Family Saga

Joe Jackson’s Life as a Family Pariah

The music dynasty’s patriarch will recover from his latest stroke. But his family’s deafening silence during his hospital stay speaks volumes. Diane Dimond on Joe’s life in isolation.

12.03.12 9:45 AM ET

The Grim Reaper came skulking around Joe Jackson’s door once again—and once more the Reaper blinked.

Jackson, 84, recently suffered his third stroke. According to a public-relations assistant, it was “mild,” and Joe was set to be quickly released from a Las Vegas hospital to recuperate at home. The news prompted one longtime (and now former) family friend, Stacy Brown, to say, “Evil lives a long time … and he is certainly that.”

Everyone agrees that Jackson, the man who started his career as a failed musician, a wannabe boxer, and a crane operator in Gary, Ind., was the brains behind of America’s most cherished musical dynasties, The Jackson Five. But those close to the Jackson clan have also described him as “mean as a junkyard dog,” and a “shameless womanizer.”

Those descriptions would surely make Jackson himself chuckle, because it’s a persona he has long cultivated. Trouble is, it has turned him into a pariah within his own family at a time when his health is fragile.

Over the past many years, Joe and his estranged wife, Katherine, have lived separately. For public consumption, the family insists they are still a couple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Katherine, 82, lives in a large and luxurious compound in Calabasas, Calif. (the family estate on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino is undergoing extensive renovations), and has been taking care of her son Michael’s three children since his death in June 2009.

Meanwhile, Joe lives in Las Vegas. Shortly after Michael’s death, he made public pronouncements about how Katherine and he should raise the children together, but that door slammed quickly in his face. Michael Jackson, as the children’s sole custodial parent, made it very clear in his last will and testament that that would never happen. In fact, the family patriarch was deliberately and conspicuously left out of the superstar’s will, as were all of Michael’s siblings.

The King of Pop’s estate was essentially split four ways between his mother and his three children: Prince, 15, Paris, 14, and 10-year-old Blanket. Upon Katherine’s death, her portion of the estate—which, after generating $1 billion dollars since his death, is now out of the hole for the first time in years—reverts to the children, making it impossible for either Joe or any of his chronically underemployed sons to ever benefit financially. In life, Michael Jackson refused to have much to do with the male members of his family. In death, he made sure they would never again tap his wealth.

It is not known how Joe Jackson has financed his living arrangements in Las Vegas since Michael left him nothing and the other most well-off sibling, Janet, stopped supporting her wayward father in the early 90s, according to sources close to the family. There are unconfirmed reports that for a time Joe shared his Vegas residence with his youngest daughter—the Jackson child few have heard about. Joh’Vonnie Jackson, 38, was the result of an extramarital affair between Joe and Cheryl Terrell in the early 70s. Terrell was one of many alleged mistresses of Joe Jackson. Joh’Vonnie is now believed to be living in Houston.

(As early as 1973 and then again in 1979, Katherine Jackson reportedly took steps to divorce her cheating spouse, but failed to follow through when members from her Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation intervened. They remain officially married.)

In Vegas, and on his occasional trips to Los Angeles and elsewhere, Joe Jackson is often seen in the company of a hanger-on named Majestic the Magnificent, who once introduced himself to me as “Michael Jackson’s official magician.” In recent years, Joe took to carrying a gun in a holster on his belt and frequently arrived at events with pretty young women at his side. He began to call himself “The Hawk,” borrowing the name from one of his favorite boxers, Aaron Pryor. Upon arriving at one Vegas event or another, Jackson likes to mimic Pryor’s boxing ring battle cry by announcing to the room, “It’s Hawk time!”

Flamboyant entrances have always been the elder Jackson’s style. In 2005, he arrived at the Santa Maria courthouse where Michael’s criminal trial was underway in a stretch limousine with a busty blonde in the back seat. She waited in the car while Joe briefly attended his most famous son’s child sex-abuse trial. (Jackson was acquitted of all charges in June 2005.)

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It was at that trial I got my own dose of Joe-style bullying. I was the reporter who first broke the news to a national television audience that police were investigating Michael for possible child molestation. I reported on Jackson’s legal troubles for more than a decade, so, naturally, I was seen as an enemy to the Jackson family.

At the beginning of each court day, I would take my usual seat on the aisle toward the back of the courtroom—and on the occasions Joe attended his son’s trial he would hover close over me staring down maliciously. I had heard about his intimidation techniques and refused to acknowledge him until one day I looked up and loudly said, “What? What do you want?” I saw a bailiff out of the corner of my eye begin to move toward us. Joe Jackson gave me that hard stare for a split second more and then took his seat. As with most bullies, once confronted they retreat. He never tried it with me again.

By all accounts Joseph was a relentless, domineering, and brutal parent, and none of his nine children with Katherine had the fortitude to challenge him in any meaningful way. Michael Jackson told Oprah during a 1993 interview that Joe often doled out physical beatings, sometimes during exhausting rehearsals and that he “feared” his father. Michael said he would sometimes faint or vomit when Joe walked into the room. In the early 60s, when Rebbie Jackson was 13, she filed a sexual-assault complaint against her father with the Gary, Indi. police department. As I wrote in my book, Be Careful Who You Love—Inside the Michael Jackson Case, that report mysteriously disappeared from police files years ago. In time, both La Toya and Janet would also publicly complain of their father’s iron-fisted discipline when they were growing up.

There is no doubt that Joseph Walter Jackson was the catalyst that took a small-town family band out of Gary and set it on a skyrocketing path to international fame—but at what cost? After news of Joe’s latest stroke filtered out his family was uncharacteristically quiet. His wife issued no statement.

Janet Jackson’s Twitter and Facebook pages posted only a link to her new public-service announcement on World AIDS Day. Her brother’s social-media pages were dormant. Three days after Joe’s hospitalization La Toya tweeted, “Just spoke to my father & he is doing extremely well! So proud of his strength in recovery! He thanks you for all the Well Wishes & Prayers.”

Whenever the Reaper makes his final trip to Joe Jackson’s side, it makes one wonder: who will pay for his funeral? It is likely his estranged wife, Katherine, will step up to write the check, or maybe one of his wealthy grandchildren. In the end, it will surely be Michael Jackson’s money that picks up Joe’s final tab.