Cover Story

Kitty Kelley First Lady Of Scandal

The author's reputation for publishing salacious stories brought her fame, but has Nancy Reagan's biographer gone too far?

It's an unseasonably warm evening on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and inside a posh Madison Avenue boutique hundreds of natty glitterati are waiting for the guest of honor to arrive. Kitty Kelley, packed into a stylish black dress, steps into the room, a trio of beefy-armed bodyguards clearing her a path. Newspaper photographers shout for her attention (''Heeerrrre, Kitty-Kitty-Kitty!''). TV-news crews wave microphones in the air, yelling questions (''When did you learn about the Sinatra affair?''). Clusters of fans thrust out books for autographs.

''Who are these people?'' Kelley, 49, wonders aloud, batting her baby-blues. ''Why are they all lined up like that?''

As if she didn't know. For years this pint-size bottle blond has been titillating the country with one racy biography after another, each amassed without the slightest cooperation from her subject. In 1978's Jackie Oh!, she recounted that the former First Lady had been treated with shock therapy. In 1981's Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, she reported how the outsize actress had almost gagged to death scarfing down a piece of chicken. In 1986's His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, she alleged that the Chairman's mother had been a back-alley abortionist. Now she was the star attraction at a chichi party celebrating the launch of her latest opus, Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, her heftiest pile of dirty laundry yet.

The 603-page doorstop hit the stores on April 8 and instantly became the publishing sensation of the year. The juiciest gobbets of gossip — Nancy's alleged affair with Sinatra, Nancy's hairbrush thrashings of daughter Patti, Nancy's behind-the-back bashing of then Vice President Bush — became fodder for almost every form of news media known to humankind. TIME and Newsweek devoted cover stories to the tome; PEOPLE was scheduled to follow suit. Local newscasts from Maine to Malibu ran reports on the book, while such high-toned talkies as Nightline, Crossfire, and The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour held roundtable discussions assessing its sociopolitical implications. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, given an advance copy, spent a week promoting Kelley's prose in Doonesbury and wrote a newspaper column analyzing it. Even the willfully stodgy New York Times gave the bio front-page treatment, followed the same week by more stories plus an editorial. Kelley's book was elevated to the status of a Major News Event, and the American public was suitably responsive. An astonishing 90,000 copies sold the first day (at $24.95 a pop); more than 300,000 sold the first week. Newsweek said it may be the fastest-selling book in history. News of the bio even trickled into the USSR: Erstwhile Nancy foe Raisa Gorbachev was rumored to have ordered a copy airlifted to Moscow.

How much of the book is fact and how much is fiction? Well, whom would you like to believe? The author says she spent four years conducting more than 1,000 interviews to piece together her portrait of the queen of the Reagan White House. Some of those sources have come forward and confirmed parts of the book (First Daughter Patti Davis, for instance, has corroborated that she was hit as a child). Others have issued angry denials. ''I'm listed in the acknowledgments as a contributor,'' complains Lou Cannon, author of the recently published President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. ''But she never talked to me. Never.''

The Reagan book is a patchwork of unnamed sources, unsubstantiated innuendo, secondhand hearsay, and rehashed reporting from other writers — which is to say it uses the same research methodology Kelley has perfected in her other bios. ''If Kelley wants to quit writing, she can get a job retreading old tires,'' cracks a competing Reagan biographer. ''She lifted a lot of this stuff directly out of other biographies.'' Cannon concurs: ''It doesn't pass Biography 101. It doesn't even measure up to remedial journalism. It's shoddy and unprofessional.''

How does Kelley defend herself against such charges? She doesn't — she simply ignores them. At her New York book party, Kelley neatly dodged repeated questions about the veracity of her sources with a bulletproof smile and a girlish giggle. The next day she nixed her scheduled TV and print interviews, and conflicting explanations were given for her sudden reticence. Kelley herself claimed she'd received a mysterious warning on her answering machine that there was a mob contract out on her. Her editor proffered another reason. ''We had an absolute surfeit of publicity,'' says Alice Mayhew, ''and it just seemed pointless to send her all over the country when we were so inundated.'' Instead, Kelley was scheduled to hit 30 U.S. cities with a satellite interview April 16, followed by a publicity jaunt to England this week.

So who is this woman? How did she get like this? That's not easy to answer, because the author keeps her own background more closely guarded than any of her subjects do. Among the few facts known are these: Once divorced, she's lately been seen keeping company with former U.S. ambassador to Jordan Richard Viets (her long, close ''friendship'' with photographer Stan Tretick appears to have fizzled). She grew up in Spokane, Wash., the daughter of a lawyer and — according to some sources — a heavy-drinking mother. Voted ''Friendliest Girl'' four years running at Holy Names Academy, she was named ''Lilac Princess'' during the annual Lilac Festival Parade.

Her metamorphosis into a more complicated, beclawed Kitty Kelley didn't begin until 1969, when the University of Washington grad became a researcher at The Washington Post. After a two-year tour of duty, she was asked to resign for making notes unrelated to her duties at the paper. Kelley took up free- lance writing instead, and began publishing puffy life-style pieces around town.

Here is where a legend was born. Kitty parlayed one of those free-lance stories into her first full-length book — The Glamour Spas, a tacky, gossip-studded teaser about celebrity resorts. That work caught the eye of scandal-hungry publisher Lyle Stuart, who commissioned her to write a down-and-dirty exposé on Jacqueline Onassis. Jackie Oh! became Kelley's first best-seller. When Stuart declined her next project — the Elizabeth Taylor bio — she peddled it to Simon & Schuster and pocketed a $150,000 advance. Then came the Sinatra job, detailing Ol' Blue Eyes' alleged Mafia connections, his notorious womanizing, and his two suicide attempts. That book earned Kelley her first critical raves (except from Frank's daughter, Nancy, who said, ''I hope she gets hit by a truck'') and quickly became one of the biggest-selling biographies of all time: More than 3 million copies, hard and soft, have been printed.

Which brings us to the Nancy Reagan book. Simon & Schuster paid Kelley $3.5 million for the portrait — and perhaps even a little more. In 1989, Kelley reportedly became incensed when S&S bought Ronald Reagan's hazy memoirs and rambling speeches for an estimated $7 million. As Publishers Weekly reported last week, ''Kelley is still steamed over the treatment that she received at S&S.'' According to PW, Kelley didn't know about the other, sweeter Reagan deal until she read it in the papers, whereupon she dismissed her editor. The publisher eventually wooed the author back with a bauble — a shiny red Mercedes convertible. When USA Today asked in early April where she had gotten the roadster, Kelley petulantly replied, ''It's a gift.''

Not since Desert Storm has any operation been carried out with such strategic secrecy as Simon & Schuster's handling of the Kelley project. ''We limited the manuscripts to five,'' says publisher Jack McKeown. ''To prevent unauthorized access, they were never kept on the premises overnight. Fewer than 10 people read this book prior to release.'' Kelley herself has claimed that those privileged few had to read the book under guard. Even the person who abridged the manuscript for the audiotape version was subjected to the strictest security. While Kelley narrated the tape herself, gleefully, ''the honor of abridging her went to a little old lady who lives in New England,'' says S&S senior editor Tom Spain, who worked on the audio project. ''We knew she knew no one who would try to get the book out of [the little old lady's] hands.''

Only once was security breached — and the breachees were not happy. Managing to steal a peek at the book's contents, New York Post reporter Matthew Flamm disclosed its most salacious allegations in his Feb. 25 column. ''They went ballistic,'' Flamm says. ''A reporter who interviewed me said S&S considered giving people lie-detector tests.'' Kitty, reports Flamm, was said to be ''foaming at the mouth.''

Kelley's publishers have been justly praised for their spectacular PR campaign. Yet some elements of that campaign may not have been strictly intentional. "By not selling prepublication serial rights," reported The New York Times, Simon & Schuster "helped promote an extraordinary wave of publicity." But what S&S has neglected to mention is that it tried to sell serial rights. At least one magazine, PEOPLE, received the manuscript early in the year but declined to buy it.

Something ventured, nothing lost. On K-Day, April 8, S&S blitzed America's bookstores. Within 48 hours it had landed in virtually every book outlet coast to coast. "They told us they hadn't ever seen anything hit with this speed and this strength," says publisher McKeown. Stores reportedly were selling copies right out of the shipping cartons, without time to mount a window display.

When Kelley returns from England, she'll presumably sequester herself in her palatial, file-infested Washington, D.C., home. And yes, she's setting her sights on the next victim, a prospect that must make many notables squirm. Publishers Weekly is guessing that Kelley may leave S&S for another publishing house because, Mercedes or no Mercedes, she never forgets a slight. But S&S editorial director Mayhew pooh-poohs such speculation. "We fully expect to publish her forthcoming book," she says.

Whatever Kelley's future, she'll no doubt be paying particular attention to another tell-all coming out in June. Even now, Star tabloid staffer George Carpozi Jr. is putting the final barbs into Poison Pen, his unauthorized biography of Kitty Kelley, history's first book on the subject. Carpozi won't divulge what he's dug up, but he does make a solemn promise: "It's full of sex, sin, and scandal." Never would've guessed. —Additional reporting by Tina Jordan

Originally posted Apr 26, 1991 Published in issue #63 Apr 26, 1991 Order article reprints