In the hierarchy of journalistic respect, the "unauthorized biographer," we might agree, falls somewhere above the gossip columnist. How far above is a matter of debate. And author Kitty Kelley, who has sold millions such biographies, fired off an eloquent salvo in that debate recently in an essay she published in "The American Scholar." Kelley defends the unauthorized.
BOB GARFIELD: In the hierarchy of journalist respect, the “unauthorized biographer” falls somewhere above the gossip columnist, but how far above? Well, that’s a matter of debate. Author Kitty Kelley, who has sold millions and millions of copies of biographies of the unsanctioned variety, fired off an eloquent salvo in that debate recently in an essay she published in The American Scholar. In her piece, Unauthorized, But Not Untrue, Kelley argues that too many reporters “puff up the powerful” – her words – to gain access to and cooperation of her subjects and his or her associates. She, on the other hand, works her subjects, Jackie O, Frank Sinatra and the Bushes, among them, from the outside, making few friends along the way. As Kelley put it, “The unauthorized biography avoids the pureed truths of revisionist history.”
KITTY KELLEY: Gossip it is not. Good journalism it really can be. Scholarly research it should be. And investigative reporting it really must be, at least for the ones that I write. Because these books tend to be unsparing, I really write only about the most powerful people. I wouldn't write an unauthorized biography about your next-door neighbor, unless your next-door neighbor had truly left a footprint in the culture.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm, how very un-Gawker of you.
KITTY KELLEY: [LAUGHS] When you say gossip, I think undocumented, and I can't write anything undocumented. My books are lawyered to a fare-thee-well. It has to be tape recorded, I have to produce my notes, I have to produce depositions. I have to produce everything to lawyers before these books can be published.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to talk to you about conflict of interest from -
KITTY KELLEY: Oh, wait, Bob. Did I convince you?
BOB GARFIELD: W - well, let's hold that thought, shall we? [LAUGHS]
[KITTY LAUGHS] I want to talk now about the direct correlation between digging up dirt and generating headlines and then book sales. Doesn't telling the untold story give you, the author, the incentive to give short shrift to the less titillating but maybe more significant aspects of your subjects’ lives and careers?
KITTY KELLEY: I would disagree with you only because the people that I write about have been written about so much. You would like to think when you suggest a book to a publisher that you have got something new, but how could you suggest a subject like Frank Sinatra, who was written about for years and years and years, and claim that you would come up with something new?
BOB GARFIELD: I read your Sinatra biography, let's say 15 years ago, and my takeaway, that, that which I can remember, is about his Mob connections, his throwing someone out of a - through a plate glass window and his mom being an abortionist in Hoboken. I don't remember much from your book about his gifts as a singer or even the arc of his career. And those things I mentioned are the ones that, you know, got all the, the headlines at, at the time you published.
KITTY KELLEY: Yes, I do think those things do tell you something about the character of the man. But I really did try to tell the reader how his life, his love affairs, his marriages infused his music.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so let's look at conflict of interest from the other perspective, authorized biographers. You make quite a compelling case that that’s where the greater conflict resides, because access is the Holy Grail for the authorized biographer, and they have to either explicitly or implicitly toe the line.
KITTY KELLEY: They can't write everything they know because they will alienate the subject or the subject’s family. On the other hand, if you’re standing outside, as I do, and you’re writing a life story, looking really with your nose pressed against the window, you, I think, are freer, and you can tell the truth in a way that the authorized biographer really can't.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, every time you write a biography, here’s what happens next. Sources come out of the woodwork to say that they were, in fact, not sources, and then the subjects say, uh, she’s a liar, this is a smear job, shame on her and, and shame on the publisher for publishing it.
KITTY KELLEY: Many times people are astounded at their words when they see them in print. For instance, when I wrote the Nancy Reagan book in 1991, President and Mrs. Reagan stood before their church and denounced me and denounced the book. They quoted their pastor, Donn Moomaw, as saying that he never gave an interview and should never have been quoted in the book. He even sent a circular around to his congregation. The fact of the matter is that Donn Moomaw did give a 45-minute interview on tape in his office.
BOB GARFIELD: It turns out this is not an uncommon phenomenon, people disclaiming any part of an interview. Why do people do it and what happens when you confront them with the smoking gun of their participation?
KITTY KELLEY: You know, when I wrote the Frank Sinatra book I had an interview with Frank Sinatra, Jr., and I took a photographer with me by the name of Stanley Tretick. Stanley took the famous picture of John, Jr. under President Kennedy’s desk. We got in to the interview, and Stanley, being the pro he was, started walking around the room, and I'm interviewing Frank Sinatra, Jr. He’s going to appear that evening and sing, so he said, hon, will you come a little closer? I don't want to strain my voice. So I said yes. And I'm sitting there interviewing him, and everything is going wonderfully well for the first 45 minutes. He’s talking about what it’s like to be the son of a famous singer, a man connected to organized crime. He’s doing imitations of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. And then he turned to me and he said, you know, hon, I know a lot of people. Do you know what I mean? And I said, you mean mobsters? And he said, yes. I can tell you what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. And right at that point, I thought, oh, the one great unsolved mystery of the 20th century! I thought, maybe I'll get the Pulitzer Prize. I even thought for, you know, just a second, what’ll I wear when I get the prize? And just at that point, there was this clattering noise. The photographer threw down his cameras and said, well, what the hell happened to Jimmy Hoffa? And at that point, Frank Sinatra ran out of the room into the bedroom. And I tried. He said, no, I have said too much, I have said too much. The interview ended. But when the Frank Sinatra book came out, Frank Sinatra, Jr. denied giving me the interview. And Stanley produced a photograph. So, to answer your question, I don't know why people deny it. They do because they're embarrassed, they're afraid of the subject. They want to make amends with the subject.
BOB GARFIELD: Most recently you have written about Oprah and, you know, now we're talking deity, so -
KITTY KELLEY: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: This was also an unauthorized biography. How did Oprah react to this enterprise?
KITTY KELLEY: Doing the book on Oprah was honestly harder than it was to do the book on Nancy Reagan or even the Bush family. You are so right. She is an idol. She’s above and beyond the President of the United States. And I saw that power when the book was published. Many in the media didn't even want to get near it. Barbara Walters had made an announcement she wouldn't have Kitty Kelley on The View to talk about Oprah Winfrey. Larry King, Charlie Rose, David Letterman.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any evidence that Oprah said to them, you will not give this woman a forum?
KITTY KELLEY: No, it was guarding their friendship, guarding their relationship. No, I do not think for a moment that Oprah said, do not have Kitty Kelley on the show.
BOB GARFIELD: For many of your subjects, you have said, I guess before and after the fact, that you admire them a great deal.
KITTY KELLEY: After four years of researching Oprah Winfrey’s life, talking to everybody, from her father to her aunt to her cousins to ex-lovers, employees, friends, I came to a real admiration for her. I mean, she epitomizes the American dream, in so many ways. I came to a certain respect, not admiration, I guess, for Frank Sinatra. You have to admire that kind of talent, the drive and ambition and the stamina it takes to remain at the top for 50 years.
BOB GARFIELD: So, as we look at the pantheon of American biographers – Robert Caro and David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, I guess, do you belong among them?
KITTY KELLEY: I still dream of going to the same heaven as David McCullough and Justin Kaplan, but I've probably toiled too long on the unauthorized side of the street to hear the seraphim sing, you know those angels who just stand in praise?
BOB GARFIELD: I can think of six or eight people who think you’re not going to be around seraphim at all, that you’re heading in an entirely different direction.
KITTY KELLEY: Really? And those people would be?
BOB GARFIELD: Nancy Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and, more or less, the entire British Royal Family come to mind.
KITTY KELLEY: I can't argue with you. I think you’re right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Kitty. Thank you very much.
KITTY KELLEY: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Kitty Kelly is a journalist and author, most recently of Oprah: A Biography, appearing in paperback in January.
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