Jacqueline Onassis Edits Michael Jackson's Moonwalk

Only one thing could bring together the former first lady and reigning pop star: books. William Kuhn on the story of how Jackie, a book editor at Doubleday, got Jackson to write Moonwalk—and how he almost killed the whole deal.

“They both actually talked the same,” remembered Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Michael Jackson talked “in that same breathy voice” Jackie sometimes used. Nevertheless, it wasn’t Jackson’s idea to approach Jackie about editing his autobiography, which became Moonwalk in 1988. Nor was it the sort of project Jackie would have proposed to do on her own. Bill Barry remembered of the Jackson autobiography that Jackie “took one for the home team”; the book for her was “an exercise in pure for-profit responsibility” and one that he “suspected she came to regret.” The journalist Hillel Italie described the book as the “classic celebrity project,” because it wasn’t written or conceived by Jackson himself. Rather, it was an idea that originated at Doubleday, and Jackie agreed to sponsor it. One of the unspoken expectations at Doubleday was that the publisher might support the more speculative books that she was passionate about if every once in a while she agreed to go after a commercial book that might generate significant profit.

In the mid-1980s, Jackie and [her editorial assistant] Shaye Areheart flew out to Encino, California, in order to meet Jackson, something she rarely did for her authors. Those who weren’t already based in New York usually flew there to meet her. Areheart tells one version of this meeting and the sub­sequent writing of Jackson’s book in the new edition of Moonwalk, rushed out in 2009 after Jackson’s unexpected death.

According to Areheart, Jackie and Jackson got along well. Jackie was present at the initial meeting with Jackson in Encino in 1983, but it was Areheart who had to follow up when the project got messy. At the first meeting Jackson took Areheart and Jackie to his trailer adjacent to the studio where he was making the music video for his song “Thriller,” and there they talked about what the book might look like. Jackson proposed a kind of picture book with text, and both Doubleday editors were willing to entertain that as an idea. It was in his trailer that Jackson asked Jackie to write the foreword and she agreed. She also wanted something unusual from him, though: to reveal something important about a life lived in the spotlight. Areheart noticed that he was enthusiastic about setting the record straight when so many false things had been written about him but that he also felt some conflict. Some things he wanted to stay private.

Areheart found that writing the book was less interesting to him than making music, and that delayed the book’s appearance. When the first writer who was assigned to the project didn’t work out, Areheart got more actively involved. She flew to California with a tape recorder to record Jackson’s responses to her questions about his life and career. She had a full-time job in New York, however, and eventually handed off her material to a second writer, Stephen Davis, who had written books on Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. He took the recorded material and shaped it into a narrative. At this point Jackson was on tour in Asia and Areheart had to fly to Australia to get his approval of the text. He didn’t want to read it, so she read it to him, line by line, for two weeks in 1987, making notes of his changes. They could work only on the nights when he wasn’t performing, and they would sit on his bed, Areheart in a pair of jeans and Jackson in red silk pajamas, going over the manu­script.

“How the hell did I get [to be] doing a book on Michael Jackson? I’m still trying to think of why,” [Jackie’s] voice says on the tape.

When they were finished, and after Areheart had flown to Los Angeles so Jackson could approve Doubleday’s plans for promotion, Jackson decided that he didn’t want the book published after all. After all the expense of time and production—the book was ready at that point to go to the printer—the people at Doubleday were shocked. Areheart thought this about-face happened because Jackson suddenly felt “terribly exposed,” in a way he had never done before. Eventually, after some high-level persuading, he relented, and Moonwalk immediately went to first place on The New York Times bestseller list, as well as else­where around the world.

Jackie’s colleagues remembered different dimensions of the story. Areheart herself told one literary agent that dealing with Jackson was “a huge nightmare, just a lot of Sturm und Drang.” J. C. Suarès, the designer hired from outside Doubleday to work on the book, was present at Jackie and Areheart’s second meeting with Jackson in California, when they showed Jackson some layout ideas. Even before Jackie went to California, Suarès’ answering machine recorded a fragment of her dismay at being involved in the project. “How the hell did I get [to be] doing a book on Michael Jackson? I’m still trying to think of why,” her voice says on the tape. “Someone must have told me to go and do it.” Suarès remembered the Encino meeting as a bizarre occasion. He, Jackie, and Areheart had arrived at Jackson’s house and been seated at a long table. Jackie was at one end. At the other was an empty spot for Jackson. He was late. It was not enough that Jackie had flown out to meet him; he had to show his superior star power by being the last to arrive. On the plane back to New York, Jackie asked Suarès, “Do you think he likes girls?” and she went back to the subject several times while they were working together. The star’s studied ambiguity on the question made them curious.

Jackie told Edward Kasinec, whom she sometimes met over a sandwich and a can of V8 juice when she went to work quietly at the New York Public Library on days when the library wasn’t open to the public, “Michael Jackson is driving me mad with his phone calls.”

Jackson would make lengthy calls to her house on Martha’s Vineyard to complain about something he was sure she would understand: the burdens of fame. She didn’t want to talk about that. Few of her authors remember her ever being willing to discuss it, except by mistake or in passing. She refused to entertain it as a topic of discussion, although she listened politely to the singer’s complaints.

When a first draft of the book arrived, it was much shorter than everyone had anticipated. Nancy Tuckerman recalled experimenting with the old college student trick of double-or triple-spacing it so it would come out at a respectable length. Suarès described it as “all puff and no substance.” Jackie called Jann Wenner and asked him what she should do. “The book she thought she was getting,” said Wenner, “was an autobiography. Michael was not going to provide anything like that. He was not going to write it, let alone speak it. He wanted to provide a photo book of how wonderful he was. His idea of a good photograph book was him receiving this award or that award. It wouldn’t even have been a good photo book, because it was going to be his personal achieve­ment scrapbook.”

After thinking long and hard about it, Jackie decided to reject Jackson’s manuscript. “But she didn’t want to upset Michael,” recalled Suarès. “She gave him an ultimatum in a calm, firm voice. She instructed him to open up and give the reader a sincere show of feeling—about growing up black in show business, for example.” She finished by telling him that if the book was only public-relations or promotional material, “we’d all be made fools of.” Suarès said that Jackie’s performance was vintage Bette Davis. Jackie loved that, but it wasn’t the end of the troubles for the book.

Alberto Vitale, who was then the CEO of the holding company, Bantam Doubleday Dell, into which Doubleday had been merged, reported that it was nearly impossible to pin down Jackson when he needed to give final approval to his manuscript. “He was like a moving target,” and that’s why Vitale approved spending the money to fly Areheart out to see Jackson in Australia. When Jackson wanted to back out of his contract with Doubleday, Vitale and the head of Doubleday, Nancy Evans, had to meet with him in New York in order to per­suade him to stay in. It was a civilized meeting, but Vitale thought the people surrounding Jackson were not necessarily helpful. Jackson ultimately abided by his contract, but Vitale remembered publishing the book as an exasperating experience. The fact that no paperback followed the hardback was a testament to the bad blood between Jackson and the publisher.

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Jackson discussed his fame in several lines of his finished manuscript. He said that he had tried to “shun personal publicity and keep a low profile as much as possible.” This was the only way he could sur­vive, he said. “The price of fame can be a heavy one,” he continued. “Is the price you pay worth it?” He admitted to being obsessed with privacy. He said that the dark glasses and the surgical mask he often wore were his ways of taking a break from having everyone look at him. In the final version, he wrote, “My dating and relationships with girls have not had the happy endings I’ve been looking for. Something always seems to get in the way.” Reading this, a music critic for The New York Times observed that Moonwalk was “eccentric, contradictory and helplessly revealing.” Jackson was “a master of deadpan banality” who had given out “significant information between the lines of psy­chobabble.”

Ultimately, what Jackie disliked about celebrity was the cheapness of it, its transience, the fact that it so often lacked substance, that she could be lumped into a category with Michael Jackson on the basis of fame alone. What gave her greater satisfaction was to think about the way something small and light and impermanent, like a singer’s fame or her own, could be transformed into something bigger, heavier, and riper with potential significance. That was the subject that Bill Moyers investigated with Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, which came out in the same year as Moonwalk. It was a bestseller too, and understandably gave her a lot more pride than the Jackson book.

This excerpt is taken from Reading Jackie by William Kuhn, Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

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William Kuhn is a biographer, historian, and author of Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books.