Amid the King of Pop's memorial-service hoopla, I can now share the strange, decade-old story of my dinner with the Gloved One. An evening that included unexpected guests (Cory Booker? Judith Regan?), a secret message in one of his songs and a superstar yelping, howling, bawling into his linen napkin.
“Wanna meet Michael Jackson?”
It was one of the strangest questions I’ve ever received, and it came from the most unlikely source: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, he of the “Kosher” (Sex, Sutra, Adultery) line of books. It was November 2000, Boteach’s 34th birthday, and he was inviting a couple of his favorite folks to his New Jersey manse to meet the Artist of the Millennium. And oh yes, the unlikely duo—they’d met in 1999, and Boteach fancied himself Jackson’s "spiritual adviser"—were going to unveil their charity, aptly named Heal the Kids. Was I interested in joining them for dinner?
On the appointed evening I arrived in Englewood, New Jersey, where Boteach and his gaggle of offspring dwell. About 25 of us—including publishing notable Judith Regan, fitness guru Oz Garcia, hedge-fund titan Michael Steinhardt, and future Newark Mayor Cory Booker, another Boteach pal—chatted among ourselves, sipping (kosher) wine and trying to play it cool. But who were we kidding? We were not remotely interested in each other; we were waiting for the Gloved One, and we knew it.
Just then there was a rustling under the table and Jackson lifted the tablecloth. “Oh, look!” he squealed. “A doggie!”
I’m not sure when He actually walked in; all I know is that at one point I glanced back and saw Boteach shepherding a slight, slim-hipped woman with shoulder-length black hair around the room. She was wearing a purplish button-down shirt and black trousers, and people seemed very happy to meet her. And then she swiveled and I realized that this woman was, in fact, the Man himself, the dude whose “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” blasted at the first boy/girl party I’d even attended, circa 1980. A pair of black sunglasses perched on his sliver of a nose, which had a tiny Band-Aid across it. Sparse patches of hair dotted his chin and upper lip, a feeble attempt, I suppose, at a goatee. Other than those dark specks, however, his skin was translucent. He looked like he’d just stepped out of Madame Tussaud’s.
I waited for Boteach and his charge to make their way over to me, but that never happened. Why would it? I was but a lowly journalist whose mission, I soon learned, was to document the evening, and spread the word about Heal the Kids. I didn’t need to actually meet Michael.
Soon we headed into the dining room. There were three tables set up for the adults, and a kid’s table in an adjacent room. That’s where Boteach’s brood sat, along with Jackson’s kids—towhead toddlers Paris and Prince, who were dressed like little Victorian dolls. The Jackson Two were clearly Caucasian, yet they did seem to share some of Jackson’s features. I wondered: Was it possible he really was their biological father? Can vitiligo be transmitted in utero?
I was seated with Boteach’s wife, Deborah; a journalist from England; and one other Nobody. Jackson was supposed to sit at a long table to my right, but there was a glitch: He wanted to hang with the kids instead. A summit ensued, with Boteach and Jackson’s entourage speaking in hushed tones: How could they get him to play nice with the grownups?
Somehow they succeeded and the meal began, the guests surreptitiously eyeing Jackson, who had not removed his sunglasses (or Band-Aid). I had still not been introduced, and I was annoyed. Finally, there was a vacancy next to him. I sidled over.
“Hi,” I said, plopping down. “I’m Abby, and I’ve been wanting to ask you this since I was 12 years old. What does Mamma-Say—Mamma Sah—Mamma-Coo-Sa mean?”
He laughed, a high-pitched chirp that sounded like a castrato. “You’re the second person in my entire career to ask me that!” he trilled. “It means, 'I need you, l love you, I want you’ in Swahili. It fit the song, so I added it in."
Wow! The secret hidden message in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”! This was important information! Made perfect sense to me. I don't speak Swahili, so what did I know? (I have since tried to confirm this translation with native Kenyans—who presumably would know—and they looked at me like I had five heads.)
Then we started talking about Africa. He said he had just returned.
“Were you on safari?” I asked.
He shook his head. No, he was in Johannesburg with friends.
“I’ve been to Johannesburg,” I said. “It scared me.
“It did? Why?”
I told him I didn’t feel safe walking down the street, it seemed very violent. “Did you?”
He chuckled, with more than a touch of sadness. “I can’t walk down the street anywhere,” he said.
We bantered a bit more—I asked him why he was wearing his shades inside, and he said his eyes were bloodshot from traveling so much, and I asked him why his kids’ hair was so light. “Their mother’s a platinum blonde,” he explained.
Just then there was a rustling under the table and Jackson lifted the tablecloth and peered underneath. "Oh, look!" he squealed. "A doggie!"
And then I found myself uttering six words I never imagined would burst from my lips: “ Do you have animals at Neverland?”
“Oh, yes," he said. “Lions and elephants and chimps and giraffes! All kinds.”
"Animals are the best," I said.
"No,” he corrected me, and I swear, his voice lowered a few octaves. " Kids are the best."
Boteach motioned for me to return to my seat. My time was up, but the evening wasn’t. A late thirty-ish woman stood and introduced herself as a single mother of four children, one of whom had a rare form of cancer. The woman talked of her hardships, of the traumas her daughter experienced, of chemo and radiation. As she spoke, small yelps filled the room: It was Jackson, bawling— howling—into his linen napkin. The longer the woman talked, the louder Jackson’s sobs grew, like a 6-year-old who had just been banned from his Wii. Apparently this woman’s pain was just too much for him to bear. Naturally, everyone ignored him: So a grown man’s wailing into his napkin. Big deal! Happens every day.
After that, we trudged into the living room, and Jackson sat on the couch with Boteach’s kids. (His own kids were with the nanny.) Someone hauled in a large cardboard box, a gift from Jackson: A new TV! Then everyone—Jackson included—sang “Happy Birthday,” and someone else put “Billie Jean” on the stereo and it was festive and happy and totally surreal.
Jackson and Boteach launched Heal the Kids a few months later, in February 2001; the initiative lasted a year. In 2003, Jackson admitted in a documentary that he shared beds with young boys, but he seemed surprised that anyone would find this odd. He was later accused of sexually molesting a 13-year-old. He pleaded “not guilty,” of course, and in June 2005, the court agreed.
By this time, Boteach’s relationship with Jackson had deteriorated; according to Boteach, Jackson and his handlers resented his attempts to help him. “Let's face it, Michael may have —I don't know—but may have been guilty of very serious, serious crimes,” Boteach recently told CNN’s Campbell Brown. “I want people to understand that even if it were true—and I have no idea if it is or it isn't—that this was a tortured, tortured soul, who from the earliest age did not know love because he felt that he had to perform to earn love.”
Clearly, I didn’t know Jackson the way Boteach did, or Elizabeth Taylor, or Brooke Shields; I spent three hours in his presence. I’m not a therapist. But based on my very limited time with him, I don’t believe he was a pedophile—he was a giant, oversized pedo. He was stunted, stuck, at about age 8. (“Oh, look, it’s a doggie!”) It’s just my own little theory.
I never did write about him or Heal the Kids; magazines were interested, but Jackson wanted advance approval on anything I wrote, which was not an option. He may have been a kid—but he was savvy one.
Abby Ellin regularly writes the Vows column for the New York Times, and previously wrote the Preludes column for that newspaper about young people and money. She is the author of Teenage Waistland, but her greatest claim to fame is naming “Karamel Sutra” ice cream for Ben and Jerry's.