12 April 2010

Kitty Kelley's New Oprah Bio has Plenty to Talk About

USA Today

Celebrity chronicler Kitty Kelley is doing what she often does when one of her unauthorized blockbuster biographies is about to come out.

She's at her Georgetown office showing a visitor a wall of file cabinets filled with four years' worth of research on her latest subject (some might say "victim"): Oprah Winfrey.

Included are transcripts of 2,732 interviews Winfrey has given. Add to that the 850 interviews Kelley did on the billionaire TV talk show host and you have Oprah: A Biography (Crown, $30). It arrives Tuesday, all 525 footnoted pages of it.

"Oprah was the very best source for this book," says Kelley, who did not interview the TV mogul. "She was fabulous."

As is the way with Kelley bios, the subject rarely thinks it's all so fabulous. Kelley has made millions from her gossipy behind-the-scenes tell-alls on everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Liz Taylor and Frank Sinatra to Nancy Reagan and the Bush clan.

Now it's Oprah's turn to be in the biographer's spotlight. Kelley says she approached her newest subject "with great respect," but Winfrey remains mum about the project.

"Oprah hasn't participated in or read Kitty Kelley's book, so she is unable to comment," says Oprah's spokeswoman, Lisa Halliday. It is the same quote that has been issued the last few months whenever Winfrey is asked about Kelley's book.

'Relax, people'

Kelley, 68, is well aware she is not the face most celebrities want to see at their door. One suspects she might even relish the fact.

Her favorite cartoon in her Georgetown mansion's powder room shows Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad bunker, Kelley parachuting from the sky. "Run for your lives!" he's yelling. "It's Kitty Kelley!"

Over the years, Kelley has claimed that Nancy Reagan and Sinatra had long private "lunches" in the White House — read between the quote marks — and that George W. Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David when his father was president.

In her newest opus, Kelley takes on Winfrey, perhaps one of the most overexposed celebrities in America, following her from her poor childhood and promiscuous youth to her life as one of the most wealthy, powerful and secretive businesswomen in the world.

One question readers will expect Kelley to answer: Are Winfrey and best friend Gayle King really lovers?

"I know people are expecting me to 'out' her. But I think she's just asexual," Kelley says. "She's poured all of her energies into her career. And if she is, she is never ever, ever going to come out. So relax, people."

High-def Oprah

As for Stedman Graham, Winfrey's longtime companion, one Kelley source in the book calls him "nice enough but boring as hell. So boring." Those who say they have spent time with the two told Kelley they're rarely demonstrative.

What Kelley discovered while investigating Winfrey was, not surprisingly, her need to be in control, plus what Kelley calls Winfrey's "world of secrets."

Winfrey makes all employees sign confidentiality agreements — and if she is spoken about in public, they have to refer to her as Mary, not Oprah, just in case someone is eavesdropping.

"And now she's made me keep secrets," says Kelley, who claims she knows who Winfrey's real father is but won't divulge it until Winfrey's mother tells her daughter, something she has been unwilling to do for decades.

Kelley spent three days in Winfrey's hometown, Kosciusko, Miss., chatting up Katharine Esters, Winfrey's cousin who goes by "Aunt" Katharine, then talked to Vernon Winfrey in his Nashville barbershop. (He raised Oprah early on but says he's not her father.)

Neither believes Winfrey's stories about sexual abuse in her youth. (Winfrey says she was "continually molested" from age 9 until 14, and she did give birth to a baby boy at 15 — her uncle was suspected of being the father.)

"I don't believe a bit of it," Esters told Kelley. "No one in the family believes her stories (of sexual abuse) but now that she's so rich and powerful everyone is afraid to contradict her."

Kelley says she found that many of the stories Winfrey has told over the years may be "elaborated."

"I tried to give both sides," Kelley says. "Oprah's stories are colorful and a bit over the top. Maybe they're just little exaggerations."

Kelley, who likes to say "the truth is as important to me as it is to my subjects," — the quote "Tell the truth but ride a fast horse" hangs over her desk — says readers will get to see a "clearer" Oprah in her book. "It's like watching high-definition TV. It's more detailed. You're going to see her better."

That includes a woman who can go from being amazingly petty to astonishingly magnanimous. (Winfrey, at 56, is worth at least $2.4 billion and has given away millions over the years.)

"You think she's warm, but she's really quite aloof," Kelley says. "She gives it all to the camera."

One problem facing Kelley this week is promoting her new biography. Many of Winfrey's pals have circled their wagons. The View's Barbara Walters, CNN's Larry King, CBS' David Letterman and PBS' Charlie Rose have all refused to have Kelley on their shows.

"All said very openly that it was because of Oprah," she says. "And they haven't even had a chance to look at the book yet." She is booked on the Today show today and Bill O'Reilly's show Tuesday.

She also says about 30% of the people she and her researchers approached while researching the book turned her down.

Oprah's good friend, author Maya Angelou, never responded to an interview request, Kelley says. Kelley understands. "Why would she get into it?" Longtime pal Maria Shriver also declined.

Those who agreed include hundreds of acquaintances, co-workers from her early days in Baltimore and family members who weren't intimidated, Kelley says. "But I really don't think (Winfrey) will be upset with this book," Kelley says. "She's not going to be pleased with what some people have said, but ..."

(Winfrey, who is ending her iconic daytime talk show on Sept. 9, 2011, has announced that she will appear in a new series called Oprah's Next Chapter on her own cable network in late 2011.)

Despite a reputation for playing loose with the facts, Kelley has never been successfully sued over any of her books.

"I'm very proud of that. And I write about people who are very powerful when they're alive. It's all documented. It's all solid stuff."

Some critics say that's just not true. In fact, her books have been famously dubbed "Kitty Litter."

Who's next?

After her last book, 2004's The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, journalist/commentator and New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley analyzed Kelley's work in Slate. The piece is titled "Kitty Kelley: Colonoscopist to the Stars."

"Kelley's ostentatious display of reportorial overkill is clearly just a ritual effort to pre-empt the questions that inevitably arise about her accuracy," he wrote. "After close to 30 years and five breathless tell-alls, it's clear Kelley is no meticulous historian who nails down her facts with airtight precision. To the contrary, she's the consummate gossip monger, a vehicle for all the rumor and innuendo surrounding her illustrious subjects."

Time magazine columnist Joe Klein has described her as a "professional sensationalist."

Kelley has heard it all before and admits "it's a killer" to defend herself at times. "I'd like them to say (the accusations) right to me and show me where (I made a mistake)," she says.

Crowley conceded that Kelley usually gets more right than wrong. "Her methods may often be unsound ... 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 says she doesn't worry about her physical safety. But she says she probably should have after her 1986 tell-all on Sinatra, which did not portray him in a flattering light. After the Nancy Reagan book was released in 1991, she discovered that her publisher had provided a bodyguard at a book event at the National Press Club. "I did get death threats after the Reagan book," Kelley says. "Anonymous phone messages."

As for the upcoming reaction to the Oprah book, Kelley just shrugs. "I don't know what I'm braced for," she says.

Kelley, who has served guests ice water in crystal glasses on napkins that say Buy The Book, says she's also not sure what's next on her agenda.

"I'm not the kind who can go from one project to the next. It's a little like going on a bender. You have to recuperate," she says.

"But I can't imagine doing another book on anyone as fascinating as Oprah. I love Oprah. She gave me a gift."

What she is writing is an article for The American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Its title: "In Defense of the Unauthorized Biography."


Highlights from biographer Kitty Kelley's newest book, Oprah: A Biography:

Celebrities comment on whether Winfrey and best friend Gayle King are lesbian partners:

• "I think they are the emotional equivalent of a gay couple," says Rosie O'Donnell, who is gay. "When they did that road trip together that's as gay as it gets and I don't mean it to be an insult either. I'm just saying listen, if you ask me, that's a gay couple." (The quote comes from O'Donnell's appearance on The Howard Stern Show in October 2009.)
• Winfrey confidant and author Erica Jong, adds: "I would not be surprised if Oprah is gay. If she is, she is. It certainly fits."

Names Winfrey and King affectionately call each other, revealed on a Valentine's Day segment titled 'Girlfriends':

• "Oprah was 'Negro,' Gayle was 'Blackie,' " Kelley writes.

Is boyfriend Stedman Graham just a front, 'camouflage'?

• "Her close friends argued otherwise, saying he was the grounding force of her life. Others did not care one way or the other," Kelley writes.
• "Stedman is probably gay or neutral, but they have a bond. Her being gay would be the right reaction to the sexual abuse she says she's suffered and the mistrust she's always had of men," Winfrey's longtime friend Jong says.

Winfrey had a baby boy at 15, who died one month and 8 days later:

• "Oprah never talked about her lost baby," said her sister, Patricia, a drug addict who died in 2003 of an overdose. "It was a deep family secret that was almost never discussed within the family."
• "Everybody in the family sort of shoved it under a rock," Winfrey told Ebony. "Because I had already been involved in sexual promiscuity they thought if anything happened it had to be my fault and because I couldn't definitely say that he (her uncle Trent) was the father, the issue became 'Is he the father?' Not the abuse."

Winfrey's falling-outs with friends on the set of The Color Purple:

• "She forged strong friendships on the set, but few survived the passage of time," Kelley writes. She "fell out" with Whoopi Goldberg, "tangled" with screenwriter Akosua Busia, "pulled away" from Alice Walker and "offended" Steven Spielberg.

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