Editor’s note: Hey guys, Ernie here with a surprisingly timely piece from Andrew Egan. Just a word of warning—the subject matter is a little on the scandalous side, so if you’re not in the mood for that, may I suggest this piece about Teddy Ruxpin instead? If you’re cool with it, keep reading.
Today in Tedium: The rules guiding journalists have never been understood by the larger public. Phrases like “off the record” and “confirmed source” seem self-explanatory but are governed by detailed rules that often flumox seasoned journalists. But sometimes a reporter tosses out the rule book in the attempt to articulate a larger truth. Sometimes this reporting relies on nothing more than rumor. Today’s Tedium looks at the queen of the tell-all, Kitty Kelley, and the dirt she apparently had on Nancy Reagan. — Andrew @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from an interview Kelley did in the ’90s.
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The reported number of holds on Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House at the New York City Public Library. While exact sales data is not yet available as the book was only released five days ago, the book by writer and entrepreneur Michael Wolff is already #1 on Amazon and bookstores across the country are reportedly selling out.
That book Michael Wolff wrote about Trump is actually part of a long, tawdry tradition
Tuesday was supposed to the release date for Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by writer and entrepreneur Michael Wolff. Instead, the president threatened legal action prompting publisher Henry Holt to release the book four days early. Reaction to the book has been understandably varied, usually divided along political lines.
Despite (or maybe because of) a lengthy journalism career, Wolff has received some criticism for a history of flaunting industry norms. He allegedly took some “off the record” comments and attributed them to sources. He has been decried for sloppy reporting. The book has led to thoughtful ruminations on the death of fact checking. But no one is denying the momentum Wolff has managed to catch. He even has managed to convert a few of his past critics, with one writing in GQ, “As much as I wanna discredit Wolff, he got receipts and, more important, he used them. Wolff got it all.”
The long-term impact of the book on the Trump administration has yet to be seen (certainly Steve Bannon is feeling a little whiplash today), but the furor is oddly reminiscent of the impact made by another writer fascinated by the lives of the influential and famous. Long before Michael Wolff took a bite out of the Trump administration, Kitty Kelley was reimagining American icons.
The number of #1 New York Times best-sellers written by Kitty Kelley since 1974. Her non-fiction work tends toward extensive biographies, usually completed without the subject’s permission. Her biographies on Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Onassis, and Frank Sinatra were criticized and praised upon release.
The unauthorized biographer of celebrity icons who has gained a fearless reputation
Journalism of questionable accuracy is nothing new. Before burner blogs and social media, yellow journalists fomented war, supermarket tabloids reported rumors, and tell-alls claimed to tell the real story behind famous faces straight from friends and family.
This last category is the domain of Kitty Kelley. As the queen of the tell-all, Kelley has set her sights on icons of the 20th century. Her unauthorized biographies of Jackie O and Elizabeth Taylor were largely ignored. Kelley hit paydirt with His Way, a deep dive into the life of Frank Sinatra. His Way would prove to be a tipping point in Sinatra’s career.
Before Kelley’s book, Sinatra was the Chairman of the Board, ring-dinging his way through an envious life with talented friends. His Way portrayed Sinatra as a mob-connected misogynist that used fear to maintain his lofty status. Even her most fierce critics had to concede the book’s impact. After unleashing a wave of criticisms against Kelley’s career, writer Michael Crowley finally conceded, “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.”
To give you a sense of the level of respect Kelley receives, that 2004 Crowley article is the most cited source on her Wikipedia biography by far. But virtually every criticism of Kelley’s work is balanced between her methods and the effect they achieve. A 2010 review of Kelley’s Oprah biography noted, “Inevitably, a certain odor precedes her unauthorized biographies to the marketplace, but more interesting is the ink cloud of despair that rises from every quote-laden page.”
Kelley’s unauthorized biographies succeed for a number of reasons but they do beg some questions that are now more relevant than ever before. When is it okay to report a rumor? When does that rumor become fact?
The big point of commonality between Kitty Kelley and Michael Wolff? Impact
Rumors are important because they often have grains of truth in them. Rumors about White House involvement in a break in at the Watergate Hotel led to Nixon’s resignation. Rumors led to the public accusations that brought down Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and an ever growing number of powerful men. Rumors of Trump’s mental deficiencies could lead to any number of ends.
When asked by Stephen Colbert whether people should believe his account of the Trump White House, Wolff asked people to consider, “Does this comport with what you already know? Does this make sense? Does it have an internal integrity in which you come away thinking, ‘I think I understand this now.’ That’s my job as a writer.”
Accuracy issues aside, Wolff is having his moment. Kelley has had more than a few though perhaps not with Wolff’s level of interest and importance. To be fair, Kelley never wrote a book that threatened to bring down a sitting president.
Books written by Kelley and Wolff are meaningful. They have impact when they’re released. Some may question how accurate the information may be but few outright dismiss their claims. The end result is that some inaccuracies have been accepted as fact.
“I’ve been doing these books for 30 years and I have never ever lost a lawsuit. I have never been successfully sued. I want to tell you, though, that Frank Sinatra got my attention.”
— Kelley, speaking to NPR in 2010 about her long career as an unauthorized biographer of the stars. The subjects of her books have largely not been pleased with the results, for obvious reasons.
The kind of scandalous, lightly sourced rumor that shows up in a Kitty Kelley book (warning: scandalous)
A couple of months ago, a thread led me to the history of Kitty Kelley. “What X-Rated history facts don’t they teach you in school?” is pretty standard fare for an r/AskReddit thread. Among the details about diarrhea in war and incest among Egyptian royals, one user offered a particularly scandalous bit of information on Nancy Reagan, nee Davis, from her Hollywood days.
A section of Kelley’s 1991 biography of the former first lady discusses Reagan’s apparent promiscuous behavior during her years as an actress in Hollywood, specifically a quote that hinted at “one of the reasons that she was very popular on the [MGM] lot.” (You want the gory details? Go read the book.)
The information in the book is offered third-hand: Kelley writes that producer Benny Thau was quoted as telling that to fellow biographer Anne Edwards, who refused to run the quote in her own, unrelated, book about Ronald Reagan. Kelley had no qualms, but she also had no confirmation, either.
Over time, however, Kelley’s claim has been repeated as fact, especially by people critical of Ronald Reagan’s legacy. For them, the “internal integrity” of the claim has enough merit to transform rumor into fact. It sounds true, so it must be.
A positive review of the biography in the New York Times called called her account of Reagan “poignant and withering,” while labeling Kelley a “giant killer.”
So why air the dirty laundry of a former first couple? Kelley told the Los Angeles Times that the goal was to highlight the hypocrisy at play. “These are people who have created themselves and became our moral arbiters,” she argued. “This was a First Lady who took a very strong stand on moral issues.”
Whether every detail of Kelley’s reporting is accurate seems to be besides the point. She has an intuitive understanding about the subjective nature of truth and its role in framing our perceptions of public figures.
Kelley is very aware of her role in the media landscape. In a piece defending her career, she wrote, “In today’s celebrity culture, that word unauthorized carries immense freight. It signals an independent appraisal that will reveal more than floss, and some people cannot accept their idols with flaws. Instead, they need the illusions they see on the screen or the fantasies they read. To show anything less makes them feel short changed, even conned.”
Kelley is right that her work can make people feel conned, but she’s wrong about the reasons. Complete accuracy in reporting is difficult to achieve, if it’s possible to achieve at all.
But when writers like Kelley and Wolff eschew accuracy in the search for a larger truth, the results can be dismissed or panned. Kelley claims to do extensive reporting for her books, having done more than 1,000 interviews for her Reagan biography alone.
This effort adds some legitimacy to her work, but leaves lingering doubts about the veracity of the rumors she’s reporting. As the past twelve months have made painfully clear, reporting on rumors can lead to surprising consequences. When writers make the effort to confirm information with multiple sources, whispers can finally be spoken at full volume.
Despite all of her success, Kelley’s legacy will probably look a lot like one of one of her books: interesting, but impossible to substantiate.
Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Andrew writes about crime, obsessive eccentrics, and anything that might lead to a good story at CrimesInProgress.com. He was previously a reporter at Forbes Magazine and ABC News. His most recent work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Blue Skies Magazine, and Tedium.