LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Michael Jackson crossed swords with a lot of people when he was alive, but perhaps none more important than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The former first lady, in her capacity as an editor at Doubleday Books, secured a coveted book deal with the pop star in 1984, when he was still riding high on the success of his “Thriller” album released two years earlier.
“She was only person in America who could get him on the phone,” Stephen Davis, the ghostwriter of “Moon Walk,” said in a recent interview with Reuters.
According to a People magazine article at the time, Onassis paid Jackson a $300,000 advance for the book. Davis received what he termed “a generous flat fee.”
The book came out in 1988, topped the New York Times Best Sellers list, and quickly sold out of its initial print run of almost 500,000 copies, he recalled.
“That was an extremely successful book. They made money on it,” Davis said.
The obvious next step was to print more copies, and then prepare a paperback version. But Jackson, who had total control of the project, vetoed both plans -- annoying Onassis.
“There was so much bad feeling when it didn’t go back to press,” Davis said. “It wasn’t a great experience for her.”
Relations between the two cultural icons were already strained, because Jackson had threatened to block the book’s publication unless Onassis wrote a gushing foreword.
Onassis, who fiercely guarded her privacy and did not want her name in any book she edited, reluctantly made an exception and turned in a three-paragraph blurb.
Davis had won over Jackson with his infamously seamy Led Zeppelin biography “Hammer of the Gods,” which was packed with tales of underage groupies, orgies and massive drug abuse.
“Moon Walk” on the other hand, with an apparently asexual and temperate childlike subject, was essentially “a very, very expensive press release,” Davis said.
“The book was very meat-and-potatoes -- ‘Diana Ross discovered us, and then we went to Motown and we worked for (label founder) Mr. Gordy, and then we went to Los Angeles, I was in The Wiz...'”
The book’s major “scoop” was Jackson’s allegation that he was beaten by his father. But a throwaway comment Jackson made -- and Davis cannot remember if it was in the book -- proved to be more significant. Jackson had recounted how he and his older brothers would squeeze into a pair of hotel beds while on the road as youngsters, “and that’s how I feel best about going to sleep, to this day.”
Davis did not think it was odd that a preteen boy was always on hand at Jackson’s Encino, Calif., home where the interviews took place over an intermittent eight-month period.
”It was like his ward. It was like Batman and Robin. He was a very nice kid,“ Davis said. ”But there were several of them. They all looked like (actor) Macaulay Culkin, and then they became Macaulay Culkin who you may remember was called to testify at the (Jackson’s 2005 child-molestation) trial.
“I‘m sure they were bedding down with Mike, but I don’t believe for a minute that he ever molested them or touched them or anything like that, or gave them alcohol.”
Rather, Davis surmised that they were playmates in Jackson’s innocent fantasy world. They would play videogames, watch movies and run errands for him.
With Onassis applying deadline pressure, Davis hurriedly cobbled his interview transcripts into a narrative, sent off a rough draft and waited to be fired for shoddy work. But within a few weeks, Doubleday was sending him back proofs to check.
“It undermined my faith in publishing a little,” he said. “I‘m not even sure he read it completely...Or someone did, maybe his lawyer or manager.”
Davis and Jackson never kept in touch. He occasionally bumped into Onassis while they were summering on Martha’s Vineyard, but the whole Jackson saga remained a sensitive issue until she died of cancer in 1994.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte