Wretched Excess

Kitty Kelley's poisonous pen trashes Nancy Reagan in a book that sets off an uncivil war

The press horde ambushed her in her natural environment, a fete tossed at a Manhattan couturiere's shop. She was cosseted by pistol-packing security, of course, and public-relations advisers, who were coaching her to ignore the recent, vicious attacks on her integrity. To the few who could get past her handlers she smiled a familiar, forced smile and recited contrived one-liners. And when nosy TV reporters began asking tough questions, she marched off to her limo. One of Ronald Reagan's ex-girlfriends from his Hollywood days, Doris Lilly, showed up, and she wasn't impressed: "Who the hell does she think she is? I've met my royalty in my life, and the only one who acted the way she did was Princess Margaret."

Nancy Reagan? Try Kitty Kelley, at one of her mobbed book parties. The two should meet sometime. Lots in common: love of fashion and gossip, unhappy childhoods, embittered ex-friends who make trouble, no shame about compromising the dignity of the office of the presidency in exchange for millions of dollars and, most of all, a willingness --no an eagerness--over the years to shade, distort, hide and occasionally just plain make up whatever is most convenient.

When Kelley's tawdry unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan splattered last week like a 500-pound water balloon, pundits trotted out the usual explanations for its astonishing popularity: pent-up hatred of a woman who seemed to embody the worst of now despised 1980s; the unquenchable American taste for titillating details--however exaggerated--about celebrities. But at a less conscious level there was also a peculiar symmetry between subject and author, a flammable karma. Superficial and mean: that has become the verdict on both Nancy Reagan the person and "Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography." However unfairly, the public apparently senses a rough justice at work, and believes that these two women have come to deserve each other.

Kitty's knife job on Nancy is by some estimates the fastest-selling book in American history (more than 600,000 copies in its first printing, compared with, say 150,000 in 1976 for Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein's "The Final Days"). Talk shows and headline writers, tired of the Persian Gulf, whipped up one of their patented feeding frenzies, crowding out even the Kennedy Palm Beach story. By the weekend, a backlash against Kelley was setting in, and not just from the Reagan camp. She told Newsweek she had temporarily suspended her publicity tour because "a minor hood" she knows "left a message on my machine saying, "Kitty, please be very careful. There is a hit on you'."

True? Half true? Who knew? All that mattered was that her book was yet another in a long line of irresistible accounts of the dysfunctional First Family of Oz, this one stripped of any details about, say, public policy. Dirt--in books, papers, magazines, TV--has become a late-century American institution. Whether it approves or not, the public has come to expect its icons to be disrobed eventually, their foibles laid bare on the alter of commerce. Even mainstream biographers, in their quest for the "real" subject, are feeling the need to peek into the closet. Much of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Jackson Pollock, for sexuality. The authors even provide a central image for both Pollock's sexual preference and his "drip paintings": little Jackson watching his father urinate over the flat Wyoming plain.

Of course Kitty Kelley better not practice her own Pulitzer acceptance speech just yet. Her salacious details are not a means to a biographical end, but the reason for Simon & Schuster's reported $3.5 million advance in the first place. Kelley has repeatedly described her critique of Nancy Reagan as "balanced." Obviously, that's a crock. For those who have been stranded on Uranus this month, "Mommy" (as the president calls her) is depicted as cruel, cheap, temperamental, manipulative, vindictive, pushy, phony, insecure, callous, grasping and cold. Other than that, as Norman Schwarzkopf might say, she looks just great. By the time all the trash has been collected, Kelley accomplishes the impossible. She takes a woman who may indeed possess many of those character flaws and makes readers feel sorry for the way the evidence has been marshaled to abuse her.

The Reagans, trying to avoid dignifying the book, used one of their increasingly frequent visits church as a setting to dismiss it out of hand. But through a spokesman, Nancy urged her allies to come forward to defend her honor, her humanity and her chastity. Some did. Joe Canzeri, a former White House aide, challenged Kelley's most sensational piece of innuendo, that Nancy and Frank Sinatra had sex in the White House. "It's just not true that she refused calls when he was there," he said. "When he was, Nancy usually would call me over to be with them both. I was in the room with them several times." Socialite Betsy Bloomingdale laughs at the thought of her holding a pot party for the Reagans in the '60s. She broke her customary public silence last week to say that while her close friend Nancy is obviously upset, she's holding her own: "This, too, shall pass."

Even those who have not been close to the Reagans refuted certain facts. Sarah Brady, wife of former Reagan press secretary James Brady, convincingly denies they were excluded from White House social functions to avoid reminding Nancy of the assassination attempt on her husband. Kelley's larger point, that Nancy Reagan "was president," is viewed as a joke inside Washington, where the former First Lady's influence on certain matters--especially personnel and scheduling--is put in a more sophisticated context. By once again making her the lightning rod, the book also furthers the myth that Ronald Reagan should not be held accountable for his own presidency.

Of course Kitty Kelley and proto Kitty Kelleys have been around for years, fed to the masses by low-rent publishers. The difference is that today's mud is served on fancy china at the Four Seasons, then spread across front pages and news-magazine covers. THe American cognoscenti are in a state of confusion over how to view all of this. The New York Times symbolized the ambivalence. First, it beat the competition by playing the story on the front page. Three days later a prudish Times editorial bemoaned the attacks on Nancy ("Nobody deserves this"). Throughout, the same publications that frown on under-the-sheets reporting of their own were only too happy to run unchecked accounts from Kitty Kelley.

One reason is that Kelley now has the imprimatur of a first-rate publisher, the same house that only five months ago published Ronald Reagan's own light-selling autobiography. "The real story is that Simon & Schuster has a value system based on greed," says Stuart Spencer, a Reagan adviser, whose old bosses (the recipients in 1989 of $2 million for one visit to Japan) also have some familiarity with this trait. "This book belongs with the 109-YEAR-OLD WOMAN GIVES BIRTH TO KID WITH TWO HEADS tabloids."

Not quite. Despite her wretched excesses, Kelley has the core of the story right. Even her staunchest defenders concede that Nancy Reagan is more Marie Antoinette than Mother Teresa. Kelley's problem is in the details, many of which are as recycled as a Nancy Christmas present. Her account is a mishmash: something old, something new, something borrowed, something true.

Mostly, Kelley collates and embellishes the dozens of stray rumors and anti-Reagan stories that have floated around for years. Some, like the innuendo that Nancy had a lesbian relationship at Smith, contain not a shred of supporting evidence. But many others are plausible. To doubt the account of how Nancy humiliated Kirk Douglas's 5-year-old son would mean questioning Douglas's autobiography--which is apparently where it came from. The First Lady's own highly vindictive 1989 memoirs loosened the tongues of many ex-aides. So we're treated to familiar tales fleshed out and the exposure of small Reagan family lies: readers learn definitely that the president was fibbing all those years when he said he didn't dye his hair.

One popular misconception is that the really racy stuff must be true--or the lawyers wouldn't let it through. In fact, long before the completion of any celebrity bio the lawyers have usually gambled that the public figure, fearing a futile court fight, will not sue. They are simply reading the manuscript with an eye to preventing lawsuits from noncelebrities who might be mentioned in passing. On "Nancy Reagan," Kelley says: "It's not perfect, but the basic truths are there." Alice Mayhew, a top editor at Simon & Schuster, was also unwilling to vouch for the accuracy of the book. "That is not my role," she said, though adding, "we are fully satisfied with this book or we wouldn't be publishing it."

Ironically, the same week Simon & Schuster marketed Kitty Kelley it also published "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," by the former president's true Boswell, Lou Cannon of the Washington Post. Not surprisingly, this fine (and deeply critical) account is being buried in the Kelley hype. Still, no one has to ask whether to believe Cannon when he writes that Reagan preferred watching "The Sound of Music" to studying his summit briefing books. Kelley's credibility is much shakier. Good biographies depend on more rigorous standards than quotation marks around the word luncheon to suggest a White House affair with Sinatra.

All the same, after some scrutiny last week, it became clear that however twisted, the bulk of Kelley's stories seem to be at least based on real events. Michael Reagan, Nancy's stepson, is deeply angry, mostly because his own troubled memoirs, published in 1988, were allegedly "plagiarized" and passed off in Kelley's book as if she had interviewed him--a complaint widely echoed by others who have written memoirs or provided interviews to authors other than Kelley. But except for one misspelling and the wrong context offered for his not celebrating Christmas at the White House, Michael offers little evidence to refute facts.

Nor does the Reagans'. estranged daughter, Patti Davis, whose publisher last week announced it was moving up the date of her third novel, this one about a woman "deeply affected by a psychologically domineering mother." Patti confirmed to Newsweek that as a child she had been beaten by her mother in the face with a hairbrush. But she says that Kelley's researchers misrepresented themselves when they interviewed her in 1989, a charge Kelley disputes. "If I had chosen to participate in that book, I would have done so openly and unapologetically," Davis says.

In a narrow sense, Kelley is an effective reporter. But time after time, people she has interviewed repeat the same complaints about her neglect for context, subtlety and accuracy of quotation. Sally Gavin See, a Smith classmate of Nancy's who was interviewed, says that "she puts things in direct quotes that didn't belong there. She reinterprets. She's taking information that she already has and making my quotes seem more detailed and more opionated than they were." Mike Wallace, an old friend of Nancy's who despises Kelley, says her third hand story about his encounter with Nancy's foulmouthed mother in Arizona is partially accurate but wrongly dated by about 10 years.

Because Kelley knew this book would get serious attention, she tries to create the impression of serious research. She seems to include real footnotes, but on closer inspection the sourcing is impossible to follow and the notes are mostly a chance to cram in more unsubstantiated gossip. At the front of the book she thanks scores of people, including some who never talked to her, spoke only to decline to be interviewed, or explicitly (and futilely) asked that their cooperation not to be acknowledged. She poses on the book jacket amid stacks of files and repeatedly says the interviewed more than 1,000 people. But Kelley apparently skipped some elementary fact-checking.

In one of her most serious charges in the book, for instance, Kelley quotes an old actress named Selene Walters as saying that in 1952 Ronald Reagan forced himself upon her--"they call it date rape today"--when she was young and naive. "I was 19 years old and so stupid that I didn't understand why he asked me if I lived alone and whether or not I had a roommate," Walters told Kelley or an assistant. The background of such an important accuser would at least be looked up in the library, right? Wrong. There are no fewer than 43 newspaper clippings about Walters during this period, and many of them note that she was a twice-divorced 25- or 26-year-old, hardly naive. The result is that a good story, sourced by name, is undermined in a way that could be avoided.

More fundamentally, any good reporter or biographer must assess the motives of sources. That doesn't mean that they must necessarily be discarded if, like many Nancy Reagan aides, they have axes to grind. But Kelley rarely seems to take reliability into account. And if inconvenient fact gets in the way, it tends to get dropped. For instance, Jacqueline Park, a onetime actress quoted as saying that Reagan impregnated her before marrying Nancy, has a motive: she's now trying to get a book published about her years as a Hollywood mistress. And last week she mentioned an interesting detail she says she told Kelley but which didn't make it into a book: that Reagan, instead of just dumping her, paid $150 for an abortion.

An abortion? For Reagan's girlfriend? Like so much else in this sordid but strangely compelling book, the mere charge casts a new light on much of what the former president has said over the years. If even a small fraction of the material amassed and borrowed here turns out to be true, Ronald Reagan and his wife had to be among the most hypocritical people ever to live in the White House.

Anyone who even vaguely followed the events of his administration already knew that. But millions of others still don't. While Kitty Kelley's sensationalism may undermine their ability to find and believe the truth, her popularity may encourage them to explore more of the real history of that era without her.

Tell-all histories aren't altogether new. Back in the second century Suetonius divulged that Tiberius liked to swim naked with little boys and girls(fishes he called them). But most historians have allowed their emperors to keep their clothes on--until recently. Now, even Pulitzer Prize winners are into icon-bashing and heavy speculation. Here, a survey of allegations, rated by how effectively they have slashed at our preconceptions.


How bad was LBJ? So bad, insists the prizewinning Caro, he was "the biggest liar on campus." So bad, he robbed elections, stuffed ballot boxes and accepted bribes "in amounts unprecedented" right on through the vice presidency. (Caro has yet to provide proof of this.) So bad, he had affairs with married women. So bad, he named his genitals "Jumbo."

THE KENNEDYS Peter Collier and David Horowitz

Lots and lots of Kennedys (mostly male) and lots and lots of sex. Joe Sr. disrobes before his daughter's friend. Jack is "as [sexually] compulsive as Mussolini." Bobby Jr. indulges in an "Olympian display of virility" with two coeds at one time. And there are the drugs: lots and lots of heroin, "a cupful of Valium, some Percodans..." How did Ethel cope with her sons? She beat them with a hairbrush, and sent them away.

MOMMIE DEAREST Christina Crawford

It was hard to imagine Joan Crawford as a warm mother, but few were prepared for what a child-abusing monster she truly was. "No wire hangers! No wire hangers!" Crawford locked her adopted daughter in closets; beat her so hard with hairbrushes she broke them. No reader could doubt Christina's sincerity when she wrote: "I wondered if I wouldn't have been better off left in an orphanage."

ELVIS Albert Goldman

Elvis fans fired off death threats to Goldman after he trashed their icon: "Elvis was a pervert, a voyeur" who called his, er, equipment "little Elvis" and whose erotic goal was finding a group of young girls who would strip to their panties(preferably white) and wrestle. How grotesque and pathetic Elvis became--doped into oblivion, swathed in giant towel diapers, having to be carried to the bathroom.


Many could never listen to Francis Albert again after Kelley's portrayal of him as a gangster-friendly, son-of-an-abortionist sleazebag. Having married Mia Farrow, he announced, onstage, in her presence, "I finally found a broad I can cheat on." No wonder Ava Gardner allegedly said, after her abortion," I hated Frankie so much. I wanted that baby to go unborn."

JACKSON POLLACK Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Eight years' research and an appetite for risk produced a prurient central thesis for the artist's short (1912-1956) life: Pollock was a repressed homosexual. "If Jackson's anxieties ever permitted a homosexual act, it probably followed...a drinking binge to the brink of oblivion, a passive role...and a smaller man who...may have recalled [his brother] and a childhood of shared beds." And this won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize.

THE FINAL DAYS Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Anyone watching President Nixon's resignation speech could tell he was not at his most stable. But who could have known the final nights of his presidency were spent "walking the halls...talking to pictures of former Presidents"? That he had become potentially suicidal? That he couldn't stop sobbing? And when he got Henry Kissinger to kneel down and join him in prayer, the writing was so vivid you wanted to avert your eyes.

Wretched Excess | News