The rap on Kitty Kelley is that she's a gossipmonger. That she's salacious. That her research leans too heavily on anonymous sources. All of this is true. And yet…and yet. In her finest books, she has gotten at the essential core of her subjects revealing Nancy Reagan's tantrums, Frank Sinatra's misogyny. Now, with Oprah: A Biography, she tackles her most difficult subject yet: America's best girlfriend, a woman so guarded she requires all employees, even dog walkers and upholsterers, to sign a confidentiality agreement.
So does Kelley find out what makes Oprah tick? Well, yes and no. The essence of the book is familiar Oprah's hardscrabble beginnings, her teen pregnancy, her career but sprinkled with titillating snippets: Oprah's family says that the talk-show host embellishes her past; a publisher who read a draft of Oprah's memoir claims that in it, Oprah admitted to being a teenage prostitute. (Oprah changed her mind about publishing the book, and the project was scuttled.) Kelley details Oprah's charitable giving, her lavish lifestyle, the supercharged environment at her production company, Harpo. But the biographer dances around the issue that may be the key to understanding Oprah her sexuality by having to speculate. Novelist Erica Jong tells Kelley, ''I would not be surprised if Oprah is gay…. If she is, she is. It certainly fits.''
Statements like that one which raise eyebrows but prove nothing are the book's most serious problem. Nor is Kelley helped by her girlish, breathy tone, delivering zingers while batting her mascaraed eyelashes with feigned innocence. There's a lot of good stuff in Oprah, some top-notch, old-fashioned reporting but in the end, it's hard to love a book that makes you feel dirty when you read it. If only Kelley's delivery matched the book's elegant, classy jacket, people would take her much more seriously. Me included. C+