by Kitty Kelley
Political junkies will cartwheel into line to grab copies of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. They might not be as mesmerized as they were with The Making of the President by Theodore H. White or What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, but they’ll have in hand a bible on presidential sons-of-bitches. (That’s how H.R. Haldeman defined the position before he had to resign and go to prison as one of 48 people who served time for serving Richard M. Nixon, the Watergate president.)
The White House chief of staff is considered the most powerful unelected person in Washington, DC, because he — there’s never been a she — controls access to the leader of the free world. As the president’s main adviser and closest confidante, the chief of staff determines the administration’s legislative agenda and communicates with Congress and the Cabinet. He is the spear-catcher who protects the president from all incoming flak.
“The White House chief of staff has more power than the Vice President,” said Dick Cheney, who should know. At 34, he served as chief of staff to Gerald Ford (1975-1977). By the time he turned 70, Cheney was vice president to George W. Bush and knew how to mow down both chiefs of staff Andrew Card (2001-2006) and Joshua Bolten (2006-2009). In fact, Cheney, known by some as “Darth Vader,” controlled foreign policy in the Bush years and seemed to assume as much power as “the decider” himself.
“Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room,” said the historian Richard Norton Smith, “and by the person he picks as his chief of staff” (pp. 10-11).
By that definition, Whipple could’ve produced an intriguing analysis of Ronald Reagan, who chose the smooth-talking Texan James Baker III as his first chief of staff (1981-1985), followed by the bull-headed Donald Regan, who compared his job to the man in the circus, sweeping up elephant droppings.
Unmentioned by Whipple was John Roy Steelman, the first and longest-serving chief of staff (1946-1953), described in his New York Times obituary as a “onetime hobo from Arkansas.” Truman’s chief of staff was as basic as the man he served. Eschewing his powerful title, Steelman preferred to be called “the president’s chief chore boy.” His biggest chore was his role in ending a 52-day strike by steelworkers, one of the most damaging stoppages in U.S. history.
The Gatekeepers promises to offer “shrewd analysis and never-before-reported details,” but there appears to be little of either in the book. Perhaps Whipple was too grateful for his access to cast a critical eye and dig beneath the glossy surface.
All those interviewed protected their presidents from incriminating revelations, but each agreed being White House chief of staff was the toughest job he ever tackled. (The pressure is so great that few last beyond 18-24 months.) Yet despite the brutal demands, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff (2009-2010), said: “I guarantee you every one of the chiefs would say, ‘I’d do it again,’ if asked.”
The major take-away from Whipple’s book is not unlike Cardinal Cushing’s advice to John F. Kennedy when he first ran for office in Massachusetts: “A little more Irish…a little less Harvard.”
The most successful sons-of-bitches are a little more staff…a little less chief. In fact, certain chiefs — Gov. Sherman Adams (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1958), Gov. John Sununu (George Herbert Walker Bush, 1985-1987), and the aforementioned Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan (1985-1987) — harmed their presidents by their inability to shed their arrogant prerogatives of self-entitlement. All had previously held chief-executive positions, but each was fired from his role as White House chief of staff.
Usually an author writes a book and hopes to sell television rights after publication, but Whipple, an award-winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Prime Time, did it the other way around. He provided the interviews for the four-hour documentary The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 2013. The New York Times judged the production a “tepid film…awe-struck and dull.” Whipple made the interviews he did with the 17 chiefs of staff alive at the time as the basis of The Gatekeepers, his first book.
For a writer, Whipple’s text hardly inspires, but his chapter notes pique interest. Many of those cited (again, mostly men) hiss and spit at each other like cats being hosed. Ed Meese III dumps on Jim Baker III for leaking to the press. Donald Rumsfeld, chief of staff to President Ford, disses the White House speechwriter Robert Hartmann as an alcoholic, and says Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, “wasn’t qualified to be vice president of anything.”
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994-1997, confides the president wanted to fire George Stephanopoulos, which was seconded by Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff from 1997-1998: “Of course, George was cut out by the President.” Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft slam Dick Cheney, who, in turn, stomps on the claim of CIA director George Tenet about bringing the danger of al Qaeda to White House attention. “I do not recall George coming in with his hair on fire…”
The most intriguing chapter note cites an interview with Stuart Spencer, the Republican political consultant closest to Ronald Reagan, who speculates about how the president might have unwittingly approved the Iran-Contra operation to secretly sell arms to Iran and funnel the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua:
I can see those three guys [Robert MacFarlane, National Security Advisor; Oliver North, Deputy Director of the National Security Council; and William J. Casey, CIA director, who was called “Mumbles” because, according to Spencer, “you couldn’t understand him, he couldn’t talk”]. They knew that Reagan was in favor of the contras; he was really upset about the American hostages; and they said, ‘We’ll take advantage of that.’ And they sent Mumbles over to tell him about it. And Reagan didn’t have his hearing aid on! I believe all this could have happened. (p. 319)
Stuart Spencer was extraordinarily close to the Reagans for years. He ran Reagan’s successful campaigns for governor of California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984. He counseled both Ronald and Nancy Reagan throughout their eight years in Washington, and was one of the few people invited to accompany them on their return flight to California upon leaving the White House in 1985. So, his speculation about Iran-Contra deserves more scrutiny, especially because the first lady was terrified the matter would lead to her husband’s impeachment.
Did Whipple ask Spencer whether he discussed Iran-Contra with either Reagan? If he didn’t, why not? How did the subject of Iran-Contra come up in his interviews with Spencer? Did Spencer advise the Reagans about Iran-Contra? What was his recollection of how they coped with the matter personally? Did Spencer share his theory with the first lady or anyone else?
Note to Whipple: a little more time with Stu Spencer…a little less time with the chiefs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Kitty Kelley is this year’s honoree at The Jewish Council for the Aging’s 24th annual Sylvia Blajwas Productive Aging Award Dinner, which will be held Sunday, May 21, 2017 at the North Bethesda Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.
There will be cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction, starting at 5:30 p.m.
Previous honorees have included Sam Waterston, Alan and Arlene Alda, Sally Quinn, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Richard Goodwin, Edgar Bronfman Sr., Cokie and Steve Roberts, Phyllis Richman, Judith Viorst, Phil Donahue, Daniel Schorr, Robert Prosky, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Eunice and Sargent Shriver, Roberta Peters, Gwen Verdon, Mike Wallace, Al Hirschfeld, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Katharine Graham, and The Honorable Louis Goldstein, Comptroller of the State of Maryland.
The Jewish Council for the Aging is the leading aging agency in the Greater Washington D.C. area.
by Kitty Kelley
After reading His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt Jr. by Tim Brady, you understand why military service fired the passions of the 26th president of the U.S. and dominated the lives of his four sons.
Brady’s biography of Ted Jr., the first son of Theodore Roosevelt, offers only a few sentences about the cloud that hung over the patrician family. Theodore’s mother, Mittie, to whom he referred as “an unreconstructed Southerner,” had insisted his father not enlist in the Union army and oppose her three brothers, fighting for the Confederacy. So, to placate his wife, known to lock herself in a dark room for days, Theodore, Sr. paid a substitute to serve for him during the Civil War.
Brady provides no further information about this decision, which was not uncommon at the time but potentially subjected the Roosevelts to ridicule. As historians put it, those able to purchase a substitute exercised “the right of the rich to hire the poor to do [their] fighting and dying,” a practice that became a factor in the New York Draft Riots of 1863.
Even without a biographer’s knowledgeable insight, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see why Mittie’s sickly, asthmatic son, Theodore, transformed his weak body into a muscular machine and charged into history, banging the drum for war in 1898. He created his own special forces — the Rough Riders — and stampeded with them into Cuba, storming up San Juan Hill and seizing everlasting glory.
Glamorized by press coverage at the time (and by his own well-written recollections of the Spanish-American War), Theodore Roosevelt sailed into politics as a national hero and was elected governor of New York. He ran as William McKinley’s vice president in 1900 and, months later, following the president’s assassination, TR, as he was fondly known, moved into the White House with his wife and six children. He was elected president in his own right in a 1904 landslide victory.
Always a big-game hunter, he endeared himself to the country when he refused to shoot a sick bear on a hunting trip, demanding instead that the poor animal be put to sleep. A cartoon of the normally bellicose Rough Rider protecting a frightened cub enthralled the public imagination, and soon, stuffed “Teddy” bears became a favored toy of children around the world. By 1927, the visage of Roosevelt was being chiseled on Mt. Rushmore alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
But none of this is contained in Brady’s biography of Ted Jr., perhaps because the writer assumes readers will come to his book already grounded in Roosevelt history and simply intuit the immense expectations attendant upon being the firstborn son of such a remarkable man.
Brady tells us that Ted Jr., an anxious child with crushing headaches, a wayward right eye and few pleasing features, grew up emulating his adored father, as did his three brothers — Kermit, Archibald, and Quentin. Their sister, Ethel, is barely mentioned, and there’s not much on Archie, a right-wing Republican who lived to be 85, railing against Communists.
Their colorful half-sister, Alice, is remembered for writing that their father always wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” The girls married well, and the boys pleased their father by going to war — WWI and WWII — with all receiving medals for bravery and ribbons for valor.
Ted Jr., an Army brigadier general, was heralded for exceptional rapport with his troops. Having served in the First World War, he begged to serve in the second and, despite war wounds and age (56), he was allowed to lead a division on D-Day, becoming the oldest man to land on Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five landing spots in Normandy.
Decades later, General Omar Bradley wrote: “I have never known a braver man, nor a more devoted soldier.” The night before the invasion, a private named Amos Buck wrote to his commanding officer about “General Teddy”: “[T]he men all know he is a front line general and respect and love him…you have no idea how much good a man of that type does with a bunch of scared inexperienced G.I.s.”
Weeks later, General Teddy was struck by coronary thrombosis and died in his headquarters a few weeks short of his 57th birthday. He was buried in the cemetery at Ste. Mère-Église, but in 1955, he and his late brother Quentin were moved to the American Cemetery at Normandy.
In retrospect, the strangest death for the Oyster Bay Roosevelts was the 1943 suicide of Kermit, which Brady barely mentions. He writes that Kermit, while serving with the British Army in WWI, was unable to maintain sobriety, so had to be discharged.
Returning to the U.S., Kermit dried out and, during WWII, he re-enlisted as a major in the Army. He took a mistress, started drinking again, and was hospitalized with what was gently reported as “recurrent illnesses.” Brady writes that while stationed in Alaska, “exhausted by the…failures of his life miserably sick and tired, Kermit put the barrel of his service revolver beneath his chin and pulled the trigger.”
Brady does not tell us that the War Department told Kermit’s mother he died of a heart attack, and that the New York Times reported his death of “natural causes.” In fact, his suicide was not revealed until the 1980 publication of Sylvia Jukes Morris’ biography, Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady. Ted Jr., who did not know the real cause of his brother’s death but had witnessed his dissolution over time, wrote: “He really died five years ago.”
Surprisingly, Brady also does not chronicle the genetic predisposition of the Roosevelts to the alcoholic depression which ran in the family, affecting Kermit’s paternal grandmother, who exhibited signs of bipolar disorder; and his paternal uncle, Elliott Roosevelt, who suffered chronic bouts of depression and died of alcoholism, as did his maternal grandfather, Charles Carow.
Ten years after Kermit took his life, his son, Dirck, committed suicide at the age of 28. His death in 1953 was reported as a “household accident.” In 1957, Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s only child, Paulina Strum, depressed and drug addicted, committed suicide with sleeping pills.
Suicide seems to permeate a threnody in the family, beginning with the former president’s stated resolve to take his own life after contracting malaria and nearly dying during a 1913 expedition to the Amazon Basin. He said he could not fathom becoming a burden to others on the expedition. Kermit, along on the journey to South America to explore the River of Doubt (later named Rio Roosevelt), is reported to have helped save his father.
Four years later, when his brother Quentin was killed, Kermit edited an anthology of his life, including a short story Quentin had written about suicide. The first line of his morbid tale: “A service revolver is a terrible thing.”
Another eerie detail not included in Brady’s biography — and possibly another missed opportunity to assist in untangling the skeins of a life story — was the Roosevelt friendship with the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, who wrote Children of the Night. Kermit discovered the book as a teenager and gave it to his father, who shared it with his Cabinet. The book contains the haunting poem of “Richard Cory, who glittered when he walked,” but then, “one calm summer night went home and put a bullet in his head.”
Like his father and his brothers, Ted Jr. loved poetry and even recited verses to reporters who traveled with him during the war. In fact, the best parts of Brady’s book are the quotes from Ted Jr.’s letters. He published several books and wrote well, placing an insurmountable burden on his biographer. Yet, at times, slogging through this book was as onerous as the Roosevelt treks through the Himalayas and New Guinea.
The namesake son of a great man, Ted Jr. showed a definite sense of entitlement, believing he, too, deserved to be governor of New York and then president of the United States, both of which eluded him. As A.J. Liebling wrote, “Old Teddy was a dilettante soldier and a first-class politician; his son was a dilettante politician and a first-class soldier.”
In the end, Tim Brady best sums up his biography of a well-born man with a world-famous name: “As time passed, his story became a footnote in the family saga.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
I groaned when the editor suggested I review Megyn Kelly’s memoir, Settle for More. “I couldn’t possibly,” I said. “The girl misspells her name.” (I go through life insisting on the extra “e” in my Kelley, and then get grief from the one-e Kellys for putting on parlor airs.) The editor barked like Ms. Megyn herself on her prime-time Fox show, “The Kelly File.” She told me to suck it up.
The book arrived with a staggeringly glamorous cover of the blonde television anchor looking beautiful but forbidding. Before you even get to page one, you know you’re not meeting Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. This is not the story of a warm and cozy girly-girl, all frills and fluff. Kelly knows she’s good as any, better than some.
So prepare yourself for Cinderella on steroids: the success story of a young woman who learned early in life that hard work will open any door that’s not already kicked in by great good looks. Her book is a testament to slogging, bone-cracking, round-the-clock effort, which she soldered to a laser focus to succeed.
“I believe in the Steve Martin mantra,” she writes. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Kelly’s memoir is also a love letter to her father, who died suddenly when she was 12. “Sometimes I wonder if he has seen me on TV, and whether he knows that what I’ve accomplished is in part an accomplishment of his. He gave me the confidence to do everything I’ve done.”
But why write a memoir at the age of 46? Television’s czarina, Barbara Walters of ABC-TV, waited until she was almost 80 and off the air to write her life story and to reveal her love affair with Edward Brooke, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
NBC’s Jane Pauley was 53 when she wrote her book and revealed that she’d been institutionalized for bipolar disorder. Elizabeth Vargas of CBS-TV was 54 when she wrote to reveal her alcoholism. And — make no mistake — a “reveal” is expected of a television anchor who receives a $5 million book advance.
Kelly’s “reveal” comes at the end of her jaunty 320-page book when she busts Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, only to get trashed by some of her Fox colleagues for disloyalty to the boss who made her a star. (For Fox trashers, see index under “O’Reilly, Bill.”)
“I realized I had a choice to make,” Kelly writes. She could be quiet, or “I could ensure that the owners of Fox News Channel — Rupert Murdoch and his sons — understood they might actually have a predator running their company.”
Bye-Bye, Mr. Ailes.
Before she lowers the boom on rutting Roger, though, she relates the trauma of Trump, who made her “bleeding” a global issue and then called her a bimbo, a lightweight, and a liar. He allowed his attorney to encourage 40,000 people to boycott her show and “gut” her after the presidential debate in which she had slammed the candidate with a question regarding his piggish comments about women.
Sounding like a disciple of Oprah, whom she calls her role model, Kelly writes: “Adversity is an opportunity,” and she proved it by asking her attacker to help launch her own Fox Broadcast special. Without consulting anyone at her network, she secretly met with Trump after his poisonous tweets and suggested he sit with her for an exclusive “Barbara Walters type interview.”
Quelle surprise — Trump agrees. Unfortunately, the special bombed. According to Vanity Fair, “The heavily promoted prime time interview was a critical and ratings disappointment.” Slate called her interview “disgusting” and “fawning.” This Kelly doesn’t mention.
Overall, she writes with bawdy good humor and rarely “half-asses it,” as she says. “While discussing the Olympics, I said the word ‘shuttlecock’ made me feel uncomfortable…So sue me.” When her husband defended her to an angry Trump supporter, she told him, “You are definitely getting action tonight.”
Born “lower middle class,” she says she’s “new to money,” having spent most of her life without it. She claims to be a practicing Catholic but admits she doesn’t go to Mass every Sunday. She runs from being labeled a feminist, knowing she might alienate many in her audience, and professes to be an Independent. She doesn’t apologize for sounding racist by once proclaiming Santa Claus “is white,” and then adding, “Jesus was a white man, too.”
Kelly, soon to be renegotiating her television contract for an estimated $20 million a year (eeny, meeny, miny, moe — will she catch Fox or CNN by the toe?), is battling O’Reilly for dominance at Fox, although she dismisses him as an “ideologue” and a “pundit,” while describing her own show as “cool water over hot brain.”
She’s also battling O’Reilly for first place on the bestseller list and, if you look at the top nonfiction books, hers could fit under any of several titles: once a “Scrappy Little Nobody,” she is now “Filthy Rich,” bathed in “Moonlight,” a trifle “Superficial,” but “Born to Run.”
Kelly calls her memoir Settle for More because her mentor, Dr. Phil, changed her life when she heard him say on Oprah: “The only difference between you and someone you envy is, you settled for less.”
As she writes: “This was the moment when I realized I could change my life. I did not have to settle for less. I could settle for more.” And she definitely has.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
(Note: In January 2017, Megyn Kelly did her last show for Fox News. After this review was written, Kelly made a deal with NBC to do a weekday daytime show and a Sunday evening show.)
by Kitty Kelley
Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman opened the front door of her Georgetown mansion. Pearls draped her freckled cleavage and reddish hair framed her milk-white face like a froth of ginger. “Please come in,” she said. “The White Roses are straight ahead.”
Everyone grinned like fools. They had been standing outside 3038 N Street for some time, having paid $1000 to support “Democrats for the ’80s,” better known as Pam PAC. Now they clomped into the house like peasants to the palace.
“Does she really think we’re here to see the Van Gogh?” said one woman, whispering like a second-grader.
In fact, Mrs. Harriman knew full well all were there as voyeurs just wanting a chance to rub up against a copper-bottomed courtesan who finally got one of the richest men in the country to marry her. But what did she care? They were paying her for the privilege.
These paid events hosted by the Harrimans from 1980-1990 usually raised $100,000 an evening, and went a long way toward a Democratic restoration in the wake of the Reagan revolution that had seized control of the Senate for the first time in twenty-eight years….
Read the article here.
Originally published December 30, 2016 at New York Social Diary
by Kitty Kelley
With hundreds of Kennedy books bending library shelves (I’ve written two: Jackie Oh! and Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys), another seems like one more shamrock in Ireland — not needed for greening the landscape. But a memoir by 89-year-old Jean Kennedy Smith, the last surviving member of that storied family, might prove irresistible. Like one more chocolate in a binge. So why not?
Caveat emptor: Don’t expect startling revelations or piercing insights. Reading The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy is like sitting down with your great-grandmother to look at a scrapbook of old photographs taken with a Brownie camera loaded with Kodak film. A relic from a bygone era. Sweetly nostalgic.
You begin by already knowing the popular lore: “the nine” are Joe, Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen (aka “Kick”), Eunice, Pat, Jean, Bobby, and Teddy — the four sons and five daughters born to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and his wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who lived to see the pinnacle of their most cherished aspirations when their second-born son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, became the first Catholic president of the United States, and Irish Catholic at that.
This thin reverie of a book underscores the Irish Catholic heritage that produced the nine Kennedy children who grew up in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s pre-Vatican II era of Latin Masses every Sunday, meatless Fridays, grace before meals, and evening prayers.
Growing up in the 1950s, I, too, was taught by nuns to memorize, memorize, memorize — the Baltimore Catechism, not the world atlas. I can hardly locate Afghanistan on a map, but I’m still able to recite why God made me: “to know, love and serve him in this world and be happy with him in the next.” All by way of explaining why I might be more tolerant than most of Smith’s tendency to render verbatim the prayers and poems of her childhood as well as the Beatitudes from the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Smith recalls the visit Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, made to their home in Bronxville, where he sat on the sofa and held 4-year-old Teddy on his knee. Rose Kennedy later had a plaque made and mounted on the back of the sofa to commemorate the event. The author also relates her mother’s executive organizational skills in handling various childhood illnesses like measles, mumps, and chickenpox.
“Why spend the year cycling child after child through the flu…If one of us came down with a contagious illness, it simply made sense to her that the rest of us should come down with it too…So as soon as the doctor stepped from the room of a sibling to report an infectious disease, the rest of us were hustled inside by Mother to play…Within a week the sickness was out of the house for good.”
In previous books, Rose Kennedy has been dismissed as priggish, pious, and humorless, but her youngest daughter also shows her to be devoted to continual self-improvement for her children as well as herself. Even into her 90s, she was still trying to master a second foreign language. She lived to be 104.
At first, I assumed this slight book was ghostwritten but, as no other writer is named, perhaps not. Still, I agonized for whoever did the writing because the poor soul seemed to have no access to fresh material — no personal diaries, fulsome letters, or unpublished photographs.
Instead, the writer had to plunder the public record, cribbing a great deal from The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw; Rose Kennedy’s memoir, Times to Remember; and Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, edited by Amanda Smith.
As the first journalist to reveal the pre-frontal lobotomy performed on Rosemary Kennedy, I have always been impressed by how the family used that tragedy to support their commitment to mental health. The Nine of Us does not ignore the experimental surgery, which Jean Kennedy Smith writes, “went tragically wrong…Rosemary lost most of her ability to walk and communicate,” adding that her father, who had sanctioned the procedure, “remained heartbroken over the tragic outcome…for the rest of his life.”
Yet Smith omits revealing her mother’s bitterness about what her father had done without consulting her or anyone else in the family. In her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Rose Kennedy at age 90: “He thought it would help [Rosemary]. But it made her go all the way back. It erased all those years of effort I had put into her. All along I had continued to believe that she could have lived her life as a Kennedy girl, just a little slower.”
Such a sin of omission — and there are many throughout the book — mars this memoir and keeps it from being more than superficial gloss.
Crossposted from Washington Independent Review of Books
Kitty Kelley’s first book for children will be published January 3, 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Martin’s Dream Day tells the story of the 1963 March on Washington, illustrated by Stanley Tretick’s photography.
“Martin Luther King dreamed of making justice a reality for all God’s children so it seemed right to share the images of his dream day with children,” said Kelley.
Ages 5 and up.
Read press release here.
Kitty Kelley will donate her proceeds from this book to Reading Is Fundamental, the largest nonprofit children’s literacy organization in the United States.
Buy in hardcover or in ebook format.
Kitty Kelley participated in a panel at the the Biographers International Organization Conference in Richmond, June 3-5, 2016.
Photo, left to right: Jeffrey Frank (Ike and Dick), Amanda Vaill (Everybody Was So Young), Thomas Mallon (Henry and Clara), Kitty Kelley, James Atlas (Delmore Schwartz), Anne Heller (Ayn Rand and the World She Made)
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.
Who would’ve thought that we’d be here tonight celebrating the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra???
Some of you were with me thirty years ago when I was researching his life story and Sinatra sued to stop me. He said then that only he alone or someone he authorized had the right to write about his life. The day he hit me with his $2 million lawsuit was the day I fully understood what the First Amendment was all about.
it hadn’t been for the support I received from writers groups around the country like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sigma Delta Chi, the Newspaper Guild, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union, the Council of Writers Organizations and Washington Independent Writers, I could not have written this book. So I remain profoundly grateful to those writers who understood how a powerful man with money and influence could try to exercise prior restraint and bury a writer before she had written a word.
After a year-long battle Frank Sinatra finally dropped his lawsuit and His Way: the Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra was published. Now it’s been updated and re-released to coincide with his centennial.
For me the best part of tonight is that the life story of a man with only 47 days of education before he dropped out of high school in Hoboken, New Jersey will benefit Reading is Fundamental. This organization is the largest non-profit for children’s literacy in the United States. So the more books you buy tonight, the more books Reading is Fundamental can put in the hands of poor children who’ve never owned a book. Possessing their own books will help them learn to read and to become literate, and their literacy will benefit all of us. Now even Frank Sinatra could not object to that.
So let’s hoist a glass to Ole Blue Eyes and to the First Amendment and to all those who made this evening possible.
Kitty Kelley made these remarks at a party and book signing celebrating the release of the Frank Sinatra centennial edition of His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra. The event took place on December 9, 2015 at i Ricchi restaurant in Washington DC.