Gossip girl: Kitty Kelley spills her celebrity secrets

Kitty Kelley writes breathless biographies of America's biggest stars, shocking readers with the revelations she unearths. But her latest subject, Oprah Winfrey, has been the toughest to crack, she tells Guy Adams

Wednesday 14 April 2010 00:00 BST

Kelley's big-name back catalogue - click the image on the right for our guide to her unwilling subjects

Looking impeccable, dressed from head-to-toe in elegant designer clothing purchased with the proceeds of almost three decades' worth of seven-figure book advances, Kitty Kelley has spent the past week energetically promoting her latest blockbusting celebrity biography: a gossipy and of course highly-unauthorised take on the life, times, and extravagant personal habits of the most successful woman in American television, Ms Oprah Gail Winfrey.

Thanks to Kelley, we've learned, among other things, that Oprah is so obsessed with privacy that she keeps her personal phone number secret from her own mother. We've been told that staff must call her "Mary" to prevent eavesdroppers understanding their conversations. And we've giggled at the revelation that during one Marie-Antoinette-style tantrum, the chat-show queen refused to cross the street, because: "Oprah does not walk!" and "Oprah does not do stairs!"

All this, and more, is shoehorned into a $30 tome called Oprah: a Biography, which was released yesterday morning and soared to the top of the bestseller lists, as Kitty Kelley's books tend to do. It began the day as the second-fastest-selling book in the world, on Amazon. By the weekend, it will almost certainly sit atop the New York Times chart. The US publishers, Crown, ordered an initial run of 500,000 copies. That's around 18 for every single bookstore in the land.

"Things are going wonderfully well, just wonderfully well," Kelley informs me, when I called her at a New York hotel on Monday afternoon. She'd just been discussing her book on NBC's Today programme, with Matt Lauer, which was "wonderful." Last night she was due to guest on Fox News with Bill O'Reilly, a "wonderful man". It seems "wonderful" is her favourite word. She pronounces it warmly, like a Bond villain.

Kelley's reputation precedes her. On purely commercial terms, she's almost certainly the most economically-valuable biographer working anywhere in the literary world (even in the 1980s, she was getting $3.5m advances for each book). On a journalistic level, she's a force of nature. People call her an "uh-oh" writer, because that's what you say when you hear she's researching your life. Her prurient, invasive, deliciously-sordid, books make a habit of destroying blue chip reputations.

Her 1986 biography of Frank Sinatra, His Way, largely ignored the singer's extraordinary career, and instead focused on his colourful love life and links to organised crime. It detailed violent marriages, endless affairs (revealing that both Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner had aborted his child) and was single-handedly responsible for turning ol' Blue Eyes from national treasure into sleaze-ridden slime-ball. Critics called it gutter journalism, but simultaneously hailed the book as one of the greatest show-business biographies ever written.

In 1991, she gleefully recast America's favourite cuddly granny, Nancy Reagan, as a high-maintenance astrology nut who'd lied about her age, hit her children, and cheated on poor old Ronnie. More recently, Kelley has taken a typewriter-shaped hatchet to the British Royal Family in a 1997 book so near the knuckle that it failed to get a UK publisher, for fear of attracting a libel suit. Then she turned her howitzers on the Bush dynasty, in a biography released just prior to the 2004 election which controversially claimed that George Dubya had snorted cocaine at Camp David during his father's time in office.

Now Kelley has a new victim. Oprah Winfrey is known to millions as a little girl who was born to a teenage mother in rural Mississippi, endured a childhood of poverty and sexual abuse, and went on to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world. So it's odd, she says, that the chat-show host and media magnate's story has never been held up to a biographer's scrutiny.

"I've always thought that Oprah's life was absolutely fascinating, the most amazing journey, and I couldn't understand why there'd never been a comprehensive biography," Kelley says. "Of course, I now realise why: it's because so many people are terrified of her. Publishers are afraid to publish anything that might prevent their books being on her show. Writers are scared to death. She's amazingly wealthy and so powerful, and no one wants to upset her."

Kelley learned this week exactly what sort of power Ms Winfrey wields, when she sat down to work out the promotional schedule for her new book. Normally, the launch of her bestsellers (published roughly every five years) see her tour network TV studios, sharing gossipy revelations about the unfortunate figure whose character she's just assassinated. Her rummage through Oprah's dirty laundry got only a handful of takers.

"We were told by Barbara Walters's producer 'No, you cannot be on The View. I cannot disrupt my relationship with Oprah,'" she revealed last week. "Joy Behar, the same thing. Charlie Rose said 'I will not do it, it might upset Oprah.' Even David Letterman and Rachel Ray [said "no"], though she's perhaps more understandable, since she actually works for Oprah."

The decision to effectively blackball Kelley (ABC executives are said to have made their ban official) caused soul searching in US media circles, and upset right-wing commentators, who are never slow to highlight examples of the allegedly-liberal media elite protecting their own. They noted that networks weren't so prudish when they welcomed the authoress into their studios to discuss her 2004 hatchet job on Bush.

Kelley has meanwhile used the controversy to create buzz, as she always does. While she doesn't think Winfrey personally removed her from the airwaves ("I don't think Oprah got on the phone. She doesn't have to do that,") she does believe her book deserves its time in the sun. It does, after all, contain at least one zinger of a "scoop":Oprah's dad, Vernon, was not her biological father.

Instead, Kelley informs readers that she has learned the real identity of Winfrey's real father from the TV presenter's elderly aunt, 81-year-old Katharine Esters, who she interviewed over three days at home in Mississippi. She has not included his name in the book, she says, as part of an agreement with Esters, who was adamant that Oprah should be allowed to find out her real father's identity from her mother, Vernita Lee.

"Oprah knows Vernon is not her blood father," Kelley said this week. "Katherine told me 'Oprah has begged me for years and years to tell me who her father is.' Then she told me [the real father's name] and said, 'You cannot tell. You simply cannot tell, because it's not our place. Oprah's mother has to tell her.' So I didn't, of course."

It has come to something, you might think, when an investigative reporter with a reputation for writing intrusive and some say muckraking memoirs knows more about a famous person's family background than the actual famous person. But Kitty Kelley wouldn't be Kitty Kelley if she didn't provide the occasional "gotcha!" moment. The big question is: how does she do it?

Visitors who come to interview Kitty Kelley at her home in Georgetown, an upmarket neighbourhood of Washington DC, are usually taken to her office and shown a wall full of filing cabinets which are said to contain papers chronicling her endless years of research on the new project.

Right now, those containers hold transcripts of 850 interviews with friends, relatives and acquaintances of Ms Winfrey between 2005 and 2009. They also hold copies of every one of the 2,732 interviews the chat-show host has given. Kelley calls them raw materials from which her books are constructed; threads of a narrative tapestry.

Kelley likes to emphasise her exhaustive research: the years of phone calls, letter-writing, and flying around the world to doorstep unwitting sources. That is what gives her the edge, she says. For her Frank Sinatra biography, for example, she spoke with 857 people. For the Bush family, it was 988. When she chronicled Nancy Reagan's life, she did an astonishing 1,022 interviews.

This, we are meant to believe, is evidence that her books are to be trusted. She will pursue sources relentlessly, sometimes interviewing them for days. She will follow the smallest of leads and peer under the most unpromising rocks. Every anecdote, however small or inconsequential, will provide ammunition that can later be directed at the person whose life she is to chronicle.

Kelley's books often contain pictures of her with interviewees, hugging Oprah's auntie, perhaps, or sitting down to lunch with one of her former school-friends. She often prints these illustrations, which tend to show her groomed to perfection and clutching a Chanel purse, to stop interviewees from denying having ever spoken to her when they discover exactly how their words have been used in print.

She's often boasts, correctly, that she has never been successfully sued. Frank Sinatra launched a $2m attempt to block her book, but he withdrew the suit after it drew yet more attention to it and saw Kelley lauded as a hero of the free speech lobby. She described Sinatra, gleefully, as "the first person to have really taken me seriously."

Today, her books are a massive operation, involving research assistants and legal advisors: "Everything is heavily lawyered and documented," Kelley tells me. The level of resources, and sheer length of time she spends on research, marks her apart. "I have been given the luxury of being able to devote time and energy to my job. You can't turn out a book like this in a year's time."

Yet while Kelly might earnestly present herself as a writer of record, her books speak to something different. Oprah: A Biography is certainly not written in a measured, historical tone. Instead, it's a juicy hotchpotch of hearsay, gossip and innuendo, cobbled together in one breathless, revelatory stream of literary consciousness, and spiced with plenty of sex (for the record, she denies long-running rumours that Winfrey is a lesbian, describing her as "asexual").

Critics, of course, will search for factual inaccuracies, and accuse Kelley also of cherry-picking negative anecdotes and ignoring positive ones. A typical Time magazine profile once carped that she: "fails to bring perspective or analysis to the fruits of her reporting and at times lards her work with dollops of questionable inferences and innuendos".

They won't be the only ones to complain. Yesterday morning, for example Ms Winfrey's friend Gayle King went on ABC news to say: "When I heard she had interviewed 850 people, I'm thinking 'Oprah doesn't even know 850 people.'"

When I press Kelley, it emerges that many of her interviewees were only marginally acquainted with the chat-show host. "I interviewed people who intersected her life at different points," she says, when I ask where the 850 came from. "They ranged from Phil Donaghue and Gloria Steinem to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Senator Robert Dole. Justice O'Connor was wonderful. She's only met Oprah once, but was charmed by her. She went to dinner at her house and wanted to tell me about it."

Other supposed revelations in the Oprah book are attributed to "friends" or "former colleagues" or simply "a source". She blames this on legal restrictions: Ms Winfrey's staff must sign legal restrictions that prevent them ever publicly spilling beans on her. But off-the-record information is notoriously unreliable. Is she happy to repeat it verbatim? "It depends what the information is. It's very, very difficult to answer that in the hypothetical."

Kelley isn't comfortable defending her techniques. She ends our first conversation, somewhat prematurely, the moment I begin probing her about it (we conduct a brief second interview later via telephone). And sometimes, her modus operandi jars. At one point in the book, for example, she asks Katherine Esters about sexual abuse Oprah has recalled suffering, between the ages of nine and 14, at the hands of an uncle. "I don't believe a bit of it," Esters responds. "No one in the family believes Oprah's stories, but now she's rich and powerful, everyone is afraid to contradict her."

That's a hugely damaging and potentially hurtful quote. But it comes from a compromised source, since Esters is largely estranged from Winfrey and has a good reason to deny that abuse may have happened on her watch. But Kelley includes it in her hardback nonetheless. Why?

"I believe Oprah. I believe her 100 per cent," Kelley says. "Now that I have done four years of research on this life I see that she does show all the signs of a very, very damaged person. But I include the quote because it shows you problems within Oprah's family, and it shows the problems of a sexually abused person trying to make other people hear them." Kelley has, in other words, used a book to air a juicy allegation that even she thinks is definitely untrue, for artistic effect. And that is exactly the sort of fast practice that will make readers call her a hatchet-merchant.

A decade ago, Kitty Kelley was given a dose of her own medicine when a tabloid reporter called George Carpozi Jr released an unauthorised biography of her, Poison Pen, which poked at the career path and troubled private life she has kept hidden. The book portrayed a troubled girl born in 1942 to a prosperous family from Washington State. She was brought up by an alcoholic mother, had a failed marriage and a string of broken friendships behind her, and fell into her trade after coming to Washington in the mid 1960s to work for Senator Eugene McCarthy. She once described her role there as "press secretary". McCarthy recalled her as "a good receptionist".

In 1969, Kelley landed a job as a researcher on the Washington Post. She left, in murky circumstances, two years later, to go freelance and wrote her first book, an expose of the health farm industry called The Glamour Spas in 1975. Her first celebrity biography, of Jackie Onassis, came four years later. Its energetically-researched revelations about her extravagant sex life earned it the title Jackie Oh! along with bestseller status.

Since then, through five more books Kelley's literary technique has remained broadly the same: she spends years accumulating a mixture of information about her subject. Then she slaps it into a manuscript. When it's launched, she gives endless interviews dissecting her unfortunate victim's character.

"What surprised me, truly, about Oprah Winfrey was the secrets that govern her life," she says. "This used to be the most open woman in the world, yet she is so secretive ... She wants to be in the news, but she needs to control it. She now sees herself as a brand. She doesn't like her picture taken unless it was staged. And if her picture is taken by a photographer, and she doesn't like it, she will buy up all the copies."

Winfrey's paranoia has extended to banning mobile phones in her presence, Kelley claims, to prevent people from secretly taking photographs from her. Oprah has declined to comment.

On TV, Kelley is always bouncy, blonde and earnest. With newspaper hacks, she's often more guarded, and crabby. That's probably because, given sufficient time and space to discuss her oeuvre, they like to delve into the author's own somewhat mysterious life, and ask what makes her tick.

According to Carpozi, Kelley also does vindictive pretty well. When Jonathan Yardley, a book critic for her former employer, The Washington Post, rubbished her biography of Elizabeth Taylor, he was sent a parcel containing a Gucci box tied with a golden bow. "Inside was a bag of fish heads and a postcard of Liz Taylor giving me the finger," Yardley later recalled. The card was signed: "From the friends of Kitty Kelley."

Yet while it's fashionable to knock this kind of gesture, and tempting to pour scorn at the concoction of rumour and innuendo that is cobbled into Kelley's books, it's also misguided. People don't read her to be educated in cold, hard fact. They instead buy her books by the million for the same reason they might read TMZ: to be entertained and titillated, and to peer behind the net curtains of a celebrity class that is all too often given a free pass by a sycophantic news media.

We might not like to admit it, but the intimate things about a famous person, from the colour of a toothbrush to the type of breakfast cereal they eat, are often the most revealing. When you're dissecting someone's character, the devil is in the detail.

And attention to detail is Kelley's trademark. "If you were to call Oprah's mother today, you would dial Bernita Lee in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and you would get a voice on the line that says 'put in your personal code otherwise this call cannot be completed'," she says, by way of a parting short.

"Oprah has been very, very good to her relatives financially. She has taken care of education, bought them houses, bought them cars, bought them fur coats. Beyond that, she will not allow them to go. They are not allowed to compromise her." But even the most powerful woman in America couldn't insure against the formidable Ms Kitty Kelley.

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