Attention astounds author of juicy bio of Nancy Reagan


April 10, 1991|By Randi Henderson | Randi Henderson,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — She must be a tiger, this writer who has skewered Nancy Reagan with an unauthorized and decidedly uncomplimentary biography, her latest in a string of unauthorized and uncomplimentary biographies.

But no, Kitty Kelley is just a pussycat, a soft blond pussycat who leans into an interviewer's questions, seeks and maintains eye contact, and seems more than a little bit bewildered by all the attention coming her way.

Or so she would have you believe.

In fact, all this attention, she purrs in a confiding voice, makes her feel "weird and uncomfortable."

She's perched on the edge of a sofa in her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. A camera crew is setting up for the next interview. Downstairs in the lobby, various media types can be observed coming and going, all with copies of "Nancy Reagan, The Unauthorized Biography" (Simon & Schuster) in hand. The phone, attended by a publicity agent, rings incessantly.

It's a media riot that has her puzzled, Kitty Kelley wants you to know.

"I wrote a book about the most powerful person in the country," she says. "All you're doing is interviewing the person who wrote the book." She pauses, lets her gaze fall on the camera crew, shakes her head as the phone brrrrrrings yet again. "I don't lose sight of it."

And when she is reminded that her previous biographies -- of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra -- have not exactly gone unnoticed by the press, Ms. Kelley, 49, frowns in disagreement. That was nothing like this.

"I never had a book that made the network news and the front page of every newspaper in the country," she says. Not that she's really complaining, she is quick to add: "To have your book taken seriously by the premiere newspaper in the United States -- this is astounding."

She's referring to the article in Sunday's New York Times, which kicked off what has already become a glut of publicity. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines can't seem to leave it alone and bookstores -- which have only had the book since Monday -- are cashing in.

The word is out: The bio offers up the juicy, the sexy, the scandalous. Read it here: Nancy Reagan had an affair with Frank Sinatra; Nancy Reagan ran the country for eight years; Nancy Reagan neglected her children, invented her past, hated her legs.

It's all very gratifying, Ms. Kelley says, especially because what was intended to be a two-year project stretched into four, "and people were saying, 'Oh, Kitty, who cares about Nancy Reagan? Are you ever going to get this book done?' "

And now, she adds coyly, "It's exciting to think, having gone through all that, that it might become a best seller."

Pressed to explain why all the hoopla, Ms. Kelley comes up with this: "The book hit a nerve somewhere. It's the unraveling of a celluloid illusion. People are disappointed and disgusted with the hypocrisy that was perpetrated for the eight years of the Reagan presidency. They are shocked at the way the Reagans have behaved in retirement. And they see it all now as emblematic of the '80s, the decade of greed and acquisition."

She decided to write about Mrs. Reagan, Ms. Kelley says, "because I thought she was really interesting, far more interesting than Ronald Reagan." She requested interviews with Mrs. Reagan "about eight times. I offered to submit questions in writing if she didn't want to see me in person. I hoped she would talk, but I didn't have too many expectations."

If Mrs. Reagan had cooperated, the finished product would have been something different altogether, Ms. Kelley allows, and her tone -- as well as her history of writing unauthorized biographies -- make it clear that she's not too sorry things worked out the way they did.

So what if several sources quoted in previous Kelley biographies have accused her of violating pre-interview agreements, which would have given them a chance to approve their quotes. Never mind that Frank Sinatra tried to stop the book about him from being published. Or that Ronald Reagan is calling the latest book indecent and people from First Lady Barbara Bush to Reagan daughter Patti Davis are accusing Ms. Kelley of factual errors and questioning her reporting techniques.

Ms. Kelley, however, is standing by every word she has written, including those allegations of an affair between Mr. Sinatra and Mrs. Reagan.

That's a tough one to prove, Ms. Kelley admits, with neither of the principals talking and no one knowing what went on behind closed doors. "It's certainly an affair if you use the legal definition of adultery, which just calls for time, place and opportunity," she hedges adroitly when pressed for proof.

And she quickly moves on to consider the issue in her own terms: "I do call it an affair because of what others have told me. But that's not the shocking thing to me. The shocking part to me is that this man with connections to organized crime would have such a close relationship with the wife of the president."

Likewise, she sidesteps charges made by Ms. Davis, who repeatedly turned down Ms. Kelley's interview requests and said she was tricked into talking to Ms. Kelley's assistants without knowing whom they were working for.

"Neither of my researchers misrepresented themselves," she insists, although she does not explicitly say how they did present themselves. To that question she demurs, "It's all on tape. I wish you could hear the tapes. The Simon & Schuster lawyers have all the tapes."

Ms. Kelley's publicity tour, which began this week with stops in New York and Washington and will take her cross-country and to London, will continue well into May, she says. Meanwhile, she's being besieged with suggestions for her next project, but she isn't dropping any clues as to what that might be.

"Next," she says, "I'm going to do something I haven't done for a million years. I'm going on vacation."

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