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Fact or fiction? The incredible world of Kitty Kelley

Her unauthorised biographies have become renowned for their unsubstantiated claims about the world's biggest celebrities - and now she has Oprah Winfrey in her sights

David Usborne
Friday 15 December 2006 01:00 GMT

It was a glorious Washington morning in April when the argument started. Kitty Kelley, America's most notorious poison-pen biographer, was nestled beneath a fluffy duvet - it had a 64 tog rating - in the honeymoon suite of the Tabard Inn with her favourite toyboy, Julian. Why, he demanded, had she not asked for a divorce from her husband as she had promised? The squabble quickly became violent.

Ms Kelley, who is not 64 as she claims but, according to the sister of a hairdresser who once set her blonde locks in a Little Rock beauty salon in 1956, turned 70 last year, didn't even see the sidetable lamp coming before it cracked into the wrinkles of her forehead.

"The blood was incredible. It gushed all over the bedclothes," said a doorman hiding inside the closet. Only when the ambulance drew up at Sibley Hospital did it dawn on the dazed Ms Kelley that her health insurance had lapsed. Every cent of the fortune accumulated from her three decades of debunking celebrities had been exhausted by her gambling habit. ('Kelley and Blackjack', see source notes on page 1,229.) She knew what she had to do. Write yet another book. First she would need a victim ...

Sorry, Kitty, maybe that's not funny. But have a sense of humour. You know what people say about you - that the five unauthorised biographies you have written so far, beginning with the best-selling Jackie Oh! in 1978, have been as laden with dubiously sourced, unflattering details as they have been with anything that was reliably true. You deny making up things always, of course, as any writer would. Except this one, who has never interviewed a doorman at the Tabard Inn nor any hairdresser in Arkansas.

We have met before. We were guests on a talk show when you released that unkind book about the British Royal Family eight years ago. I was there to expose how you had no decent sources to suggest that the Queen had been conceived by artificial insemination or that the late Princess of Wales, Diana, had tried once to push her step-mother down the stairs. You made mincemeat of me, of course.

With each new book she publishes, new uproar erupts, mostly from indignant practitioners of mainstream journalism. The sourcing is denounced at best as flimsy and her motives decried as unnecessarily destructive and vicious. But two things remain true. She has never lost a libel case arising from her works. Nor, indeed, has she been legally obliged to publish a single retraction.

That she has settled on a new victim is, in fact, no lie. This week, came the news that Kelley has signed a deal with Crown Books, an imprint of Random House, to turn out yet one more unauthorised biography. And the lucky winner is Oprah Winfrey, who for two decades has reigned as the queen of daytime talk television in the United States, and indeed, through syndication, in markets worldwide. It was to Ms Winfrey, that Madonna turned to give her side of her recent adoption of an African boy.

"Oprah Winfrey has fascinated me for many years," Kelley said in a statement. "As a woman, she has wielded an unprecedented amount of influence over the American culture and psyche. There has been no other person in the 20th century whose convictions and values have impacted the American public in such a significant way."

Exactly what has spurred her to zero in on Ms Winfrey at this time we can only guess at. Possibly, it was the Madonna episode. Or maybe she became fascinated with Oprah's book of the month club, which influences the reading choices of millions of book lovers around the globe.

Lest we forget Kelley's fascination with the salacious, another possible motivation comes to mind. Winfrey's sexuality has been the subject of much conjecture of late. We know that she has a best buddy, Gayle King, with whom she appears at public events. They recently denied theirs is anything more than a very close, but platonic relationship. But it hasn't stopped the gossip or the jokes, like the one delivered last week by the actor Jamie Foxx during a tribute to Will Smith. "Will, I was talking about you the other day," he began. "I was laying in bed with Oprah, and I turn over to Gayle and I said, 'You know what?'."

After working as a press aide to the late Senator Eugene McCarthy, Ms Kelley got her first job in journalism as a junior editorial assistant at the Washington Post in 1969. A book soon followed. Called The Glamour Spas it was an exposé of the fat-farm industry and its celebrity clients that was then in its infancy in the US. Then came the first book that established her reputation as an aggressive biographer-cum-muckraker that every

famous person would quickly learn to fear. Jackie Oh! shocked readers by detailing the infidelities of her first husband, JFK, as well as the struggles she had with mental illness and depression. Included in its pages was the claim that the former First Lady had undergone electric shock therapy.

Like every one of her subsequent works, Jackie Oh! shot instantly to the top of the best-sellers lists. In hindsight, Kelley had thus invented a genre of autobiography writing. The charges of her critics that some of what she puts in her books simply doesn't stand up to close scrutiny have never gone away.

She has occasionally tripped up, for instance claiming to have interviewed one source - the actor Peter Lawford - when, in fact, he had died 12 days earlier. With each new book she seems to go to even greater lengths to demonstrate the authenticity of her reporting. After publishing a 1986 reputation-shredding oeuvre on Frank Sinatra - His Way: The Unauthorised Biography of Frank Sinatra - she claimed it was the product of no fewer than 857 interviews with people either close or not so close to the legendary crooner. Those she spoke to before writing The Royals allegedly totalled 988.

Sinatra tried to block the publication of the book in the courts, slapping Kelley with a $2 million lawsuit saying it portrayed him in an unflattering and unfair light. He knew what was coming.

The book detailed his tumultuous marriages and branded him a misogynist and a friend of mobsters. He later withdrew his lawsuit and the book did its damage. A reviewer with the Washington Post surmised that the biography, "reduces the legend of Ol' Blue Eyes to rubble". While the reviewer was quite kind, the Sinatra's daughter, Nancy, was less so. "I hope she gets hit by a truck," she was reported to have said.

Defenders of Kelley argue that she is unfairly targeted for criticism in part because she is a woman writing these highly toxic books with a slightly silly-sounding first name that lends itself instantly to tabloid headlines. "Kitty Litter" is a favourite moniker for her books. Sally Denton wrote of her in the Progressive Review: "If her name is Kitty, she can't be taken seriously. If she also happens to be blonde, all the more reason. A 'liberal' to boot and her destiny is sealed."

If we can persuade ourselves that the main outlines of Kelley's various portraits are broadly true even if some of the more exotic details within them may be of questionable veracity, then perhaps we can admire her for what she does. Few reporters, after all, have been so successful - or fearless - in puncturing the protective shells of myth and mystique that are otherwise so tightly spun around our celebrities. Until Kelley, no one had dared even to suggest that the man the behind the legend that used to be Sinatra was less than perfect. Most of us have the intelligence not to accept everything she writes as unimpeachable fact. What she writes, meanwhile, has proved irresistible reading for millions.

"It's clear that Kelley is no meticulous historian who nails down her facts with airtight precision," Michael Crowley said on the Slate website. "To the contrary, she is the consummate gossip-monger, a vehicle for all the rumour and innuendo surrounding her illustrious subjects. She surely knows it as well as her readers do. "People read Kelley for the same reason they read the National Enquirer: the taboo."

After her mauling of Sinatra, Kelley turned her chilly eye on the Reagans. This time it was Nancy Reagan who saw her public image turned upside down as, page after page, Kelley painted her as a conniving shrew, who relied on astrologers and was so mean she used to recycle gifts that came to the White House.

While the libel-free record is impressive, it is worth noting that in the US the burden on the plaintiff to prove unfair treatment is extremely heavy. The bar has traditionally been lower in Britain and it is telling that the scandal-packed book about the Royal Family was never published in the UK.

Kelley's last outing was in 2004 when her target was the Bush clan. The book, called The Family, triggered a predictable firestorm with assorted shockers including a claim that the current occupant of the White House once snorted cocaine at Camp David when his father was President and that the First Lady, Laura Bush, was a small-time drug dealer while at college. Much of it may have been poppy-cock, but the book went instantly to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and sold 750,000 copies in hardback in the US.

If Ms Winfrey is as fearful as she is flattered to have become the next prey of Kitty Kelley, no one could blame her. At least in her case, she will have some means of counter-attack.

If the book, whenever it comes out, displeases her, she will be sure not feature it in her book of the month club.

Famous victims

Jackie Kennedy 1978

Jackie Kennedy, wife of JFK, was the first to suffer the Kelley treatment when 'Jackie Oh!' hit American newstands in 1978. Its spicy allegations about JFK's womanising hit the former president's wife hard.

Sinatra 1986

Kelley's next victim was Frank Sinatra, who presented Kelley with a $2m lawsuit when 'His Way' was published in 1986. Ol' Blue Eyes finally withdrew the suit and watched the book, fuelled by publicity, shoot to the top of the 'New York Times' bestseller list.

Nancy Reagan 1991

'Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorised Biography' became the fastest selling biography in publishing history. It was suggested by Kelley that the First Lady had invited Frank Sinatra into her White House boudoir.

Royal Family 1997

'The Royals' was a gritty look at the numerous scandals surrounding the monarchy, including attempts to conceal their German ancestry. Libel laws eventually prevented its publication here, but again it topped 'New York Times' best-seller list.

Bush family 2004

Then came 'The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty', published in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections. Its insistence that Laura Bush was an ex-drug dealer provoked a barrage of abuse from the Bush family.

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