Queen of the Unauthorized Biography Spills Her Own Secrets

By Seth Abramovitch

There was, not that long ago, a name whose mere invocation could strike terror in the hearts of the most powerful figures in politics and entertainment.

That name was Kitty Kelley.

If it’s unfamiliar to you, ask your mother, who likely is in possession of one or more of Kelley’s best-selling biographies — exhaustive tomes that peer unflinchingly (and, many have claimed, nonfactually) into the personal lives of the most famous people on the planet.

“I’m afraid I’ve earned it,” sighs Kelley, 79, of her reputation as the undisputed Queen of the Unauthorized Biography. “And I wave the banner. I do. ‘Unauthorized’ does not mean untrue. It just means I went ahead without your permission.”

That she did. Jackie Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan — the more sacred the cow, the more eager Kelley was to lead them to slaughter. In doing so, she amassed a list of enemies that would make a despot blush. As Milton Berle once cracked at a Friars Club roast, “Kitty Kelley wanted to be here tonight, but an hour ago she tried to start her car.”

Only a handful of contemporary authors have achieved the kind of brand recognition that Kelley has. At the height of her powers in the early 1990s, mentions of the ruthless journo with the cutesy name would pop up everywhere from late night monologues to the funny pages. (Fully capable of laughing at herself, her bathroom walls are covered in framed cartoons drawn at her expense.)

Kelley is hard to miss around Washington, D.C. She drives a fire-engine red Mercedes with vanity plates that read “MEOW.” The car was a gift from former Simon & Schuster chief Dick Snyder, who was determined to land Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography.

“Simon & Schuster said, ‘Kitty, Dick really wants the book. What will it take to prove that?’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘A 560 SL Mercedes, bright red, Palomino interior.’ ‘We’ll be back to you.’ ” She insists she was only kidding. But a few days later, Kelley answered the phone and was directed to walk to the nearest corner: “Your bright red 560 SL is sitting there waiting for you.” Sure enough, there it was. The “MEOW” plates were a surprise gift from the boyfriend who would become her second husband, Dr. John Zucker.

Ask Kelley how many books she has sold, and she claims not to know the exact number. It is many, many millions. Her biggest sellers — 1986’s His Way, about Frank Sinatra, and 1991’s Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, began with printings of a million each, which promptly sold out. “But they’ve gone to 12th printings, 14th printings,” she says. “I really couldn’t tell you how many I’ve sold in total.” She does recall first breaking into The New York Times‘ best-seller charts, with 1978’s Jackie Oh! “I remember the thrill of it. I remember how happy I was. It’s like being prom queen,” she says. “Which I actually was about 100 years ago.”

Regardless of one’s opinions about Kelley, or her methodology, there can be no denying that her brand of take-no-prisoners celebrity journalism — the kind that in 2022 bubbles up constantly in social media feeds in the form of TMZ headlines and gossipy tweets — was very much ahead of its time.

In fact, a detail from Kelley’s 1991 Nancy Reagan biography trended in December when Abby Shapiro, sister of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, tweeted side-by-side photos of Madonna and the former first lady. “This is Madonna at 63. This is Nancy Reagan at 64. Trashy living vs. Classic living. Which version of yourself do you want to be?” read the caption. Someone replied with an excerpt from Kelley’s biography that described Reagan as being “renowned in Hollywood for performing oral sex” and “very popular on the MGM lot.” The excerpt went viral and launched a wave of memes. “It doesn’t fit with the public image. Does it? It just doesn’t. And the source on that was Peter Lawford,” says Kelley, clearly tickled that the detail had resurfaced.

While amplifying those kinds of rumors might not suggest it, in many eyes, Kelley is something of a glass-ceiling shatterer. “Back when she started in the 1970s, it was a largely male profession,” says Diane Kiesel, a friend of Kelley’s who is a judge on the New York Supreme Court. “She was a trailblazer. There weren’t women writing the kind of hard-hitting books she was writing. I’m sure most of her sources were men.”

But what of her methodology? Kelley insists she never sets out to write unauthorized biographies. Since Jackie Oh!, she has always begun her research by asking her subjects to participate, often multiple times. She is invariably turned down, then continues about the task anyway. She’s also known to lean toward blind sourcing and rely on notes, plus tapes and photographs, to back up the hundreds of interviews that go into every book.

“Recorders are so small today, but back then it was very hard to carry a clunky tape recorder around and slap it on the table in a restaurant and not have all of that ambient noise,” she says. To prove the conversations happened, Kelley devised a system in which she would type up a thank-you note containing the key details of their meeting — location, date and time — and mail it to every subject, keeping a copy for herself. If a subject ever denied having met with her, she would produce the notes from their conversation and her copy of the thank-you note.

So far, the system has worked. While many have tried to take her down, the ever-grinning Kelley has never been successfully sued by a source or subject.

Now 79, she lives in the same Georgetown townhouse she purchased with her $1.5 million advance (that’s $4 million adjusted for inflation) for His Way, which the crooner unsuccessfully sued to prevent from even being written.

Among the skeletons dug up by Kelley in that 600-page opus: that Ol’ Blue Eyes’ mother was known around Hoboken, New Jersey, as “Hatpin Dolly” for a profitable side hustle performing illegal abortions. Sinatra’s daughter Nancy Sinatra said the family “strangled on our pain and anger” over the book’s release, while her sister, Tina, said it caused her father so much stress, it forced him to undergo a seven-and-a-half-hour surgical procedure on his colon.

Giggly, vivacious and 5-foot-3, Kelley presents more like a kindly neighbor bearing blueberry muffins than the most infamous poison-pen author of the 20th century. “I seem to be doing more book reviewing than book writing these days,” she says in one of our first correspondences and points me to a review of a John Lewis biography published in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

She has not tackled a major work since 2010’s Oprah — a biography of Oprah Winfrey touted ahead of its release by The New Yorker as “one of those King Kong vs. Godzilla events in celebrity culture” but which fizzled in the marketplace, barely moving 300,000 copies. Among its allegations: that Winfrey had an affair early in her career with John Tesh — of Entertainment Tonight fame — and that, according to a cousin, the talk show host exaggerated tales of childhood poverty because “the truth is boring.”

“We had a falling out because I didn’t want to publish the Oprah book,” says Stephen Rubin, a consulting publisher at Simon & Schuster who grew close to Kelley while working with her at Doubleday on 2004’s The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.

“I told her that audience doesn’t want to read a negative book about Saint Oprah. I don’t think it’s something she should have even undertaken. We have chosen to disagree about that.”

The book ended up at Crown. It would be nine months before Kelley would speak to Rubin again. They’ve since reconciled. “She’s no fun when she’s pissed,” Rubin notes.

Adds Kelley of Winfrey’s reaction to the book: “She wasn’t happy with it. Nobody’s happy with [an unauthorized] biography. She was especially outraged about her father’s interview.” She is referencing a conversation she had, on the record, with Winfrey’s father, Vernon Winfrey, in which he confirmed the birth of her son, who arrived prematurely and died shortly after birth.

But Kelley says the backlash to Oprah: A Biography and the book’s underwhelming sales had nothing to do with why she hasn’t undertaken a biography since. Rather, her husband, a famed allergist in the D.C. area who’d give a daily pollen report on television and radio, died suddenly in 2011 of a heart attack. “John was the great love of her life,” says Rubin. “He was an irresistible guy — smart, good-looking, funny and mad for Kitty.”

“Boy, I was knocked on my heels,” she says of Zucker’s death. “He hated the cold weather. He insisted we go out to the California desert. We were in the desert, and he died at the pool suddenly. I can’t account for a couple of years after that. It was a body blow. I just haven’t tackled another biography since.”

A decade having passed, Kelley does not rule out writing another one — she just hasn’t yet found a subject worthy of her time. “I can’t think of anyone right now who I would give three or four years of my life to,” Kelley says. “It’s like a college education.”

For fun, I throw out a name: Donald Trump. Kelley shakes her head vigorously. “I started each book with real respect for each of my subjects,” she says. “And not just for who they were but for what they had accomplished and the imprint that they had left on society. I can’t say the same thing about Donald Trump. I would not want to wrap myself in a negative project for four years.”

“You know,” I interrupt, “I’m imagining people reading that quote and saying, ‘Well, you took ostensibly positive topics and turned them into negative topics.’ How would you respond to that?”

“I would say you’re wrong,” Kelley replies. “That’s what I would say. I think if you pick up, I don’t know — the Frank Sinatra book, Jackie Oh!, the Bush book — yes, you’re going to see the negatives and the positives, which we all have. But I think you’ll come out liking them. I mean, we don’t expect perfection in the people around us, but we seem to demand it in our stars. And yet, they’re hardly paragons. Each book that I’ve written was a challenge. But I would think that if you read the book, you’re going to come out — no matter what they say about the author — you’re going to come out liking the subject.”

***

Kelley arrived in the nation’s capital in 1964. She was 22 and, through the connections of her dad, a powerful attorney from Spokane, Washington, she landed an assistant job in Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s office. She worked there for four years, culminating in McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid. It was a tumultuous time. McCarthy’s Democratic rival, Robert F. Kennedy, was gunned down in Los Angeles at a California primary victory party on June 5. When Hubert Humphrey clinched the nomination that August amid the DNC riots in Chicago, Kelley’s dreams of a future in a McCarthy White House were dashed, and she decided a life in politics was not for her.

“But I remain political,” Kelley clarifies. “I am committed to politics and have been ever since I worked for Gene McCarthy. I was against the war in Vietnam. I don’t come from that world. I come from a rich, right-wing Republican family. My siblings avoid talking politics with me.”

In 1970, she applied for a researcher opening in the op-ed section at The Washington Post. “It was a wonderful job,” she recalls. “I’d go into editorial page conferences. And whatever the writers would be writing, I would try and get research for them. Ben Bradlee’s office was right next to the editorial page offices. And if he had both doors open, I would walk across his office. He was always yelling at me for doing it.”

According to her own unauthorized biography — 1991’s Poison Pen, by George Carpozi Jr. — Kelley was fired for taking too many notes in those meetings, raising red flags for Bradlee, who suspected she might be researching a book about the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham. Kelley says the story is not true.

“I have not heard that theory, but I will tell you I loved Katharine Graham, and when I left the Post, she gave me a gift. She dressed beautifully, and when the style went from mini to maxi skirts —because she was tall and I am not, I remember saying, ‘Mrs. Graham, you’re going to have to go to maxis now. And who’s going to get your minis?’ She laughed. It was very impudent. But then I was handed a great big box with four fabulous outfits in them — her miniskirts.”

Kelley says she left the Post after two years to pursue writing books and freelancing. She scored one of the bigger scoops of 1974 when the youngest member of the upper house — newly elected Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, then 31 — agreed to be profiled for Washingtonian, a new Beltway magazine.

Biden was still very much in mourning for his wife and young daughter, killed by a hay truck while on their way to buy a Christmas tree in Delaware on Dec. 18, 1972. The future president’s two young sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the wreck; Biden was sworn into the Senate at their hospital bedsides.

After the accident, Biden developed an almost antagonistic relationship to the press. But his team eventually softened him to the idea of speaking to the media. That was precisely when Kelley made her ask.

Biden would come to deeply regret the decision. The piece, “Death and the All-American Boy,” published on June 1, 1974, was a mix of flattery (Kelley writes that Biden “reeks of decency” and “looks like Robert Redford’s Great Gatsby”), controversy (she references a joke told by Biden with “an antisemitic punchline”) and, at least in Biden’s eyes, more than a little bad taste.

The piece opens: “Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident.”

Later, Kelley writes, “His Senate suite looks like a shrine. A large photograph of Neilia’s tombstone hangs in the inner office; her pictures cover every wall. A framed copy of Milton’s sonnet ‘On His Deceased Wife’ stands next to a print of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty.’ “

But it was one of Biden’s own quotes that most incensed the future president.

She writes: ” ‘Let me show you my favorite picture of her,’ he says, holding up a snapshot of Neilia in a bikini. ‘She had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?’ “

“I stand by everything in the piece,” says Kelley. “I’m sorry he was so upset. And it’s ironic, too, because I’m one of his biggest supporters. It was 48 years ago. I would hope we’ve both grown. Maybe he expected me to edit out [the line about the bikini], but it was not off the record.” Still, she admits her editor, Jack Limpert, went too far with the headline: “I had nothing to do with that. I was stunned by the headline. ‘Death and the All-American Boy.’ Seriously?”

It would be 15 years before Biden gave another interview, this time to the Washington Post‘s Lois Romano during his first presidential bid, in 1987. Biden, by then remarried to Jill Biden, recalled to Romano, “[Kelley] sat there and cried at my desk. I found myself consoling her, saying, ‘Don’t worry. It’s OK. I’m doing fine.’ I was such a sucker.”

Kelley’s first book wasn’t a biography at all. “It was a book on fat farms,” she says, which was based on a popular article she’d written for Washington Star News on San Diego’s Golden Door — one of the country’s first luxury spas catering to celebrity clientele like Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

“On about the third day, the chef came out, and he said, ‘Would you like a little something?’ ” says Kelley. “He was Italian. I said, ‘Yes, I’m so hungry.’ And he kind of laughed. Turns out he wasn’t talking about tuna fish. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ He said, ‘I have sex all the time with the people here.’ I said, ‘I should tell you, I’m here writing a book.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you everything!’ I warned him, ‘OK — but I’m going to use names.’ And I did.”

The book, a 1975 paperback called The Glamour Spas, sold “14 copies, all of them bought by my mother,” she says. But the publisher, Lyle Stuart, dubbed in a 1969 New York Times profile as the “bad boy of publishing,” was impressed enough with Kelley’s writing that he hired her in 1976 to write a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The crown jewel of the book that would become Jackie Oh! was Kelley’s interview with Sen. George Smathers, a Florida Democrat and John F. Kennedy’s confidant. (After they entered Congress the same year and quickly became close friends, Kennedy asked Smathers to deliver two significant speeches: at his 1953 wedding and his 1960 DNC nomination.)

“It was quite explosive,” Kelley recalls of her three-hour dinner with Smathers. “He was very charming, very Southern and funny. And he said, ‘Oh, Jack, he just loved women.’ And he went on talking, and he said, ‘He’d get on top of them, just like a rooster with a hen.’ I said, ‘Senator, I’m sorry, but how would you know that unless you were in the room?’ He said, ‘Well, of course I was in the room. Jack loved doing it in front of people.’

“The senator, to his everlasting credit, did not deny it,” Kelley continues. “A reporter asked him, ‘Did you really say those things?’ And the senator replied, ‘Yeah, I did. I think I was just run over by a dumb-looking blonde.’ “

She followed that one, which landed on the New York Times best-seller list, with 1981’s Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, which underwhelmed. Her next two, however — His Way and Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography (for which she earned a $3.5 million advance, $9 million in 2022 adjusted for inflation) — were best-sellers, moving more than 1 million copies each in hardcover.

Her 1997 royal family exposé, The Royals — which presaged The Crown, the Lady Di renaissance and Megxit mania by several decades — contained allegations that the British royal family had obfuscated their German ancestry.

“Sinatra was huge and Nancy was huge, but The Royals gave me more foreign sales than I’ve ever had on any book,” Kelley beams, adding that the recent headlines about Prince Andrew settling with a woman who accused him of raping her as a teenager at Jeffrey Epstein’s compound “really shows the rotten underbelly of the monarchy, in that someone would be so indulged, really ruined as a person, without much purpose in life.”

“Looking around,” I ask Kelley, “is society in decline?”

“What a question,” she replies. “Let’s say it’s being stressed on all sides. I think it’s become hard to find people that we can look up to — those you can turn to to find your better self. We used to do that with movie stars. People do it with monarchy. Unfortunately, there are people like Kitty Kelley around who will take us behind the curtain.”

Contrary to her public persona, Kelley is known in D.C. social circles for her gentility. Judge Kiesel, a part-time author, first met her eight years ago when Kelley hosted a reception for members of the Biographers International Organization at her home.

“What amazed me was she was such the epitome of Southern hospitality, even though she isn’t from the South,” says Kiesel. “I remember her standing on the front porch of her beautiful home in Georgetown and personally greeting every member of this group who had showed up. There had to be close to 200 of us.”

Kelley hosts regular dinner parties of six to 10 people. “She likes to mix people from publishing, politics and the law,” says Kiesel. When Kiesel, who lives in New York City, needed to spend more time in D.C. caring for a sister diagnosed with cancer, Kelley insisted she stay at her home. “She threw a little dinner party in my honor,” Kiesel recalls. “I said, ‘Kitty — why are you doing this?’ She said, ‘You’re going to have a really rough couple of months and I wanted to show you that I’m going to be there for you.’ People look at her as this tough-as-nails, no-holds-barred writer — but she’s a very kind, sweet, generous woman.”

For Kelley, life has grown pretty quiet the past few years: “It’s such a solitary life as a writer. The pandemic has turned life into a monastery.” Asked whether she dates, she lets out a high-pitched chortle. “Yes,” she says. “When asked. No one serious right now. Hope springs eternal!”

I ask her if there is anything she’s written she wishes she could take back. “Do I stand by everything I wrote? Yes. I do. Because I’ve been lawyered to the gills. I’ve had to produce tapes, letters, photographs,” she says, then adds, “But I do regret it if it really brought pain.”

Says Rubin: “People think she’s a bottom-feeder kind of writer, and that’s totally wrong. She’s a scrupulous journalist who writes no-holds-barred books. They’re brilliantly reported.”

Before I bid her adieu, I can’t resist throwing out one more potential subject for a future Kelley page-turner.

“What about Jeff Bezos?” I say.

She pauses to consider, and you can practically hear the gears revving up again.

“I think he’s quite admirable,” she says. “First of all, he saved The Washington Post. God love him for that. And he took on someone who threatened to blackmail him. He stood up to it. I think there’s much to admire and respect in Jeff Bezos. He sounds like he comes from the most supportive parents in the world. You don’t always find that with people who are so successful.”

“So,” I say. “You think you have another one in you?”

“I hope so,” Kelley says. “I know you’re going to end this article by saying … ‘Look out!’ “

 

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lifestyle/arts/kitty-kelley-interview-unauthorized-biographies-1235101933/

Photo credits: top of page, Amy Lombard; Kitty Kelley in Merc, Amy Lombard; Kitty Kelly with His Way, Bettmann/Getty Images; Kitty Kelley with Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

The Nickel Boys

by Kitty Kelley

Colson Whitehead is to American literature what the Rolls-Royce is to automobiles: revered and unrivaled. Having published eight novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous essays and short stories, the 52-year-old writer has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, as well as a Whiting Writers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In addition, he made the cover of TIME in 2019 as “America’s Storyteller.”

The only accolade remaining seems to be a royal summons to Sweden for the Nobel.

In 2016, Whitehead’s eighth novel, The Underground Railroad, an allegorical tour de force about enslaved people trying to escape to freedom, thundered him to commercial success and sold over 1 million copies. He’d already started writing his next novel when he spotted a story in the Tampa Bay Times about the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle. The segregated reform school, which opened in 1900, had finally closed in 2011.

Whitehead had never heard of the facility and was stunned to read that forensic archaeologists from the University of South Florida had discovered the unmarked graves of more than 50 African American boys on the property.

He realized then that if there was one adolescent abattoir like Dozier, “There were hundreds of others scattered across the land like pain factories,” he told the New York Times. “The survivors are never heard from and the guilty are never punished…They live to a ripe old age while their victims are damaged for life.”

The injustice rankled the author, and the subject became more urgent to Whitehead after the 2016 presidential election. Setting aside his novel-in-progress, he began investigating like the journalist he’d been at the Village Voice following his graduation from Harvard. He absorbed all the blood-stained facts surrounding the Dozier atrocity; he read reports, records, and forensic studies of the gravesites, plus accounts of solitary confinement during which Black and white boys were shackled by leg irons soldered to the floor and forced to live in their own excrement.

Many of these boys were also whipped by a three-foot-long strap called Black Beauty. Those who did not survive were dumped into dirt holes; those who did were forever haunted. They became men “with wives and ex-wives and children they did and didn’t talk to…dead in prison or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week.”

After mastering the grisly facts, the spectacular novelist within Whitehead took flight with The Nickel Boys. In this spare book — it’s just 224 pages — he bestows humanity on the unnamed victims who’d once been sodomized and beaten witless. He humanizes them in the character Elwood Curtis, an orphan who lives with his grandmother, Harriet. She toils as a cleaning lady and sleeps with a “sugarcane machete under her pillow for intruders.”

One Christmas, Harriet gives Elwood his greatest treasure: the 1962 LP “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill,” the only record he’s allowed to play. Elwood listens to the album every day and long into the night. He embraces Dr. King’s words as his guidepost for living. He believes that the long arc of the moral universe is bending towards him and will soon change his life.

That, it does — tragically.

Through no fault of his own, Elwood ends up in the hellscape of Nickel Academy, where he meets his polar opposite, a street-smart tough named Turner who thinks Elwood is hopelessly naïve. The story turns on their relationship, their joint attempt at escape, and the final honor one pays to the other.

Nickel is not Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, where “He ain’t heavy, Father. He’s my brother” was the motto. Instead, among Nickel survivors, there’s a bond of grievous horror and lives never lived:

“[They] could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place…not all of them were geniuses…but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

For them, the long arc of the moral universe was forever out of reach.

The Nickel Boys is a novel that elevates Colson Whitehead to the pantheon alongside Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom, too, bore witness to America’s pernicious legacy of racism and white supremacy.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Home/Land

by Kitty Kelley

Upon his death in 1938, Thomas Wolfe bequeathed to America’s literary canon a 1,100-page manuscript which, published posthumously, trumpeted a universal truth: “You can’t go home again.” Rebecca Mead now challenges the bard of Asheville, North Carolina, with her third book, Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return.

A British subject who graduated from Oxford, Mead emigrated to the U.S. in 1988 on a student visa to do graduate work at New York University and stayed for 30 years. She lived in Manhattan, endured numerous cycles of “falling in love, being in love and falling out of love.” Then she met her husband, also a writer, moved to Brooklyn, had a child, and, in 2011, became an American citizen. But she did not live happily ever after.

Mead grew increasingly dismayed over Brooklyn’s urban development of rising towers that encroached on her sylvan view: “Birnam Wood was coming to Dunsinane, I thought.” Worse was the right-wing clamor of the Tea Party that arose in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. Then came a nationalistic rhetoric that spread like gangrene. Finally, roiled by dystopian fears of Donald Trump, Mead and her husband decided to flee Dunsinane with their young son. They packed 170 boxes of books and flew first class to the U.K. on one-way tickets.

Months later, in 2018, Mead, a correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote an article about her repatriation, “A New Citizen Decides to Leave the Tumult of Trump’s America.” She seemed to be road-testing the idea of a future book on “the wrenching choice to return to Britain.” In her essay, she admitted that going home was not ideal:

“London is not a utopia; housing, in particular, is debilitatingly expensive…I am under no illusions that the U.K. is a beacon of progressivism. This is a move from the fire into the frying pan at best.”

Four years later, Home/Land reflects on that frying pan and its cost in terms of adjustment and accommodation. In his British elementary school, her Brooklyn-born son observes, “Everyone is so white.”

Much of what besets the U.S. — political turbulence, gun and gang violence, and immigration issues exacerbated by the pandemic — bedevils the U.K., too, but on a much smaller scale, which provides Mead with a sense of security.

Her regrets? Her reliefs? These questions, and more, are asked and answered in penetrating detail by a writer who pans for gold and presents it many times, albeit in sentences that are long and somewhat convoluted. For example, when Mead discovers that her father, as a child, lived in London’s Camden Square, where she now lives, she writes:

“And so, as I’d stepped onto the roof deck from the bedroom of the new house the realtor took me to — fantasizing a life in which I’d emerge in the morning with a cup of coffee in my hand and survey the landscape of narrow gardens and the backs of houses before descending to spend the day at my desk — I’d unwittingly been looking directly across at windows from which my father had surely looked out as a young boy in the arms of his mother.”

She continues, “To me this collision of the past and the present of Camden Square — the invisible tracery in which the threads of my father’s life and mine have against all odds, crossed and interwoven — is charged, if not exactly with meaning, then with wonder.”

Mead enumerates the benefits of trading a noisy, jangled democracy in the U.S. for a quieter life in an island nation about to experience the upset of Brexit, which she predicts will be “dark and chaotic.” For her, Britain’s advantages appear to be free healthcare, remarkably efficient public transportation, and college tuition capped at $12,000 a year (in the U.S., it can run more than $60,000 annually).

She feels the move across the pond gives her son a larger periscope on the world, and better positions her to cover international stories for the New Yorker, as was evidenced by her recent trip to Pompeii to profile the excavation of the 79 A.D. ruins from Mount Vesuvius. “I can get on a train…in the morning and be in Amsterdam by early afternoon, having traveled through four countries before lunchtime.”

Home/Land reads like a polyglot of personal diary and literary travelogue in which a writer meanders back and forth between her youth in America, including “years of psychotherapy,” and her present life in Britain as a woman of 56, an age at which, she bemoans, she feels invisible. Mead delves into the personal by discussing menopause and her humiliation over having hot flashes and experiencing changes in her brain chemistry.

Like an archeologist, she leads readers on a literary dig across London, over the open fields of Hampstead Heath, and into Fort Greene Park to discover a mound known as Boadicea’s Grave, named for an ancient British queen. The scholar in Mead instructs readers about the monarch now known as Boudicea and her bloody uprising in 60 A.D., adding parenthetically that “the root of ‘Boudica’ is the Celtic word for victory.” For those itching to return to the present, Mead first insists on more information about the victorious Queen Boadicea as celebrated in a 19th-century poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

She then segues into Iron Age forts like Maiden Castle, where she informs readers that “ancient Britons built concentric rings of ditches and rises upon the slopes of a high saddle-backed hill, with labyrinth entry points so that when it is seen in aerial photographs the site resembles the maze toy my son once had, a wooden disk cut with circular grooves through which he tipped and twisted a steel ball bearing.” (See the warning above about lengthy sentences.)

Like any British memoirist born “lower middle class,” she also examines her country’s punishing class system and rightly applauds the state-subsidized education inaugurated in the 1980s as “the most important engine of social mobility.”

Rebecca Mead then ends her book like a pilgrim, still seeking to find her place in her new homeland.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Just Pursuit

by Kitty Kelly

With the publication of Just Pursuit, Laura Coates takes her place in a pantheon with Frank Serpico, who blew the whistle on police corruption in the 1970s. A former detective with the New York Police Department, Serpico’s public testimony led to the Knapp Commission and massive police reforms. But, as Coates writes in her second book, the corruption continues, poisoning every part of the justice system.

Serpico’s exposé led to a bestselling book and a film starring Al Pacino, as well as a TV series and a documentary. Five decades later, Coates’ Just Pursuit carries that same commercial potential as it exposes lazy lawyers, preening prosecutors, cynical cops, and judges who preside over their courtrooms like tin-horn dictators, leaving in their wake an outsized number of poor, Black people forced to stand before them.

Citing one particularly egregious example, Coates writes about a white female judge who used her time on the bench to shop a website for boots rather than listen to the young Black adolescent before her testifying about the sexual abuse she suffered for years at the hands of her mother’s live-in boyfriend.

“Skipping down the center aisle, [the youngster approached] the witness stand in an above-the-knee skirt, breasts bouncing unrestrained,” writes Coates. “She giggled as she raised her right hand…She tugged at her skirt…the skirt buckled along her hips, slightly twisting her zipper…she slouched and tugged again at her skirt on one side…She rubbed her glossed lips together.”

Immediately, Coates knows the case is lost. “The judge’s focused glare on the child’s appearance said everything,” she writes. Still, Coates hopes she’s wrong, staying in the courtroom to find out. Sadly, the judge meets Coates’ expectations and lacerates the victim: “No one who has been raped, even a young teenager, would have skipped down the aisle of the courtroom dressed like that…her clothes were ill-fitting and she was not even wearing the appropriate undergarments, not even tights.”

Coates hung her head in sorrow, “unable to watch this child try to understand what about herself had warranted such contempt.”

Not every one of the 15 chapters in this book is equally weighted but each carries the heavy load of racism that Coates saw during her seven years as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Writing with verve and style, she relates her experience as a poll watcher in “a small town somewhere in Mississippi” during Obama’s second presidential campaign.

“The Deep South made me nervous,” Coates admits, as she walked into the same territory where the KKK once bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young Black girls attending Sunday school; where Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated; and where 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. A Black female poll watcher in Mississippi, even in the 21st century, must feel like a Bengal tiger walking into a gun store.

It’s unnerving to read about the precautions Coates felt she had to take to be safe on that trip. Pulling into a sit-down restaurant, she scans the menu “to find whatever food would easily show if someone tampered with it. Nothing with gravy or sauce or anything else that covers someone’s spit under a bun. Something fried, served so hot it would kill the bacteria, was always the best option.” At the hotel, she elects to take the elevator a few floors. “I didn’t want to risk getting trapped in the stairs.”

In some chapters, Just Pursuit reads like a personal diary, such as when mother-to-be Coates experiences her first pregnancy. Walking into a courtroom to try a case, she stops to take a call from her OB-GYN, who tells her that tests show the fetus has an elevated alpha‑fetoprotein level, indicating spina bifida.

Coates tries to steady herself. “Don’t worry,” says the physician. “You’re still within the range to terminate your pregnancy. You want to call me after your trial? We can talk more then.” Raw and vulnerable, Coates lashes out. “Do you have any idea how heartless that just was? Why would you tell me that news in that way?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” the physician apologizes. “I just knew you didn’t have much time and you always seem so matter-of-fact.” Up to this point in the book, the doctor is correct: Coates has presented herself as she now appears on CNN — head-of-the-class smart and tensile tough, with a bit of suffer-no-fools impatience. At that time, though, you could almost hear her echo Sojourner Truth’s lament: “Ain’t I a woman?”

Coates does not reveal how she resolved that first pregnancy, but in later chapters, she discusses giving birth to her son and being pregnant again with a daughter. Nursing mothers who work (and their husbands) will relate to her various mentions of “pumping” and “keeping at least five full bottles [of milk] during my workday” and “drinking water incessantly to keep up with my milk supply.”

Having children seems to have changed the hard-charging prosecutor. “When I first became a prosecutor, I had thought each case could represent a dot on the arc that Dr. King hoped would bend toward justice,” she writes. “Now, I wondered if I was bending the arc of justice or breaking it, and I was afraid the justice system might just break me.”

Nor does she look back on her years of public service with pride:

“[T]he collective memories of trauma are so overwhelming that I fear I might lose myself if I don’t fill my time. The violence didn’t happen to me. But it…eviscerated me…and I still grapple with the scars of secondary trauma.”

Laura Coates once believed that justice was binary, achievable, and universally understood. No longer. Her experience has shown her a grotesque, twisted system corrupted by racism that needs to be reformed. She offers no solutions, but she supports her premise in horrific detail: “[T]he pursuit of justice creates injustice.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Manifesto

by Kitty Kelley

If “perseverance is genius in disguise,” then Bernardine Evaristo is a 22-carat gold, diamond-encrusted genius. She is the patron saint of persistence and proves it with her ninth book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Having received the 2019 Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo was the first Black woman and the first Black Brit to win the prize in its 50-year history. So she now has a global audience for her gospel on persevering.

In this Manifesto, she offers insights into her biracial heritage (white English mother and Black Nigerian father), her “lower class” childhood (number four of eight children) in London, where she was considered by the British class system to be “inferior, marginal, negligible,” and her personal relationships (10 years living as a lesbian followed by a heterosexual marriage).

Whether homosexual or hetero, she was always a feminist and approached her struggle for success with a winning strategy: persistence — no matter what. “I’ve always felt myself to have an inner strength, by which I mean that I’m not needy or clingy. I don’t crave approval all the time…a tough inner core has been essential to my creative survival.”

In a chapter entitled “The women and men who came and went,” Evaristo expends several pages on what she calls her “lesbian era,” because she feels the problem is not with same-sex attraction but with a homophobic society that requires queer people to justify their existence. “Put it this way: my lesbian identity was the stuffing in a heterosexual sandwich.” In 2005, on a dating website, she met her husband, whom she describes as “a white middle-class man.” She portrays their marriage as a life preserver that freed her to get on with her most important work — writing.

Readers might wince as they read of Evaristo growing up Catholic, biracial, and brown-skinned in an overwhelmingly white Protestant area, enduring the name-calling of neighbors and the dismissals of the “unholy men…the half-drunk priests” who heard her confession every week:

“In my family, we had no doubts about the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy, and as we each reached the age of fifteen, after ten years of attending Sunday Mass, my siblings and I were given the choice whether to continue or not. One by one we left the church never to return; as did my mother in due course.”

Evaristo began her creative journey by writing poetry; after college, she started writing and acting in the Theater of Black Women, Britain’s first such company. To survive, she lived on the dole and by her wits:

“I moved into slummy old properties, ready for demolition…A futon served as both sofa and bed. Boxes for clothes. Planks of wood and bricks became a bookcase…I prided myself of being able to stuff the rest of my meager possessions — clothes, books, bedding, kitchen utensils — into a few black rubbish bags.”

Leaving the theater in her 30s, Evaristo concentrated her creative energies on writing with London as her muse, having lived so many years in the city’s various districts. Finally, at the age of 55, she bound herself to a mortgage and settled into a life of writing, writing, writing. “I had become unstoppable with my creativity…writing became my permanent home.”

Now 62, Evaristo is unsparing about her own racism. As a child, she was ashamed of her father’s very dark skin. “I remember crossing the road when I saw him walking towards me. It was internalized racism, pure and simple…Black was bad and white was good. As a child I’d have killed to be white, with long blonde hair.”

She addresses “colorism or shadism,” and notes that, “sadly,” some people choose to pass because they’re light enough to be racialized as white, such as the Hollywood stars Carol Channing and Merle Oberon.

Throughout her life, Evaristo believed in herself and her talent, even when others did not. “[This] self-belief…is the single most important thing a writer needs, especially when the encouragement we crave from others is not forthcoming.”

The last section of her book, entitled “The self, ambition, transformation, activism,” echoes the principles of Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, M.D., which was published in 1960 and sold over 30 million copies. The biracial British writer and the late Jewish American physician share the same philosophy: Envision the goal, believe you can accomplish the goal, and then achieve the goal.

When Bernardine Evaristo wrote her first novel, Lara, in 1997, she wrote, in part, an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize. Twenty-two years and eight books later, she finally received it. Dreams really do come true.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Interview with Arnold Lehman

by Kitty Kelley

In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum exploded a bombshell on the battlefield of artistic freedom and First Amendment rights with its exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” which the museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, brought to Brooklyn from the Royal Academy in London.

Among the other provocative paintings in the exhibition, artist Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” created an uproar at city hall. The painting depicted a Black Madonna with one breast created from shellacked and carefully decorated elephant dung. The painting outraged New York’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who tried to shut down the exhibit, fire the board and director, and throw the museum out of its historic building because he viewed the display as “sick” and “disgusting.”

The museum’s trustees, represented by attorney and First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, sued Giuliani in federal court to stop his attacks. The exhibition and lawsuit dominated New York’s front pages and the international media for six months. In the end, the museum was victorious. Now, Lehman retells this story — still relevant today — in a book appropriately titled in all caps, SENSATION: THE MADONNA, THE MAYOR, THE MEDIA, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT.

You’d been a museum director for 25 years when you brought “Sensation” to Brooklyn. The exhibition had already occasioned outrage in the U.K. Did you anticipate the same reaction in the U.S.?

I knew that “Sensation” included numerous strong, exciting, and provocative works, most not seen in the U.S., which was the reason I wanted it for the museum. However, at the Royal Academy in London, it was one painting, “MYRA,” that was the cause of the uproar. “MYRA” went almost unnoticed in New York. “The Holy Virgin Mary,” on the other hand, which the British media hardly mentioned, was the core of the frenzied media and legal battle in New York. However, I believe the outrage over the Madonna was planned and politically motivated.

What does the extreme reaction say about museumgoers in both countries?

“All politics” is often said to be local. Similarly, without the U.K. backstory of “MYRA” being a serial child-murderer, visitors to “Sensation” at Brooklyn only saw a huge portrait of a woman. For “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a backstory was created and incited by the conservative media to support Mayor Giuliani’s early race against Hillary Clinton for the New York Senate. The vast majority of New Yorkers approved of the Madonna despite the media frenzy, while the painting was never the center of any attention in London. In this instance, I believe the focus for the audiences was information rather than any cultural differences.

How much were the Brooklyn Museum’s legal fees, given that Mayor Giuliani opted to settle the case rather than wait for the opinion of the appeals court?

Even with a very substantial discount from our extraordinary attorneys, Floyd Abrams and Susan Buckley, preparing and prosecuting a First Amendment case in federal District Court [that was] continued in the court of appeals…together with the required depositions, court appearances, and a multitude of meetings, was a very time-consuming and costly undertaking. The museum raised funds from its dedicated trustees, engaged foundations, and other supporters to underwrite these costs.

Why did it take you two decades to write SENSATION and document the cultural clash?

Although many tried to “unseat” me, with the total support of our trustees, I remained director at the Brooklyn Museum for almost 16 more years. During that period, although I had always thought about writing a book on “Sensation,” I was both immensely busy and also believed strongly that it was inappropriate to write such a personal narrative about the institution I was then serving. With the beginning of the Trump Administration, I became increasingly concerned about the issues and challenges to the freedom of expression, which was critical to the very core of the battle over “Sensation.” It was at that moment I knew I had to write and publish SENSATION as soon as possible because of its relevance. The monumental undertaking of reviewing all the original research materials, much of which had been collected by my wife, took immense time. Hiring a researcher (which was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation), finding a publisher at the beginning of covid, and the actual writing, in total, took over three years.

Why is SENSATION being published in Britain and not the U.S.?

I approached several American publishers whose books I admired during my career. While there was enthusiasm expressed for the book’s concept, a mixture of current politics and the unknown stemming from the advent of covid were, I believed, deterrents to an agreement. Along with the others, I sent an outline and two unfinished chapters to London’s Merrell publishers, who had worked earlier with us at the Brooklyn Museum on several excellent publication projects. Hugh Merrell responded almost immediately that he had read everything I sent him, and despite being only art-book publishers, he offered to work with me on the book. My partnership with the incredible editor and designer assigned by Merrell to SENSATION was beyond superb. And the tangible book, amazing in every detail, is the result. SENSATION is a narrative or memoir, but it was produced as an elegant art book!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

 

John Lewis: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

by Kitty Kelley

A hero is someone who can be admired without apology: no excuses, no explanations. A rara avis such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., plus two pandemic saviors from the 1950s, Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who each discovered polio vaccines but forfeited all financial profit from their discoveries for the benefit of mankind. On July 17, 2020, the pantheon of heroes expanded when 80-year-old Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) went to the angels.

As a youngster in Troy, Alabama, Lewis went to the public library with his nine siblings to get a library card but was told the place was “for whites only and not for coloreds.” That rejection lit a candle in the little boy, who became a non-violent disciple of Dr. King and trained to be a community organizer.

At the age of 23, he began marching for civil rights when he walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten by Alabama’s “finest” on “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis fell to the ground and curled up in the “prayer for protection” position he’d been taught. He let his five-foot-seven body go limp as troopers walloped him with billy clubs. Lewis then staggered up, dripping with blood, and managed to make a speech denouncing the commander-in-chief of the United States:

“I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo, I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and can’t send troops to Selma.”

The president was listening. Five months later, in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to remove all race-based restrictions at the ballot box. The law remained in effect until 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled that Congress must update the act for it to continue to be applicable.

Republicans refused. Democrats objected as certain states passed laws creating barriers to voting particularly aimed at disenfranchising minorities. In recent months, Republicans have blocked every attempt to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would make the required fixes. The battle continues today, dividing the country along bitter partisan lines.

During his lifetime of principled protest, Lewis was thrown in jail over 40 times, but he never stopped marching or “getting into good trouble,” as he called it, until his death in the summer of Black Lives Matter. In 1998, he wrote Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, which is required reading in many high schools and colleges. Years later, in an effort to reach young people, “the ones to continue the struggle,” Lewis wrote a trilogy of black-and-white comic books to illustrate the Civil Rights Movement.

Now, the principles that ignited his lifetime of protests for civil rights, voting rights, gun control, healthcare reform, and immigration rights can be found in this slim John Lewis: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. It’s a small book about a big man who speaks plain words as he presents a primer on peaceful protest:

“We believed that our struggle was not a struggle that lasts for a day or a few weeks or a few months or a semester. It was a struggle of a lifetime…You have to pace yourself for the long, hard…struggle. And you have to come to the point of accepting nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living…The struggle is not between Blacks and whites…but a struggle between what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, between the forces of justice and the forces of injustice.”

John Lewis never gave up hope for “the beloved community,” a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love for all. His hope, like that of Emily Dickinson, was a “thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

 

Dishing With Kitty

by Judith Beerman

Originally published by The Georgetown Dish December 13, 2021

Internationally acclaimed writer and long-time Georgetown resident, Kitty Kelley is renowned for her bestselling biographies of the most influential and powerful personalities of the last 50 years.

Having captivated my friends with her insights into Frank Sinatra, Oprah and the Kennedys, the always charming and witty author graciously dishes with us!

1.  Favorite spot in Georgetown?

The gardens and grounds of Dumbarton Oaks.

2.  What place to visit next?

I dream about returning to Provence.

3. What’s last book you read that you recommend?

Not last book read but two of recent best:  A Gentleman of Moscow by Amor Towles and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

4. What or who is greatest inspiration?

Those who reach outside themselves to help others like First Responders, Doctors Without Borders, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), et. al.

5.  Whom would you invite to next dinner party?

Dr. Fauci—to thank him.

6.  What did you discover re: self during pandemic?

I look better masked!!

7. Spirit animal? 

A cat, of course.

 

There Is Nothing for You Here

by Kitty Kelley

England is strangled by its pernicious class system. Even in 2021, the country’s rigid social structure dominates, and its snobbish acronyms still apply: N.O.C.D., usually whispered, means “Not our class, dear.” British aristocrats prefer associating with P.L.U. (“People like us”). If you’re born working class in Britain, you’ll die working class — unless, like Fiona Hill, you manage to cross the pond and move to the U.S.

The title of her memoir says it all: There Is Nothing for You Here, which is what her father told her — nothing for a coal miner’s daughter born in the North East of England with an accent that marks her fathoms below those who speak the “Queen’s English.” That cut-glass British enunciation, defined as RP (received pronunciation), determines one’s standing from cradle to grave.

“Aspirational Brits, mockingly dubbed ‘social climbers,’ would take elocution lessons to change the tone and the pitch of their voice as well as their diction,” Hill writes, citing Margaret Thatcher, who famously took voice lessons to rise above her roots as the daughter of a small-town grocer. But at least Thatcher, being middle class, was allowed into Oxford. Not so Fiona Hill.

Despite her outstanding scholastic record, Hill was steered from Oxbridge to attend St. Andrews University in Scotland, still impressive, but not of the peerage. “This was a case of guilt by linguistic association with a region once completely dominated by heavy industry and thus by ‘workers,’” she writes of her background. “I wanted to leave the UK’s place- and class-based discrimination behind and move on.”

She immigrated to America and received a partial scholarship to study at Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in Soviet studies. Hill traveled to what was then the USSR, where she lived for a year, and later wrote a book about Vladimir Putin.

In Russia, Hill was respected as the standard bearer of the working class; in the U.S., her Harvard credentials gave her social mobility. As a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, she worked in the White House for three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — and was invited to be a presenter at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014. There, she was introduced to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair as someone who once lived close to his former constituency.

“Blair was taken aback when I gave my quick potted history,” she writes. Then came his “determinative question”: “How did you get here?”

Hill played dumb and said she’d flown from DC to Denver.

“No…really…come on,” said Blair. “I obviously mean from County Durham to the U.S. That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?” Hill said she was a product of his own “Labour Party at work.” But, she continues:

“Tony Blair looked more pained than pleased…He seemed most perplexed by the fact that I had attended a County Durham comprehensive school and retained my northern accent. The two of those together were confounding.”

Blair, who graduated from Cambridge and no longer spoke with his regional pronunciation, seemed to have trouble digesting Hill’s presence (and her unrefined accent) in the elite setting of the Aspen Institute. Their encounter sounds like the song lyric: “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this.”

The subtitle of Hill’s book is “Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century,” which she does when she falls in love and marries a man she met at Harvard. She later becomes an American citizen. Her experiences working in the White House, particularly for Trump’s National Security Council, make her book timely.

Hill describes Trump’s awe of Putin as “autocrat envy” and disdains his attempts to transform the presidency into an “elected monarchy.” Worse, she sees the U.S. headed for economic collapse and unrelieved suffering because of its structural racism. She blames Ronald Reagan and Thatcher for driving “the nail into the coffin of 20th century industry while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off.”

There Is Nothing for You Here is not a book for the faint of heart.

Crossposted with Washingt0n Independent Review of Books