Unauthorized, But Not Untrue

by admin

Kitty Kelley’s take on writing biography, “Unauthorized, But Not Untrue,” appears in the Winter 2011 issue of The American Scholar.  Read the article here.

Update 2/1/11:  The article has been reposted by NY Social Diary, with more pictures, here.

Update 1/8/15: There’s a PDF here.

What’s behind the Oprah/Letterman Feud?

by Kitty Kelley

Jon Stewart appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman a few nights ago and Stewart asked Letterman why he was always feuding with Oprah.  Letterman laughed but Stewart probed he who will not be probed until Letterman told him about the day he decided to have lunch on Oprah.  Both were eating at different tables in the same restaurant. Letterman told the waiter that Oprah wanted to pick up the tab.  Dave waved to her and she waved back so the waiter assumed it was legitimate.  Dave left and Oprah got stuck with the bill.

Stewart giggled.  “That can’t be right,” he said.

“Sure, that pissed her off,” said Letterman. “Not everyone likes horse play.”

True, Oprah is not one for pranks at her expense but that was not the only reason she didn’t speak to Letterman for sixteen years.

On May 2, 1989, the night after Oprah hosted a devil-worshipping show that almost capsized her career, she appeared on Letterman’s s how.  She was unnerved by the comedian’s quirky manner.  The interview was awkward throughout, although Letterman did not go near the subject of Oprah’s show the previous day in which she had introduced a deranged guest named “Rachel,” who said that her family worshipped the devil and made sacrificial offerings of babies.

“And this is a—does everyone else think it’s a nice Jewish family?” asked Oprah, introducing “Rachel’s” religion.  “From the outside you appear to be a nice Jewish girl…”

“Rachel” allowed that “not all Jewish people sacrifice babies…”

“I think we all know that,” said Oprah.  Then she added: “This is the first time I heard of any Jewish people sacrificing babies, but anyway—so you witnessed the sacrifice?”

The phones at Harpo jangled for hours with irate callers objecting to Oprah’s blithe acceptance of “Rachel’s” claims, but Oprah was not too concerned.  The next night she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in Chicago.   Letterman, who may have been drinking more than coffee, had a rowdy audience which wasn’t all that impressed with Oprah. Things became uncomfortable when someone yelled, “Rip her, Dave.”  Letterman grinned his gleeful gap-toothed grin and said nothing.  Years later he said, “I think she resented the fact that I didn’t rise to the occasion and, you know, beat up on the guy. Which I probably should have, but I was completely out of control and didn’t know what I was doing.”

A couple nights later, Letterman told his audience that he felt ill because he had eaten four clams at Oprah’s restaurant, The Eccentric. That iced it.  Oprah slammed the door on Letterman and did not open it for sixteen years.

The following year Letterman hosted the Academy Awards show and did a play on the names of Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey. “Uma, Oprah; Oprah, Uma” misfired and Oprah, highly sensitive to her public image, was incensed.

After she launched O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000, Letterman took another poke at her by announcing “the Top Ten Articles from Oprah’s New Magazine”:

No. 10  P,R,A and H, the four runner-up titles for this magazine.
No.  9    Do what I say or I’ll make another movie
No.  8    Funerals and meetings with the Pope:  Occasions not to use “You go, Girl.”
No.  7   While you’re reading this, I made 50 million dollars.
No.  6    The night I nailed Deepak Chopra.
No.  5    The million-dollar bill:  A convenience that’s long overdue.
No.  4    My love affair with Oprah, by Oprah.
No.  3   You suckers will never know what it’s like to live in a solid gold mansion.
No.  2   Ricki Lake’s home phone number and how she hates 3 a.m.    calls.
No.  1   The time I had to wait 5 minutes for a skim half-decaf latte.

By then the world seemed to be divided into Opraholics and Winfreaks who wanted nothing more than to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show.  Among them was David Letterman, who started an “Oprah Log,” begging for an invitation.  Oprah ignored him but he persisted.  “It ain’t Oprah ‘til it’s Oprah,” he told his audiences night after night.  Soon his fans began holding up signs in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater, in airports, and at football games:  “Oprah, Please Call Dave.”

After eighty-two nights, Phil Rosenthal advised Oprah in the Chicago Sun-Times:  “This is a call you have to make…. Every night… he is making you look like a humorless, self-important diva who spouts all kinds of New Age platitudes about forgiveness and positive thought but stubbornly clings to grudges. He’s not the one who looks bad in this. It’s a funny bit, and so long as you refuse to play, you’re the butt of it… You’re simply digging in your heels, being stubborn, petty and stupid.”

Oprah did not make the call. She was still steamed about Letterrman’s jokes over the years:

Top Ten Disturbing Examples of Violence on TV:
No. 6 Unknowing guests gets between Oprah and the buffet

Top Ten Least Popular Tourist Attractions:
No. 3  The Grand Ole Oprah

Top Ten Death-Defying Stunts Robbie Knievel Won’t Perform:
No. 8 Screwing up Oprah Winfrey’s lunch order

Top Ten Things You Don’t Want to Hear from a Guy in a Sports Bar:
No. 1 Oops—time for Oprah.

Top Ten Things Columbus would Say About American if he were alive  Today:
No. 6 “How did you come to chose the leader you call Oprah?”

Top Ten Dr. Phil tips for Interviewing Oprah:
No. 4 Grovel

Rapprochement came on December 1, 2005 when Oprah finally agreed to appear on Letterman’s show and then allowed him to escort her to the Broadway premiere of The Color Purple, prompting People to surmise:

 And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Top Ten Most Likely Reasons Why Oprah Winfrey Ended Her 16-year Rift with David Letterman and Agreed to Appear on His CBS Late Show:
No. 10 She is producing a Broadway musical, The Color Purple,  across the street
Nos. 9-1 See No. 10

 “At last our long national nightmare is over,” said The Kansas City Star.

 Letterman behaved like a star struck schoolboy.  “It means a great deal to me, and I’m just very happy you’re here,” he gushed to Oprah. “You have meant something to the lives of people.”

An estimated 13.5 million people stayed up to watch that night, giving Letterman his biggest audience in more than a decade. The next day Washington Post TV writer Lisa de Moraes observed: “Letterman had become that which he once mocked.  An Opraholic.”

Grateful as Letterman was to be in Oprah’s good graces he did not remain her love puppet.  When she publicly announced in 2006 that she and her best friend, Gayle King, were simply best friends and not gay lovers, she once again became fodder for his late night monologue:  “I hear that and I go hmmmmmm….”

Not so long ago the National Enquirer ran a cover of Oprah looking haggard and bloated with a headline that blared: “Oprah’s Booze & Drug Binges! Fed Up Stedman Walks Out—For Good! She’ll Pay $150 Million to Buy His Silence.” This prompted the always cheeky Letterman to announce:

The Top Ten Signs Oprah Doesn’t Care Anymore:
No. 1  Her last three guests were Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, and Jose  Cuervo.

Letterman vs. Winfrey will never reach pay-per-view because these heavy weights know the limits. She is accustomed to genuflection and he can’t bend a knee—for long. But both know their so-called feud serves them well, especially when they appear together on Super Bowl commercials. So let’s stay tuned for the next roumd.

Cross-posted from Huffington Post

No Oprah in the Billionaire Club

By Kitty Kelley

The name of Oprah Winfrey, the world’s first black female billionaire, was conspicuously absent from the Midas list of do-gooders released this week by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who have dragooned their billionaire brethren into promising to give away half their fortune. Mr. Buffet has said he intends to call Ms. Winfrey about making a public commitment to this philanthropic endeavor, and while I’m sure the conversation will be more than cordial, I’ll wager that the lady in question, whose net worth is $2.4 billion, will be unresponsive.
After all, Oprah Winfrey has already established herself as a beloved American icon and does not need the P.R. boost that will accrue to the 40 financial titans who have signed “The Giving Pledge” to share their riches with those less fortunate.  But more importantly, Oprah would never voluntarily put herself on the public watch list that will dog the dollars of these philanthropists down to their last decimal, reporting on how much they donate, to whom, when and why. Diane Sawyer has already announced on ABC World News: “We’ll be watching.”  Such public scrutiny is loathsome to someone as controlling as Oprah who has kept her finances as private as possible.

Yet, unlike some of the Buffet-Gates givers, she has publicized her philanthropy over the years through press conferences, interviews and her daily talk show. Her giving in the early years of her career was minimal—less than 10 percent of her incredible income—but in 1998 she began increasing her charitable contributions and making more sizeable donations to her charitable foundation:

TOWF Chart

Her biggest contribution is to her $40 million school in South Africa, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which she supports through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. She has said that school will be her legacy. She decided long ago to make her philanthropic investment in South Africa rather than America, where she said poor children did not appreciate education.
“I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going,” Oprah said. “The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”

While many applauded Oprah for opening her heart to young girls in South Africa, some criticized her for not investing in the youth of America. “I find it interesting that white people are concerned about me educating black girls,” she said. When the chorus of carps continued, Oprah spoke sharply to all her critics in an interview with BET: “To hell with your criticism,” she said. “I don’t care what you have to say about what I did. I did it.”

As you can see from the chart below, Oprah contributed 7.75 percent of her income over the last few years to her school:

A few months after opening in 2007 Oprah’s Leadership Academy became mired in scandal. Seven students were expelled for lesbian liaisons, and criminal charges were lodged against a dorm matron on fourteen counts of sexual abuse and abasement of students. The trial continues to drag on in Johannesburg.

To date Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have received commitments from 40 people to sign “The Giving Pledge,” eleven of whom are not even billionaires or listed on the Forbes list of 400 Richest Americans, but are well-known for their philanthropy. Oprah, who has made every money list imaginable, and is revered for her good works, has yet to sign. Perhaps Mr. Buffet will be able to persuade her to join philanthropist David Rockefeller, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, entertainment executive Barry Diller, Oracle’s co-founder Larry Ellison, energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, media mogul Ted Turner, film director George Lucas and investor Ron Perelman. But  odds are that this is one club Oprah does not want to join.

Cross-posted from Huffington Post

The Duchess of Dough

By Kitty Kelley

I watched Sarah Ferguson on The Oprah Winfrey Show yesterday the same way I watch BP’s oil-spurting video from the Gulf of Mexico—hoping, praying, screaming for someone to cap the swill.

The Duchess of York and the Queen of daytime television are on a first name basis from having done previous interviews so for one hour it was “Sarah” and “Oprah” as the Duchess braided herself into knots with a yarn about why she accepted bribes and sold access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, Britain’s royal trade representative.

Lest she look like a Judas goat, Sarah said she grabbed the first bag of money ($38,000-$40,000) “for a friend of a friend,” who was in financial trouble.  Then, seeing how easy that take was, she upped her ante and demanded £500,000 (approximately $750,000 US) for full and complete access to her former husband.

Watching the video of herself fall for the sting by the News of the World tabloid, she mourned the image of the woman selling herself for a mess of pottage. “Oh, I feel so sorry for her…. Bless her … Oh, she’s completely drunk,” said Sarah.  She talked about herself in the third person as if to draw a distinction between the greedy, inebriated woman on camera and the humiliated person sitting in front of Oprah.

Tripping over her rationale, the Duchess got tangled in her skein about accepting a black bag of money for “a friend of a friend,” and Oprah, to her credit, said her explanation made no sense.

Oprah, whose net worth is $2.7 billion, could not fathom why the Duchess of York could not simply ask the Queen for the $40,000 Sarah claimed she needed “for a friend of a friend.” Obviously, Oprah’s producers had not told her that the doors of Buckingham Palace slammed shut on Sarah Ferguson in August 1992 when her topless photographs romping on the Cote d’Azur were splashed across the tabloids having her toes sucked by her lover John Bryan. Sarah said he was “just a friend.” Bryan protested he was not sucking her toes. “I was kissing the arch of her foot.”

Sarah was given the royal boot and a not so royal divorce from the Queen’s favorite son. Oprah asked if it was true that she only got $20,000 a year in alimony. Sarah should’ve answered, “No, it is not true.” Instead she shimmied. “I wanted friendship with the boss,” she said, leaving the impression that she had given up great sums of money to remain friends with Her Majesty the Queen.

In fact, Sarah had demanded a lump sum payment of $10 million, plus $5000 a month in child support and her title. She received $750,000 for herself, a $2.1 million trust fund for her two children and she was stripped of her title [HRH: Her Royal Highness] which meant she lost all of her royal perquisites: the royal curtsy, the royal guards, the royal train, the royal yacht, the royal trips, the royal invitations. She lost her royal box at Wimbledon, and her life-size wax figure was yanked from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Denied entry to the royal enclosure at Ascot, she looked pathetic as she stood on the side of the road, clutching the hands of her children and waving to the Queen as she passed in her royal carriage. The biggest loss was her standing in British society.

So she came to America and the plucky Duchess turned herself into a money-making machine. Over the next decade she made (and spent) in excess of $30 million. With John Bryan’s help, she hawked herself to the highest bidder: $25,000 for exclusive photo shoots, $50,000 to $200,000 for exclusive interviews. She signed a book contract for “Budgie—The Little Helicopter” for a minimum of $8 million, including a television series in addition to wind-up dolls, t-shirts, hats and lunch pails. She signed licensing contract with 13 U.S. firms to market souvenirs ranging from tableware to toilet seat covers. She also signed a $3 million contract to write her life story, which she promoted on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Then she signed a $10 million contract with Weight Watchers and traveled the word (all first-class expenses paid) as their spokesperson.

Sarah Ferguson made millions but she spent even more  until she found herself yesterday as Oprah said, “spiraling downwards” until she was, again in Oprah’s words, “spiritually and morally bankrupt.”

Like a priest hearing confession, Oprah prepared to absolve Sarah on yesterday’s show. “None of us are defined by our mistakes,” the revered talk show host said, “but once you get the lesson, you don’t repeat it again.” Sarah nodded but  Oprah knew she didn’t get it.

“So what is the lesson?” she asked her befuddled guest. Sarah Ferguson stammered a little, her eyes glistening with tears. “I guess chronic abuse of myself… dealing with it from a place of egotistical fear….”


Oprah’s Dwindling Donations

By Kitty Kelley

Last week Oprah Winfrey posted an announcement on the website of Oprah’s Angel Network, saying she was folding the charity and would not be collecting any more money from her viewers to donate to various charities. Since 1998 she has collected $80 million.

Oprah did not say why she folding the wings of her angels but the Chicago bureau of the Associated Press quoted her spokeswoman, Angela De Paul, as saying it was not because donations had dwindled.

However, in reviewing the most recent tax returns of Oprah’s Angel Network, it appears that is exactly what has happened. The viewer donations to Oprah’s Angel Network have fallen off by almost half of what they once were.

The 2008 donations ($5,485, 511) were approximately fifty percent less than the 2007 donations ($11,808, 750), and these were well below the average annual donations ($14, 417, 074) during  2004-2007. Although the 2009 tax returns have not yet been filed those of previous years suggest that Oprah’s Angel Network has been steadily losing donations from viewers over the last few years.

The question is why. One reason is the plummeting economy that has slammed all charities. Studies show that the most generous among us are frequently those who have the least. In other words, it is not the rich who given consistently and generously but those with much less disposable income—the demographic of Oprah’s viewers. While Oprah still reigns as the number one talk show host, she has lost 3 million viewers since 2007, which would naturally diminish her donations.

A review of the tax returns of Oprah’s Angel Network indicate that she has been donating more than one-half of her viewers’ contributions to help the needy in Sub-Saharan Africa ($2, 821, 611 in 2008) and non-U.S regions in North America ($2,409, 594). The total for non-US grants and distributions: $5,231, 205. The total for U.S. grants: $3,354,322.

Some might suggest that the 150,000 viewers who contributed to Oprah’s Angel Network are contributing less now because she is donating more of their money outside the U.S. But Oprah’s fans did not give their money with strings attached. Wherever she wanted to give was fine with them and in the last few years she has decided to position herself more as a global philanthropist and concentrate most of her giving to Africa.

In March Oprah staged a 10 day online auction on Ebay (“Oprah’s Great Closet Cleanout”), selling 40 pairs of shoes and boots, 42 purses and 101 items of clothing, including jackets, skirts, blouses, sweaters and dresses. Each item was tagged as belonging to Oprah: “Oprah Winfrey Prada Red Suede Peep-Toe Heels” drew bids of over $573.00. “Oprah Winfrey Black Chanel Quilted Evening Bag” drew $2025.00. “Oprah Winfrey Carolina Herrera Dress, Worn on Show!” drew $1125.00.

Oprah did not reveal the total figure raised from her online auction but she did reveal that all proceeds went to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa. Oprah’s previous online auctions (1999, 2004 and 2005) benefitted Oprah’s Angel Network, which at the time gave most of their donations to U.S. charities.

As the only major contributor to her two remaining charities– The Oprah Winfrey foundation (total assets in 2008: $165,919,695) and The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation (total assets in 2008: $47, 431, 721)—Oprah has taken a financial hit in the value of her investment assets. An examination of the tax returns from each foundation shows she has had significant losses, which may explain why she recently hired the chief investment officer away from the LA billionaire Eli Broad to manage her investments.

Needing to concentrate on an investment strategy that will build a lasting endowment for her school in South Africa suggests why Oprah decided to discontinue Oprah’s Angel Network. Having invested over $40 million in The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, she needs to put all her resources into keeping her legacy afloat.

Has The World’s Largest Piggy Bank Gone Broke?

By Kitty Kelley

Oprah Winfrey has just announced that Oprah’s Angel Network will no longer be accepting donations. She’s also discontinuing the Network’s grantmaking program.  Oh, Oprah. Say it ain’t so. But her quiet announcement on the website of Oprah’s Angel Network makes it clear that her Angel giving has come to an end. Por que?  Oprah does not say.

In 1997, she formed Oprah’s Angel Network to collect donations from her viewers. “I want you to open your hearts and see the world in a different way,” she told them.  “I promise this will change your life for the better.” She started by asking for spare change to create “the world’s largest piggy bank” to fund college scholarship for needy students. In less than six months her viewers had donated more than $3.5 million in coins and bills to send 150 students to college, 3 students from every state. Even the White House contributed, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Chicago to appear on Oprah’s show with a piggy bank full of coins she had collected from employees.

Oprah had been deeply affected by the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and wanted to assume Diana’s humanitarian role. “We are … grieved by Princess Diana’s death,” Oprah said on The Today Show, explaining Oprah’s Angel Network, “and the world was talking about what she did charitably–and I wanted people to know, you can do that yourself in your own space where you are in your life…. You can be a princess … by taking what you have and extending it to other people.”

Oprah partnered her Angel Network with 10,000 volunteers from Habitat for Humanity to build 205 houses, one in every city whose local television station broadcast The Oprah Winfrey Show.  When Habitat for Humanity built a house for Oprah’s Angel Network, they called the project Oprah’s Angel House, and after the tsunami of 2004 and the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Oprah Angel Houses sprang up like mushrooms.  She took her show to New Orleans, pledging $10 million of her own money, and from 2005 to 2006 she raised $11 million more through her Angel Network for rebuilding. She paid the operating expenses of Oprah’s Angel Network so that all donations went directly to the charities she selected. By 2008, her viewers had contributed more than $70 million to 172 projects around the world that focused on women, children, and families; education and literacy; relief and recovery; and youth and community development–all selected by Oprah and donated in Oprah’s name. She fully understood the goodwill that accrues to those who give, and so when she gave, she did so very publicly. Her philanthropy was not quiet or anonymous.

“She certainly makes an effort to do good deeds,” Steve Johnson wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “even if there is often an accompanying effort to make the effort known.” It is true that most of Oprah’s giving was followed by an Oprah press release, plus mentions on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but perhaps she was setting an example for others to follow and not just being self-aggrandizing.”

Now with her syndicated show in its last year of operation, Oprah is discontinuing “the world’s largest piggy bank,” which is dismaying to a needy nation, especially those in the Gulf of Mexico experiencing horrendous disaster from British Petroleum’s oil spill. Oh, Oprah. I hope she reconsiders and keeps galvanizing her legions of angels to continue giving.

She’ll soon be starting OWN (OPRAH WINFREY NETWORK) and have potential access to 80 million viewers, ten times the number she’s attracting now. Think of what Oprah can still accomplish.

Cross-posted from Huffington Post

Regarding Katharine Carr Esters

By Kitty Kelley

I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed that Katharine Carr Esters claims that she was “tricked” into divulging her true feelings about Oprah and that she now denies that she revealed to me the identity of Oprah’s biological father. While I found her to be a strong woman with the courage to speak her mind, I gather that she may have come under some pressure.

I will have my representatives contact Ms. Esters to formally request that she release me from my promise to her not to reveal the identity of Ms. Winfrey’s father, which she shared with me in her home on July 30, 2007.  If Ms. Esters agrees, I will write a personal letter to Oprah Winfrey and share with her all the information which Ms. Esters gave to me.

Kitty Kelley and Katharine Esters in 2007The facts, as supported by extensive notes from three days of in-person, on-the-record interviews with Ms. Esters in Kosciusko, as well as from subsequent phone interviews and correspondence, is that Ms. Esters was both forthcoming and candid in sharing with me her conflicted feelings about Oprah and in revealing to me the identity of Oprah’s biological father, which I promised her I would not divulge in my book.

I first telephoned Ms. Esters from Jackson, Mississippi on July 29, 2007 and we had a long and enjoyable talk, during which I told her that I was writing a biography of Oprah and that I planned on visiting Kosciusko to see where Oprah was born and raised for the first six years of her life.

Over the course of the three following days (from July 30 through August 1, 2007), I interviewed Ms. Esters in person. Some of those interviews took place at Ms. Esters’ home on Attala Road in Kosciusko, some took place in the presence of Ms. Esters’ friend Jewette Battles (July 30, 2007), and some took place at Fresenius Medical Center of Kosciusko where Ms. Esters was undergoing dialysis treatment (August 1, 2007).  Ms. Esters revealed to me the true identity of Oprah’s biological father at her home on July 30, in the context of a discussion about her family tree.

On July 31, 2007, Ms. Esters gave me a copy of her own self-published memoir, Jay Bird Creek, which she inscribed, “To Katherine Kelley, an angel in disguise.”

I conducted three additional phone interviews with Ms. Esters following the time she and I spent together in Kosciusko. Those phone interviews took place on August 7, 2007; October 4, 2007; and February 5th, 2008.  Ms. Esters and I also maintained a written correspondence.  On August 9, 2007, she sent me eighteen family snapshots with a personal note, written on a Winfrey family reunion program.  Four of those photos are published in Oprah: A Biography with courtesy of Ms. Esters.  On December 19 of that year, she sent me a warm Christmas card.  In April 2008, I sent her a copy of a Maya Angelou book for her 80th birthday.

Cross-posted from Huffington Post