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Thrills and chills

Riverside Drive over the weekend. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011. Mixed reports of mixed winter weather coming our way. Rain would eliminate a lot of the snow, which would be helpful. Otherwise cold and wet underfoot.

Kitty Kelley is our Guest Diarist today. Today we are re-printing a piece she wrote late last year for The American Scholar, which is the quarterly magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

I have known Kitty since the early 1980s when she was researching her biography of Frank Sinatra. She had sublet an apartment in West Hollywood from a beautiful Viennese woman named Marlene MacDonald (married name) who was a friend of mine. Marlene (Mar-lay-na). Marlene knew that I had social connections to Sinatra’s world (although I didn’t know him).

What was Kitty Kelley like? Well, she was famous by then, and naturally I wanted to meet her. Her reputation was somewhat tabloidal, to put it mildly, but I didn’t care. She came to my house on Doheny Drive one weekday afternoon around 2. She was carrying pads and a big bag with a shoulder strap. There was also the tape recorder (which I quickly forgot). We sat in a room that I used for an office; I at my desk and she at one end of the sofa facing me.

Kitty Kelley with a copy of her latest.
She’s small, and blonde and looks exactly like her pictures and is, in person, exactly like she is on television and radio. She has the ability to befriend almost instantly. You like her. If you’re not suspicious of her, anyway (which I am not/was not). She’s cozy, and she loves to talk about people in that kind of “over the backyard fence” way (very New England).

Yes, Gossip. But gossip about famous people, with that added ingredient of “inside.” I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it. And Hollywood is a goldmine of that sort of thing because it’s been a repository of international celebrity for almost a century. All those stars with all that implied eros, passing through the revolving door of fame into history.

Our conversation that afternoon was often punctuated by laughter. Laughter mainly at the human comedy in which we are all players, famous or not, rich or poor, sharp or dull, pretty or not. Hollywood, as we know it is a Mother Lode of this sort of thing.

At that point I’d lived out there long enough to absorb some of the rich socio-cultural life of the film community. It was in process of change, pivotal change which has by now been completed. In the early 80s, many of the very last of the great studio days of the film industry were still around. Ronald Reagan typified them, and not accidentally. There was a real society, albeit beginning to fade, not at all dissimilar in structure to New York at the end of the 19th and the early 20th. These were exponents of Mrs. Astor, next generation, 20th century West Coast Technicolor version, and all that implies.

Frank Sinatra, was enamored with that world as much as anyone. He sought it out and embraced it. It’s easy to understand. The kid from Jersey, now a mature man with a rich and profitable career under his belt, now long since a singer with the band and now a peer of the gentlemen of the community and their wives.

The elite of Hollywood – the stars, studio heads, producers, directors, millionaire playboys, bankers and lawyers – entertained with class. Sinatra liked people with class and power. He was always learning. And they liked him. Janet de Cordova, wife of Freddy, film and Johnny Carson’s producer, once told me that there wasn’t a woman in the world who didn’t get a thrill “when Frank walked into the room and said en passant, ‘hiya doll.’”
Eleanor Roosevelt enjoying the company of Frank Sinatra.
I shared a lot of this with Kitty Kelley that afternoon. We had a high old time. It was all about human behavior. When the Sinatra book came out, it was a big hit and it was fascinating. Armand Deutsch, who loved and venerated the man, told me that “she pretty much got it right.”

There were many sides to Frank Sinatra and all spectacular and some cruel and even nasty. It may be that people don’t think this should be recorded. But to leave it out is to leave out the humanity of the man. Everything is history and we are mere mortals.

A favorite biography of mine is the Jean Strouse history of J Pierpont Morgan. A giant of a personality; brilliant, canny, impassioned, sensitive, autocratic, and a mere mortal. It’s a thoroughly real account of a man who had great influence on our times.

I’m sure Morgan himself would have hated it. Even though a reader would finish it satisfied, intrigued and even admiring. Strouse writes in detail and intimately, about his extra-marital life which was vivid and active. For one mistress he built a magnificent townhouse around the corner with a private backdoor entrance so that he could slip out of his house, walk down the block, cross Park Avenue and be there with his adored. He preferred married women (the husbands were accommodated and often “assisted”) who were smart and interested in the things he was interested in which was art, literature, history, and travel. He would never have wanted the world to read that.

If JP Morgan were alive today, however, he would have been a candidate for Kitty Kelley. And she’d get the story. Alas there are no JP Morgan’s of his ilk today, so this will never happen. He would have been as “celebrated” as her subjects – Jackie, Nancy, the Royals, the Bushes, Frank. And probably scandalized by those “proper” and married mistresses.

The business of biography when it comes to subjects who are living is mainly vanity. There is something about us, if and when we grow famous and/or affluent or politically powerful. We begin to believe our public image. We participate in the fantasy of others. We slip and forget. It’s a kind of dilemma that comes with the territory of fame and fortune. No one needs a biographer to come in and tarnish that silver.

Few memoirs, stars or otherwise, are very good. The temptation is to perform. And hopefully something that can be packaged and sold into syndication. Furthermore, it’s not easy to write about yourself in a way that you know is honest and revealing. We lose a lot of that honesty in the trip from the brain to the printed page.
Oprah at the Elie Wiesel Foundation dinner, 2009. Photo: DPC.
However, people read biographies to learn about themselves. A good biography is fulfilling. You leave it thinking. That is a gift of life.

Kitty Kelley will definitely leave you thinking if you’ve read one of her books. I do hear people pooh-poohing her stories with their “I don’t believe it ...” or “I know for a fact, blah blah blah ...” One of the reasons why people love and/or are appalled by her stories is because they hit close to home.

There’s a lot of Oprah in this piece because Kitty had a difficult time getting the airtime she was used to in publicizing her new book. She wasn’t “authorized,” as if by unspoken but divine edict. Everyone had some kind of excuse that added up to “we can’t, it’s Oprah.” The sainted. Oprah has arrived at a new plateau in her life. In our time she has become a very famous, very rich, very celebrated and a very influential woman, who also happens to be African-American, which in this country is a big deal.

Therefore as a character of her time, she is going to be written about, and probably often. Unless of course she is forgotten, lost in the miasma of celebrity memory. That will be our loss, not hers.
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