Harry Benson Remembers Michael Jackson

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I first met Michael on a hillside in Colorado in 1984. He was on the famous Victory Tour with his brothers.

Michael was the first to come running over to help when I slipped going up a steep muddy hill. I was fine, but a couple of lenses got covered in mud. That was the first time Michael took a liking to one of my brown Scottish tweed sports jackets, so I took it off and gave it to him. He seemed pleased by my gesture and immediately put it on, put both arms out and twirled around in the bright sunlight while I photographed him running and jumping. On stage that night he glittered in sequins. I flew back to New York with the photographs.

The momentum of the Victory Tour kept building, so I joined Michael in Philadelphia for more photos. The same thing happened again. This time it was a gray Harris tweed jacket. I saw him looking closely at the colors in the tweed. They seemed to fascinate him, so again I gave him my jacket. Sometime later I was amused to see a news clip of Michael actually wearing the jacket, running into a limo, mobbed by fans.


In 1985 I photographed Michael at the “We Are the World” all-night recording session in Los Angeles, conceived to raise money for the starving children of Africa. Quincy Jones posted a sign that said, “Leave your egos at the door,” and the 45 stars who participated did just that. The artist known as Prince kept telephoning to say he was thinking of coming. Quincy told him to hurry, as they had begun working. I overheard Michael say, “Prince will never come while I am here.” When Prince called again, Quincy told him not to bother; it was all over.

On first encounter, Michael seemed shy. He spoke in the very soft, high-pitched voice recognizable to the world, but, oddly enough, after about 10 minutes his tone deepened, although he still spoke very softly. I find that many powerful people, heads of state and such, speak very softly. They don’t have to shout to get your attention. Try to hear what they say the first time—they don’t like to repeat. Michael was like that. An hour later, when we met again, it was like starting over—again, the high-pitched, quiet voice, which morphed into something deeper after about 10 minutes.

When I saw Michael in 1995, again my tweed jacket was coveted, so again I gave it to him. He put it on for the photographs with new bride Lisa Marie Presley.

In 1997 I visited Neverland to photograph Michael with his firstborn, Prince Michael. While he was feeding Prince, the baby’s face became covered with food. Michael joked, “Oh, it’s Linda Blair time,” referring to the actress in the film The Exorcist. The baby was happy and laughing. Later, we took Prince upstairs to his room, where Michael gave him a bottle and held him until he went to sleep, singing little songs to him, something about Daddy’s baby. Michael told me Prince had inspired him to write more music than he had written at any other time in his life.

The following day Michael took me into the rehearsal studio where he had refined the moonwalk. He told me he often brought Prince there to watch him practice in front of the mirrored wall and said they would dance together someday. I was convinced that was going to be the next act. Prince sat playing with a microphone and watching his father’s every move. Michael told me the moonwalk was very easy to do. “Just do this, Harry, and pull your foot back.” Needless to say, I wasn’t stupid enough to try.

Standing outside his bedroom was a wax figure of a queen’s Household Cavalry guard. The bedroom itself was dark and quite plain, in tones of beige and brown, and, to be honest, a bit depressing. Adjacent to the bed was a huge, red, thronelike chair ornately trimmed in gilt. Above the mahogany four-poster was a painting of a blond Jesus.

Michael was easy to work with and delighted in showing me his home. All the photos were done quickly. That’s the thing people forget—you have to work quickly so that your subject doesn’t become bored. When Michael asked what I wanted him to wear, I said, “Just be yourself. Wear what you feel comfortable in.”

One could see how Neverland could take Michael’s mind off all his worries and transport him from the reality of his stressful life. He had everything he wanted there. I got the impression that in no way was Michael a recluse. He read the papers and kept up with the news. Once he asked me what I thought of the Reagans, who were in the White House at the time. He was also curious to know what the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was like, as Michael had seen my photograph of him. Michael made a point of knowing who was who, while all the time those sad eyes were searching, looking closely at me. Occasionally he would break into a laugh, but mostly he was just looking.

Although I wasn’t close to Michael, we were friendly and respectful of each other, and that’s really all you want, someone who allows you to do your job. I will miss him. We will all miss his immense talent.

Source: Architectural Digest

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