On April 24, 2014, Kitty Kelley was presented with the Founders’ Award for Career Achievement by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) during a ceremony at the group’s 43rd annual writers’ conference in New York. The following are her remarks at the Awards Presentation.
My love affair with the American Society of Journalists and Authors began on September 21, 1983 when we were introduced by Frank Sinatra. That was the day he sued me for $2 million to keep me from writing his (decidedly unauthorized) biography. In court papers, he declared that he and he alone or someone that he authorized could write his life story. No one else was entitled to what he called his “right of publicity.”
ASJA immediately stepped forward and joined with other writers’ groups to protest Sinatra’s assault on the First Amendment. In a press conference, they said: “The apparent goal behind Sinatra’s filing of this suit is to scare Ms. Kelley away from her investigation and ultimately to force her to scrap the book.” They asserted that “the unauthorized or unblessed biography” is the essence of free speech and open commentary and declared that Sinatra’s lawsuit was an assault on all writers’ constitutionally protected freedom of expression and should be dismissed on its face.
This public stance stirred a great deal of publicity from outraged journalists, who wrote columns, editorials, and even a few cartoons. One of the funniest was drawn by Jules Feiffer, who showed a mug’s face under a snap-brim hat, swaying on skinny legs and snapping his fingers:
“I’m chairman of the Board. If some broad wantsa write a book about me… She gotta talk t’one of my boys who talks t’one of my other boys… who talks t’me. And MAYBE if the broad looks OK, I say, ‘Go Baby.’ Or Maybe I say ‘Shove it, Bimbo.’ And before she can write word one I sue her.
“So don’t give me any First Amendment crapola, I got the Frank Amendment and mine is bigger than hers. Ring a ding ding.”
After a year of litigation that cost me over $100,000 in legal fees, Sinatra finally dropped his lawsuit, but by then he had sent his message to my publisher and the rest of the world that he did not want the book written. Many people were too frightened to speak on the record, and some actually feared for their lives, but over the course of three years I managed to interview 800 people, including members of Sinatra’s family, his mistresses, co-stars, friends, neighbors, employees, FBI agents, a few antagonists, and a couple of mobsters.
In 1986 His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra was published, and– despite his threats– I lived to see the book become number one on the New York Times best seller list and sell more than 1 million copies in hardback. All very gratifying, but best of all was receiving ASJA’s Outstanding Author Award that year for “courageous writing on popular culture.”
Publication of the Frank Sinatra biography was a triumph for all non-fiction writers who struggle against immense pressure to find their way to examine the public figures who influence our society.
Thirty years ago ASJA made it possible for me to find my way– and for that I am profoundly grateful. I accept your award for Career Achievement because YOU made my career all it has been– and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
by Kitty Kelley