Q&A Cafe: Kitty Kelley, Neighbor and Author of ‘Unauthorized’ Books
By October 12, 2023 0 506•
“I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized and homogenized. I read banned books. I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state.”
That is the fervent belief of renowned Georgetown writer Kitty Kelley, author of seven acclaimed “unauthorized” biographies of celebrities, such as Oprah, Nancy Reagan and fellow Georgetowner (for a time) Elizabeth Taylor.
Kelley talked about her life as a “controversial” author to a standing-room-only and rapt audience at the George Town Club on Oct. 10, when she was interviewed by Georgetowner Carol Joynt, also a CBS news producer, at her Q&A Cafe, now in its 22nd year.
Kelley has been a New York Times best selling author many times and contributes her book reviews to The Georgetowner in a section known as the Kitty Kelley Book Club.
Last month, the author was awarded the 14th annual 2023 BIO Award, from the Biographers International Organization. It is granted to a “distinguished colleague who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.”
Kelley is the author of seven biographical works: “Oprah: A Biography” (2010), “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty” (2004), “The Royals” (1997), “Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography” (1991), “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra” (1986), “Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star” (1981), and “Jackie Oh!” (1978).
“To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures still alive and able to defend themselves against those who exercise power over our lives,” Kelley said. “I firmly believe that unauthorized biography can be a public service and a boon to history.”
It has not been a smooth road to fame or fortune for Kelley, however – who doesn’t look anywhere near her age of 81. Her bumpy road includes a one-million dollar lawsuit against her filed and fought over for a time with Sinatra before the publication of her unauthorized biography of him, “His Way,” in 1986. “It cost me $100,000 before Sinatra unceremoniously dropped the suit,” she told the George Town Club audience. “But I was determined to stand my ground.”
“I am an unabashed supporter of the First Amendment and transparency,” Kelley has told her critics repeatedly. To that end, her writing is about “moving an icon out of the moonlight and into the sunlight.”
Joynt asked Kelley many questions about her craft. “How many people do you interview for a book?” she asked her. “Hundreds,” replied Kelley. “For one book, almost 800.”
Kelley did it the old fashioned way, too — before the internet. Hours and hours in libraries, especially at the Library of Congress when it still had open book card files, and reading hundreds of books, articles even research papers about the subject. And taking notes. Kelly revealed that she made three copies of all her notes and interviews and files them in three different files by “date, subject and article title.”
Because of her hard work, her husband decided to surprise her with a personalized license plate for her car. “It was to read ‘Kitty K,’ ” said Kelley. But even DMV officials told him that might put her in jeopardy because of her notoriety.
“So, now, on my beloved 1987 red Mercedes-Benz 560 SL convertible, I still display the plate he got me which states simply ‘Meow’,” Kelley said with a laugh.
Kelley was raised in the state of Washington and came to Washington, D.C., in the 1960s as the press assistant to Sen. Eugene McCarthy. She then worked for two years as the editorial page researcher for the Washington Post before becoming a freelance writer.
Among awards Kelley has won are the 2005 PEN Oakland/Gary Webb Anti-Censorship Award; the 2014 Founders’ Award for Career Achievement, given by the American Society of Journalists and Authors; and, in 2016, a Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Her articles have been published in many mainstream newspapers including the American Scholar, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Ladies’ Home Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Times, the New Republic and McCall’s. She is also a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Kelley has lived on Dumbarton Street for some 30 years. She has a regular book club that meets there, and she gives to many charities and serves on many boards.
She concluded her interview Tuesday by saying that Georgetown has become as D.C. has — “the most important city in the world.”