Chancing upon Kitty (and Edie & Frank)

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Looking south toward the Manhattan skyline from Central Park. Photo: JH.

Diary Tuesday, 3_5_24. Mainly fair weather, often overcast with temps in the low 50s and dusk is now at almost 6. I’ve been fascinated by changes since I was a kid. The warmer weather was always the payoff of a New England winter; you could spend a lot of time outside, taking in the world. Decades later the thrill always returns beginning about now. Of course it wears off …

Walking across 79th Street yesterday, I passed by The New York Society Library in the middle of the block between Park and Madison. If you remember, JH recently did a whole number on NYSL’s fascinating history and the special place it plays in New York literary lore. Because of that I paid a little more attention than usual, and noticed a sign near its entrance.

The sign read: Special Writing Life Event / Open to the Public / Free of Charge / Registration Required. It was a discussion about “The Lives of Others” with Debby Applegate and Kitty Kelley; moderated by Diane Kiesel – taking place today, Tuesday, March 5 at 6:00 PM.

Award-winning biographers Kitty Kelley and Debby Applegate discuss how and why they choose their subjects, share their best and worst moments as writers, and remind us why we love reading about other people. Click here to register for NYSL’s Special Writing Life Event.

It was the photo of Kitty that caught my eye. I first met her in the mid-’80s in Los Angeles. She was researching her biography of Frank Sinatra and had sublet an apartment of a friend of mine in West Hollywood.

When I’d heard about her and her project I told my friend to tell her about Edie Goetz, the eldest daughter of LB Mayer and wife of Bill Goetz of Universal-International. The Goetzes were a real power couple in Hollywood mid-20th century and Edie was most famous for her dinner parties — which remain for my experience the most remarkable. It was about Hollywood but about Fame and Fortune as well as competitive Style.

The Goetzes’ prominence and social hospitality and lifestyle could be international but it was all within the social confines of moguldom. It so happened that when Frank Sinatra’s career was re-born and developed into stardom as an Actor (not just a bobby-soxer’s idol), he became a popular dinner guest with the moguls and his favorites were Billy and Edie. Over time they became the social set which were identified as part of the Sinatra social set.

Over time, Billy Goetz in his mid-60s contracted stomach cancer and it eventually killed him. It was a tragic loss for the Mrs. because she knew it was her husband’s charm and wit that everyone liked. She, being the film princess that she was every inch of was well aware that, without Bill, would be on her way out of people’s lives.

Edie Goetz in her Billy Haines-designed library with a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh.

However, Frank Sinatra, who mourned the death of his friend Billy Goetz, had a reputation for paying greater attention to new widows. And so it became with the widow Edie. And over the months after Bill’s passing, with Frank’s sensitive and assiduous attention, Edie had begun to think about a new man in her life. That man being Sinatra.

Edie and Frank.

One evening after Frank took Mrs. Goetz out to dinner, and returned her home, she invited him in for a cocktail to which he obliged. She somehow got the message; she was not the one for him, which she resented. Seated in the Goetz library with the impressive van Gogh self-portrait accompanying the Hollywood glamour, Mrs. Goetz “confided” in Frank that because of her family (Louis B. Mayer) background, she could “never marry” him … because of the company he kept (gangsters; maybe).

At which point, Mr. Sinatra probably about to go into a rage, got up, turned away and walked out of the library, out of the house, never to speak to her again.

That’s what comes to mind when I think of Kitty Kelley because she met and interviewed Mrs. Goetz and also did me the great favor of introducing me to Larry Ashmead, the late distinguished editor-in-chief at Harper & Row. Larry was one of those literary editors who loved his work and respected his authors.

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Kitty’s biographies were hugely popular because they depicted characters/real people leading big and/or wild and/or compelling, etc. lives whom she portrayed with detailed understanding of what motivates her characters.

All that from a photo in the nabe. And the rest came back like a chapter, albeit a brief one.

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