The Right to Write

  • By Ronald Goldfarb
  • November 6, 2015

Kitty Kelley, Frank Sinatra, and the First Amendment


Friends who knew Ireland well and had lived there took us on our first visit to the Emerald Isle years ago. After our Aer Lingus flight from New York City landed, we went directly to a classic small Irish pub to begin our cultural visit appropriately.

We ordered our mugs of Guinness and sat back in the small barroom that could have been designed by central casting; over the speaker, what came out was Frank Sinatra, the quintessential American crooner. Turns out he had died that day, but his global reach was manifest.  

I’m reminded of that event because this is a big Sinatra anniversary — 100 years since his birth — and books are being planned to commemorate the historic singer. Among them, the 1986 book by Kitty Kelley, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, stands as a hallmark book, a commercial success but, more importantly, one that led to a legal precedent worth recalling.

Sinatra sued Kelley to keep her unauthorized biography of him from being published on the theory that he owned the right to decide who writes his “authorized” story. Sinatra was renowned as a tough enemy to be embroiled with, but Kelley is a tough gal herself, and she refused to back down. In fact, legal and writers organizations supported her claim that celebrities CANNOT control what is written about them. Under the law, “People who live by public relations, so shall they perish,” to appropriate an adage.

I was counsel to the Washington Independent Writers for many decades, and we supported Kelley, as did the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Writers Union. Joe Foote, the WIW president that year, and I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post taking the position that Kelley had every right to write about Sinatra or anyone else.

Sinatra was correct that celebrities own the right to commercially exploit their “likeness.” Kelley couldn’t sell T-shirts with Sinatra’s picture. He had a right of publicity, akin to a right of privacy in that regard. But that right does not include the right to control all information about a person, positive or negative, unless it is defamatory.

Wrote a New York court wrote about this important distinction: “Just as a public figure ‘right of privacy’ must yield to the public interest, so too must the ‘right of publicity’ bow where such conflicts with the free dissemination of thoughts, ideas, newsworthy events, and matters of public interest.”

Sinatra's case was dropped, and Kelley's book, like her others, was a bestseller. This December, she celebrates the re-publication of Ol' Blue Eyes’ “unauthorized” biography at a party in Washington, DC, with all the proceeds to go to Reading Is Fundamental, the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the U.S.

Write on, Kitty Kelley!

Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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