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Escape from New York: When Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor Took a 9/11 Road Trip

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the King of Pop and the two Oscar-winning actors piled into a rental car and drove across America. At least, that’s the urban legend that’s very much up for debate

In our summer-long series, “Highway to MEL,” we’re exploring all the twists and turns of a perfect getaway. Stick with us as we roll through all-American tales of great escapes down endless highways, and prove once and for all that there is nothing more liberating than the open road. Read all the stories here.

In the last decades of her life, Elizabeth Taylor struck up an intense friendship with Michael Jackson. The kind of friendship that involved gift elephants, diamond necklaces and extravagant weddings. Taylor also defended Jackson against the allegations of child molestation that surfaced against him in the 1990s and 2000s. And before she died, Taylor left instructions that she was to be buried next to her dear friend Michael at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery, so she could spend eternity by his side.

While their obsessive, lavish friendship was well-known and documented, there’s one iconic story about a mythical road trip the two friends took along with Marlon Brando that’s still mostly the stuff of Hollywood legend. 

In 2011, when Osama bin Laden was located and killed, stories from the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks resurfaced in the media and cultural zeitgeist. But there was one story that defied imaginations. That year, Vanity Fair published the story of Jackson, Taylor and Brando munching on Burger King and KFC as they drove across America together in the days just after 9/11.

In 2001, Jackson was in New York City to perform two concerts at Madison Square Garden on September 7th and 10th to mark the 30th anniversary of his career as a solo artist, and he invited his best friend Taylor to join him. Other stars in attendance were Eminem, Yoko Ono and Whitney Houston, and Jackson took special care to invite his good friend Brando, too. 

The show opened with Brando, who sat on stage in a leather chair while he fiddled with his watch. Eventually, he looked up at the crowd and told them about the children being massacred overseas and credited his friend Jackson with saving them. When he was done, a heckler shouted, “Hey, Stella!” After that, Jackson graced the stage and “sat like a Roman emperor in a lit booth near the side of the stage and air-kissed the performers,” with Taylor and Macaulay Culkin at his side. 

The day after his second concert, the planes hit and the Twin Towers collapsed. Like millions of others, the three megastars found themselves trapped in New York and terrified of what could come next. Their answer was to take a road trip across America. 

Tim Mendelson, who was Taylor’s assistant for 25 years, told Vanity Fair that Jackson received a call from friends in Saudi Arabia, warning him that the U.S. was under attack. He told everyone with him in his hotel, including Brando, to leave as quickly as they could. But Taylor was staying at another hotel a few blocks away, and throngs of fans surrounded them as they tried to get over to her. Corey Feldman, a friend of Jackson’s, recalled in the Vanity Fair story, “Michael was trying to get Elizabeth out! He was at first looking for a private jet. He wanted permission to fly out — but everything was surreal. I didn’t go with him.”

Another eyewitness was a former employee of Jackson’s, who credited his boss with coordinating the three megastars’ road-trip travel arrangements, saying that Jackson guided Taylor and Brando to a spot in New Jersey where they could hole up before the long cross-country trek. Once they secured a rental car, they hit the road. The former employee told Vanity Fair, “They actually got as far as Ohio — all three of them, in a car they drove themselves!” 

He went on to claim that Brando even “annoyed his traveling companions by insisting on stopping at nearly every KFC and Burger King they passed along the highway.” 

Yet, in the same Vanity Fair story, a second unnamed assistant remembered things very differently. “Elizabeth stayed behind, where she went to a church to pray, and she went to an armory where people were who couldn’t get home or who’d stayed behind to look for the missing. She also went down to Ground Zero, where she met with first responders. Eventually, the airports opened and she flew home.” 

This version of events was later confirmed by a second person, Stacy Brown, a Jackson biographer and close friend of the family. To clear things up, Brown wrote her own version of events in an article for the New York Post, in which she explained how she helped Jackson’s family return to California after the attacks. “On Tuesday, September 11th, they awoke at their Plaza hotel suites to find chaos. Jackson had been up early, about 4:30 a.m., searching newspapers and scouring the television for the first reviews of his shows,” she wrote. “As the catastrophe unfolded, Brando refused to leave his room. But Taylor took off to meet Debbie Reynolds, who had attended the concerts but needed to be back on the West Coast for an engagement. Taylor called her ex-husband, Virginia Senator John Warner, to ask for help. Knowing that Taylor and Brando were okay, Jacko checked in on his mother, Katherine, and his brothers, who were staying across town at the W Hotel.”

Once Jackson was convinced his family was safe, he made plans with Brown to get the hell out of New York City. Knowing that she was a local from Queens, Jackson asked her the best way to flee. “I helped them book two RVs — each fit 18 passengers and were driven by their security guards,” she explained. 

However, Jackson wasn’t with his family in the RVs. Instead, he switched hotels and “moved into the Trump International and sent his spokesman, Bob Jones, to check on Brando.” True to form, Brando was being difficult. Jackson’s team was informed that, “‘Brando doesn’t want to talk to anybody. He said he’s not going to come out of his room until the world ends.’” (When the world continued on, Brando did eventually leave his hotel room.)

Two days after the Towers fell, Jackson finally did drive out of New York. But he wasn’t behind the wheel, and it wasn’t Taylor and Brando who were with him but his children. The first stop was a hotel within view of Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands. Jackson, his kids and his team waited for the skies to reopen so they could fly home. In the meantime, per Brown, Jackson looked after his fans. He instructed his tour bus to head back to Manhattan and provide rides to anyone who was still stuck in the city after camping outside Madison Square Garden waiting for his show. 

Brown wrote about what was on Jackson’s mind at the time, recalling he said, “I’ve got to make sure they’re okay. What would they think if I’m safe and they’re left hanging out there with nowhere to go? They came from England, they came from France and they came from Japan. How are they getting along?” 

There were about three dozen Jackson fans who were indeed stuck in a devastated Manhattan after the concerts. Jackson paid for them to stay in hotels in New Jersey and got them tickets to movies and trips to fast-food spots. 

That’s apparently what really happened. The story of the road trip, though, is the better tale, which is also why it’s such an enduring one. In fact, the British show Urban Myths planned to cover it in a 2017 episode starring Stockard Channing as Taylor, Brian Cox as Brando, Carrie Fisher as herself and Joseph Fiennes as Jackson. The Jackson casting, however, is the reason the episode never aired, as Fiennes, star of Shakespeare in Love, is white, an egregious insult even for a forgettable television series. 

In the early press for the show, Fiennes was eager to discuss his casting as Jackson. “I got the script the other day. It’s a challenge,” he told media outlets. “It’s a fun, lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek road trip of what celebrity of that kind is like. But also, it’s rather beautiful and poignant about their relationships as well.” He would later add, “So the three of them got in a car and drove 500 miles [sic] to Los Angeles. It took them a while because they had to stop at a lot of Burger Kings for Marlon; but they got out!”

It got much, much worse before the project was rightfully shelved, with Fiennes at one point reasoning to Entertainment Tonight, “[Jackson] was probably closer to my color than his original color.”

Luckily, this isn’t the only rendition of the infamous American road trip that never happened. Around the same time, the New Yorker published a short story on the imagined escapade by Zadie Smith. In her version, the three megastars cross America in a Toyota Camry, eating fast food and arguing about the state of America, celebrity and humanity. “It was the sixth or seventh go-round. They were almost in Harrisburg, having been considerably slowed by two stops at Burger King, one at McDonald’s, and three separate visits to KFC. ‘If you play that song one more time,’ Marlon said, eating a bucket of wings, ‘I’m going to kill you myself,’” Smith wrote.

“The sun was setting on the deep-orange polyvinyl-chloride blinds in their booth, and Michael felt strongly that his new role as the Decider must also include some aspect of spiritual guidance,” Smith continued. “To that end, he passed Marlon the maple syrup and said, in his high-pitched but newly determined tones, ‘You know, guys, we’ve driven six hours already, and, well, we haven’t talked at all about what happened back there.’”

Smith’s retelling was completely fictional (and satirical), of course. But for the first time, nothing more needed to be said about this legendary tale.