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Bagging the Media Queen

From December 2008: For two years, Kitty Kelley, America’s most notorious celebrity biographer, has been tracking Oprah, a notoriously private subject. The multimillion-dollar game of cat-and-mouse promises to play out in an epic cultural showdown

(page 3 of 3)

 

Kelley, celebrity biographer
Kelley, celebrity biographer
Kelley’s charm is irresistible—perhaps hazardously so—capable of prying voice from the mute. Her flattery—well formed and informed—can similarly misdirectand seduce. Even the stiffest of turned backs can slacken in her presence.

Kelley lives and breathes—air, not fire—in Washington, D.C., ensconced with her second husband in their fabled Georgetown home. They married in their garden, among 300 guests, a topiary dancing bear, magnolia tree, smokehouse, and the buried remains of her pet cats. Both of her postnuptial works (The Royals and The Family) are dedicated to him—Jonathan Zucker, allergist, the man “who makes dreams come true.” (Kelley on romance, according to the Washington Post: “Tulips from Mr. Right are far more romantic than a trip to the South Seas with Mr. Wrong.”) Although the late Supreme Court justice William Brennan, a previous occupant of the premises, once penned his decisions from a card table there, the place is now known in Washington as the “Kitty Kelley House.” “It makes me feel safe living here because of whose home it was before,” she remarked in the tony coffee-table book Private Washington: Residences in the Nation’s Capital. It is the house that Jackie Oh! bought and Nancy Reagan renovated. Much tittering ensues when the “Celebrity Georgetown Walking Tour” stops out front. Tour fun fact: Kelley’s vanity license plate reads “M-E-O-W.” She can be whimsical and self-effacing like that. Per The New York Times, “Around and above the toilet in the first-floor half-bath . . . hang framed cartoons, magazine covers, and newspaper front pages that recall the public figures Ms. Kelley has clawed, the hisses of protests she provoked, the catfights that ensued.” She entertains eagerly. “She threw me a fabulous, old-fashioned ladies’ luncheon when I happened to be in D.C. well after I had moved to Chicago,” says Ellen Warren, a Chicago Tribune senior correspondent and a longtime friend.

Unless she’s promoting a book, she discourages peeks into her own personal life. In the 1991 unauthorized bio-thrashing of her life, Poison Pen, by George Carpozi Jr., we learn that she helped the famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee prepare the Pentagon Papers for publication as a researcher for the newspaper’s editorial page, and that she wields her feminine wiles with abandon. Other biographical tidbits from various sources: Two of her favorite mottoes: “Speak the truth but ride a fast horse” and “Never explain—it tires your friends, and your enemies won’t believe you.” She suggested to TV Guide that the cartoon baby Maggie Simpson’s first words be “Hail Hillary!”—as in the former First Lady, current Democratic New York senator, and, in Kelley’s estimation, “one of the most fascinating women of the twentieth century.” When she first moved to Washington, she worked as a press assistant in the then Minnesota Democratic senator Eugene McCarthy’s office; in 2001, she held an 85th-birthday party for him at her home. She wrote in the girl-power anthology What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self that she considered The Family “political but not partisan.” She has spent an hour with Nelson Mandela and cohosted a fundraiser for Al Franken; she originates from the same hometown as Bing Crosby—Spokane, Washington, the “Lilac City,” where she was crowned teenage “Lilac Princess.” She attended the University of Washington.

Kelley met Oprah once, in the late 1970s, on the Baltimore morning show People Are Talking. The station assured me that a tape of their encounter did not exist. Kelley shot a pilot for her own daytime talk show in 1992. It featured an hour with Michael Jackson’s father, Joe—with exclusive footage from the Jackson family’s Encino home. “The main objective of the show was the same as Kelley’s books, which was to deliver the goods,” says Ron Ziskin, the pilot’s executive producer. He adds, “Kitty had a fun side to her, and she was able to be herself onscreen, which is unusual to have talent bring that to the air.” In this regard, she reminded him of that affable talk show madman Regis Philbin. Ultimately, though, Kitty Kelley never aired. “Only 28 markets (a mere 30 percent of the country) had bought Kelley’s offering,” Entertainment Weekly reported at the time, “so syndicator MCA pulled the plug.”

On the Chicago front, she frequently traded faxes with Esther “Eppie” Lederer, a.k.a. Ann Landers, who threw Kelley a book party for The Royals at her posh Lake Shore Drive digs; Kelley gave a gift from Hermès as thanks. “I’m sure Mother, like I, felt like a journalist girlfriend of hers,” says Eppie’s daughter, Margo Howard. “We’re all doing stuff at different levels, but in the journalistic community of women, there’s a sisterhood, and you meet people who you especially click with.” Whenever Kelley is in town—a younger sister lives in suburban Glenview, her husband the former CFO of Abbott Laboratories—she makes friends easily. “We both belong to the International Women’s Forum,” says Judy Wise, senior director of Facing History and Ourselves, a charity that educates students about global awareness. “It held its [October 2007] conference in Chicago, and she was randomly assigned to a dinner at my home. I found her incredibly easy to talk to, fun, interested in other people, and charming.” Adds Warren, “Kitty is Exhibit A for a great girlfriend. She is loyal, thoughtful, there for you. Just reading her books, you can tell she’s a terrific raconteur and a blast-and-a-half to be around.”

Kitty (Near) Encounter III—Paul Natkin, former staff photographer of The Oprah Winfrey Show: She prowls Lake View, looking for his house. He has either not answered or declined her earlier overtures. “I look at her as the paparazzi of writers,” he explains. But on a Thursday in late June, she swings by unexpectedly—a bold move that might entice him to talk. She’s particularly interested in his Oprah photographs. He maintains a library of about 30,000 of them. Famously, he sued Oprah to retain their copyright; they later settled out of court. But he isn’t home when Kelley shows up. Hastily, she writes him a short note asking if they might be able to meet and slips it into his mail slot. “I still wonder what I would have done if I had been home,” he says. Again, he ignores her appeal for an audience. He says he did keep the note for possible framing: “To be stalked by Kitty Kelley is a pretty cool thing.”

***

People who understand the Harpo fortress of silence give Kelley varying odds at piercing its hush. “Whatever Oprah does to her cringing underlings, she must cut out their tongue with a hot iron, because you never, ever hear them dishing dirt,” says Steinberg. “So one of two things: Either they will line up to anonymously find an empty spot on her back to stick the shiv in; or, and this is my bet, they’re so inculcated with fear that Kitty will come up with a dry well.”  Bill Zwecker, his colleague at the Sun-Times, agrees: “There will be some naysayers here and there,” he says. “But Oprah has made a commitment to Chicago. She could have left this town many times for Los Angeles or New York. But she’s remained in Chicago. We’ve been her good-luck charm, and she’s been our good-luck charm. That’s why people here have a sense of loyalty to her.”

Natkin, who no longer speaks to anyone at Harpo, clarifies the unshakable pillar of this allegiance. “I used to hang out with the producers and directors of The Oprah Winfrey Show. They all had beautiful homes in the suburbs, sent their kids to great schools, and had a shelf full of Emmys in their living rooms. But I always thought that they were completely trapped. Unless they uprooted their lives and moved to Los Angeles or New York, they would never get another job like that in television. So it’s not really loyalty, it’s necessity.”

Conversely, Ann Gerber, gossip doyenne for the Gold Coast newspaper Skyline, speculates, “There have got to be people out there who haven’t signed confidentiality agreements. So I would think Kitty could find people. There are lots of people with loose lips.” And Ellen Warren, confident of Kelley’s abilities, offers, “Hello? Remember Frank Sinatra?”

Kitty Encounter IV (serving perhaps as the perfect paradigm of the Kelley quan-dary)—Chris Clark, the legendary Nashville anchorman, an early Oprah mentor: She goes to him, traveling from Washington to Nashville. They meet at his office on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, where he teaches broadcast journalism. In Nashville, he is Bill Kurtis, Floyd Kalber, and Fahey Flynn rolled into one. He retired from the local CBS affiliate last year after more than four decades of anchoring the nightly news; Oprah sent him a sweet video tribute to mark the occasion—“I thank you for giving me my first break in television when breaks were really hard to find.”

He hired her when she was just 19 years old, making her Nashville’s youngest and only African American television personality. Despite her age and inexperience, she told him that she could operate a camera, write news copy, and report stories. She could not. It didn’t matter. “Those things you can learn,” he says. “What you can’t learn is how to communicate on television—a skill Oprah had from day one. It was just so obvious. She was a genuine person, and it came across that way onscreen.” She invited him to her 50th-birthday party. As a gift, he framed two memos that he had written about her when she worked for him—one welcomed her to the station; the other marked her departure. “In that memo, I wrote, ‘Barbara Walters—watch out!’”

For nearly two hours, he sat with Kelley and recounted all of this. “[Kelley] puts you at ease immediately,” Clark recalls. “She makes you feel like a long-lost friend, someone you can really confide in.” And once an easy rapport has been established: “Then she asked about sex, drugs, and boyfriends. The interview ended shortly after I told her that I didn’t know anything about sex, drugs, and boyfriends when it came to Oprah.”

***

And so the clash of these two publishing colossi continues apace—its finish still many months in the future. But however the Mighty Oprah chooses to withstand the furtive mewing underfoot doesn’t much matter. Because there will be no stopping it. “I’ve interviewed hundreds of people across the country and am grateful to each for the time and consideration shown to me,” Kelley cheerfully wrote in an early e-mail to me. “Of course, I’m most grateful to Oprah Winfrey for giving me such a phenomenal life story to document. She’s a biographer’s dream.”

Photograph: Harry Borden/Corbis Outline

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