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Kitty Kelley and Oprah (And Sinatra. And Nancy Reagan)

January 22, 2010 | 11:45 am


Whether Oprah Winfrey likes it or not, Kitty Kelley's biography,"Oprah," is coming to shelves: It'll be in stores on April 13. Kelley has written biographies of some of our era's most fascinating and most famous: Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, the British royal family, the Bush family and Nancy Reagan.

Nancy Reagan?

Anyway. Kelley's bios often include a healthy -- or, if you prefer, unhealthy -- portion of rumor and gossip, and have a tendency to rile her subjects. Sinatra refused, through a spokesperson, to read the book, while his daughter Nancy said, "I hope she gets hit by a truck." Winfrey tends to be even-tempered and nice on her show -- but will she welcome whatever it is that Kelley has written? We looked into our archives to see how Kelley's other books have played at release.

Published in 1978, "Jackie Oh!", about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was Kelley's first book. "No unflattering detail is too private or too irrelevant to be ignored," our reviewer Elizabeth Wheeler wrote, "though Kelley is a more lucid writer than the average scandal-monger."

Film and television writer/producer William Dozier found the 1981 book "Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star"  to be "meticulously researched and properly lurid."

From Washington in 1991, Geraldine Baum saw Kelley as "this town's version of the angel of justice." Her book "Nancy Reagan: the Unauthorized Biography" was seen to be "avenging all of the former First Lady's reputed wrongs." Simon & Schuster reportedly paid Kelley a $3.5-million advance for the book, which alleged that Nancy had been promiscuous and unfaithful (with Sinatra -- in the White House). It also aired more grounded political grievances; Christopher Hitchens told us, "This book shatters the whole racket of the Reagan years, that these were warm-hearted, loving people." Unlike Sinatra, Ronald Reagan struck back -- his written response to Kelley's book is after the jump.

Kelley's next project, a juicy look at the British royal family, was either cursed or blessed by timing. It was published in 1997 -- less than a month after Princess Diana's death.

"What attracts readers and rankles critics is Kelley's knack for blending celebrity journalism and gossip with the appearance of scholarly history," Lynn Smith wrote in 2004. That was when "The Family," her book about the Bush dynasty was released. Smith wrote that it was an "indexed and annotated mix of stories describing the Bushes as a power-obsessed, substance abuse-riddled, tasteless family with a Mafia-like ability to protect secrets." Jim Kelly, then managing editor of Time magazine, told us, "Kitty Kelley has the art of the innuendo down fairly cold."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kitty Kelley. Credit: Blackmore

Ronald Reagan on Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan, April 9, 1991:

Over the course of three decades in public life, books by the dozen have been written about my family and me. I have generally refrained from reading them and have withheld comment.

While I am accustomed to reports that stray from the truth, the flagrant and absurd falsehoods cited in a recently published book clearly exceed the bounds of decency. They are patently untrue -- everything from the allegation of marijuana use to marital infidelity to my failure to be present at the birth of my daughter, Patti.

Many of my friends have urged me to issue a point-by-point denial of the book's many outrages. To do so would, I feel, provide legitimacy to a book that has no basis in fact and serves no decent purpose.

I have an abiding faith that the American people will judge this book for what it really is: sensationalism whose sole purpose is enriching its author and its publisher. Neither I nor my wife, Nancy, intend to have any further comment on this matter.