Q&A with Kitty Kelley

  • February 4, 2011

Kitty Kelley, the biographer of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra, answers questions about her famous subjects and her writing process.

Kitty Kelley is an internationally acclaimed writer whose last five books have been number one on the New York Times best seller list: Oprah: A Biography (2010), The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty (2004) and The Royals (1997) debuted at number one. The latter, according to Publishers Weekly, became the fourth best-selling non-fiction book in America for the year.  Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography (1991) sold one million copies in hardback and became the fastest selling biography in publishing history. Following publication, the American artist, Red Grooms, featured the author’s image in his painting, Body Politic.  Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra,  His Way (1986), sold one million copies in hardback, and became number one on the New York Times best seller list, setting records in the U.S., England, Canada and Australia as the biggest selling biography in publishing history.  Her other biographies,  Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star and Jackie Oh! were also New York Times best sellers.

Q)  Can we say that Kitty Kelley is an unabashed admirer of Julian Assange? If yes, please tell us why or why not.

A)  You can say that I am an unabashed admirer of transparency and believe in the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, which seems to cover Julian Assange, although he is not American; but given that he could be prosecuted in U.S. courts as a spy, I’m a bit confused about the laws that apply to him. Years ago, as the researcher for The Washington Post editorial page, I was called by Executive Editor Ben Bradlee to arrange the Pentagon Papers he had received. But the court ruling in that case covered The Washington Post (and The New York Times) for publishing them, not Daniel Ellsberg for providing them.

Q)  Our society seems to have become quite cavalier about other folks’ information. Do you think book publishers began this trend? Any ideas on where it might end?

A)  My books are thoroughly lawyered before publication, and I find that publishers strictly abide by the laws of privacy (that govern most “folks”) and libel (that covers public figures). Consequently, I have never been successfully sued and have never lost a lawsuit.

Q)  Have you ever discovered a secret about one of your subjects that even you’ve buried beneath the vault? If so, why? These days, where would one put the vault?

A)  Yes, many secrets. Anything pertaining to underage children — like mental health, physical deformity, juvenile delinquency — is off-limits, and I certainly don’t believe in “outing” anyone.

Q)  If Oprah Winfrey’s mother takes the secret of her father’s identity to the grave, will you then provide the facts to Oprah Winfrey?

A)  No. The only way I would reveal what I know is if Mrs. Esters released me from my promise. I gave her my word during our three days of interviews in Mississippi that I would not reveal what she told me about Oprah’s biological father until Oprah’s mother told Oprah. I believe that a promise is a promise to the grave. I know there are some who don’t agree, including Bob Woodward, who revealed after Potter Stewart died that the justice had been the source for The Brethren, Woodward’s book on the Supreme Court.

Q)  Is it the unearthing, the ordering or the exposition that is most wondrous in writing biographies of famous people?

A)  The journey into a life – especially the life of someone who has influenced our culture and reshaped our historical landscape – is fascinating for a biography. It’s not simply one person’s life story, but the history of the times in which that person lived. Since I write about contemporary figures, who are still alive, I’m writing about the forces which are shaping our lives every day.

Q)  You’ve written about Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the Bushes and Oprah Winfrey. In retrospect, would you change any of what you’ve written?

A)  In retrospect you’d always liked to have researched more and written better in order to divine all that is behind the carefully constructed mythology, for as John F. Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

Q)  What is your process for figuring out who is next?

A)  I wish I had a process for figuring who’s next because at this point in my career I cannot for the life of me figure a more mesmerizing subject than Oprah Winfrey. A biographer’s gift, she’s the epitome of the American dream, a combination of movie star charisma and Mama Warbucks, who has enthralled the world.  How do you top that?

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