The revelations—even the one about Winfrey’s real dad—are duds.
CELEBS Let me start with an admission: I’m still slogging my way through Oprah: A Biography, Kitty Kelley’s latest O-pus (524 pages in length), which hit bookstores yesterday. So I don’t profess to know all that she spills therein. However, I do know the Kitty Kelley methodology, which I studied extensively in the spring and summer of 2008 for a piece of high-concept nonsense I wrote for the December issue of Chicago magazine.
For the article, I tracked Kitty as she tracked Oprah. In the beginning, I had hoped that Kitty would participate. After all, as I pitched her in numerous e-mails, nothing would humanize her better than an account of her conquering the near-impossible task before her (with Random House’s multimillion-dollar blessing): Bagging the largest prize in the celebrity-biography stratosphere, complicated by the fact that her Royal O-ness has rendered her subjects mute via elaborate confidentiality agreements and informal omerta. (Violation of the Harpo code of silence probably falls just short of whacking—although careers surely won’t be spared.) And Oprah controls the airwaves like a North Korean propaganda minister, seemingly able to program whatever she wants, on whatever channel she chooses. (See, for example, her sycophantic 2010 Oscar special.) She also, you might have heard, knows how to effectively hawk the printed word—her self-named book club and magazine are major success stories in the downward spiralling print industry.
And, yet, here came the irrepressible Kitty Kelley, vowing to assemble the definitive, if unauthorized, Oprah biography. Iconic dirt and grime is her infamous craft. In fact, she has sullied the legacies of no less than four American icons—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Nancy Reagan. So, to my way of thinking at least, her quest to compile the unofficial Oprah Winfrey story would be a spectacle to behold. Or at least a spectacle that I wanted to behold. Imagine all of those closed doors! I mean, who in their right mind would actually entrust their Oprah reminiscences to Kitty Kelley?
In the past couple of days, we have come to find out, through the onslaught of media reports for Oprah: A Biography, that the answer is allegedly 850 well-steeled souls. Or so says Kelley, as revealed in some recent interviews. (For example, in this story by Craig Wilson that ran Monday in USA Today.) Understanding as she does how to move books with impressive numbers, the source count is a foremost tenet in her publicity playbook: Demonstrate the exhaustiveness of the work. (The argument being that anything so thorough must be accurate.) Hence, the press tours of her Georgetown office, during which she shows each reporter her prolific reams of research material and interview transcripts. Mostly, this allows her to plausibly claim she has been unfairly persecuted as a hack—another well-worn Kelley publicity tenet. I also think it’s what makes her feel writerly and that she’s engaged in serious work, but, admittedly, I am not a trained psychologist. Nor have I ever met her. She cheerfully rebuffed my numerous requests to tag along on her trips to Chicago for Oprah sleuthing with some version of the following quip: "So far I haven’t encountered the dire roadblocks you’ve enumerated." Of course, that wasn’t quite true. "Oprah seems to scare the bejeebers out of everybody," Kelley told the Sun-Times yesterday, employing her patented, made-up sing-song slang. (The Sun-Times has been all over this story; a trio of its columnists—Sneed, Roeper, and Zwecker—dedicated space to Oprah: A Biography yesterday.)
Anyway, the blackballing of Kitty Kelley has always made for good promotional material and helped at least kick-start press interest in her books—never more so than at this very moment. Last weekend, the syndicated columnist and a close Kelley friend Margo Howard, the daughter of the late Esther "Eppie" Lederer (a.k.a. Ann Landers), sent a preemptive piece across the wire describing the unfair media stonewalling of Kitty. Howard wrote that Kelley has been banned from being interviewed by Larry King, David Letterman, Charlie Rose, and Barbara Walters, because of Oprah’s far-reaching influence, a claim Kelley also made recently in an interview with Deborah Solomon of The New York Times. No matter that Kelley was scheduled to be on Good Morning America (squaring off against Gayle King no less) this past Monday or that she’ll do a two-day guest stint on the Today Show this week. (Last night she also spun her persecution tale amid Bill O’Reilly’s no-spin zone—Shhh! Don’t tell Bill-O!)
In the months before the book’s release, I had been waiting for Kelley to unfurl a single, tawdry Oprah revelation that—flimsy or not—would permanently affix itself to the Winfrey legend. Here, recall the best-remembered tidbits from her earlier works:
- Jackie Kennedy underwent electroshock treatments for depression (Jackie Oh!, 1978).
- Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra partook in lunchtime trysts at the White House (Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, 1991).
- George W. Bush used cocaine at Camp David during his father’s presidency (The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, 2004).
The guess I heard hazarded most frequently was that it would be something about Oprah’s sexuality. Not one person among the 258,437 I spoke with for my story guessed that it would involve sex with John Tesh. The other salacious scraps from Oprah: A Biography: her sources say Stedman Graham is a bore, and Oprah doesn’t like to take the stairs and commonly refers to herself in the third person. (As she’s quoted in the book, "Oprah does not walk.") Oh, and a closet in her California residence tops 3,000 square feet. As for Oprah exiting the figurative closet, it is Kelley herself who is calming us down. Per USA Today, "I think she’s just asexual. She’s poured all of her energies into her career. And if she is [gay], she is never, ever going to come out. So relax, people." As part of her press blitz, Kelley also claims she knows the identity of Oprah’s biological father but has vowed to not reveal the name until Oprah can find it out herself on her own terms. Could this non-revelation actually be the expected bombshell?
This most certainly isn’t the Kitty Kelley I know.
That’s why I’m thinking that it is we who have changed. Perhaps in the new gossip universe—where Perez Hilton and Harvey Levin are the baddest, most-invasive cats around—Kelley is now merely quaint, with all that ridiculous research and all the years spent amassing it. (Oprah: A Biography took more than three years to complete—a quick turnaround in Kelley terms.) Either that or Oprah got to her, too.
GO: Kelley signs books at 12:30 pm on Apr 19 at Borders Books & Music, 150 N State St; and 7 pm at Borders Books & Music, 1500 16th St, Oakbrook.
MORE OF THE COVERAGE SO FAR FOR OPRAH: THE BIOGRAPHY
- ABC News: "Oprah’s Seven Most Shocking Tales" by Sheila Marikar, 4/13/2010.
- The Baltimore Sun: "Inside Kitty Kelley’s Oprah: the Baltimore years" by Dave Rosenthal, 4/13/2010.
- The Baltimore Sun: A photo gallery, "Oprah Winfrey: Then and Now."
- The Chicago Sun-Times: "Oprah’s chilling effect on Kitty Kelley’s book" by Thomas Connor, 4/12/2010.
- The Chicago Sun-Times: "Oprah revealed: 10 juicy bits from the new bio" by the Sun-Times staff, 4/12/2010.
- The Chicago Sun-times: "Oprah’s ‘Aunt Katherine’ denies being leak" by Gannett News Services, 4/21/2010.
- The Huffington Post: "In Kitty Kelley’s Oprah Book Oprah’s Dad Spills All" by Amy Hertz, 4/12/2010.
- New York magazine: "Kitty Kelley Knows Who Oprah’s Father Is" by Chris Rovzar, 4/12/2010.
- The New York Daily News: "Oprah Winfrey is subject of new Kitty Kelley unauthorized biography" by Gina Salamone, 1/23/2010.
- The New York Times: "The Queen of Talk Declined to Speak" by Janet Maslin, 4/11/2010.
- The New Yorker: "Kitty Kelley takes on Oprah Winfrey" by Lauren Collins, from the issue dated 4/19/2010.
- Newsweek: "We Read It So You Don’t Have To: Oprah by Kitty Kelley" by Pat Wingert, 4/14/2010.
- Slate: "Kitty Kelley, Sore Winner" by Jack Shafer, 4/12/2010.
- TODAYshow.com: "Biographer: Oprah called self teen ‘prostitute’" by Michael Inbar, 4/12/2010.
- TODAYshow.com: A book excerpt from Oprah: The Biography, posted 4/12/2010.
- USA Today: "Unauthorized Oprah" by Craig Wilson, 4/12/2010.
Photograph: (KELLEY) Clay Blackmore