The Untold Story of Michael Jackson’s Devotion to His Children
Jackson biographer Zack O’Malley Greenburg shares insight into the remarkable family life of the superstar performer few got to see.
Moments after Michael Jackson was vindicated at the conclusion of a molestation trial that trained the world’s eyes on him for much of 2005, a group of his most devoted fans released 14 white doves into the sky outside the Santa Maria, Calif. courthouse where he’d been tried—one for each charge of which he was cleared.
Among his biggest boosters was his attorney, Tom Mesereau, a Harvard grad known for defying orthodoxy, exemplified in everything from his novel courtroom approach to his lightning-white shock of shoulder-length hair. Throughout the trial, Mesereau spent countless hours preparing with Jackson at the singer’s Neverland Ranch, 35 miles from the courthouse. One of Mesereau’s clearest memories: watching Jackson’s three children jump on his bed as he lay recovering from a particularly grueling day. Rather than send them off to a nanny so that he could sneak in some much-needed rest, the King of Pop gamely stayed awake and showered them with hugs.
“I never saw a more doting father in my life,” Mesereau told me. “Absolutely loved his kids, and they loved him. You really watched him with his kids and you didn’t see a selfish narcissist or a celebrity. You saw a very caring, giving father who wanted to be simple and quiet and teach his children about the world.”
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The popular caricature of Jackson during his later years was that of an eccentric and possibly depraved superstar stunted by a traumatic childhood. This image seeped into coverage of his own kids: Prince, born in 1997, and Paris, the following year—both to Jackson’s second wife, Debbie Rowe—followed by Blanket, in 2002, to a mystery mother. Media outlets blasted Jackson as a baby-dangling lunatic when he appeared on a balcony in Germany that year and held the infant Blanket up for a crowd to see; later on, when tabloids snapped Jackson’s kids wearing masks in public, he was labeled a creep rather than a father hoping to preserve his children’s anonymity.
While reporting my book "Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire" (Simon & Schuster / Atria, 2014), Mesereau and others peppered me with stories of Jackson’s dedication as a father, many of which never made the cut in the business-focused biography. Yet examples of Jackson as a doting father abound.
The King of Pop’s focus on his kids was grounded in a childhood that was far from royal, at least during his earliest years. He grew up poor, one of nine children (a tenth died in childbirth) in gritty Gary, Indiana. His father, Joseph, was a steelworker; his mother, Katherine, was a homemaker who often worked side gigs at Sears . They raised their family in a stumpy square house with only two bedrooms. Michael started singing at age five and soon after became the frontman of the Jackson 5.
Though the group’s songs are famously upbeat and carefree, the work that went into creating and promoting them was, legendarily, anything but. The Jackson 5 sometimes performed in strip clubs early on, with little Michael scurrying around the floor to pick up coins tossed at the boys as tips; at home, Joe literally whipped them into shape during rehearsals, something for which he refuses to apologize for to this day. “I got a lot of whipping myself when I was a kid,” he told me, offering a favorite excuse. “I know other people, they got family [who] whipped their kids.”
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There’s certainly a case to be made that Michael’s difficult childhood spurred him to take a far gentler approach to fatherhood. On that front, he did have other role models besides his own dad: when he and his brothers signed with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and eventually moved to Los Angeles, Gordy became something of a father figure to all of them.
Gordy was certainly a tough negotiator when it came to deal-making, and was known to be a perfectionist in the studio. But he also knew the importance of making time for fun and games. Whereas Joseph forbade his children from playing sports in Gary, worried they’d jeopardize his kids’ increasingly lucrative musical careers, Berry organized Gordys vs. Jacksons baseball games (“Michael was the catcher,” Gordy explained. “Not that good.”) Gordy also hosted frequent pool parties at his home for his own kids and the Jacksons. The Motown founder bristles at the oft-raised theory that Jackson was completely deprived of his youth.
“Michael himself, he was saying, ‘Well, you know, I never had a childhood,” the Motown founder told me. “I don’t know what he means. [Perhaps] before he got with us.”
Despite Jackson’s rocky relationship with his father, he mostly lived at home in his family’s Encino, Calif. compound on the outskirts of Los Angeles from just after the family moved west during his middle school years until buying Neverland, a 2,700-acre ranch some two hours away, around his 30th birthday. While living in his parents’ home in his mid-twenties, Jackson was already pulling in tens of millions of dollars per year and even built himself a recording studio that he called “the laboratory” on the premises.
As Jackson came into his own as a recording artist, he found another father figure—and collaborator—in Quincy Jones. And the King of Pop started to look forward to becoming a dad himself. Matt Forger, a sound engineer who started working with Jackson shortly before Thriller and became close friends with the ascendant superstar, remembers later recording “Heal The World” for Dangerous. Jackson wanted to open the ballad with a real quote from a real child, and had Forger run around with a mobile recording setup interviewing 100 kids until he found just the right sound bite about saving the planet. (“We want to make it a better place for our children and our children’s children so that they, they, they know it’s a better world,” says the little girl in the album cut).
“I knew that at the moment she said it,” Forger recalls. “When I took it back to the studio and Michael heard it, he said, ‘Wow, this is great, this is terrific, this is exactly what I wanted.’ … I started cleaning it up because the girl stammered a little bit, and he goes, ‘No, no, no, leave that in, that’s exactly the way a child would talk. That’s what I want.’”
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Forger could see that Jackson’s love for children would one day translate to his own kids, and the two spent countless hours talking about their respective childhoods—and plans to start families of their own—over the years.
“I always understood that Michael would be a great dad,” Forger explains. “He’d say, ‘Yeah, I’d love to have children.’ But Michael was always guarded about relationships because he would say, ‘How can I have a relationship with somebody when I’m such a big star? Everybody knows who I am, so how do you get someone’s honesty in a relationship?”
Forger believes this is why Jackson gravitated to Hollywood mega-stars like Brooke Shields, Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor—they all knew what it was like to be extremely famous from a very young age. So did Lisa Marie Presley, Jackson’s first wife. He also befriended non-famous children he met throughout his career; though they didn’t know what it was like to be a star, they were in many cases able to view Jackson as another human being rather than an alien celebrity, unlike many of the singer’s older fans (“Billie Jean” was written about one of his many real-life adult stalkers).
Photo: AP Photo/Pool, Steve Osman
Of course, this led to trouble for Jackson, first with the Jordy Chandler molestation allegations in 1993. There were plenty of red flags around the case, including the fact that Chandler’s father demanded Jackson give him a $20 million dollar screenplay deal or else he’d accuse the singer of child abuse before he went to authorities. Jackson was shattered by the allegations, so much so that his team decided to settle rather than risk the additional trauma of a high-profile trial (Chandler’s father committed suicide in 2009).
Jackson eventually seemed to regret declining the chance to clear his name, hence his decision not to settle in 2005. That trial ultimately established his innocence, at least in the eyes of the law. But for many, the stain of the earlier allegations could never be wiped away—a reality that was a source of pain for Jackson until the end.
“That may have been one of the cruelest aspects of his life—that children who he thought would never hurt him, that he could be totally honest with and work hard to protect, would somehow become the vehicle for sending him to prison,” Mesereau told me. “That’s a cruel, cruel statement … in some ways his enemies took [away] what he thought might be one of his biggest accomplishments, which was to focus attention on the world’s children.”
Photos: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images, Michael Germana/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com
In his later years, though, Jackson took solace in raising children of his own. He generally did everything in his power to keep them out of the public eye. In some cases, like the notorious “baby-dangling” incident, Jackson’s pride in his kids overwhelmed his instincts to keep them anonymous; even in that instance, however, he obscured Blanket’s face from the cameras below with a towel. For safety purposes, he even sent his beloved chimps off to another home around the time he had children. (Bubbles, his first chimp—for whom Jackson’s subsequent primate pets were mistaken—was dispatched long before the kids arrived; he is alive and well at the Center For Great Apes in Florida, according to a spokesperson.)
Jackson also took pains to keep his work and personal life separate, at least when he could. Unlike some artists—including members of Jackson’s own family—he didn’t bring his kids to the studio on a regular basis. Those close to him said he wanted to protect them from prying eyes that might follow him there, especially given his constant hounding at the hands of the paparazzi.
“Part of how Michael viewed his children was that he wanted them to be part of the private life as opposed to part of the other life that is out there,” says Forger. “Everybody who I knew that worked with him around those areas just told me he was a great dad … I know that he was a great father.”
Jackson’s instincts in regard to the relationship between parenting and work extended to his colleagues’ kids as well. Forger recalls one occasion where he had to cancel a prior commitment in order to take care of his own child. Jackson couldn’t have been more understanding.
“Matt,” Forger recalls him saying, “the most important thing is family.”