The 14-year-old boy at the center of the current Michael Jackson case is right in the center of a family at war.
The boy's parents, who are in and out of family court over custody and visitation issues, recently crossed swords again.
This time the mother, who has been called an opportunist and a manipulator by many who have had dealings with her, has really said a mouthful. In court papers she said that not only do her two sons and one daughter not want to see their father, but — and this is only according to her — the two boys sleep with baseball bats because they fear this man. She also said they go through putting up a series of barricades so they can sleep soundly.
But according to the father's lawyer, the daughter has seen and spoken to her father. "The mother doesn't care whether she sees him or not," says H. Russell Halpern. "She's only interested in keeping the boys away from him. She's afraid they'll tell him that the whole Michael Jackson story is made up."
In fact: sources have told me from the beginning that when the 14-year-old underwent chemotherapy treatments a year and a half ago, it was the father who took care of him. When the family first came to Neverland, it was the father, not the mother, who accompanied them.
"When the boy got sick, the father took a leave of absence from his job and slept next to his bed. The boy wanted him there for comfort."
The mother's latest court statement, says Halpern, "demonstrates her lack of credibility." And there may be some evidence to back this up. When the mother sued J.C. Penney a couple of years ago, Halpern says, she gave a deposition in which she testified that her ex-husband — whom she later accused of beating her kids and killing her dog — was a "wonderful man."
Halpern is busy right now trying to get the J.C. Penney deposition unsealed. He claims that the Pasadena, Calif., lawyer who handled the case has been pressured by the mother's attorney, Larry Feldman, to keep the papers hidden. But attorney Tom Rothstein told me yesterday, "I've never spoken to Larry Feldman in my life." Feldman, of course, is better known as the lawyer who got a $20 million settlement for another family from Jackson in 1994.
You're going to be reading a lot of stories this morning about what a great guy Tony Randall was. They are all true. This is someone who was indefatigable friend, a great husband and father, someone who was incredibly civic minded and stood up for all the right causes. Whenever I look at the ugly Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, I think of Tony Randall leading the rally to stop it from being built — and to save the three classic Broadway theatres that were razed to make way for it.
When I was a publicist at Ballantine Books in 1983, I was given a trade paperback to promote called "The Odd Couple Trivia Book." Immediately I wrote to Tony via his late, great publicist John Springer. "All I can offer you is a free meal, no payment," I told him, "but would you mind helping out?'
A few days later we all met at the old Russian Tea Room in Tony's booth (first on the left), where he agreed to go around flog someone else's book (I can't remember the author's name) simply because of his attachment to the show. For a couple of days he worked tirelessly and without pay, giving radio interviews and going on TV. He never complained, and quite the contrary, made everyone else feel good about the experience.
Over the years I would call on Tony for various things, and he was always gracious and never said no. A constant champion of causes, he rarely refused to put in a public appearance. In February 1993, when I called, he came to Symphony Space and participated in a memorial reading of the novelist Laurie Colwin's work. He did not know her, but he admired her work.
Last month, on April 20, I told you that he'd been in the hospital since December 21st after having triple bypass surgery. I think we knew, listening to a pre-taped message he'd sent for a National Actors Theatre fundraiser, that his days were almost up. His wife, Heather, told me he had not been able to eat for weeks after pneumonia sidelined him on top of the heart surgery. I'm told that after taking her kids to the "Shrek" screening last night, she got a call from the hospital to hurry over and say goodbye. She left the children with her father and made just in time. How great for Tony that — following his 50-year marriage to his first wife Florence — he wound up having a family who will always treasure their time with him.
Some people are New York institutions who cannot be replaced. I think of some of the people who've passed since this column started five years ago, and it's amazing: Alan King, George Plimpton, Neal Travis, and so on — just to name a few. Now Tony Randall joins this rare and exclusive club. Rest easy, Tony.
There are still some living New York landmarks, thank god, and a few of them were on hand Monday night for the HBO screening of "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty." Besides La Stritch herself, there was Bobby Short, cabaret king of the Carlyle Hotel, and one of the film's directors, DA Pennebaker, whose son John Paul is Short's godson. Small world.
Bobby Short, you know, is getting ready to retire from the rigors of appearing at the Carlyle. And who do you think will be taking over at — as she says, The Bobby Short Cafe — but Stritch herself come spring 2005.
"Oh my god, they'll be able to charge anything they want," I said when Stritch told me.
"Don't let the producers hear that," she replied. At least they'll save on transportation. Stritch lives right in New York's premiere hotel, and has for years.
But back to the show. My (I hesitate to say colleague, because she is on a higher plane) pal, Liz Smith, was also there, as were Glenn Close and Steve Buscemi (not together), and the writer John Lahr from the New Yorker who put together Stritch's one woman Broadway show. There were also Frank Rich and his wife, writer Alex Witchel, from the New York Times.
Three people didn't come: Nathan Lane, Hugh Jackman, and Stephen Sondheim, even though their names were on the invite.
"They were the lure," Stritch — who never ever minces words — told the audience after the packed screening got a standing ovation. (The movie airs on HBO on May 29.) "Nathan Lane, well he's so big now, I guess he doesn't have time for little old me," she said. "Hugh Jackson," she said incorrectly, "is in the 'Boy from Oz' and this is his night off, so you can't blame him. And Stephen Sondheim, well he couldn't take hearing me sing 'The Ladies Who Lunch' one more time."
Basically, Stritch — made a legend by Pennebaker in the documentary of Sondheim's "Company" (you can get it on DVD) and then reinforced by Liz in her column at least once a month for the last 25 years — is just a force of nature who triumphed in the face of all kinds of adversity. It's all in the film (which Pennebaker made with wife, director Chris Hegedus, and their partner Nick Doob). This surprised Stritch to see it all up on the screen. "I could have taken different parts lately, but to see yourself up there, the subject of the show..."
Nevertheless, she's still taking parts, thank you. She's just started shooting John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes" playing James Gandolfini's mother. And then, there's always real life. We got to meet her two sisters last night, who came in from Michigan, and Stritch's niece and the niece's husband, lovely, sophisticated, attractive, with the same elegant bearing as the star herself. They sat together at the dinner following the screening at the Carlyle Hotel, where Stritch lives, around a round table with one space open. And when Elaine joined them, it looked like a completed puzzle.