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Writing Oprah: A Biography

by Kitty Kelley

In researching Oprah: A Biography I spent several days in Kosciusko, Mississippi where Oprah Winfrey was born and lived until she was six years old. I spent time with Katharine Carr Esters, Oprah’s first cousin, whom she calls “Aunt Katharine.” Mrs. Esters, 79 at the time, was my guide to the formative years of Oprah’s life in Mississippi and later with her mother in Milwaukee where Mrs. Esters said, “Oprah ran wild on the streets.”

During our days together Mrs. Esters talked about the strained relationship between Oprah, her mother, and the man who had fathered Oprah. “It’s not Vernon Winfrey,” said Mrs. Esters, “although he’s the one who stepped forward to take responsibility of her when Oprah needed it most.”

Mrs. Esters told me the name of Oprah’s real father but insisted I not publish the information until Oprah’s mother told Oprah the truth. When my book was published in April 2010 Mrs. Esters, obviously feeling the pressure from her powerful relative, backed away and denied what she had told me.

A few months later I received a call from Mrs. Esters’ daughter, Jo A. Baldwin, who had once worked for Oprah in Chicago as V.P. of Harpo. I had tried to interview Baldwin at the time but she would not talk. “I was too scared of Oprah,” she said. “Oprah told me if I ever talked she’d ruin me…. But I can talk to you now.”

“Why now and not then?” I asked.

“Because I now have tenure and Oprah can’t take my job away from me.”

Jo Baldwin is associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Mississippi Valley State University and pastor of Greater Disney Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Greenville, MS. Her friends call her Rev. Jo.

“I know now that you wrote the truth when you wrote about mom telling you the name of Oprah’s real father,” she said. “My son, Conrad, [who lives with Mrs. Esters], told me he heard mom say it.” Jo Baldwin agreed that when my interviews with her mother became public, Mrs. Esters became afraid of what Oprah might do to her, and backed away from what she had told me.

Over a period of weeks Rev. Jo and I spoke on the phone several times and exchanged numerous emails. I’ve included much of her information in the paperback of Oprah: A Biography (published January 18, 2011) but the story below is one she sent me after the paperback had gone to press.

WHY I TALKED TO KITTY KELLEY ABOUT MY COUSIN OPRAH

by Jo A. Baldwin

Over 20 years ago I found out people won’t believe you if they don’t want to.  They won’t even hear what you have to say in the first place.  But now almost 25 years later someone was interested in hearing about my two-year stint working for my cousin Oprah and that person is Kitty Kelley.  From 1986 to 88 I was Oprah’s Vice President of Development at Harpo and most of what I had to say about her is in Miss Kelley’s paperback.  But I recently remembered one story that I had buried because it was so painful and decided to share it in this blog.

When I started working for Oprah she only paid me $1200 a month—that’s $14,400 a year—because that’s what I told her to pay me based on what my mother had said about my being a fool if I thought she would let me fly as high as I could (see the paperback for more details).  Before hiring me she asked me about my debts—I didn’t have any at the time—and she asked me if I had any assets.  That’s when I told her about my Tiffany lamp.  She asked me if she could buy it but I told her no that it was my inheritance from Mother Carr and I was going to keep it.  (My grandmother and her grandmother were sisters.)

Years ago my maternal grandmother was a live-in cook and nurse for a bachelor and his two spinster sisters who had fled the Holocaust and lived in Milwaukee.  I won’t say their names or what he did for a living, but he was wealthy, and Mother Carr took care of them until he died.  He left her many things that some of his nieces and nephews didn’t want her to have but because he was in his right mind when he gave them to her there was nothing they could do about it.  One of the items was a signed Tiffany lamp and base.

Before Mother Carr died she told my mother in my presence that she wanted me to have the Tiffany, so when she passed my mother gave it to me along with a platinum and diamond watch that I think came from Tiffany’s too although I didn’t have it appraised like I did the lamp.  One appraiser said the lamp was worth $65,000 and one said $24,000, so I decided to put it in a safety deposit box at the bank because the first appraiser said it was just a matter of time before somebody stole it.  It was in the bank over ten years before I had to sell it, which is where Oprah comes in.

The first year I worked for her was exciting.  I traveled with her, wrote the core of her speeches because she was best when improvising, and advised her on what to say and not say.  She listened to me but ended up doing what she wanted most of the time.  I got a lot of exposure, which she didn’t like, so the second year she practically ended my traveling with her and doing things in her office in Chicago.  The second year I mainly worked out of my house in Milwaukee.

She had given me a mink coat and Stedman’s old Mercedes I thought as gifts, but I found out she had counted them as cash income and that she wasn’t paying my taxes but that I was supposed to take the taxes out of the $1200 a month.  So I asked her for a raise to pay the taxes but she said she wasn’t giving anybody a raise that year.  That’s when I learned another valuable lesson.  When you’re naïve after a certain age, you get punished for it.  Shortly after that she fired me with no notice sending me a check for $5,000 severance pay.  I used the money to relocate because she had already started having parties and celebrations in Milwaukee and inviting everybody but me, so I moved out of state.

Well, the IRS caught up with me and said I owed $9,000 in back taxes from working for Oprah.  I had a job that paid enough to take care of my monthly bills, but I didn’t have that much money so I asked my mother to help me.  She said she didn’t have it either.  I told her they knew about my lamp and that I didn’t want to lose it, but she said sell it because that’s what an inheritance is for.  So I got an antique dealer to put it in an auction and it sold for $16,500.  I paid the taxes, but it took me years to get over hearing about how she gives millions of dollars away to people she doesn’t even know and wouldn’t give me a raise for the work I did for her so I wouldn’t have to sell my lamp.

To this day I don’t know how she found out I no longer have the lamp, but in a conversation I had with her about my novel—that she lied and said she never read—she had the nerve to say I was just upset with her about losing the Tiffany.

If she only knew what I know, she’d do differently.

Jo A. Baldwin has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), a M.A. in Creative Writing from UWM, a M.A. in Speech Theatre from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a Ph.D. in English from UWM, and a Master of Divinity from United Theological Seminary, Dayton Ohio. Baldwin is the first black American to earn a Ph.D. in English from UWM. She is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Mississippi Valley State University, Itta Bena, Mississippi, and the first in the country to modify Shurley English for college students, a method for teaching Basic English grammar that she revolutionized with her own poems and songs. Her REFERENCE MANUAL FOR Shurley English MODIFIED FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS will be available pending obtaining a trademark on her intellectual property. She is the Pastor of Greater Disney Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Greenville, Mississippi, and the first to author a book on “Tuning” which is a form of Preaching in the Black Tradition entitled Seven Signature Sermons by a Tuning Woman Preacher of the Gospel published by the Edwin Mellen Press, “An International Scholarly Publisher of Advanced Research.”

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