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The Price Of Neverland

The ghosts of Michael Jackson’s past linger in Southern California

The ranch where Michael Jackson built Neverland is up for sale again. The carnival rides were removed long ago, some of them bought by the Queen Mary, a historic docked ship and tourist attraction in Long Beach that brings out the “Sinister Swings” for Halloween. The wild animals were relocated, with tigers Thriller and Sabu moved to The Birds star Tippi Hedren’s wild big cat preserve in Acton, California. The flamingos expatriated to a New Jersey zoo. Sadly, the whereabouts of the elephant named Gypsy that Michael received as a gift from Elizabeth Taylor are unknown.

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Bubbles, the chimpanzee that Jackson adopted from a Texas research hospital in the 1980s, is still alive. Bubbles famously lived with the star — first sleeping in a crib at the Jackson family compound in Encino, then moving with Michael to Neverland — and accompanied him on the Bad world tour. Their public appearances together throughout the ’80s fueled Jackson's growing reputation as an eccentric. After making the successful leap from child star to the world's biggest celebrity, he was veering further into his personal obsession with youth and whimsy. Tabloids branded him “Wacko Jacko,” and a 1988 Jeff Koons sculpture of MJ and Bubbles in porcelain kitsch style added to the idea of him as a fragile weirdo.


Jackson was sensitive to the criticisms he got from the media snipers who lambasted his friendly relationships with Elizabeth Taylor and Bubbles alike. In 1987's “Leave Me Alone,” he addressed the rumors directly, pleading with the public for a little privacy. The video, a stop-motion animation of a log flume ride through his funhouse-mirrored existence, joked about some of the unsubstantiated tales about his life — including the one that said he'd bid on Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick's bones after seeing David Lynch’s film about Merrick, and that he saw parallels between himself and the hyperintelligent Englishman whose deformed physical appearance led to fame as a Victorian circus freak.

In his early teens, Jackson was transplanted from Gary, Indiana, to the tony Los Angeles suburb of Encino, in the San Fernando Valley. He lived at the Jackson family’s one-acre compound there until the year of "Leave Me Alone," when, at nearly 30, he started looking at properties in the Santa Barbara area. Jackson had accumulated a large menagerie of animals that were outgrowing the Valley house, and he wanted a place that could also house his collection of snakes, llamas, birds — and, of course, Bubbles. After checking out a few other ranches for sale, he fell in love with the 2,700-acre property known as Zaca Laderas Ranch, where Paul McCartney stayed while the two filmed the video for their duet “Say Say Say.”

The ranch, originally developed by golf course magnate William Bone in 1977, featured a 13,000-square-foot French Normandy–style chateau. Jackson purchased it for $17.5 million (down from Bone's asking price of $60 million) and set about turning it into a facsimile of his real dream home, Disneyland — installing carnival rides and a small train depot that is a near-exact replica of the one at Disneyland Park. The flowers at the entrance to Jackson's home spelled out "NEVERLAND," in place of the ones in Anaheim that form a Mickey Mouse face.

Jackson’s issues with his own physical appearance manifested psychologically long before they became obvious to the world. He reportedly underwent his first rhinoplasty in 1979 after injuring his nose during a dance routine, and he was diagnosed with the skin-pigment condition vitiligo in the '80s. He had follow-up nose jobs throughout the decade, but denied them to the press at first, claiming that the changes in his face were strictly the result of puberty. One theory went that he wanted to alter his appearance so as to stop resembling his father, Joe Jackson, whom Michael would later accuse of physical and emotional abuse. Another theory is that Jackson was affected by a potent cocktail of body dysmorphic disorder, unfettered access to revolutionary new surgeries, and nobody around to advise him against them. As with so much else about him, Jackson’s relationship to his blackness and his outward appearance was — and is — the subject of endless speculation.

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Like many stars who lose access to any real privacy outside their homes, Jackson chose to build a compound where everything he could possibly want would exist. Unable to step outside of Neverland without being monitored, and afraid of being documented unflatteringly, he made it so that he never had to leave the house. But naming the property after the place where Peter Pan and his Lost Boys lived as eternal children proved to be a bad choice, as Jackson was increasingly dogged by rumors that he sexually abused boys. The carnival rides and theme-park style of the property became seen as a trap Jackson used to lure kids, particularly vulnerable, impoverished, or sick ones, to stay at his remote, lavish estate.

There was always a darkness lurking underneath Jackson’s fairy-tale life. His lifelong identification with Peter Pan was tinged with the macabre undertone of the original story: Peter Llewelyn Davies, the real-life child who inspired Scottish author J.M. Barrie’s early-20th-century writings, grew up to become a troubled man who eventually committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. There are interpretations of the Peter Pan story, too, that see Peter as an eerie psychopomp who lures children to leap out of high windows to their deaths, with Neverland as the promised afterlife.

For Jackson, idealizing the myth of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up was tied to the feeling that he had been robbed of a normal childhood when his stage father pushed him and his siblings into performing as a way to escape crushing poverty. That they succeeded so spectacularly allowed Jackson money and power with which to approximate an idyllic, carefree childhood world of climbing trees and spending hours playing aimlessly — experiences he'd never had as a child whose free hours were spent rehearsing.

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Like Elvis Presley before him, Jackson's ascent to unparalleled heights of pop fame ultimately made him isolated and paranoid. Neverland, like Elvis's Graceland, was mocked by outsiders for its baroque tackiness, but Jackson saw it as a world he could mold to his own frozen-in-childhood internal tastes — equal parts Peter Pan and Richie Rich. And as long as he remained behind the gates, no one could see or judge him. When the rumors began to circulate that the children whom Jackson brought in for playdates were being played with in more nefarious, sexual ways, some suggested that Jackson himself felt and acted like a child. His fixation on childhood and innocence only intensified as he himself aged, defying conventional maturation.

In time, the childlike home Jackson built was plagued by the consequences of its lack of grown-up supervision. Bubbles allegedly started a fire at Neverland in the early ’90s by playing with matches, but he was not banned from the estate until 2003, when Jackson decided the chimp posed a risk to his young son, Prince Michael II. Rashida Jones recently spoke about being bitten by Bubbles as a kid while hanging out with her dad and MJ in the ’80s. As an adult male chimp, Bubbles proved too aggressive to handle, and Jackson entrusted care of the chimp to an animal sanctuary in Sylmar.

Forcing a great ape to live a quasi-human life is abusive. In 2004, Bubbles was finally relocated to a more appropriate home — the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida — and the chimp who reportedly always hated cameras has embraced retirement from the public eye. He is now 33 years old, and his keepers were quoted a few years ago saying that he has become “huge and ugly,” but “now has a 'sweet' character and likes painting and listening to flute music.”

Although Bubbles didn’t get any of Jackson’s inheritance and the animal sanctuary depends on donations, it seems like a relatively happy ending for an animal that was kept in an unsuitable environment for decades against its will, after narrowly escaping becoming a lab-testing subject. According to one 2009 story, “Bubbles also spends much of his time sitting quietly in trees with his best friend Sam, a 40-year-old chimpanzee.”

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Michael moved out of Neverland after he was acquitted in his 2005 trial for alleged child sex abuse. He went first to Bahrain, which his brother Jermaine Jackson later admitted is also where Michael likely would have moved if he had been convicted. Michael lived there as a guest of his friend Sheikh Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa, but the friendship fell apart after Jackson reportedly recorded but failed to release a Hurricane Katrina benefit single the sheikh had written called “He Who Makes the Sky Gray.”

So Jackson relocated again, this time to Ireland. By this point, despite his criminal acquittal, his reputation had been tarnished beyond repair by the allegations and the public sense that something was likely deeply rotten in Neverland. While he always retained a large, worldwide fan base that would not accept the possibility that Jackson was a sexual abuser, many other fans came to accept that loving MJ’s music and Jackson himself were two entirely different things.

Around the late 2000s, Neverland Ranch was shut down and put up for sale — Jackson was delinquent on paying back loans adding up to $270 million. The estate sat untouched and unbought, fully permeated at last by controversy instead of fame. It was foreclosed in 2008, and Jackson transferred the title to Sycamore Valley Ranch Company LLC, not clearing his debt but netting him a $30 million payoff. Neverland’s artifacts — memorabilia from his decades-long career, plus a strange trove of things purchased by a rich star who seemingly bought everything the Sharper Image catalogue ever sold — were scheduled to be auctioned off in April 2009, but an increasingly unwell Jackson canceled the auction before it took place.

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Later that year, Jackson planned to embark on the This Is It comeback tour with 50 sold-out shows in London. He had begun rehearsals with choreographer director Kenny Ortega at the Staples Center when he entered cardiac arrest at his new L.A. home. Dr. Conrad Murray was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter for administering the anesthesia and anti-anxiety drugs that killed him. Jackson's body was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

To reach Neverland, you take California State Route 154, which runs through the Santa Ynez Mountains. The highway connects the wealthy beaches of Santa Barbara to the California wine country where the movie Sideways took place. Route 154 is a paved-over version of the original San Marcos Pass, and it feels so rickety and rugged when you drive it that it’s not a surprise to learn it was originally a stagecoach route from the 1840s. It’s known for being dangerously narrow, and car headlights are required even during the day.

The road takes you past the manmade Lake Cachuma, built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1950s. At a nearby state park, you can find some of the oldest cave paintings in California, created by the native Chumash people long before white settlers arrived and attacked. Weekenders on trips out from Los Angeles take 154 to quaint tourist spots like the Danish-styled Solvang and Buellton, the home of Pea Soup Andersen’s. At the top of the Santa Ynez mountains is another famous isolated ranch compound belonging to a polarizing cultural figure of the 1980s: Rancho del Cielo, the vacation home of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

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Now rebranded as Sycamore Valley Ranch, the Neverland property is deep in the Santa Ynez Valley, far away from the tourist towns and not visible from the main road. The flowers that spell out "NEVERLAND" remain, despite the rebrand. So do the train depot and tracks, although the train has been sold off — any buyers will have to provide their own train. There’s also a movie theater, a dance studio, and countless guest houses.

While the lurid history of Neverland might put off potential buyers, the fact that Jackson lived here is still a lure to some. There were rumors in 2015 that Kanye West wished to purchase it as a home for himself and Kim Kardashian. Instead, they bought an enormous compound in the West Valley area of Hidden Hills. Bone originally developed the property that became Neverland with the intent of turning it into a country club, and now that the price has been slashed, ending up as a golf course or vineyard is the land's most likely fate. The ghosts and rumors will keep away some but not all people with $67 million to burn. Even with the new name, the Neverland area will always feel somewhat like Jackson’s mausoleum. When enough big money is in play, there is no part of California whose violent, contentious history cannot be redeveloped into another green world.