Kitty Kelley received the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington Independent Review of Books. The award was presented at the 4th annual “Books Alive!” Washington Writers Conference on April 30, 2016. The following are her remarks.
For the last 40 years I’ve chosen to write biographies of people who are alive and influence our world. I’ve done this without their cooperation and independent of their demands and dictates. These people are not simply celebrities, but titans of society who have affected us as individuals and left an imprint on our culture, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
With each biography, the challenge has been to answer the question John F. Kennedy once posed: “What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting is the struggle to answer that single question: ‘What’s he like?’”
I believe that the best way to find out is to tell a life story from the outside looking in, and so I choose to write with my nose pressed against the window rather than kneeling inside for spoon feedings.
Championing the independent or unauthorized biography might sound like a high-minded defense for a low-level pursuit, but I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized and homogenized. I read banned books. I applaud whistleblowers. I reject any suppression by church or state. And I believe in freedom of the press. To me the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive, who exercise power over our lives.
In writing about contemporary figures, I’ve found that the unauthorized biography avoids the pureed truths of revisionist history, which is the pitfall of an authorized biography. Without being beholden to the subject or bending to editorial control, the unauthorized biographer is better able to penetrate the manufactured public image. For, to quote President Kennedy again, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Despite my lofty defense of the unauthorized biography there’s no question that it exacts a price. The authorized biographer is often hailed as a white knight while the unauthorized biographer is usually demonized. It’s the difference between poodles and pit bulls. One is adored—the other avoided. Authorized biographers are like seraphim—the angels who stand to give praise. Unauthorized biographers are like what John Boehner recently called Ted Cruz. You can understand why I keep an old cowboy motto above my desk that says—“Tell the truth but ride a fast horse.”
I still dream about going to the same heaven as authorized biographers but I’m probably headed for whatever awaits the unanointed. I’m afraid I’ve toiled too long on the unauthorized side of the street to ever hear the angels sing. But this award for telling the truth and riding a fast horse will keep me galloping forward —with great pride.
Thank you very much.
(All photos by Bruce Guthrie.)
David O. Stewart, president and chair of the board, presented the award to Kitty Kelley.
Kitty Kelley with keynote speaker Bob Woodward.