liza-like wig she wore performing at the Garden. While paying tribute to Jackson, Miss Minnelli at the same time offered another one of those up-from the-floor “returns” for which she is now famous. The indestructible star was in strong voice during her two numbers, and, at the end of “Never Never Land” turned to Michael and sang, at last, a few bars of her mother’s “Over The Rainbow.” Spine-tingly stuff!…Aaron Carter, the latest teeny-bopper throb, cuter even than his older BackStreet Boy brother Nick (Aaron was awfully patient with grabbers. He’s at that stage of burgeoning stardom where people think it’s okay to handle you in a familiar manner).
Patty Duke, far cheerier in real life than in many of her recent TV roles (always the tragic, bitter, intense mother of a dead or missing child) is excited about auditioning for a coming production of “Oklahoma” playing, as she puts it, “the old lady.” In truth, Duke looks more like she could tackle Ado Annie, the gal who cain’t say no!
I don’t know if any of the N’Sync’s or Britney made the party, because all the boys looked N’Sync-y, and every girl tries to look like Miss Spears. Blessedly nobody has had time to incorporate the now-famous snake into their Britney costuming. There were also hundreds of just plain folks and families; people who managed to ante up the ducats to attend the concert and party. Michael Jackson fans really seemed to be enjoying the circus-y atmosphere. What’s not to like about a man on stilts and fortune tellers?
Dinner was served late, but the entire evening was running at least an hour past schedule. Nobody seemed to mind. Much. This was, after all, one of those once in a lifetime events, yes? It was a tasty fish entree, but few ate, because only moments after the plates began to hover precariously over the heads of the hungry mass, the idol himself arrived. And now we witness the ritual of The Star Entrance: the room tilts, almost literally. Breathing intensifies or stops. Common sense and good manners go right out the window. Elbows become lethal weapons (“That’s okay lady, I was going in for a vasectomy anyway!”) feet—in loafers, dress shoe, stiletto heel– press into the embroidered chairs, as the bedazzled try to stand above the crowd and crane for a better look, tiny cameras appear, perfectly normal looking people burst into tears. I’ve seen this before, from Julia Roberts to Madonna to Tom Cruise. The power of illusion, the lure of celebrity never ebbs. In Jackson’s case, there is an extra element of hunger and curiosity—does he really look so odd? Alas, yes.
Jackson, in glittery white, received the crushing tribute in his usual soft-spoken manner. The ego so blatantly displayed during the Garden tribute is muted—I thought I would go mad if I had to sit through one more “He’s so wonderful” film clip. Now, at the party, Michael is a pale, mink-lashed Bambi, caught forever in the burning headlights of fame. Comforted by the familiar, yet wary of the cost, he is the cynical cynosure of every eye. The heat and light bear down and it seems impossible that the star can get enough oxygen. But of course for better or worse, this adulation is his oxygen.
Time will tell—and very shortly too—if Jackson can recover his wounded career in America. But judging by his wildly enthusiastic concert audience and the party-goers who would have sold their mothers on the spot to speak, touch, be photographed with Jackson, the word “comeback” might now be used confidently.
He has for so long been a bird with a wing down, it is surely past due to mend that wing. Michael was, and perhaps still is, considered “weird.” How else would you describe a man who refutes [never proved] child molestation charges tarted-up with inch-long false eyelashes?! But this is 2001, readers. Is Michael any weirder these days than, say, Anne Heche or Gary Condit or that hand puppet at the MTV Awards who earned the undying enmity of Jennifer Lopez? I think not. And at least Michael has talent. And that talent is still worshipped by his peers and by those who have risen since his fall. When the ravishing Beyonce of Destiny’s Child shyly approached Jackson’s table, the room went into spasms. Someone smart should team these two up for something. If that “Phantom of The Opera” project ever materialized… (Yeah, I know, she’s part of a group. But how long do you think that’s gonna last? Beyonce, like Diana Ross, is the engine than revs Destiny’s Child. She’s a lovely, gracious girl. But her destiny screams “solo career!”)
Not on hand for the party part of Jackson’s night, his loyal friend Elizabeth Taylor. But this rodent-copulation wouldn’t have suited La Liz. The crush would have endangered her fragile back, the hour was late. The heat was oppressive. And then there was presence of so many contemporaries—the MGM gals.
Not that ET has anything but the fondest feelings for her sisters in celluloid. But at no point would she have enjoyed being captured in some “nostalgia” photo op. It is Taylor, after all, who is Michael’s “best” friend. It is she who sat on his right, a baudy blonde queen, at the concert itself. And it is she—surprisingly refreshed, focused and pretty again, working that feather boa like a burlesque cutie—who introduced from the stage, the re-united Jacksons.
Just as Michael is a universe apart from most other pop stars, Taylor inhabits another plane in her world. Like an oil well (or a diamond mine) Taylor is a great natural resource—inevitably depleted by time, but still rare, useful, a substance to be reckoned with. But even Taylor knows for whom the bell tolls. It is significant that she now insists on being introduced as “Dame Elizabeth Taylor.” Just as her friend Michael must always be called “The King of Pop.” Who are they trying to convince?
Taylor’s charismatic, cheerful hairdresser, the eternally cowboy-hatted Jose Eber attended the party, along with other member’s of ET’s entourage. “Wasn’t she great? She’s in peak form again” he said. When somebody began to wax mystical about Taylor’s legendary qualities, her enduring stardom, Eber, smiled patiently, “She’s really a very normal woman you know.” Just a Dame, right Jose? And Eber is the average back-comber at any neighborhood salon.
Around her neck and dangling from her ears, Miss Taylor wore a set of famous rubies, gifts from third hubby Mike Todd.
Before filmmaker/showman Todd perished in a 1957 plane crash, he had hosted an overblown, riotous event at the old Madison Square Garden to celebrate himself and the little woman, and 1,000 close friends. Also it was promotion for his movie, “Around The World In Eighty Days.” On that that night in 1957, La Liz sported the same set of rubies.
Could she possibly have remembered that long ago gala at the Garden, and chosen them specifically, for sentiment’s sake? A good luck talisman, as she once again tried to help an important man in her life by her singular presence? I like to think so.
The party went on and on. It was Friday night, after all. Then Jackson left. And as if he was the air that filled a balloon, the celebration slowly deflated. Michael’s departure was as dramatic as his entrance, he exited murmuring soft “thank yous,” waving, blowing little kisses, a sphinx behind the eyeliner and lip gloss, a star not ready to fade.
He has morphed before our eyes into something, well—a little unexpected. Certainly he has changed physically. But twice married, twice divorced, a father of two, press-bruised, and scandal-braised, his tentative off-stage posture seems to suggest—not invincibility (“Invincible” is the all-to-obvious title of his coming album),
but a more vulnerable offering, “Take a closer look. I’m still the boy I was. And I’m waiting here for you.”