Kitty on Nancy: not much new, not much fun

April 14, 1991|By Susan Baer



Kitty Kelley.

Simon & Schuster.

603 pages. $24.95.

In this much-anticipated filleting of Nancy Reagan, the formefirst lady is depicted in childhood as chubby, unpopular, pathetic. As a Hollywood starlet, we see her as conniving, talentless and pathetic. As a mother, cold, selfish, pathetic. And as a first lady, greedy, domineering, deceitful and yes, of course, pathetic.

But then, we'd already heard all that. If the books by former Reagan aides didn't succeed in unmasking Mrs. Reagan's unadorableness, her memoirs "My Turn" -- in which she skewers everyone around her and thus, herself -- certainly did.

Still, even if the major revelations found within Kitty Kelley's 1,000-plus interviews -- most notably, stories of extramarital affairs and drug use -- are few (and either unsubstantiated or merely alluded to), the book's success in the marketplace appears to have been clinched even before its publication.

With Ms. Kelley's reputation for dishing up the dirt, and Mrs. Reagan's reputation for grabbing, climbing and expecting, this unauthorized biography -- regardless of whether it is fair or accurate -- has turned into a sort of bill to the Reagans for payment past due.

In that sense, the book is more a phenomenon than a literary achievement.

It hardly matters that its appeal lies in its basic premise, and mountains of evidence, that Nancy Reagan is no barrel of laughs, rather than in any value as an insightful and full-bodied examination of a powerful public figure. Or even any value as a good read.

Ms. Kelley fails to weave a rich, colorful or even entertaining narrative, and instead offers up 500-plus pages of uniformly negative quotes from interviews and previous articles and books.

The one-sidedness of the book is no surprise. But the parade of damning incidents and quotes is so relentness that it becomes almost numbing and tedious; the book begins to feel like a sort of anthology of ugliness that quickly grows tiresome. Imagine a foot-high stack of National Enquirers on the same subject.

We hear tale after tale, many of them recycled from other books and articles, of Mrs. Reagan's vanity and materialism, her greed and frugality, her reliance on astrology, unabashed social climbing, her iciness as a boss, heartlessness as a mother, and total devotion and domination as a wife to Ronald Reagan.

Although some of these anecdotes indeed are appalling -- according to the book, Mrs. Reagan once turned in her own daughter to the school principal for some plan she was cooking up with a friend, ignored the deaths of her real father and grandmother, took a Baccarat crystal jar from the presidential suite of a hotel to give to her son as a wedding present -- they are all themes that have been sounded before. Layered together, they don't add up to much more than a flat, cartoonlike villain.

There are, of course, the few salacious nuggets, already much publicized, that could be news: the suggestion that Mrs. Reagan and Frank Sinatra carried on a long affair; an account by a former starlet that Ronald Reagan forced himself on her sexually ("They call it date rape today," she is quoted as saying); a statement, unattributed, that Mr.Reagan was with another woman when his wife gave birth to daughter Patti; a secondhand account of Mr. Reagan, then governor of California, and his wife trying marijuana at a party; and the reminiscence of a woman who says she and the then-governor of California made love when she was 18 and he 57.

But none of these incidents is ever explored in any depth or confirmed by additional sources, and the Sinatra episode, the most sensational, is merely implied in ways that are insulting to the reader.

The author's major assertion that Nancy Reagan ran the presidency -- was "perhaps the most powerful and influential woman in the history of the United States," as the book jacket notes -- may be something of an overstatement. Indeed, the first lady was a force to be reckoned with at the White House. And, in fact, it's clear she often controlled the president's schedule (guided by her astrologist) and the hiring and firing of staff (guided by her gut). But we don't see much of her hand, or interest, in any policy decisions.

The veracity of the book, especially the many contributions from unnamed sources, has to be questioned in a biography such as this, where the intent to unhinge is so obvious and where there's so much reliance on single sources and second- and third-hand information.

But even buying into the whole shebang, jumping in with both feet and gleefully rubbing hands together in anticipation of some breezy, gossipy beachside reading, "Nancy Reagan" disappoints. The author has neglected to make much fun out of her monumental attempt to make a point.

We get the point, all right. Heck, we got it years ago.

Susan Baer is a feature writer in the Washington bureau of The Sun.

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