California Dream’s Peaks and Valleys

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Could there be a bigger story under the great big California sun than the trial of Michael Jackson?

Could anything top the topsy-turvy fortunes and misfortunes of a brilliant pop star who has sold about as many albums as there are people living in this country? A black man with moon-white skin? A former child star accused of child molesting? A multimillionaire with penury said to be snapping at his heels?

Yes, absolutely. This latest trial of the century will also pass off the front pages in time. Jackson will go to prison or go free. If reports of his financial straits are founded in truth, he may go broke too. And that is where Jackson becomes a part of this larger story, the story of California, the blank-slate state that has room enough for every utopian and dystopian who has a notion to put himself at the center of his own universe -- and room enough to swallow them all up again.

Michael Jackson and William Randolph Hearst would understand each other. Hearst was an amateur tap-dancer, and I imagine a moonwalking, tap-dancing pas de deux with the Chief and the King of Pop. Hearst’s San Simeon land holdings were nearly 100 times larger than Jackson’s, almost a quarter-million acres, but each dreamily called his place a “ranch.”


Both would speak the language of acquisitiveness: Jackson totted up a $6-million tab in a televised shopping spree in Las Vegas; Hearst emptied the great houses of Europe one linenfold-paneled chamber at a time. My favorite Hearst story has him lusting after some antique he saw in a magazine, sending his buyer out to track it down and bag it. Some time later, the buyer reports back: “Mr. Hearst, you bought that three years ago.”

The newspaper genius and the musical genius would be in perfect sync with their determination to be creator and master of their utopian kingdoms, to create a bubble of perfection amid vast imperfection, insulated from the buffeting world by a moat of money.

Hearst spent millions on La Cuesta Encantada (Enchanted Hill), and it came close to beggaring him. Jackson now may find Neverland beyond even his enormous means.

Neither man invented the California utopia; they only planted their flags on its peaks. Nearly five centuries ago, in about 1510, a Spanish writer who had never seen the place willed into being a paradise ruled by an Amazon queen in golden armor and guarded by flying, male-flesh-eating griffins. “Las Sergas de Esplandian” wielded so powerful an influence on poor old Don Quixote that his friends burned it because of the “mischief” it wrought by giving wings to the old man’s dreams.


California, half a millennium later, is still an assembly-kit paradise to every newcomer, from the first little R-1 tract house toehold to the topmost tower of San Simeon. California history would not exist without the handiwork of its extreme dreamers, secular and spiritual. Death Valley Scotty and his desert compound ... Simon Rodia’s scrap-heap turrets, the Watts Towers ... Jim Jones and the exaltation and isolation of People’s Temple before it moved fatally to South America ... the Topanga nudist colony founded by a refugee from Chicago winters ... the Llano del Rio cooperative in the Antelope Valley, briefly home to Aldous Huxley, who wrote of it as a place where “everything that ought not to have been done was systematically done.”

A prosecutor has said Jackson is arguably “on the precipice of bankruptcy,” a “spendaholic” with a billionaire’s tastes and a millionaire’s income. A bankruptcy on Jackson’s scale would not be a mere reckoning of red ink and black. It would be a magnificent bankruptcy, a not-a-whimper-but-a-bang bankruptcy.

California history is full of those too: Oliver Morosco’s, the theater impresario whose name burned in lights and who was in the end run over by a Los Angeles streetcar, with barely enough money in his pocket to pay a streetcar fare. Thomas Thorkildsen’s, the early 20th century “Borax king” whose cleaning products were in every kitchen. Carol Burnett would later buy one of his houses, and Brad Pitt bought another, but Thorkildsen died a pensioner in a La Puente nursing home.

Alleged child molesters have no doubt come to the bar of justice in Santa Maria’s courthouse before, and they will no doubt again. What becomes of Michael Jackson at trial will occupy a footnote in criminal history, but in his reach and his grasp at that singular utopia of his own invention, he will have written another chapter in the saga of California, a place that exalts and destroys with equal dispassion.