Published December 18, 2003
Michael Jackson may be weird, he may act inappropriately with children, he may even be completely nuts. But the nine charges leveled against him this afternoon by the Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon do not look strong enough to convict him of child molestation. Poor judgment is more like it.
At worst, Sneddon may have Jackson on the two charges of “administering an intoxicating agent.” I told you first, back on Nov. 19, that Jackson would be accused of giving the 12-year-old boy wine and sleeping pills. That would apply to the two last charges in the felony complaint against him.
But the boy in question, his brother and mother appeared with Jackson in an ABC special that aired on Feb. 6, 2003. Subsequently, an investigation by the Los Angeles County Child Protective Services took place between Feb. 14 and 28 that concluded no abuse had taken place.
Sneddon is now asking us to believe that beginning on the day after the special aired, and while the investigation was taking place, Jackson decided to commit seven lewd acts upon the boy. It’s possible, but it seems implausible.
Mark Geragos, Jackson’s attorney, will offer dozens of witnesses who passed through Neverland between the dates on Sneddon’s complaint -- Feb. 7 through March 10 -- and saw nothing of consequence. He will also have testimony from Neverland staffers who will claim that Jackson was never alone with the boy, and certainly not enough to commit lewd acts on seven separate occasions.
I will tell you stories in the weeks to come of children who Jackson befriended, as well as their families. (I’ve no doubt others will, too.) They may seem very strange. But do they make him a pedophile?
Sneddon has promised in the past that more children would start coming forward to tell their stories. So far, none have done that. Only this one boy, from a family that has spent a good deal of time wresting large cash settlements and making accusations based on race and sex against companies. Sneddon is going to have a hard time proving that none of that matters, or that Michael Jackson is guilty of more than making fun of the district attorney in a song.
Michael Jackson is panicked about his legal situation. In fact, he is so anxiety-ridden that he is now taking advice from a leader of the Nation of Islam rather than listening to his managers.
All of this comes on the eve of an event at Neverland Ranch on Saturday for 200 invited family members and friends. I told you about this event a couple of weeks ago. There will be a lot of filming that day of testimonials in an effort to rally support behind Jackson.
In the meantime, sources portray the situation with Jackson's inner circle as chaotic, with brother Jermaine Jackson — sensing a chance to win favor with his famous, wealthy brother — bringing Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam into the mix. Jermaine became a Muslim in 1989 after a visit to Saudi Arabia, and his children converted to the faith as well.
My sources tell me that last week, the day before Jackson's controversial manager Dieter Wiesner left for a trip to Germany, Jermaine introduced Nation of Islam leader Leonard F. Muhammad — Farrakhan's chief of staff — into the group as a "bodyguard."
After Wiesner departed, Muhammad and Jermaine began making the case to Michael that he was a victim of racism and that only the Nation of Islam could save him.
Since Wiesner's return from Germany, massive infighting has taken place as the opposing sides vie for Jackson's attention.
Meanwhile, the event this Saturday seems to be in the hands of none other than Jackson's father, Joseph, who has turned it into a family reunion.
"Michael has issues with his father, but he can't say no to him," said my source. "And right now, he's so panicked about what's happening, he's listening to his father and to Jermaine."
Both Joseph and Jermaine have declared bankruptcy in recent years and depend greatly on the largesse of Michael and his sister Janet.
Contrary to conventional thought, the Jackson 5 were not big money-makers in their days as recording artists. Because they didn't write their own songs and because royalties are not paid to performers, during their time at Motown the Jacksons mostly earned money by touring.
It wasn't until they moved to Columbia Records in the late 1970s that that changed. Their last big money-making tour, known as the Victory tour, took place nearly 20 years ago.
Whether Wiesner and his partner, Ronald Konitzer, can break the new stranglehold on Jackson by Muhammad remains "fluid," my source said.
"Jermaine and his father needed some kind of leverage with Michael to make sure their cash cow didn't disappear. So they're not going to let go without a fight."
This change among Jackson's confidants has so far not affected his legal team, however. I am told that his attorney Mark Geragos is meeting with Sneddon this afternoon in anticipation of the media frenzy which will no doubt occur upon the filing of charges.
Calls to Geragos and to the Nation of Islam were not returned.
No matter what charges are filed by Santa Barbara County against Jackson, Liza Minnelli says he's innocent.
"Those people [the family of the accuser] are after money," she said. "It was the same way 10 years ago. I've spent a lot of time at Neverland. There's never a time when children are unsupervised. There are people everywhere."
Minnelli — looking and feeling great — told me this last night at Denise Rich's annual holiday bash at her Fifth Avenue triplex.
Let me tell you, you haven't seen anything until you've been in Rich's spectacular aerie. With an art collection to die for — Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, and Julian Schnabel are just a few of those whose canvases adorn her walls — Rich operates out of one of the few New York apartments you could actually get lost in.
Liza was not the only celebrity guest at the party, but she was certainly the one of most interest, considering what she's been through this year.
She told me she couldn't talk about David Gest, although she did concede that at the beginning of their relationship "he was very good to me."
She said also she didn't know when she married him all the things that had been written about him in the press — things that would make most women have second thoughts about heading down the aisle to him.
"Who knew?" she said, rhetorically.
Well, actually, we did, Liza. But it's too late now.
Minnelli did look wonderful and was in great spirits. She's working on two albums which are in the planning stages. One would be a Christmas album, and the other an homage to her late, great godmother, "Eloise" author Kay Thompson.
"Did you know she was a famous music arranger in the '30s at MGM?" Liza said. I did not. "I want to use all her arrangements. But I can't say too much. I have to talk to Clive [Davis] about it."
Liza's last album was released by Davis on J Records. This week, by the way J Records not only has the numbers 1 and 2 albums on the charts, they also have two Rod Stewart albums in the top 40.
Two. Okay? Three years ago Stewart's career was six feet under in solid cement — not because he was a bad singer, but because popular taste changed.
Davis, producers Richard Perry and Phil Ramone, and Stewart's longtime manager Arnold Stiefel really deserve some kind of Purple Heart.
But more about Rich's swinging party on three floors overlooking Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 60th St. The apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows that sport views beyond the spectacular.
The food was bountiful and the guests were abundant. The throngs included lots of music producers and members of the Grammy organization, NARAS. Actor Gabriel Byrne also stopped by, introducing himself as "Gabriel" to the many fans who wanted his autograph.
Rich hired four of the Radio City Rockettes to perform, which they did. She also had a tattoo artist and a man who made small sculptures of animals and put them in plastic bags (they were very popular).
If you'd like a little gossip, there was a near-miss accident scandal-wise when Andrew Cuomo, former gubernatorial candidate, left just minutes before nightclub owner Bruce Colley arrived. You may recall that Cuomo exposed the affair his wife, Kerry Kennedy, was having with Colley over the summer.
There was a lot of "whewing" when Colley arrived. People started looking around for Cuomo. Luckily he was gone. Whew!
Meanwhile, over at Elaine's, the A-list turned out for Robert Altman's new film, "The Company." This is a charming and beautifully realized movie about a ballet company starring Neve Campbell ("Party of Five"). Jennifer Jason Leigh's mother, writer Barbara Turner, wrote the screenplay.
Altman and his wife Kathryn spent the night accepting kudos from the likes of three actors who've worked for him in the past: Richard Gere ("Dr. T & the Women"), Tim Robbins ("The Player," "Prêt-à-Porter") and Clive Owen ("Gosford Park").
Director James Toback, "Conan O'Brien" producer Jeff Ross, famed actor Tony Roberts, and writer Gay Talese were among those crushed into Elaine's like sardines and enjoying every bit of it.
Some of the conversation turned to Mike Nichols' "Angels in America," which Altman was supposed to direct.
"I think he [Nichols] did it exactly right," Altman said. "I was going to make two two-and-a-half-hour films for theatres. There was never a thought of television or HBO. But he's done exactly the right thing. I'm sure it's very good."
Altman has not had time to see anything, he said, while working on "The Company" and prepping his next film, "Paint."
As for Campbell, she was beautiful and gracious. She told me she had considered going into the Broadway company of "Chicago" — probably as Roxie — but had to say no so she could do publicity for "The Company."
The film was her idea, by the way. Campbell is now turning into a producer, optioning material for herself to star in and others as well. She has no producing partner yet, and she's looking for a studio deal, but she's determined.
"I'm making a film about Louise Brooks because so many people told me I should play her," she said. "Barbara Turner found a great script about Brooks in her class, and I optioned it."
Campbell is also going to make a film about a young man with Tourette's Syndrome. Each is in the early planning stage.
Tony Roberts — you know him from Woody Allen's best movies, from Broadway's "They're Playing Our Song," "Victor/Victoria" and "Tale of the Allergist's Wife" — did tell us an interesting story last night when I mentioned that I'd run into Minnelli earlier.
"We take a dance class together," he said. "It costs nine bucks, and anyone can take it. Donna McKechnie and Ben Vereen take it, and all kinds of Broadway gypsies, plus older people trying to regain their balance, and lots of young kids."
The class is taught by 78-year-old Luigi Faccuito, born Eugene Louis Faccuito in Steubenville, Ohio. Apparently, it's quite famous.
"Gene Kelly told Luigi to open schools, and he did," Roberts said. Kelly also bestowed the nickname Luigi on the teacher. You can read all about the class at www.luigijazz.com.
It's quite a story, but the idea of all these Broadway stars paying nine dollars a class to a great, unknown maestro is really tantalizing.
So what about Liza, I asked? She's had two hip replacements.
"And she's never danced better," Roberts said. "You should come to the class. I'll meet you there!"
I am sorry to tell you about the passing of Jenifer Estes, founder of the Naked Angels Theatre Company and then the creator of Project A.L.S. She was 40.
You may recall me writing about Jenifer previously in this space. When I met her, in the late '80s, she was a vivacious, energetic, terrifically smart girl. She created Naked Angels, and among her best friends was John Kennedy Jr. It is hard to believe they are both gone now.
ALS is so vicious, but Jenifer took the bull by the horns, as they say, when she was diagnosed in 1997. She and her sisters raised $17 million for research and brought together scientists from all over the world. What a tremendous legacy. What a short but beautiful life...
Also yesterday we heard about the tragic fire that claimed the lives of Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden's young nephew and niece, and put her sister-in-law in the hospital.
Harden's whole family came to the "Mona Lisa Smile" premiere last week, and she glowed as she introduced them. Our condolences to Marcia, her husband Thaddeus, her brother (also named Thaddeus) and the entire family.