The Battle Over Michael Jackson’s Legacy

13 minute read
Richard Corliss

Lost Kingdom. The icon’s death has sparked a war over his legacy. Inside his final days

At wednesday night’s rehearsals, the middle-aged man of 50 was showing the kids how it’s done. “He’d take the stage with this group of dancers, all in their 20s, but you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” says Dorian Holley, vocal director for Michael Jackson’s This Is It series of concerts, planned to begin this month in London. During Jackson’s run-through at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, “he was giving a clinic to those dancers,” recalls Bashiri Johnson, the percussionist on the tour. “Whenever he would do a move, he’d raise the bar.” If somebody screwed up, the star took it placidly, saying over and over, “This is what rehearsals are for.” He was psyched to see his comeback extravaganza finally taking recognizable shape. “He was aglow that night–aglow and afloat,” Johnson says. “His feet barely touched the stage, and he wasn’t stressed at all.”

The following afternoon, Jackson was dead. His physician, Conrad Murray, said when the star had stopped breathing, he had done CPR but delayed calling 911 for up to 30 minutes because he wasn’t sure of the street address of Jackson’s Holmby Hills home. The star was declared dead at 2:26 p.m. local time on June 25, and the awful news raced quickly from the ER through the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Even veteran nurses reacted like many of his fans soon would. “They were hysterical. They’re going, ‘Michael Jackson is dead, he’s dead!’ They were catatonic,” Irena Medavoy, wife of studio chief Mike Medavoy and a junior high school friend of Jackson’s, told PEOPLE. She was arriving for an appointment when the ambulance bearing Jackson pulled up. “I was there for about an hour and a half, and by the time I got out, people outside are sobbing and other people dressed up as Michael are dancing.”

So began the tribute from millions. Mourning is usually a song of celebration in a minor key, but the memorial services, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and around the world, took on the tone of a jubilant revival meeting. MTV remembered that it used to be a music network and became MJTV for a few days. And Jackson’s CDs, which sold torpidly in the past few years, were again best sellers.

The high-speed flowering of interest, melancholy and remorse is common at the sudden early passing of a superstar–James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Princess Diana–whose life is marked by achievement and controversy. Jackson’s death and commercial resurrection are eerily like those of Elvis Presley, dead at 42. One Hollywood cynic, learning that Presley had just died, commented, “Good career move.” Cutting but prophetic: Elvis sold far more records after his death than before. Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, Jackson’s wife for 20 months in the mid-’90s, recalled a few days ago on her MySpace page a conversation with Jackson: “He stared at me very intensely and he stated with an almost calm certainty, ‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like [Elvis], the way he did.'”

Unquestionably, Jackson is worth more dead than alive. The 1,000 hours of video of the final rehearsals of his London show could be worth about $500 million in gross sales of DVDs, CDs and other items. His assets include half ownership of music publisher Sony/ATV, worth $1 billion. His small remaining interest in Neverland could skyrocket in value; so will his personal items when sold. But his staggering debt, perhaps $500 million, reflects a lifetime of indulgence on antiques, houses, helicopters, more than $100 million in annual upkeep on the 2,500-acre (1,000 hectare) Neverland estate and the hosting of an army of parasitic hangers-on, pseudo advisers and business partners whose main concern did not seem to be him. Says a source with knowledge of Jackson’s finances: “All these other guys tried to set these deals up–lucrative deals up–everything from starting theme parks in different countries to other brand-extension-type ideas. They were trying to set up deals and take fees regardless if they made him money or not.”

The King died from a surfeit of pills and junk food. But what or who killed the King of Pop? Amateur pathologists in the entertainment-news industry flooded TV, newspapers and the Internet with lurid theories. British tabloid the Sun claimed that an autopsy revealed that Jackson’s body, weighing an emaciated 112 lb. (50 kg), was riddled with needle marks from painkiller injections, a report swiftly denied by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.

Not that Jackson hadn’t punished his body–sculpted, spindled and mutilated it–on his own. The extensive plastic surgery he permitted on his face left a beautiful young man looking like the Phantom of the Opera; he often wore a mask to hide his disfigured features. After he was injured in a fire while shooting a Pepsi commercial in 1984 and, later, in a stage fall, he became dependent on prescription medication and on the Dr. Feelgoods who cater to the pharmacological demands of the stars. “The doctors prescribed so much drugs, it was crazy,” said a longtime Jackson-family attorney, Brian Oxman. Jackson often looked frail and wasted away in his public appearances, the result, said another tabloid, of a malady called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic condition that leads to the breakdown of the lungs. Yet according to those who worked with him, he was vital and tireless the night before his death.

A harsh spotlight fell on Murray, the cardiologist who had been hired to accompany Jackson on the tour. The autopsy dismissed foul play, and Murray denied injecting Jackson with Demerol, a powerful painkiller.

The star’s survivors and friends are also pressing for answers. “The doctor has showed some bizarre behavior,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has ministered to the family in recent days, told PEOPLE. “Apparently, the doctor was with Michael, maybe administering to his back pain. And then, the next thing that happens is there is a 911 call … Then, of course, the doctor did not confer with the family … He didn’t sign the death certificate. He didn’t talk with the coroner. And then he was missing in action. Finally, when he surfaced, he surfaced with a lawyer. All these are rather bizarre actions. There may be plausible answers, but we don’t know.”

Bizarre behavior was a phrase often applied to the Michael Jackson who, for the past 20 years, seemed so remote as to be extraterrestrial–the moonwalking moon child. But that was just the last of many Michaels who fascinated, seduced and troubled the world of popular music. In his first prodigious eminence, at 11, as the Cupid and Kewpie doll of the Jackson 5, he was no more complicated than he was adorable: the family singing group’s star, dimpled and lithe, the young emperor of elfin cool. Five of Katherine and Joe Jackson’s nine kids were in the group, which had a slew of hits for Motown Records, then went to Epic, called themselves the Jacksons, and let Michael branch out on his own.

He recorded four solo albums and co-starred with Diana Ross–who was named in his will as backup guardian of his children–in the movie of the Broadway hit The Wiz, before teaming with renowned producer Quincy Jones for the 1979 Off the Wall. A mixture of disco, funk and plaintive ballads, the album defined MJ’s style and sped him toward superstardom. The first single, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” went to No. 1 and came with a fresh promotional tool: a music video, in which three Michaels appear onscreen to perform some intricate steps. It was the squall of an audiovisual genre that Jackson would shape and dominate.

All that was mere throat-clearing for the 1982 Thriller, which would become the world’s all-time best-selling album. Maturing as a songwriter, he turned a celebrity’s denial of paternity into the whispery, groovy “Billie Jean” and a flee-don’t-fight message into the unbeatable “Beat It.” The videos for these songs broke an informal color barrier at MTV and made music videos a format that quickly spread around the globe. The 14-minute superproduction for Thriller was later chosen by MTV as the top video ever.

Smash CDs followed, and his collaboration with Lionel Richie on the single and video “We Are the World” sold 7.5 million copies in the U.S. and raised more than $60 million for famine relief in Africa. He wowed ’em at the Super Bowl and with spectacular concert tours whose special effects never overwhelmed the slender dude with the gentle demeanor, dervish footwork and nonpareil showmanship. If you were a star in the ’80s, you’d want to be Michael Jackson.

Yet it seemed as though he didn’t want to be Michael Jackson. His disastrous compact with California plastic surgeons altered his face nearly beyond recognition. His cocoa skin was gradually blanched into a geisha’s pancake white–the result, doctors said, of the pigment-depleting disease vitiligo. Except when camouflaged by makeup in videos–he even wore it to bed, said ex-wife Lisa Marie–or cavorting as a speck onstage in giant arenas, he retreated to his palatial Neverland estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., and became the world’s most reclusive exhibitionist.

Jackson had hoped to star in a Steven Spielberg film of the James M. Barrie play Peter Pan, about the boy from Neverland who refuses to grow up. The story’s reflection of his own needs, dreams and scars was poignant. In a tearful (and top-rated) interview with Oprah Winfrey, he confessed that his father had beat him and called him ugly (this beautiful child!). Who wouldn’t want a makeover of that scarred youth? Once he had the money and power, the perpetually preadolescent Jackson moved into a fantasy version of childhood, in the company of young boys he saw as his peers and saviors. Asked by Winfrey what he missed most in his own youth, he replied, “Slumber parties.” He’d make good on that wish, bunking with kids his own emotional age.

One of those boys brought a child-molestation suit against Jackson, which consumed the tabloids, subjected him to a penis examination and ended only when he settled with the boy’s family for a reported $20 million. In 2003, Jackson was charged with child molestation in criminal court. At his trial in 2005, he proclaimed his innocence, once showing up in court in his pajamas. The jury agreed with him. He was never convicted of anything, except terminal weirdness, by a public for whom Jackson was less famous than notorious.

This Peter Pan died just as he was showing signs of adult behavior. In 2005, Jackson saw Ron Burkle, the billionaire chairman of Yucaipa Cos., at the funeral of Johnnie Cochran, who had defended Jackson. Burkle, a person close to the matter told People, “told him in a very honest way that he kind of had to grow up, and as an adult, you have to start paying attention to where your money is going. Ron advised him to cut his spending or go back to work.” Jackson sold Neverland to a partnership run by Colony Capital, a private-equity firm, and moved to the ultra-posh Holmby Hills in West L.A. Burkle’s counsel was sensible, free and friendly, and it more than likely saved Jackson’s wealth. He even paid for forensic accountants to untangle Jackson’s finances. The Gloved One began writing his own checks. But even with cutbacks, Jackson needed income to maintain his lifestyle. That would mean performing; he hadn’t toured since 1997. So he reluctantly agreed to a London gig that would eventually grow to 50 shows. He had already sold over $90 million worth of tickets. The aging King of Pop was primed for a comeback.

Now his realm will be open for inspection and vandalism by any number of interested parties and their lawyers. A will Jackson signed in 2002, made public after his death, leaves his estate to a family trust and nothing to Debbie Rowe, his second wife and the mother of Prince Michael Jackson, 12, and Paris Jackson, 11. A third child, Prince Michael II, 7, was born to an unidentified surrogate mother. The star’s mother Katherine is named as a beneficiary to the trust and guardian of the three children. But they won’t see their inheritance, if any, until the debt issues are resolved. “You have to pay your creditors before you can pay your children,” says Robert Rasmussen, who teaches contract law at the University of Southern California. “That’s Law 101.”

And with the estate’s current net worth north of $200 million and likely to spew cash forever, the vultures will circle ever lower; expect the convergence of cash and carrion. The will is sure to be contested. However sad the child-molestation cases were, the battles over the Jackson fortune, and the allegations that are sure to surface, will be uglier still.

All sorts of pepper is flying out of the postmortem-Michael rumor mill: that Jackson dermatologist Arnold Klein is the father of two of the children, that Rowe was only the surrogate mother of those kids. Even if any of this is true, says Scott Altman, a law professor at USC, “that’s probably going to be irrelevant. In California, a child born during a marriage is strongly presumed to be the child of the husband and the wife. And if Rowe has been visiting pretty regularly–if they think of her as a mother and have an ongoing personal, intimate relationship with her–then she could probably succeed in getting custody.”

Twenty years ago, Jackson was concluding one of the hottest decades enjoyed by any star in any medium. Twenty years before that, he was a magic child, the Prince of Pop. It would be a blessing if he could be remembered for the joy he engendered and the musical kingdom he created and–if we see that last rehearsal tape–the artist he was about to prove he still could be.

Remembering Michael For more coverage of the life and death of Michael Jackson go to or pick up our Commemorative Edition at newsstands now

Plus For breaking news on the Jackson story, visit And check out PEOPLE’s special tribute issue, on newsstands now, or order the PEOPLE tribute book, Thriller: Remembering Michael Jackson, at

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