When Kitty Kelley, the famously unauthorized biographer of the famous, sits down for an interview, she likes to get personal. She sets her chair next to yours, leans forward when speaking and occasionally underlines an argument with a tap on the knee.
And call her Kitty, please. Not Ms. Kelley.
Author of gossipy, controversial best sellers about Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, the 62-year-old Kelley has spent the past three and a half years getting as close as she can to the Bush family, talking to those willing to talk, hunting for documents that range from academic records to private memos to tax returns.
Not everybody believes what she writes, but millions still want to read her. Her new book, “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty,” comes out this week with more than 700,000 copies in print and an already scandalous reputation for its allegation that George W. Bush used cocaine at Camp David while his father was president.
“She wouldn’t be such a best seller if her books didn’t deliver something,” says Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising for Barnes & Noble, Inc. “People know she spends a lot of time on her books, does a lot of homework, does a lot of digging and she writes a good story.”
“The Family” is a fast-paced, 600-plus page summary of the Bushes, dating back to the early days of Prescott Bush, grandfather of the current president, and leading right through the U.S.-led war in Iraq. It is told as both political and personal drama, complete with unhappy marriages, sibling jealousy, drugs, alcohol and the endless pursuit of money and power.
“I was fascinated by the family dynamic of it all,” Kelley said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press at the offices of her publisher, Doubleday. “I started out thinking that it was maybe ‘The Donna Reed Show” and maybe I ended up thinking it was ‘The Sopranos.”’
Kelley laughs. Although she says the book is “not meant to attack,” she sure hits hard when she describes President Bush and first lady Laura Bush as being “more demonstrative to their dogs than to each other,” or when she writes of former first lady Barbara Bush: “Behind her grandmotherly facade was a pearl-wearing mugger the equal of Ma Barker.”
“Kitty Kelley is a discredited purveyor of trash,” Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Monday. “She smeared the Reagan family and now she is peddling garbage about the current first family.”
Author is controversialThe petite, blonde-haired Kelley has written books for nearly 30 years, dating back to 1975 and “The Glamour Spas.” Her first celebrity biography, on Jackie Onassis, came out in 1978, and was followed three years later by “Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star.”
Kelley has been accused frequently of smearing her subjects, most notoriously when she implied that Nancy Reagan had an affair with Sinatra. She has again been attacked for “The Family.” A key source, Sharon Bush, former wife of the president’s brother Neil, has denied telling Kelley that George W. Bush used cocaine at Camp David.
Kelley and Doubleday stand by her reporting, with the publisher issuing a statement last week saying that “everything she attributes to Sharon Bush in her book is an accurate account of their discussions.” Doubleday also notes that while Sharon Bush has criticized Kelley to the press, she has not asked for a retraction or even contacted the publisher.
Sharon Bush’s attorney, David Berg, said Monday that Sharon Bush was out of town and he planned to meet with her later this week to discuss “all potential remedies.”
The challenge for Kelley has always been getting people to talk. Many didn’t, or would only comment off the record. Hundreds did, an eclectic lot whose names fill two pages of small print in the back of the book. They include Jane Fonda, who recalls a White House reception at which then-first lady Barbara Bush allegedly refused to shake her hand; and playwright Edward Albee, who recalls Sen. Prescott Bush denouncing his play, “The Zoo Story,” as immoral.
Ron Reagan, the former president’s son and a critic of the current administration, is cited. So, surprisingly, is Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan and the first President Bush and currently a senior adviser with the Republican National Committee.
Kelley says she had e-mail correspondence with Noonan and the book includes a passage in which Noonan concludes that the first President Bush, in unfavorable contrast to Reagan, “lacked historical imagination.”
Although she says she has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, Kelley’s book includes observations often attributed to liberals. The first President Bush is portrayed as elitist and out of touch, while the current president is seen as intolerant of dissent and beholden to the “radicalized right.”
Kelley acknowledges that the Bushes are hardly the only famous people whose private lives seem to contrast with their public image. Asked if any major public figure would hold up under close investigation, she cites Republican Sen. John McCain.
“Why is John McCain so well liked? Because of his candor,” she says.
Then again, John McCain has never had a book written about him by Kitty Kelley.
“That’s right,” she says, leaning back and nodding, folding her arms. “May-be. May-be. ... You may be right about that.”