Move Over, Alfred Kazin: That’s Kitty Kelley Writing in The American ScholarBy PATRICIA COHENClay BlackmoreKitty Kelley
Kitty Kelley’s celebrity biographies of such figures as Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan, the British royals, the Bush family and most recently Oprah Winfrey are known for their juicy and often embarrassing details. Her sensational accounts have frequently landed her on the best-seller list, in the tabloid columns, and occasionally in a law office for allegedly dealing carelessly with facts.
But her latest publishing coup is a bit unexpected: she’s in the pages of The American Scholar, one of the nation’s leading literary and intellectual journals, alongside an excerpt from the forthcoming journals of the late Alfred Kazin. In the Winter 2011 issue, which will soon be on newsstands, Ms. Kelley writes about the intimidation that unauthorized biographers face, not only from subjects who are unhappy with negative revelations but also from journalists who all too eagerly keep the celebrity puff machine rumbling. (She includes The New York Times in this group.)
“Those who cover Hollywood celebrities, athletes, CEOs, even literary lions, abide by various levels of celebrity ground rules (control of photos and editorial content, including what questions can and cannot be asked) just to get the interview,” she writes. She attributes lackluster sales of her Oprah book, 300,000 instead of a million plus, partly to this phenomenon.
Rather than be seen as a mark of truth-seeking, the term “unauthorized” has become a stigma, Ms. Kelley argues. “Even after all these years I’m still not comfortable with the term unauthorized, because it sounds so nefarious, almost as if it involves breaking and entering,” she writes.
She adds: “Most of the great biographies are written about people who are dead, and thus the biographies are unauthorized.”
Robert S. Wilson, the editor of The American Scholar, said he met Ms. Kelley at a party a few years ago and they hit it off. After the identity of the Watergate source Deep Throat was revealed in 2005, he asked Ms. Kelley to write a short piece on what revelations were left.
This time around, he said, Ms. Kelley contacted him. “She said, ‘I’d really like to write something about unauthorized biography,’” he recalled. “I thought this was a piece that Vanity Fair would have published in an instant, so I felt pretty lucky to have it.”