I ASKED MY favorite bookseller to save me a copy of "Nancy Reagan The Unauthorized Biography" by Kitty Kelley. "Okay," she said, "But you won't like it. It's boring."
Boring? I'd heard a lot of criticism of the book, but not that it was boring. Just the opposite. It was too sensational.
The first thing I noticed about the book was that it's cheap. Simon & Schuster ought to be ashamed to have manufactured a book so inexpensively made. The inside front of my copy came unglued from the spine the day after I got it. If it were a car, it would be recalled.
But you don't want to hear about that. You want to hear about the gossip. I know my readers. You're all like Alice Roosevelt Longworth. TR's daughter kept a pillow in her sitting room embroidered with "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me."
I believe in gossipy anecdotes. I believe you can understand a person's life and times by accumulating lots of dirty little tidbits.
If Nancy Reagan was having an affair with Frank Sinatra in the White House, that is significant information, and not only about them. Reading that insinuation in "Nancy," I could for the first time believe that maybe the president didn't know Ollie North was swapping arms for hostages. If he didn't know what was going on in the bedroom, why would you think he knew what was going on in the basement?
But were Frank and Nancy having an affair? Kitty Kelley's sources are described only as two (or maybe one; she fudges it) anonymous White House aides. The author doesn't say flatly that there was adultery (though she has in interviews), but she quotes her sources this way: "She usually would arrange those 'lunches' when the president was out of town." Note the interior quotation marks. This is the wink-and-sneer school of writing. The book is full of it. No anecdote is ever allowed to seem innocent or positive.
Critical biography is important, but a biographer has an obligation to present the life whole. This book is an unrelenting attack. Kelley comes on like a prosecuting attorney trying to put a serial killer behind bars. Even if every story in this book were believable, the portrait isn't, because so much has been left out and so much that's in is distorted.
Every story in the book isn't believable. The biographer can't be trusted. She faked her research. She lists dozens of journalists who, she says, "took the time to answer questions and share their stories." Peter Osterlund of The Sun is one. He says he is "befuddled" by this. He says he spoke to her briefly once or twice in social settings several years ago, but never as a source of Nancy stories.
Other listed journalistic sources deny having "shared stories." One says his total conversation with Kelley was, "How do you do?" Another says he never spoke to her at all.
The book is flawed in every way. And yes, worst of all for a book of gossip, it is dull. Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth would have hated it.