From the September 27, 2004 issue: Kitty Kelley claws the Bushes.
Sep 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 03 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
"SHE WANTS RESPECTABILITY more than anything else," a friend of Kitty Kelley once told the Washington Post, but if that's true she sure has a funny way of going about it. With each of her celebrity biographies--first there was one on Jackie Kennedy, followed by Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, and the British Royal Family--respectability recedes further from Kitty's chubby little paws. The newsmagazines will no longer serialize her books, and reviewers for the New York Times regularly trash them, most recently in Michiko Kakutani's review last week of her latest, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. Even the insouciant Matt Lauer, balding host of the Today show, seems to be losing patience. His producers had booked Kitty for promotional appearances last week on three successive mornings, but instead of encouraging the author in a purring recitation of her new book's many charms, Matt sandbagged her. The face-to-face debunking required more nerve than skill--poking holes in a Kitty Kelley book isn't hard--but it did underscore the rude fact of Kitty's professional status: When respectable pressfolk deal with her, they prefer to use surgeon's gloves and a pair of long-nosed pliers.
It was not always so. There was a brief window in Kitty Kelley's career when respectability hovered within her grasp. His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (1986), which among much else described Sinatra's mother as an abortionist and depicted Ol' Blue Eyes himself bellying up, so to speak, to a steak-and-egg breakfast served off the bosom of a Las Vegas prostitute, had been praised in most establishment circles. Then, in 1987, she announced that her next subject would be Nancy Reagan. Within months the Washington Post, whose proprietress Katharine Graham was close to Mrs. Reagan, ordered up the definitive profile of Kitty Kelley. Exhaustively reported and cheekily written by Gerri Hirshey, the story appeared in three installments in October 1988. It ran to over 25,000 words, a sordid tale of personal betrayals and professional malfeasance, and it established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that its subject was a bit of a head case.
The best source on that was Hirshey herself. "Shortly after I'd begun my research," Hirshey wrote in the article's first installment, "anonymous mail began to arrive." There were anonymous phone calls, too, including one from an unnamed woman who shouted, "Do you DARE tell the truth about one of Washington's most esteemed citizens?" But the letters were more frequent and more interesting. They "followed my investigations from Spokane [where Kitty grew up] to Georgetown to New York." They carried various return addresses, some of them nonexistent, and "praised Kitty Kelley, limned her accomplishments, her kindnesses to small and crippled children." Not all the notes were anonymous--some were signed by fabricated names--and not all were flattering; at least one contained a sinister tip about Kelley's personal life, which, bizarrely, proved false. And most of the notes, according to a forensic analysis undertaken by the Post, were typed on typewriters known to have been used by Kitty Kelley for other business correspondence.
OF COURSE, Kitty had never been "one of Washington's most esteemed citizens," and now she never would be; respectability slipped forever from her grasp with the publication of the Post profile. The Reagan book, completed in 1991, might have provided some consolation--that, and the $4 million advance she received for it. Her next book, on the Windsors, was much less successful, failing even to find a British publisher willing to risk England's libel laws. This new book on the Bushes, dropped squarely on a president universally disliked by the respectable press and in the midst of a difficult reelection, may be her one last play for respectability--which must make the garroting at the Today show and the Times even more painful. So it goes. As Kitty herself once explained, when people criticize her taste or her reporting or her prose, "I say, 'I'm sorry, I'm on my way to the bank.'" Exactly. How many tummy tucks will respectability buy you?