WASHINGTON — The normally well-mannered Reagan entourage dispensed with the velvet gloves of diplomacy yesterday and hurled raw, knockout punches of their own at Kitty Kelley's provocative new biography of Nancy Reagan.
"I've read enough to make my skin crawl," said Sheila Tate, a former press secretary for Mrs. Reagan. "This is not journalism. This is junk."
"An outrageous, preposterous, flimsy charade," said former Reagan aide Jim Lake. "This woman is a g-------- idiot!"
"A cheap read at someone's expense," said Elaine Crispen, another former press secretary to Mrs. Reagan. "I thought that's what publishers had fiction categories for."
Even ever-proper Barbara Bush weighed in with her assessment of "Nancy Reagan, the Unauthorized Biography." In the book, which arrived in stores Monday, Ms. Kelley asserts that the former first lady had an affair with Frank Sinatra, smoked marijuana once and was the true power behind the presidency.
"Trash," said Mrs. Bush.
Coming on the heels of the latest Kennedy family imbroglio (in which Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's nephew is suspected of raping a 29-year-old woman in Palm Beach, Fla.), the Nancy Reagan book has ushered in another season of scandal in Washington.
It's a return to "the golden age of gossip," said longtime gossip writer Diana McLellan. She added, however, that the subject of this unauthorized bio may be too far back in Washington's memory to generate any major ripples: "In a sense, the body's too cold."
Still, Robin Weir, former hairdresser to Mrs. Reagan, said his customers are all atwitter about the new "Nancy Reagan" -- even though they've read only the headlines, not the book. "There are a lot of 'ooh's' and 'aah's' and 'omigods,' " said the Washington salon owner. "We were all very ripe for this. Coming out of the war, I think everyone was looking for some relief. Unfortunately, this is the relief."
He, too, criticized the book for being "from a perspective of negativism" and "totally biased -- biased toward selling books."
Most critics have zeroed in on Ms. Kelley's suggestion that Mrs. Reagan's "private lunches" with Mr. Sinatra amounted to romantic interludes in the White House. The author quotes unidentified sources as saying "the family quarters were off limits to everyone" during visits by the singer.
"What the book doesn't say is that every private lunch Mrs. Reagan had with visitors was private," said Mr. Weir.
San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley, whose seven-year association with Mrs. Reagan caused controversy, said much of the book's contents "sounded far-fetched to me."
For example, the star-gazer said the $3,000 figure quoted in the book as her monthly payment from Mrs. Reagan was "not accurate." However, she refused to disclose the actual fee and when asked if the figure was off by much, she said, "Not an awful lot, no."
Ms. Tate, a former press secretary, called another item into question. She termed inaccurate a reference in the book to her calling a New York design school to initiate a program involving Mrs. Reagan's clothes.
"Where I know the facts, I find factual inaccuracies," said MsTate. "Where I can in many cases recognize her sources, I know them to be uninformed -- in one case, a pathological liar -- and very low level. These are people who probably were never asked for their opinions before and were quite seduced by Kitty Kelley."
Mr. Reagan issued a statement this week saying the book contained "flagrant and absurd falsehoods" that "exceed the bounds of decency." He said neither he, nor Nancy, would have any further comment.
Although Ms. Crispen said Mrs. Reagan is "handling it very well," others, such as Mr. Lake, believe "this is devastating to her. Nancy Reagan is very sensitive. She takes everything hard."
But as Mr. Weir points out, referring to the author's previous subjects, "Frank [Sinatra], Elizabeth [Taylor], and Jackie [Onassis] all survived Kitty Kelley. Nancy Reagan will too."