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.
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
by Kitty Kelley
The Irish were the first to master the art of television conversation with The Late, Late Show, moderated by Gabe Byrne in Dublin from 1962-1990, and still running today with various hosts. Then came the British with David Frost, who hosted several U.K. “chat shows” before coming to America with The David Frost Show, and rising to international prominence in 1977 with his five 90-minute interviews with Richard Nixon, which forced the former president to acknowledge and apologize for Watergate. One of Frost’s many successors in London is Clive James, who currently hosts Talking in the Library.
In the U.S., Larry King held sway on CNN every weeknight with Larry King Live! where he reigned for 25 years in colorful suspenders. He was followed by Charlie Rose, who invited guests to join him at his table on PBS from 1991 to 2017. When Rose was summarily fired for sexual harassment, he and his table were banished and replaced by two sturdy chairs for David M. Rubenstein to interview the great and the good on The David Rubenstein Show.
A co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a DC-based, multinational, private-equity investment firm, Rubenstein is a spectacular businessman worth $3.4 billion, and he’s capitalizing on his television show by publishing some of his interviews. His first book, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, published in 2019, was very good. His second, How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, published last month, is okay.
The book’s cover features sketches of Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Indra Nooyi, Richard Branson, and Yo-Yo Ma. The contents present 30 individuals — 15 men and 15 women — Rubenstein deems as exemplifying leadership, whom he divides into different categories: visionaries, builders, transformers, commanders, decision-makers, and masters.
Half of Rubenstein’s leaders, mostly white males, hold degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, with a couple from Stanford. Not so the women, few of whom possess those prized credentials, with the exception of the late Justice Ginsburg.
In his introduction, Rubenstein presents his formula for becoming a world-class leader. Moses had 10 Commandments; Rubenstein has 12:
II. Desire to succeed.
III. Pursue something new and unique.
IV. Hard work and long hours. (“Workaholism is a plus.”)
V. Focus everything on mastering one skill.
VI. Fail. (“My having been part of a failed White House certainly fueled my ambition to succeed,” he writes as former deputy domestic-policy assistant to President Carter.)
IX. Humble demeanor.
X. Credit-sharing. (Here, he quotes his hero, John F. Kennedy: “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” So, spread the glory.)
XI. Ability to keep learning. (Rubenstein writes that he reads six newspapers a day, at least a dozen weekly periodicals, and a minimum of one book a week, although, he adds, he often juggles three to four books simultaneously. You wonder how the man finds time to tie his shoes.)
XII. Integrity, which he defines as not cutting ethical corners.
Rubenstein comes to all his interviews well prepared, if a bit short on charm. He’s developed a style much like Jack Webb on Dragnet: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” He’s respectful to his guests, even as his questions probe.
Interviewing Melinda Gates, he asks if it was difficult for her as a committed Catholic to promote birth control in third-world countries as part of her work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She admits she’d wrestled with her faith on the issue but finally resolved her conscience in favor of contraception.
How to Lead begins with the best interview in the book: Jeff Bezos, who happens to be the richest man in the world ($173.5 billion), founder and CEO of Amazon, and owner of the Washington Post. A high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, Bezos changed his major from theoretical physics to electrical engineering and computer science when he realized he was not going to be one of the top 50 theoretical physicists in the world — an indication, perhaps, of why he prizes failure as a pathway to success.
(Here, Rubenstein admits his own financial failure, the biggest business mistake he made, selling his firm’s equity in Amazon for $80 million in 1996, which, today, would be worth “about $4 billion.”)
In his interview, Bezos reveals a man devoted to his parents. “One of the great gifts I got is my mom and dad,” he says. “I was always loved. My parents loved me unconditionally.” He adds that he’s committed to eight hours of sleep every night, and reserves “high IQ meetings” for mid-morning, when he has his best energy. He says the most important work he’s doing at present is investing in the future by putting $1 billion a year of his own money into Blue Origin, his aspirational program to make expanded human space travel a reality.
The only one of Rubenstein’s leaders without a college degree, let alone the advanced degrees that most of the others hold, is Richard Branson, a dyslexic who dropped out of school at 15. “Do you think you could have been more successful in life if you had a university degree?” Rubenstein asks. “No,” says Branson, who founded Virgin Group, an umbrella for hundreds of Virgin enterprises, including Virgin Airlines, Virgin Megastores, and Virgin Galactic. Branson is worth $4.2 billion.
Many of Rubenstein’s leaders are billionaires like himself, and with or without Ivy League credentials, all are accomplished and deserve their position at the top of the heap. For this book, Rubenstein includes his double interview with two former two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
But he has not interviewed his former boss, Jimmy Carter, a one-term president who many consider a leader in humanitarian outreach. Rubenstein characterizes Carter’s term in office as a “failed White House.” Yet Carter established the Department of Energy in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.
He cut the deficit, ended rampant inflation, and managed to get more of his legislation passed than any president since WWII, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. And Carter, a Nobel laureate, is the only president since Thomas Jefferson under whom the U.S. military never fired a shot.
With all due respect to the billionaire Rubenstein, Carter’s presidency, while only four years, can hardly be dismissed as a failure.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Part I (26:53):
Part II (26:26):
John A. Farrell’s website: http://www.jafarrell.com/
Biographers International Organization: https://biographersinternational.org/
BIO Podcasts: https://biographersinternational.org/podcasts/
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BIO Board of Directors
- Linda Leavell, President (2019-2021)
- Sarah S. Kilborne, Vice President (2020-2022)
- Marc Leepson, Treasurer (2019-2021)
- Billy Tooma, Secretary (2020-2022)
- Kai Bird (2019-2021)
- Deirdre David (2019-2021)
- Natalie Dykstra (2020-2022)
- Carla Kaplan (2020-2022)
- Kitty Kelley (2019-2021)
- Heath Lee (2019-2021)
- Steve Paul (2020-2022)
- Anne Boyd Rioux (2019-2021)
- Marlene Trestman (2019-2021)
- Eric K. Washington (2020-2022)
- Sonja Williams (2019-2021)
Kitty Kelley appeared on C-Span2’s Book-TV “In Depth” program on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, answering questions from host Peter Slen and from viewers for three hours. The show may be viewed online here.
by Kitty Kelley
“When I received my PhD in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Oprah asked me where I was going to work,” said Jo Baldwin in the summer of 2010. “I said I would be applying for a position at Ebony magazine as a copy editor. Oprah said she did not like Linda Johnson Rice [owner of Ebony] and I should come to work for her instead. So I did.
“I was to work for her for three years, but she fired me without notice after two years… I heard from someone later that she got rid of me because she got tired of me talking about Jesus all the time…Oprah preferred the teachings of Shirley MacLaine’s books, such as Dancing in the Light and Out on a Limb, which Oprah made me read but I didn’t think much of.”
Jo Baldwin, a tenured professor at Mississippi Valley State, is also an ordained minister and pastor. Deeply religious, the Reverend Jo, as her parishioners call her, feels her famous cousin has lost her way and is mired in godless New Age mumbo jumbo.
Baldwin’s feelings, like many in Oprah’s family, stem from resentment over the way she has been treated. The power of Oprah’s vast wealth makes most of her relatives quake. They want to be part of the luxurious life that she offers on occasion (her lavish Christmas presents, her birthday checks, even her hand-me-downs) but they chafe at the way she has dismissed them since becoming famous and they know that she does not cherish them as family. She prefers instead her celebrity friends. Oprah holds Maya Angelou as the mother she should’ve had; she sees Sidney Portier as her father, Quincy Jones as her uncle, and Gayle King as her beloved sister.
Jo Baldwin became estranged from her famous relative who continues to put distance between herself and her blood relations. Oprah will not give her mother, Vernita Lee, her personal phone number. If her mother needs to call Oprah, she must call the studio and talk to Oprah’s producers.
“The family is tangled with so many secrets and so much fear,” said Baldwin. “I admit I was afraid of Oprah for 20 years. Absolutely terrified. She’s powerful and dangerous. She told me if I ever opened my mouth [about what I know] she’d sue my pants off.”
Baldwin, who spoke to me for the paperback publication of Oprah: A Biography, feels the main reason she is not close to Oprah is because of the differences in their religious convictions.
“Mainly, Oprah wanted to shame me for being a follower of Jesus as if to say, ‘What is He doing for you that’s so great?’ Oprah inflicts emotional wounds that could lead to physical illness, if they aren’t healed. My faith has kept me from getting sick [over her].”
(Photos: Jo Baldwin courtesy of Jo Baldwin; Oprah in 1987, Kevin Winter/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Cross-posted from Gawker
by Kitty Kelley
It always happens. The day after your book is published you meet someone who says, “Oh, I wish I’d known you were writing that biography. I could’ve told you about ….” Fill in the blanks here with some hair-raising incident you did not have in your book, despite years of research and hundreds of interviews. Never fails.
Shortly after the paperback publication of Oprah: A Biography, I received an email from a man, gently chiding me for my vaunted investigative skills. “How come you didn’t find me?” he teased. “I was Oprah’s lover back in the 1980’s and lived with her for four months before Stedman came on the scene.”
Ordinarily, such an email would be tossed into the crank bin filled with letters from felons, proclaiming their innocence. But this particular email had too many specifics to ignore. So I responded with pertinent questions to see if this Haitian film maker, Reginald Chevalier, was the real deal. Turns out he was. I called Oprah’s publicist to double-check his information but my call was not returned.
Not that I needed to add any more lovers to Oprah: A Biography. She had had several over the years, including the muzak musician John Tesh, when they worked together in Nashville, and retired radio disc jockey Tim Watts, the married man who was the love of her life for years in Baltimore. There was also a brief fling with Randy Cook, who lived with Oprah for a few months and described himself as her drug procurer.
Reginald Chevalier said he met Oprah when he appeared on her show in 1985. “She was doing a segment on look-alikes and at the time I looked like Billy Dee Williams. She later confided that she instructed her producers to keep me backstage after the show. She threatened to fire them, if I got away. She took me to lunch at the Water Tower restaurant and ordered stuffed mashed potatoes for both of us.”
Their affair began that day.
I remember how she loved taking candle-lit baths before going to bed. We took lots of them together. We spent many nights together in her new condo which she loved so much. I would be watching TV and she would be working on her next day’s show…. Besides going to restaurants for lunches and dinners, to stores to buy gifts for employees and friends—Oprah is generous with stuff—we would go to the Bears games because I was friends with one of the players. We occasionally had dinner with Michael Jordan and his wife, Juanita, or with Danny Glover, [Oprah’s co-star in The Color Purple.]
I noticed a few times she would bring up the subject of marriage and ask me if this was something I believed in. I think at that time Oprah was ready to take the plunge, and I was the chosen one…but I wasn’t interested in getting serious…. Oprah took me to her mother’s house for dinner in Milwaukee and that’s where I met Jeffrey, her gay brother [who died of AIDS in 1989]. Oprah said to him, “You stay away from this guy. He’s mine.”
Chevalier was 25 years old then and Oprah was 32, but he said the age difference didn’t matter to either of them. He accompanied Oprah to the Chicago premiere of The Color Purple. “Oprah bought a purple mink coat for the occasion and wanted me to wear purple mink as well but I just couldn’t do it.” Their photo appeared in the Chicago newspapers. “If you look carefully, you can see part of Gayle King’s face in the lower left of the picture,” he said. “Gayle was always around. Everywhere we went she was there. She was Oprah’s shadow.”
Chevalier has fond recollections of his time with Oprah, although he admits that she’s a much more reserved, calculating person off-camera than the warm, embracing person she presents on her show. “Things came crashing to a halt in April 1986,” he recalled. “I had been out of town on a modeling assignment and when I returned to the Water Tower condo, my key wouldn’t work. The concierge informed me that the locks had been changed. Oprah had left a box for me filled with all my belongings. On a yellow envelope she had written: ‘Sorry, things aren’t working between us. Oprah Winfrey.’ That was it. No phone call. No good-bye. Nothing. She was as cold as ice…. A few weeks later Stedman was on the scene— full time.”
(Photos courtesy of Reginald Chevalier.)
Cross-posted from Gawker
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.”