Reprinted from the German edition of LUI, Nr. 11, November 1986, where it appeared in German translation as “Des Sängers Fluch.” It was never published in English — until now.
By Jan Herman
For a professional snoop, Kitty Kelley harbors a remarkably decorous feeling about her work. The least suggestion that she enjoys exposing the sexual peccadillos of her high and mighty targets brings an intense glare to her china-blue eyes.
Maybe it’s because she wants to convey the idea that she suffers for her work. The mere supposition that she takes pleasure in tattling about the drug addictions and the desperate boozing of the rich and famous — worse, that she has become a millionaire by holding their private tragedies up to public ridicule — puts a wounded expression on her face and a solemn tone in her voice.
“Take pleasure?” she asks, hardly able to contain her sense of injury. “I don’t do that kind of thing in my writing. I’ve established a reputation as an unauthorized biographer, but that doesn’t give me license. I have to be very fair. And I have to abide by the laws of libel, which I do. I let the reader make up his mind.”
By now Kelley has a small, tight smile on her face. Not content with this rather academic defense, the 44-year-old author of “Jackie Oh!,” “Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star,” and “His Way,” swivels her body on the loveseat in her Georgetown living room like a petite artillery gun.
“When I revealed that the Kennedys had a prefrontal lobotomy performed on their retarded child, Rosemary, in 1942, I didn’t write how I felt about it,” she says. “I didn’t even say the Kennedys were racked by guilt because of it. I didn’t exploit that fact. I just presented it. I don’t take a point of view in my writing. I don’t put a value judgment on these things at all.”
A pity really — and open to debate, of course — for Kitty Kelley overflows in conversation with feisty opinions about everything. From the American bombiing of Libya (“We looked like such bullies”) to her Catholic-school education (“All it ever did for me was turn me into a cheerleader”) to the idle rich (“They’re so miserable you begin to develop a sympathy for them”), no subject escapes her withering, flippant scorn. Nor does she lack a biting sense of irony that feeds on getting the last cynical laugh.
The office where she wrote her biography of Sinatra, for instance, is dominated by a huge photo enlargement of ol’ Blue Eyes, in which he is trying to fend off the paparazzi with the palm of his hand. Candid in the extreme, it is not a pretty picture. Sinatra looks thoroughly flustered by the ambush — not only startled and discombobulated, but torn-up angry and vulnerable. Kelley, righteously mindful of his objections to “His Way,” has placed this picture on the wall so that Sinatra seems to be veering in horror from the spectacle covering the office floor: row on row of meticulous files that she compiled on him during her four years of research for the biography.
“The man sued me before I wrote a word,” Kelley says. “He claimed, one, that he and he alone was authorized to write this book or someone he anointed, and, two, that I had misrepresented myself as his official biographer to people I interviewed. Well, those claims just didn’t stand up legally. He withdrew his suit after a year, but not before tryng some very underhanded tricks.”
With obvious relish, Kelley begins to tick them off on her fingers. Let’s see …
First there was the Peter Lawford affidavits. Before Lawford died, Sinatra got him to declare that Kelley had bamboozled him into believing she was writing a book on John F. Kennedy. “Poor Lawford, may he rest in peace,” she says. “I had nine hours of interviews with him.”
Next came an affidavit from Nelson Riddle, the orchestra leader and Sinatra’s long-time musical collaborater, also now deceased. “Poor Riddle,” she says, “may he rest in peace. I had three and a half hours with him, and he spoke quite openly.”
Dead men don’t talk — and can’t be cross-examiined. Kelley, on the other hand, had a live witness to the Lawford sessions who was willing to testify for her. The Riddle affidavit was more easily parried, she says, because it acknowledged that he knew she was writing “a tough book” on Sinatra “from the questions I asked.” No deception there.
Then came Sinatra’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin, with “incontrovertible proof” at last that she was a scheming liar from top to bottom, who misrepresented herself, her book, her interest in Sinatra, virtually everything but the color of her toenails. The evidence was a tape recording of one of her phone inquiries.
“So all the lawyers descended on me,” Kelley recounts. “Sinatra’s battery of attorneys, my lawyer, the publisher’s. It looked like a convention of the bar. And we sat down to listen to this tape. Well, it sounded like Boy George. It was a phoney. An out-and-out fake. Now that was frightening, that they would go to that length to stop me.”
Frightening perhaps, but flattering. It meant Sinatra took her seriously. And if there is anything Kelley appears to enjoy more than trashing her celebrated subjects, it is being taken seriously by them. “He said I was ‘a potent force to deal with.’ Those are his words,” Kelley notes proudly, “and he didn’t want to have to deal with me. This was before I’d written a word.”
If the press hadn’t come to her aid, in fact, he might have succeeded in intimidating her. “There is an undercurrent of violence in his life,” she says darkly. She was grateful for the editors who proclaimed — correctly — that Sinatra was trying to violate her right of free speech. Had he succeeded, it would have been an instance of “prior restraint,” they declared, something not even Richard Nixon could achieve in trying to block publication of “The Pentagon Papers.”
Let it be duly noted that Kelley showed her gratitude to her defenders by contributing one of her $5,000 speaking fees to the American Society of Authors and Journalists. So while ol’ Blue Eyes veers in horror on her office wall, let it not be said that she lacks charity.
Indeed, compared with the framed caricature of Elizabeth Taylor that Kelley keeps outside her office, the Sinatra photo is a mild rebuke. Taylor is pictured in a way so devastating it defies apt description. A great fat hog, she is seen crashing over a fence in Virginia’s horsey countryside mounted by her seventh husand, John Warner, who is saddled to her back as though riding to hounds.
Not surprisingly, the caricature — by editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant — is a brilliantly vicious reminder of one of Kelley’s typical non-value judgments, namely that by the time Taylor married Warner (a pretentious country squire), she was so dumpy and desperate for a husband that she gladly let him exploit her celebrity in his U.S. Senate election campaign and awkwardly carried him to victory.
“Many women who thronged to her appearances,” Kelley wrote, “went away feeling better once they saw for themselves that the woman heralded as the most beautiful in the world was so hefty she could no longer camouflage herself in tunics, caftans, and capes.” This was followed by a half-dozen of Kelley’s favorite “Elizabeth Taylor fat jokes,” which gives one pause to wonder what she might have written had she taken pleasure in target practice.
At least she doesn’t back off now, when confronted with Taylor’s new, slim, rejuvenated image. Kelley still skews her like a piece of shish kebab. “Elizabeth Taylor was born beautiful and became an absolute narcissist,” she scoffs. She delivers the words like a pronouncement from the Vatican. It brooks no contradiction.
Of course, Kelley will also tell you she has barrels and barrels of admiration for Liz the Survivor, Liz the Power Player, Liz the Tough, and yes, the highest accolade of all, the Liz the Piece of History. But that’s just what she says about Jackie and Frank. It’s the language of book promotion.
By the time Kelley finished writing “His Way,” she’d done 857 interviews — her own count — twice the number for the Taylor biography. Like Taylor and Onassis before her, Sinatra refused to grant Kelley an interview. No problem, she says, folding her hands in her lap: “I interviewed everybody I possibly could have who has been in love with him, who has been to bed with him, who lived with him, who lived near him, who worked for him, who sang with him.”
OK Kitty, let’s really dish the dirt. Have you counted up the women who flung themselves at him? Better yet, whom did he take a fling with?
“Oh, please!” she says. “Finding every woman Sinatra has had is like finding every diner you’ve eaten in.”
Did Sinatra jilt more women than Taylor jilted men?
“Are you kidding? No contest.”
The key to understanding Sinatra, according to Kelley, is that he was an only child.
Come on, Kitty.
“Look,” she insists, “Frank Sinatra likes to say he was a poor boy and he grew up rough. But he was a pampered baby and he grew up spoiled and indulged.”
Then Kelley reminds me of our little agreement.
Ah, the agreement.
While Kitty Kelley fumes about Sinatra trying to keep her from writing his biography, she doesn’t mind engaging in a bit of prior restraint herself. Before publication, “His Way” was treated by Kelley, her agent, and her American publisher like a state secret. The press even circulated one report — untrue, it turns out — that her manuscript had been delivered in an armored car.
What is true, however, is that Kelley and her advisers have an obsessive need to stage manage. To them, the arrival of “His Way” is the greatest event in publishing history since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.
Consequently, because this interview took place before the book came out, I had to sign a contract prohibiting me from reading the manuscript; revealing anything from it even if Kelley did; and, what is truly mind-boggling, disclosing for four months the mere fact that our meeting took place at all. Otherwise, no interview.
So here we are in secret at Kelley’s ante-bellum Southern mansion, sipping diet Coca-Cola — not mint juleps — on a sun-baked afternoon in early August. It is an imposing house. The freshly painted black window shutters are immaculate against the tan siding. The slate roof, with many peaks and chimneys, looks like something out of a fairy tale. An American flag hangs on a pole set at a rakish angle over the front porch.
In the front yard, set back from Dunbarton Street, behind a vine-covered wall in the heart of très chic Georgetown, Matthew, the Caribbean gardner, is clipping the shrubbery beneath a towering magnolia tree. Around the side and back of the house is a vast, red-brick patio dotted with white, wrought-iron garden chairs and tables. A block beyond the wood fence is the brick steeple of the Episcopal Church, whose chimes announce God’s presence every Sunday morning.
“I love to listen, but I don’t go,” says Kelley.
It is a distinguished house. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan lived here for 25 years. Kelley still gets mail for him. It is also a divided house. The other half of it , with a separate entrance, is occupied by J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art in nearby Washington, D.C. His friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has more or less ensured cool relations between him and Kelley. She moved in seven years ago, not long after “Jackie Oh!” appeared. Neighbors report that Brown and his wife monitor the staircase to the street, which they share with Kelley, so as to avoid running into her.
“I think he’d die if he saw the art I have,” Kelley says. [Brown has died since this interview took place, but his death had nothing to do with her art.]
Indeed, nothing on the outside of the house prepares you for the inside. A sculpted, horn-blowing cherub, à la Chagall, greets you from a wall in the living room, which is overseen by a devilish, green-faced Balinese idol with rainbow-colored wings. It sits on a brass sea chest across the room from a 7-foot giraffe, also brass, which stands in the parlor near two Chinese Fu dogs perched on a windowsill. Meanwhile, a veritable Noah’s Ark of miniature crystal animals crowd the coffee table, and an elaborate stash of giant starfish fossils fill the shelves by the fireplace.
What Brown might die of, however, is Kelley’s insatiable taste for big colors: blue walls for the living room, where the dark wood floor is polished to a glossy sheen and the white throw rug matches the trim white molding; red for the flower-patterned loveseats, where we are sitting; red for the foyer with the white Victorian armoire; red again for the parlor and the carpet on the stairway leading upstairs; yellow for the dining room, a cheerful sort of breakfast nook with toy parrots hanging from the ceiling; and green for the kitchen, where Kelley’s living pets, two striped alley cats named Darling and Runt, like to hang out. (“I’d have a burro in the backyard if I could,” she says.)
Poor Brown, may he rest in peace. The decor is nothing less than drop-dead breathtaking and — dare we say it? — suggests the aggressive, overproduced attractiveness of a really first-class bordello.
Yet Kelley communicates scarcely a hint of the courtesan in her blue slacks and three-colored sweater (yes, red, white and green). With her glasses propped on top of her dye-blond hair and no makeup or lipstick on, she seems like she has just finished her grocery list. There is something almost school marmish about her. And, in fact, Kelley began her career wanting to become an English professor.
The eldest of seven children — one brother among them — Kelley was born on April 4, 1942, in Spokane, Wash., and grew up privileged. Her family had land as well as money. “We were blessed on both fronts,” she says. Kelley’s father, who came from New York, was a highly successful litigator and became a senior partner in Washington state’s largest and most powerful law firm. Her mother, who died in 1978, came from an old Spokane family that for generations has owned a 5,000-acre ranch in the heart of one of the Northwest’s richest wheat valleys.
“My father still lives in the home I grew up in,” Kelley says. “I adore him. If you asked me whom I admired most in this world, it would be my father.”
After high school at Holy Names Academy, Kelley decided not to go East to college, as her father had hoped. She entered the University of Washington instead and as a graduate student “went to teach in what they euphemistically described as a culturally deprived neighborhood,” she recounts. That changed her mind about teaching so quickly that she decided to take up her father’s travel offer. She got herself a job as a VIP hostess at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
“The money was phenomenally good, and all we did was spend it,” Kelley remembers.
By 1966, “fascinated with the power and politics” of the dignitaries she met, Kelley left for Washington, D.C. “I just wanted to see what it was like to work on Capitol Hill,” she says. Through a fluke, she landed a temporary job sorting Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s foreign relations mail, and shortly found herself working as a press assistant. “Within six weeks he asked me to stay on,” she says.
Kelley stayed on for almost four years — and saw the clash of power and politics at white heat. It was the period of the Vietnam War. McCarthy, the U.S. Senate’s leading dove, challenged President Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination. A maverick liberal, McCarthy humiliated Johnson in the first primary in New Hampshire and forced the president not to seek re-election. He also forced a change in Johnson’s war policy. But McCarthy eventually lost the nomination to George McGovern, who proceeded to lose the general election by a landslide to the Republican hawk Richard Nixon.
Kelley couldn’t have had a better ringside seat. And when Mccarthy decided to write his account of those events, “The Year of the People,” she helped do the research. To this day, she says, they remain friends. McCarthy still comes to her house for Christmas. But her cordiality doesn’t extend to his current views. “They are quixotic,” she says. “He endorsed Ronald Reagan, you know.”
Her next stop was The Washington Post, where she says she worked for two years
as a researcher on the editorial page. “The best job I ever had,” she says — to the everlasting chagrin of Post editor Ben Bradlee. He has said, “What she doesn’t say is she was a secretary here, and she was fired.”
In any case, the Post job launched her. “After two years of watching writers,” she recalls, “I thought being one was the most intellectually stimulating way to live your life that I could imagine.”
Kelly’s first major piece of intellectual stimulation turned out to be “The Glamour Spa.” Published in 1975, it was a book-length exposé of 13 exclusive fat farms. She wanted to do for the health-and-beauty industry what Jessica Mitford did for the funderal industry in “The American Way of Death.”
“I was fascinated by people who spent money at these places,” Kelley says. “I’d thought they just went to lose weight. I soon learned they went for other reasons — alcoholism, drugs, loneliness, sex.”
One day at The Golden Door in Escondido, California, her investigation came to a head as she was sitting disconsolately in the dining room after a feeble, 600-calorie lunch. Kelley grins at the memory. “I was the last to leave the table and I was so tired,” she recounts. “The chef came over to me and said, ‘Would you like a leetle zumzing?’ And I thought he meant a second helping. I said, ‘Of course!’ And he said he would bring it to my room. And I said, ‘No, I’ll have it right here.’ I thought it was going to be more of their dietetic tunafish. And he looked at me with new-found respect. Because he said he didn’t sleep with the women on top of the table. He did it in the bedroom. Well, I started laughing.”
In no time she had all the details of how the upper crust paid for sex at the spa, and how movie stars paid for pot, and so on. The reading public was not impressed, however. “I sold two copies, both to my mother,” Kelley says. The book reviewers were equally indifferent. Somehow none of them noticed she was trying to do a Jessica Mitford.
It took “Jackie Oh!” in 1978 to snap them to attention. Ironically, the publisher had to convince her to accept the assignment. “I thought everything had already been said about her.” Not knowing where to begin, she called in an old IOU from New York gossip columnist Liz Smith, who had given up her own attempt to write a Jackie biography because of too many closed doors and frosty no-comments. “She opened all her files to me,” says Kelley, “so I went to New York to read them with Mike.”
Michael Edgley, that is. Her husband. They’ve been married a decade. Kelley had met him at the World’s Fair, but they lost touch and met again years later in the Capitol. Yes, he’s her first and only husband. [They’re no longer married. Her second husband is a physician, Jonathan Zucker. They’ve been married for more than 10 years.] Mike is a fiction writer. No, his fiction hasn’t been published. Yes, he’s away. In California. Kelley speaks of him with affection. Her voice sounds warm. Yet you can’t help noticing that he falls into the “Poor Mike” category. As in, “Poor Mike, he lost his dressing room to Sinatra, file by file.”
Iron Butterlies are not notably sentimental, and Kelley, who seems made of cast iron, is no exception. You look in vain for a picture of Mike. It is not among the bric-a-brac and coffee-table kitsch.
Upstairs there’s a photo of Kelley making a screwball face behind Elizabeth Taylor’s back at some Washington cocktail party. There’s another of Kelley on the White House lawn helping a long-time friend (and reputed lover) take a photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. But no Mike.
Sinatra, meanwhile “mesmerizes” her. That’s her word for it. “He’s the most fascinating man in the world,” she purrs. A sex object? Kelley frowns. “I don’t have a sex object. I am not a man. I don’t mean to be coy, but it takes other stimuli for a woman to be excited.”
We’re on touchy ground here. What are you referring to Kitty, power?
“Well, Henry Kissinger felt power is an aphrodisiac,” she says. “But I’m attracted to men who make me feel good about myself. I like to laugh. I think a sense of humor is a very attractive quality in a man.”
Apparently humor is something Sinatra lacks. “He has it in limited doses,” Kelley says. “He takes himself very seriously.”
So. She finds him unattractive, but she’s mesmerized. Poor Frank.