|Oprah Winfrey's father, Vernon Winfrey, in his Nashville barbershop with author Kitty Kelley, April 22, 2008 (Peter Johnson/Courtesy of Kitty Kelley).|
|Kitty Kelley interviews Frank Sinatra Jr. in Washington, D.C., in 1983 for her book His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra. Photo: (c) Stanley Tretick.|
|Mrs. Sinatra screamed as her precious porcelain shattered to smithereens, and the youngster burst into tears, afraid she was going to be punished. Sinatra walked over and patted her head. “Don’t you worry about it, sweetheart,” he said. Striding to the mantel, he picked up the matching vase and smashed it to the floor. “There,” he said, wiping his hands. “Now let’s get some cake and ice cream.”
The incident illustrates a hair-trigger temper in sweet service to a frightened child. In later years the violence outstripped the kindness, making Sinatra almost maniacal. On one occasion at an after-hours party in the Palm Springs home of songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, Sinatra, drunk and morose, threw a woman through a plate glass window and nearly severed her arm.
Neither of these incidents would have been included in an authorized life story, but both became a part of my book His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (1986), which is probably why he sued to stop publication. Sinatra claimed in his lawsuit against me that he and he alone or someone that he authorized had the right to write his life story. No one else was allowed to touch the subject.
|Journalists and jurists rose up to decry the attempt by a powerful public figure to silence a writer before she had written a word, and a year later Sinatra dropped his lawsuit. But by then he had so traumatized my publisher’s legal department that the lawyers subjected my manuscript to a protracted vetting that lasted 365 days, including Christmas.
The sticking point was publishing my chapter notes. The lawyers wanted them deleted. “They’re a road map for Sinatra to sue again,” they said. I insisted on publishing them to document information in the book. “You can’t say someone’s mother was arrested as an abortionist without providing proof,” I said.
“Just call her a midwife,” said the lawyers.
“And that will explain why she was known in Hoboken as Hat Pin Dolly?”
After a year of wrangling with Sinatra’s lawyers, I spent another year sparring with my own. In the end, I prevailed on the chapter notes, the book became a number one New York Times bestseller and, mercifully, there were no more lawsuits.
|In writing about a mob-connected singer, I was introduced to the rigors of writing an unauthorized biography, but I experienced the real downside of disturbing power when I wrote Nancy Reagan (1991).
That book, featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, and the Columbia Journalism Review, caused a furor when an article about its contents was published on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The prominent placement of the story enraged many Times journalists, who felt the nation’s most prestigious newspaper had lowered itself to beatify an extremely controversial biography. The newsroom was summoned to an hours-long meeting during which editors thundered about the dignity of the good Gray Lady.
I felt as if I had besmirched the entire fourth estate, until I read a Newsday column by Harrison E. Salisbury a few weeks later. For many years a foreign correspondent for the Times and later its assistant managing editor, Salisbury wrote:
The criticism that should be leveled at the Times and the rest of the media, print and electronic, is that it took a Kitty Kelley to bring to Page 1 matters that should have been reported day-by-day when Ronald Reagan was in the White House ....
The Reagan case is an almost terrifying example of media irresponsibility. For two terms a Hollywood actor and his actress wife sailed through rosy clouds of media hype.
Not a word from the Watergate reporters and the Pentagon Papers publishers about the soothsayers, the Hollywood morals, the expense-account living. A child could have perceived that there had to be a dark, dangerous mass under the glitz. But there was not a whimper from the electronic titans, nor even that paradigm of investigative reporting, The Washington Post. Everyone got on board for the joyride. It was a black day for American journalism and the nation.
But it’s not simply Washington journalists who puff up the powerful. Those who cover Hollywood celebrities, athletes, ceos, even literary lions, abide by various levels of celebrity ground rules (control of photos and editorial content, including what questions can and cannot be asked) just to get the interview. In a recent Vanity Fair story about Philip Roth conducted over a restaurant lunch, the novelist insisted that the reporter not reveal what Roth ordered from the menu. The reporter mentioned the “eccentric condition” of the interview, but did as he was told and did not reveal Roth’s choice of food.
Celebrity seems to come with a corrosive sense of self-entitlement, once only the province of off-with-their-heads potentates. In an interview that Maria Shriver granted to The Washington Post not long ago, she waved off the reporter’s questions, telling him instead which questions she wanted to be asked.
To the reporter’s credit, he wrote about her taking over the role of questioner and answerer, “as if she’s conducting a sit-down with a ventriloquist-doll version of herself.” And that was moments after she dismissed the Post’s photographer, snapping, “That’s enough.”
Celebrity demands could easily be dismissed as amusing diva excesses if they weren’t so readily indulged, and it’s the indulgence that enables celebrities to construct their own mythologies in the public consciousness. This curtsy to celebrity puts the lie to the notion of a free and unfettered press, while subtly molding the celebrity’s public image according to the celebrity’s demands.
When journalism’s watchdogs become roll-over puppies, we the public suffer because we believe what we read and accept what we hear. As the actor Melvyn Douglas said in the movie Hud about the mesmerizing power of a public image: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.” And as Colum McCann wrote in his novel Let the Great World Spin, “The repeated lies become history, but they don’t necessarily become the truth.”
On the Day my Nancy Reagan biography was published, April 8, 1991, President and Mrs. Reagan stood in front of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church to denounce the book and its author. The former president said he was accustomed to reports that strayed from the truth but “the flagrant and absurd falsehoods cited” in my book “clearly exceed the bounds of decency.”
Three days later he received a letter of support from President Nixon. Reagan responded to “Dear Dick,” saying:
As governor of California, Reagan had appointed Moomaw, an all-American lineman from UCLA in the 1950s, to the State Board of Education. The reverend later gained prominence when he offered prayers at Reagan’s presidential inaugurals. Understandably, the former president believed his minister when he denied contributing to the book, and sadly Reagan slipped into Alzheimer’s before he learned the truth.
I wrote to remind Moomaw of the 45-minute interview he had given in his office at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church. I enclosed a transcript of his taped interview and asked him to please send around another church bulletin revising his remarks to his congregation, including the Reagans. He never did, which only proves the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said that a lie flies halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.
Several months later, the reverend abruptly resigned as pastor for “repeated instances of sexual contact” with five women in the congregation. He was suspended as a Presbyterian minister until 1997, after which he traveled the church circuit until his retirement.
In addition to their minister’s denial, the Reagans received several copies of letters from people who had written to the president of the company that then owned my publisher, protesting the words attributed to them in the book. In each case I produced notes and tapes documenting what I had written, and in no instance did I need to make a correction or deletion.
“Weasel letters,” said the Simon & Schuster lawyer, dismissing those who wrote simply to send copies to the Reagans denying what they had actually said. The most bizarre denial came from Mickey Rudin, Frank Sinatra’s former attorney, who had been named in the Nancy Reagan book as a source of help. Objecting to being thanked, he sued, prompting the headline: “No Thanks for Thanks.” He went to court and lost; he appealed and pursued his case all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before losing again.
Having rankled President Reagan and President Nixon, I also riled George Herbert Walker Bush, who wrote in his White House diary on July 25, 1991:
Have you ever had one of those days when it just isn’t too good? . . . Just one of those days when you want to say forget it. Oh, yes, the President of Paramount that owns one of the big book companies called in to say that Kitty Kelley wants to write a book either about the Bushes or the Royals and he turned it down. That’s nice—a book by Kitty Kelley with everything else I’ve got on my mind . . . I can’t see her ever writing anything nice.
Years later, when I did write a book on the Bushes, I wrote to the former president, saying I was researching a historical retrospective of his family and would appreciate an interview to verify certain facts. Renowned for a lifetime of writing letters, George H. W. Bush ignored mine. Instead, he directed his aide, Jean Becker, to call the publisher of Doubleday. “President Bush has asked me to say that he and his family are not going to cooperate with this book because the author wrote a book about Nancy Reagan that made Mrs. Reagan unhappy,” said Becker.
I don’t know if that telephone call was meant to intimidate my publisher, but I assume for Bush 41 the most “unhappy” parts of the Nancy book were her references to him as “whiney” and her stories about his alleged “girlfriend.” Barbara Bush was so incensed that when she was first lady, she instructed Roger Kennedy, then director of the National Museum of American History, to remove a large display featuring my books on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan from the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kennedy kowtowed to Mrs. Bush and removed the display. To date it has not been restored.
Days later, DeLay was publicly rebuked by the House Ethics Committee three times for unethical conduct. Within a year he was indicted in a criminal investigation in Texas and charged with a felony that forced his resignation from the House of Representatives. After six years of litigation, his trial began on November 1, 2010. He was last seen on television in 2010 wearing sequins and “dancing with the stars.”
Promoting the unauthorized biography of the Bush family dynasty was daunting, because of the “how-dare-you” attitude of the media, which could not accept the portrait of the elder Bush as a man who did not live up to the orchestrated public image they had bestowed upon him. A prime example of the mythology surfaced after M. Charles Bakst reviewed the book for The Providence Journal.
A political columnist in Rhode Island, Bakst had interviewed Bush in 1991 about his war experience and took issue with my reporting on the discrepancies between Bush’s 1944 recollections in his personal letters of being shot down over the Pacific during World War II and what he later claimed in a 1988 book he had written with Doug Wead.
In 1944, Bush bailed out of his plane and maintained that he never knew exactly what happened to his two-man crew, who were never found. In 1988 he changed his story and said that he saw his gunman killed by machine-gun fire and his radioman parachute out before he was fired on. If one accepts his contemporaneous accounts in 1944, plus official Navy documents, then the 1988 account is a fabrication.
Bolstered by documents showing that there were no machine guns and no dog fights involving machine guns, the inescapable conclusion is that George Bush plumped up his war record for political gain.
Running for president in 1988, Bush called his book George Bush: Man of Integrity. Bakst wrote that he had never heard of the book or the two different versions Bush had told about his war experience. Bakst sent a copy of his review to the former president, who responded with a handwritten note:
As for Kitty Kelly [sic]—she is a liar and a smear artist. I had not heard of the Wead book. I never talked to Wead about jumping out of my plane. Nor did I write a book with Doug Wead ever. This is but one instance of the Kelly smear. But my family has no chance in a court so Kitty & others are free to lie and smear. Enough! All best, George Bush.
I was reeling and so was my publisher, who faxed Bakst a copy of the book jacket from Man of Integrity, which showed that George H. W. Bush had indeed collaborated with Wead. Even Bakst was taken aback. When he contacted the former president again, Bush responded through Jean Becker. She said he “felt guilty” about not remembering that he had written the book, but he stood by his contention that Kitty Kelley was “a liar and a smear artist.” Bush did not provide specifics to substantiate his accusations. Nor did he cite one error, one mistake, or one misrepresentation in my book.
Presidential wrath has its niggling little consequences. After almost 30 years as a contributing editor for Washingtonian magazine, I was suddenly removed from the masthead. The editor said he disapproved of my Bush book because of its intimate revelations and its timing, but then he might have been doing the bidding of the magazine’s owner, Philip Merrill, who was a presidential appointee of both Bushes and a close personal friend of Vice President Dick Cheney.
In any event, Bush 41 was delighted with the news. He told Time’s Hugh Sidey: “Kitty Kelley. Did you see where somebody handed her her hat the other night? The Washingtonian. I loved that.”
Relieved of my masthead status, I crept back into my writer’s cave, determined to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. But then Fox News commentator Bernard Goldberg published a book titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America and I found myself listed as culprit number 80. Granted, this was not nearly as illustrious as being on Nixon’s enemies list, but when the Associated Press called for a reaction, I said I was proud to be included in any group with President Jimmy Carter, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, and actor/activist Harry Belafonte.
I still dream of going to the same heaven as David McCullough and Justin Kaplan, but I’m probably headed for whatever awaits the unanointed biographer. I’ve toiled too long on the unauthorized side of the street to ever hear the seraphim sing. Long concerned about my salvation, friends have made various suggestions over the years to try to counter my unauthorized image:
Dye your hair gray
Take the veil
Dress like Barbara Bush
Hang out with nuns
Start a school in South Africa
Write under your husband’s name
Become born again
Write a children’s book
Go to Harvard
Whether or not I ever write another unauthorized biography, I’ll keep marching forward and continue wearing with pride the button I snatched from my friend, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an unauthorized biography of Mother Teresa. The button says: All the Right Enemies.
|Kitty Kelley "hanging out with nuns."|
|From The American Scholar, Volume 80, No. 1, Winter 2011.
Copyright 2011 by Kitty Kelley.