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
Part I (26:53):
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BIO Board of Directors
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by Kitty Kelley
Clarence Thomas, the longest-sitting justice on the current Supreme Court, is referred to as the silent one because he hardly speaks during oral arguments. Instead, he sits quietly in his black robe and listens to his colleagues joust with the lawyers presenting their cases to the high court.
Rarely, if ever, asking a question, he dismisses those who criticize his silence. “Let them read my opinions,” he says. “I say what I have to say in my opinions.”
In those opinions, Thomas shouts at the top of his lungs.
He advocates for crushing Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to abortion. He links birth control and Planned Parenthood to the eugenics movement of a century ago. He opposes race mixing, sees integration as harmful to African Americans, and thinks the state should support separation of the races.
He attacks every effort to bring African Americans into mainstream white America and rails against voting rights, property rights, gender equality, affirmative action, and legally mandated segregation, except in prisons. In effect, the second African American to sit on the Supreme Court presents as a racist with misogynistic views that are foreboding, leaving little room for progress and none for hope.
In 1985, Thomas addressed the graduating class of Savannah State College on what he calls the unholy triumvirate: “I am here to say that discrimination, racism and bigotry have gone no place and probably never will.” That dystopian view enunciated more than three decades ago has hardened over the years as it continues to inform his jurisprudence.
Corey Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, rejects “virtually all of Thomas’s views” as “disturbing, brutal, even ugly,” but he wrote The Enigma of Clarence Thomas to “make us sit with that discomfort rather than swat it away. This is not so that we adopt Thomas’s views, but so we see the world through his eyes — and realize, perhaps, to our surprise that his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”
There have been numerous books written about Thomas, but Robin’s is unique in that it takes the justice’s written opinions and examines them against the backdrop of Thomas’ own life: Growing up in Pin Point, Georgia, he experienced the prejudice of Jim Crow, but came to feel its lash “much worse” when he moved north to go to Yale Law School. There, as one of only 12 black students, Thomas says he felt the object of the most intense snobbery and suspicion:
“You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit.”
At that time, Thomas, a black nationalist devoted to Malcolm X, identified as “a radical” who voted for George McGovern (D-SD) for president in 1972, although he said he thought the liberal Democrat was “too conservative.” Decades later, Thomas has become the darling of conservative Republicans, and President Donald Trump’s favorite justice.
Most civil rights activists support affirmative action as a needed step to try to rectify the sins of slavery, but Thomas sees it as an insulting sop to African Americans. To him, it’s a white program for white people because it elevates whites to the status of benefactors who dole out privileges to the few blacks they decide are worthy.
Here, it’s interesting to recall that Thomas’ 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court was orchestrated by two such white benefactors: President George Herbert Walker Bush and his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray.
Robin writes that, as early as 1981, Thomas had decided he wanted to be appointed to the Supreme Court to replace the aging Thurgood Marshall, the court’s black liberal. The only problem, Robin writes, was that Thomas had no views on the Constitution. So, despite his “shoddy record” as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he undertook a crash course on the nation’s founding text and, through a twisted legal labyrinth, came to the conclusion that there’s a White Constitution and a Black Constitution. A unifying Constitution is a fairytale.
In Thomas’ America, blacks and whites will never live happily ever after. This stark interpretation of the Constitution informs most of his written opinions on race, to the disappointment of progressives. As Rosa Parks said of Thomas in 1996, “He had all the advantages of affirmative action and went against it.”
On the last page of his book, the author admits that racism is a permanent stain on the soul of America, but he suggests that people of good conscience cannot stop waging the moral battle to try to right the insidious wrong. His message is to fight for our better angels and, in the words of our greatest president, to try for “a more perfect union.”
I agree with Corey Robin; Justice Clarence Thomas does not.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Originally published in Washingtonian October 2019
I’ve been in DC since, let’s see . . . since Abraham Lincoln was President! I came to help with Senator Eugene McCarthy’s Foreign Relations Committee mail for a six-week stint, but I ended up in his Senate office and stayed four years. I remember that his personal secretary, who looked like she had been on the job 102 years, took one look at me and said, ‘Can she type or take shorthand?’ McCarthy replied, ‘We don’t ask the impossible of anyone around here.’ I thought, This guy has got a great sense of humor.
When I left the Hill in 1968, I became the researcher for the Washington Post editorial page. After two fabulous years at the paper, I got a book contract to investigate the beauty-spa industry. Since I weighed three pounds less than a horse, I signed fast and saddled up to visit every fat farm in the country. I got myself down to pony size, and the book probably sold 14 copies—all to my mother.
Then I backed into writing biographies, beginning with Jackie Oh! I love the genre, but writing an unauthorized biography brings its challenges. The subjects I’ve chosen are extremely powerful public figures who’ve had a vast impact on our lives and are fully invested in their images. Consequently, the blowback can be considerable.
I remember when my Nancy Reagan book came out in 1991, my late husband, John, who was courting me at the time, took me to Bice, then a real hot spot in DC. As we walked in, a man stood up and started yelling, ‘Booooo! Get that bitch out of here! Boo! Boo!’ John turned around to see who the guy was yelling at. I knew and looked straight ahead, praying not to cry. The man kept yelling, everyone turned to look, and then a woman on the other side of the restaurant started yelling, ‘No, no—she’s brave!’ The two of them went at each other, and the restaurant suddenly looked like tennis at Wimbledon, turning from one side to the other. The maître d’ brought us to a table, and John buried himself in the wine list. Then a guy from the middle of the room threw his napkin on the floor and headed for our table. I thought for sure we were goners. He spread out his arms and embraced me: ‘Kitty, you don’t know me, but I’m going to stand here until this stops.’ It was Tony Coehlo, the majority whip in the House of Representatives. I introduced him to John, who said, ‘Congressman, you go in the will.’ John told me later he was going to propose over dinner but was so flummoxed by what happened, he put it off for 24 hours.
My Bush-family book drew fire from the White House, the Republican National Committee, and the GOP leader in the House of Representatives. I framed all the cartoons and hung them where they belong—in the loo. My favorite is the bubble-headed blonde in Chanel shoes parachuting into Saddam Hussein’s bunker, scattering the armed guards, who yell, ‘Run for your lives! It’s Kitty Kelley!’
I don’t write about just anybody. I only choose huge figures who have manufactured a public image. I’m fascinated to find out what they’re really like. I’m not doing another great big bio simply because, at this moment in time, I don’t want to know what anyone out there is really like. Certainly not Trump. Melania? Oh, definitely not.
I’ve already done seven New York Times bestsellers. I can’t say that I loved doing them, but I sure loved finishing them.
by Kitty Kelley
Political junkies will cartwheel into line to grab copies of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. They might not be as mesmerized as they were with The Making of the President by Theodore H. White or What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, but they’ll have in hand a bible on presidential sons-of-bitches. (That’s how H.R. Haldeman defined the position before he had to resign and go to prison as one of 48 people who served time for serving Richard M. Nixon, the Watergate president.)
The White House chief of staff is considered the most powerful unelected person in Washington, DC, because he — there’s never been a she — controls access to the leader of the free world. As the president’s main adviser and closest confidante, the chief of staff determines the administration’s legislative agenda and communicates with Congress and the Cabinet. He is the spear-catcher who protects the president from all incoming flak.
“The White House chief of staff has more power than the Vice President,” said Dick Cheney, who should know. At 34, he served as chief of staff to Gerald Ford (1975-1977). By the time he turned 70, Cheney was vice president to George W. Bush and knew how to mow down both chiefs of staff Andrew Card (2001-2006) and Joshua Bolten (2006-2009). In fact, Cheney, known by some as “Darth Vader,” controlled foreign policy in the Bush years and seemed to assume as much power as “the decider” himself.
“Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room,” said the historian Richard Norton Smith, “and by the person he picks as his chief of staff” (pp. 10-11).
By that definition, Whipple could’ve produced an intriguing analysis of Ronald Reagan, who chose the smooth-talking Texan James Baker III as his first chief of staff (1981-1985), followed by the bull-headed Donald Regan, who compared his job to the man in the circus, sweeping up elephant droppings.
Unmentioned by Whipple was John Roy Steelman, the first and longest-serving chief of staff (1946-1953), described in his New York Times obituary as a “onetime hobo from Arkansas.” Truman’s chief of staff was as basic as the man he served. Eschewing his powerful title, Steelman preferred to be called “the president’s chief chore boy.” His biggest chore was his role in ending a 52-day strike by steelworkers, one of the most damaging stoppages in U.S. history.
The Gatekeepers promises to offer “shrewd analysis and never-before-reported details,” but there appears to be little of either in the book. Perhaps Whipple was too grateful for his access to cast a critical eye and dig beneath the glossy surface.
All those interviewed protected their presidents from incriminating revelations, but each agreed being White House chief of staff was the toughest job he ever tackled. (The pressure is so great that few last beyond 18-24 months.) Yet despite the brutal demands, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff (2009-2010), said: “I guarantee you every one of the chiefs would say, ‘I’d do it again,’ if asked.”
The major take-away from Whipple’s book is not unlike Cardinal Cushing’s advice to John F. Kennedy when he first ran for office in Massachusetts: “A little more Irish…a little less Harvard.”
The most successful sons-of-bitches are a little more staff…a little less chief. In fact, certain chiefs — Gov. Sherman Adams (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1958), Gov. John Sununu (George Herbert Walker Bush, 1985-1987), and the aforementioned Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan (1985-1987) — harmed their presidents by their inability to shed their arrogant prerogatives of self-entitlement. All had previously held chief-executive positions, but each was fired from his role as White House chief of staff.
Usually an author writes a book and hopes to sell television rights after publication, but Whipple, an award-winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Prime Time, did it the other way around. He provided the interviews for the four-hour documentary The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 2013. The New York Times judged the production a “tepid film…awe-struck and dull.” Whipple made the interviews he did with the 17 chiefs of staff alive at the time as the basis of The Gatekeepers, his first book.
For a writer, Whipple’s text hardly inspires, but his chapter notes pique interest. Many of those cited (again, mostly men) hiss and spit at each other like cats being hosed. Ed Meese III dumps on Jim Baker III for leaking to the press. Donald Rumsfeld, chief of staff to President Ford, disses the White House speechwriter Robert Hartmann as an alcoholic, and says Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, “wasn’t qualified to be vice president of anything.”
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994-1997, confides the president wanted to fire George Stephanopoulos, which was seconded by Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff from 1997-1998: “Of course, George was cut out by the President.” Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft slam Dick Cheney, who, in turn, stomps on the claim of CIA director George Tenet about bringing the danger of al Qaeda to White House attention. “I do not recall George coming in with his hair on fire…”
The most intriguing chapter note cites an interview with Stuart Spencer, the Republican political consultant closest to Ronald Reagan, who speculates about how the president might have unwittingly approved the Iran-Contra operation to secretly sell arms to Iran and funnel the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua:
I can see those three guys [Robert MacFarlane, National Security Advisor; Oliver North, Deputy Director of the National Security Council; and William J. Casey, CIA director, who was called “Mumbles” because, according to Spencer, “you couldn’t understand him, he couldn’t talk”]. They knew that Reagan was in favor of the contras; he was really upset about the American hostages; and they said, ‘We’ll take advantage of that.’ And they sent Mumbles over to tell him about it. And Reagan didn’t have his hearing aid on! I believe all this could have happened. (p. 319)
Stuart Spencer was extraordinarily close to the Reagans for years. He ran Reagan’s successful campaigns for governor of California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984. He counseled both Ronald and Nancy Reagan throughout their eight years in Washington, and was one of the few people invited to accompany them on their return flight to California upon leaving the White House in 1985. So, his speculation about Iran-Contra deserves more scrutiny, especially because the first lady was terrified the matter would lead to her husband’s impeachment.
Did Whipple ask Spencer whether he discussed Iran-Contra with either Reagan? If he didn’t, why not? How did the subject of Iran-Contra come up in his interviews with Spencer? Did Spencer advise the Reagans about Iran-Contra? What was his recollection of how they coped with the matter personally? Did Spencer share his theory with the first lady or anyone else?
Note to Whipple: a little more time with Stu Spencer…a little less time with the chiefs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
See Kitty Kelley’s “Gore Vidal’s Final Feud” in the November 2015 Washingtonian magazine for an account of the consternation caused by Vidal’s final disposition of his wealth and property: “Given his penchant for dissent Vidal–who died in 2012–would be smacking his lips to know that, between his death and this fall, there has been a bitter fight over his will pitting distant relatives against one another.”
Update 11/9/15: The article has been posted at the Washingtonian website here.
Photo: Gore Vidal with Burr Steers, son of Vidal’s half-sister Nina Auchincloss Straight.
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
Gay marriage has jumped out of the closet on to the front page. Everyone from the President of the U.S. to retired four star general Colin Powell is embracing the issue, now supported by most Americans. Still, a few people like former First Lady Laura Bush appear to be conflicted. This week Mrs. Bush, who publicly supported gay marriage, now objects to appearing in an ad that carries her words of support.
Presidents often disappoint, but first ladies rarely do. I became a student (and secret admirer) of first ladies after writing biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1978), Nancy Reagan (1991) and Barbara and Laura Bush (2004). Through years of research and reporting I’ve watched these unelected women enhance the presidencies of their spouses through deed and demeanor. They all seem to do it with style and grace and as a result they usually become even more popular than their beleaguered husbands (Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama).
These warrior goddesses stand stalwart in the face of their husbands’ scandals (Pat Nixon and Watergate; Nancy Reagan and Iran Contra; Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky). They protect their young (Jacqueline Kennedy); they beautify their environment (Lady Bird Johnson) and they do good for others, even after leaving the White House. (The Betty Ford Clinic provides treatment for alcoholism; the Barbara Bush Foundation raises money for literacy; Rosalynn Carter travels the world for the Carter Center to promote mental health, and at the age of 91 Nancy Reagan still campaigns for expanded stem cell research.)
As first ladies these women stay above the political fray, avoid divisive muck, and glide like swans across ponds of public good will. Most write commercially successful memoirs of their days in the White House, where they became beatified, and as the wives of former presidents they continue burnishing their husbands’ legacies as well as their own.
For the most part first ladies seldom falter, which is why it was disappointing to read about the wife of a self-described “compassionate conservative” former president fumble on an issue of equal rights.
A group known as Respect for Marriage Coalition had launched a $1 million multi-media campaign last week that featured President Obama, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mrs. Bush in their own words expressing support for the marriage rights of all committed couples. The group had taken what Laura Bush had said on the subject to Larry King on television: “When couples are committed to each other and love each other, then they ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone has.”
The former first lady’s words had reassured many who recalled with dismay her husband’s hard line on homosexuality. As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush said he supported the state’s law against sodomy “as a symbolic gesture of traditional values.” He opposed hate crimes legislation that would have protected gays. He also opposed gay adoption and gay marriage, and as President he proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex unions.
Granted, Laura Bush did not oppose her husband until after he had left the White House and would not have to pay the consequence of her words, but that seems to be in the tradition of Bush wives. Barbara Bush also waited until her husband, an ardent foe of abortion for twelve years, was no longer president before she declared publicly that abortion should be a “personal choice” and that she was pro-choice.
A year after Laura Bush’s 2010 interview on CNN, her daughter, Barbara Bush, taped a video for the Human Rights Campaign, now a sponsor of the Marriage Coalition. To date the former first lady’s daughter has not withdrawn her support for gay rights, but when Mrs. Bush saw her support in the Coalition’s television ad last week she immediately directed her spokeswoman to contact the media to say that the former first lady “did not approve of her inclusion in this advertisement nor is she associated with the group that made the ad in any way.”
The Coalition, comprised of 80 civil rights, family, health, labor, business, student, LGBT and women’s organizations, withdrew the ad in deference to Mrs. Bush and issued a statement, explaining they had used public comments from American leaders of both political parties who had expressed their support for civil marriage. “We appreciate Mrs. Bush’s previous comments but are sorry she didn’t want to be included in an ad.”
One can only wonder why the former first lady chose to backtrack on an issue that is supported by most Americans, who believe that marrying the person you love is a fundamental freedom and Constitutional right for everyone, including gays and lesbians. Polls show that a majority of the country believes that continuing to deny gays and lesbians the freedom to marry constitutes discrimination, and those who personally oppose marriage equality accept that it is likely to become a reality within the next decade. Even Congress has jumped on board. Bills were introduced in the Senate and the House this month to change the definition of “spouse” in the U.S. Code so that same-sex married service members can get equal benefits.
Surely Laura Bush, a former librarian, who as First Lady frequently posed for photographs reading to children, knows the folk tale of Chicken Little, who believes the sky is falling when an acorn drops on her head. Terrified, she decides she must tell the King and on her journey to the castle she meets a goose, a hen and a turkey– Goosey Lucy, Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey. Within moments they are cornered by a fox–Foxy Loxy–who threatens to eat them. In the happily-ever-after version only Goosey Lucy escapes. The morale, we are told, is not to be a chicken but to have the courage to stand up–a quality found in most first ladies.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post