Whenever Kitty Kelley writes one of her juicy, gossipy, salacious, titillating, delightful, and factually suspect biographies, we hear about the thoroughness of her research. On her publicity rounds, she leads profile writers through her house past stacks of files, brandishes thousands of pages of notes and transcripts, and tallies up the staggering numbers of interviews she conducted: 857 for her biography of Frank Sinatra, 1,002 for her book on Nancy Reagan, and 988 interviews for The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, her politically explosive new tome on the Bush clan (which includes nearly 40 showy pages of source notes and bibliography).
But Kelley’s ostentatious display of reportorial overkill is clearly just a ritual effort to pre-empt the questions that inevitably arise about her accuracy. After close to 30 years and five breathless tell-alls, it’s clear that Kelley is no meticulous historian who nails down her facts with airtight precision. To the contrary, she is the consummate gossip monger, a vehicle for all the rumor 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. They want to know the best rumors, have fun imagining celebrities behind closed doors, and try to separate for themselves what’s true and false. Only a fool would mistake a Kitty Kelley book for one of David McCullough’s magnum opuses.
That’s not to say her books don’t matter. They do. Almost single-handedly, Kelley turned Frank Sinatra from an idol into a louse. She confirmed insider whispers that Nancy Reagan was not Ronnie’s sweet gal but a rather nasty and domineering woman. With these debunkings, Kelley is in a sense a populist, a check on the deceptive facades the rich and famous construct around themselves. “[M]oving an icon out of the moonlight and into the sunlight,” is how Kelley puts it. And heaven knows there’s no shortage of moonlight out there: glossy magazines and sycophantic columnists who happily build up the mythologies of Hollywood and Washington elites—applying scant scrutiny to the self-aggrandizing anecdotes and quotes they’re spoon-fed by their subjects. Kelley provides an antidote to this mythmaking. Her methods may often be unsound, her facts may sometimes be a bit fictional, but in the end she usually reveals something true about her subjects—which is more than you can say about a lot of celebrity biographers.
Kelley published her first major book, a tell-all about Jacqueline Onassis, in 1978. The name—Jackie Oh!—said it all: It was a chronicle of Onassis’ love life, struggles with depression, and alleged electroshock treatment. A surprise hit, it established Kelley’s market power. The book also foreshadowed Kelley’s reliance on sketchy sourcing: The electroshock scoop, for instance, came from the wife of an anesthesiologist who had supposedly put Jackie under. But as would her other books, it contained core truths—including an unflinching look at JFK that showed him to have been “more of a Romeo than has been previously revealed.”
A hatchet job on Elizabeth Taylor came next, followed by the book that made Kelley a household name—His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra. His Way was an act of bravery. At the time Sinatra was still a demigod associated more with a glamorous high life than with organized crime and physical brutality. Kelley exposed him as a violent misogynist who surrounded himself with mobsters, even as he cultivated a pristine image. The book was as popular as it was shocking, and even some of Kelley’s critics were impressed. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, who had savaged the Taylor bio, wrote that “His Way is such an improvement over her two previous books … that comparisons border on the pointless” and crowed that the book “reduces the legend of Ol’ Blue Eyes to rubble.” Even William Safire applauded Kelley for exposing the way “a celebrity with supreme arrogance and the ability to raise funds for politicians can succeed in buying respectability.” (Sinatra’s daughterNancy had a rather different view of Kelley: “I hope she gets hit by a truck,” she said.)
Sinatra had tried to stop His Way before publication with a lawsuit, alleging that Kelley misrepresented herself as an authorized biographer. But he soon gave up. And while evidence of Kelley’s typically sketchy methods emerged—she claimed to have interviewed the actor Peter Lawford 12 days after his death, for instance—no one managed to knock down the book’s significant facts.
Soon after His Way, however, Kelley hit a low point. In 1990 she wrote a story for People magazine based on interviews she’d done with Judith Campbell Exner, a former girlfriend of Sinatra’s who also claimed to have had an affair with JFK. Exner told Kelley that she’d arranged 10 meetings between Kennedy and another lover of hers, the gangster Sam Giancana, and suspected they discussed having the mob solve JFK’s Fidel Castro problem once and for all. The story made national headlines, but it soon unraveled: It emerged that Exner had been paid $50,000 to talk, was terminally ill, and had curiously failed to mention these stunning details when she published her own autobiography. A former FBI agent also came forward to say that Giancana had been under a federal wiretap, and so multiple meetings with JFK would have been impossible to disguise.
The People fiasco showed how an individual Kelley story, divorced from a larger narrative about a subject, will easily fall apart. But she returned to familiar form with her 1991 biography of Nancy Reagan. During the Reagan years Nancy cultivated an image as a doting wife and skillful hostess, a reputation Kelley mercilessly diced with the zest of a Benihana chef. Kelley’s keyboard turned Reagan into a cruel and vain shrew who lied about her age and family origins, hit her daughter, menaced other people’s children, and was so cheap that she recycled unwanted gifts. (According to one anecdote, soon after her grandson lost a teddy bear during one White House visit, he received it in the mail as a birthday gift from a presumably clueless Nancy.)
Nancy Reagan: An Unauthorized Biography endured more scrutiny than Kelley’s other books, and many of its facts didn’t hold up. For instance, Kelley told the story of a woman who claimed that Ronald Reagan date-raped her when she was a “naive” 19-year-old. But Newsweek reported that the woman was actually at least 25 and twice divorced at the time—information the magazine said was easily found in local newspaper clippings that Kelley, despite her vast files, had apparently never checked. Another tale, in which Ronald Reagan allegedly paid a girlfriend to have an abortion, came from a struggling actress trying to sell a book about her life as a Hollywood mistress. The book’s most famous claim—that Nancy had long private “lunches” (the quotation marks are Kelley’s) with Sinatra in her private quarters—was also suspect, given that it had appeared unnoticed in His Way in tamer form: without the quotation marks.
Although critics gagged over Nancy Reagan’s thin sourcing and heavy innuendo, there was again agreement that Kelley was onto something. At the least her book was no more dishonest than the Reagans’ own carefully groomed Norman Rockwell facade. “Despite her wretched excesses,” Newsweek concluded, “Kelley has the core of the story right. Even her staunchest defenders concede that Nancy Reagan is more Marie Antoinette than Mother Teresa.”
So far the debate over The Family has centered on a few sensational factoids, including the charge that George W. Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David when his father was president. Once again it’s likely that some of Kelley’s headline-making facts won’t withstand intense scrutiny all that well. (Sharon Bush, the only named source for the Camp David coke story, has already recanted and accused Kelley of duping her.) But again it may be that Kelley has something valuable to offer, despite her unsavory means. The news media have largely given George W. Bush a pass on “character” issues and allowed him to rope off his first four decades as “young and irresponsible years.” Particularly now that Bush’s allies are savaging the young John Kerry’s character, it seems only fair that Bush’s should be subjected to a painful colonoscopy. The view might show Bush’s integrity as not quite what the White House makes it out to be, and the public will be able to look it over with due skepticism. The real shame here isn’t that Kitty Kelley resorts to shoddy journalistic methods to uncover some basic truths. It’s that so few others have used scrupulous journalistic methods to find them.