Last year’s alignment of three celebrity trials and hearings soothed America’s restless tabloid heart. Comparisons between the cases of actor Robert Blake and music producer Phil Spector, who both faced murder charges, and singer Michael Jackson, accused of sexually molesting a minor, were inevitable. Here are some notes.
1. Architecture as Ego
Nothing personified the defendants as much as the places they called home. Robert Blake’s Mata Hari Ranch was nothing more than a mid-20th-century Valley ranch house that had metastasized into an eyesore over the years with extra rooms and outbuildings; its ad hoc, off-the-cuff demeanor reflected its owner’s own improvised lifestyle. Phil Spector’s Pyrenees Castle, a Norman monument built in 1926 for a local restaurateur, sits at the hilly end of an Alhambra housing tract, the way Vincent Price’s castle did in Edward Scissorhands; it represents not so much a sense of inflated grandeur as the architectural equivalent of elevator shoes. Neverland, Michael Jackson’s Central Coast Xanadu, is all the creepier for its tasteful, Cotswold-manor façade, prodding us to wonder about the kitsch and the mayhem on the inside.
When Blake entered his first courtroom in 2003 with a dyed-black pompadour, he resembled a superannuated teenager. Two years later, he walked out of the court into freedom looking like the white-haired old man he really is. Phil Spector, when first questioned by police, seemed to be a man past his prime clinging vainly to youth through Sunset Strip–club threads and Bob Dylan curls. Then, after firing yet another lawyer, he emerged with an enormous ’fro that suggested a character from Dr. Seuss — or a silent-film villain. (Paging Dr. Mabuse!) Meanwhile, Jackson’s Oscar Wilde ’do was, strangely enough, never copied by the numerous impersonators who joined the mob of his supporters outside the court — they invariably preferred the limp, peek-a-boo forelocks of the singer’s pre-arraignment years.
3. Demented Fans
Jackson easily claimed the most of these. One, an elderly German named Evalina Popp, told me that she and her home-made Michael doll would usually sleep together after the court day at a local homeless shelter. “I had to hide him because he is too well known!,” Popp confided about her wooden companion.
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4. Historical Perspective
Despite his legal and financial nightmares, Blake took time out to address one of Los Angeles’ most compelling historic occasions — the death of Johnny Carson. “When I was arrested,” Blake solemnly recalled outside the Van Nuys courthouse, “he was the very first person to come out and [speak] on my behalf.”
5. Food of the Gods
In the Van Nuys court’s basement cafeteria, Robert Blake ordered the chicken cacciatore special for lunch on the first day of his trial’s closing arguments. “Dark, if ya got it,” answered Blake to a server’s question about meat preferences. (An Italian dish at Vitello’s Restaurant was his wife Bonny Lee Bakley’s last supper.) A salad and a few cocktails were all Spector had for dinner at Dan Tana’s, before he drove over to the House of Blues and picked up Lana Clarkson, the hostess he is accused of killing. Jackson, however, seemed to not eat all during his trial, his appearance growing gaunter by the week. Still, his staff often made sure that the supporters who thronged the gates of Neverland were fed pizzas from the estate’s ovens.