As Michael Jackson’s day in court rapidly approaches, there’s news that authorities have once again raided his Neverland Ranch. They are searching for evidence to lock Jacko away for a good long stretch, and ensure that “the man who would be Pan” can no longer frolic with any Lost Boys.
The obvious comparison here is with J.M. Barrie, the pint-sized writer from Scotland who, in the early 20th Century, wrote the prototype that gave rise to Jacko’s most heated fantasies. Barrie himself the subject of a current movie starring Johnny Depp, imagined a Neverland populated by riotous orphan boys–a sort of Lord of the Flies with a fairy. Barrie was moved to create this world because of his relationship with the Llewelyn Davis family–five young boys (including one named Peter) who, along with their mother, became the focal point of his life. (The story is charted in great detail in Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, the book on which the Depp movie, Finding Neverland, is based.) But while Jacko may or may not have had some inappropriate dealings with his younger friends, there is no indication that Barrie’s interest was ever anything but pure. In fact, according to Davis, Barrie was asexual, and even though he was married to a long-suffering wife (mostly because she was shunted aside in favour of his other “family”), she eventually tired of his lack of passion and left him for someone more vigorous.
But it wasn’t Barrie who first sprung to mind after reading about the latest Neverland raid. No, I thought about another Peter Pan, one in his own way just as lost in adolescent reverie as Michael Jackson, but one whose proclivities are more socially acceptable: Hugh Hefner.
Think about it: Like Jackson, Hugh Hefner’s emotional growth seems to have been stunted somewhere before maturity. In Jackson’s case, it appears to have stopped on the cusp of puberty, which meant that his alleged objects of affection were pre-pubescent boys. Hefner was lucky enough to be a hearty heterosexualist who ended up some place in his late teens, so his preferences were at least legal, if not necessarily always laudable. (Athough this seems to break down according to gender, with more men than women cheering on the exploits of an old dog “dating” women young enough to be his granddaughters, and more women than men apt to gag at a spectacle that holds all the optical appeal of Anna Nicole Smith cuddling her late moneybags Methuselah.)
And yet, both Jackson and Hefner managed to prosper. Jackson succeed despite his arrested development, his extraordinary talent propelling him to the pinnacle of showbiz, from which he has had an equally prodigious fall. Hefner, on the other hand, succeeded because of his arrested development, transforming the longings of a sweaty-palmed teenager into a brand that became the quintessence of cool with its own “philosophy”. (Later on, of course, with the rise of the Women’s Movement, Hef and his philosophy—essentially, employing a state-of-the-art stereo system, alcohol-laced foodstuffs, LeRoy Neiman prints and some smooth patter to effect the seduction of the zaftig but perhaps recalcitrant chick next door—became hopelessly passé. But Hefner had the good fortune to stick around long enough for his Playboy imprint to become cool again in a retro way—like martinis and the Rat Pack in Vegas.)
But perhaps the most crucial point of comparison between Jackson and Hefner is the fantasy world they built around themselves and in with they chose to spend most of their lives. Whether it’s a grandiose amusement park called a Ranch or a sybarite’s playground called a Mansion, both are the tangible manifestation of their creators’ most ardent desires; both in their own way are a “Neverland”.
Jackson’s Neverland is a dizzying whirligig, a child’s Garden of Eden (with Jackson, perhaps, as the serpent?). Hefner’s Neverland features other amusements, and is populated by wholesome, if often pneumatically enhanced, creatures from Wichita or Boise or some other far-flung place in the Midwest where the lights of L.A. throw off a faint but enticing glow. Typically, Hef’s playmates (who are also Playmates) have cheerleader-esque names that are often some variation of Brandi or Sandi or Candi or Mandi (while Hef, through the auspices of Viagra, is said to still be “randi”); like Jackson’s friends (that is, until the latest charges curtailed the arrangement) their status in Neverland falls somewhere between “visitor” and “resident”, at least until they start showing signs of wear and Hef needs an infusion of fresh blood. (And which, come to think of it, makes him sound more Dracula than Peter Pan.)
Both Neverlands cater to their creators’ every whim, ensuring, for example, that Hef and his guests can have a hot-fudge sundae should the urge ever strike at, say, 3 a.m.; Jacko’s minions are also ever alert to their Boss’ desire for carbohydrate-laden kiddy treats at all hours of the day or night. At Neverland, it seems, the Malt Shoppe never closes.
Another common feature: wildlife of the non-human variety. Hef has enough animals to populate a medium-sized zoo, while Jacko is also well known for his attachment to animals, his former pal, Bubbles the chimp, being the most famous example. (Poor Bubbles was exiled because, as he aged, he became too rambunctious and started creating a ruckus–not unlike some of Jackson’s human companions.)
Depending on the outcome of his case, Jackson’s Neverland days may be over. In any event, his bizarre obsession with the character who refused to grow up seems part of his issues with self-image and self-loathing that have prompted endless, disfiguring facial surgeries and have led him to scupper his own career. Meanwhile, Hugh Hefner, the heterosexual Peter Pan, will sail on serenely into decrepitude, surrounded by his flawless flotilla of interchangeable, lookalike babes.