NANCY REAGAN: The Unauthorized Biography. By Kitty Kelley. Simon & Schuster. 604 pages. $24.95.
AFTER READING Kitty Kelley's "Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography," I feel as though I've just browsed the underwear drawer of a stranger. I don't feel guilty, either, which worries me even more.
But this is Kelley's talent. She takes me on a tour of Nancy Reagan's every sin -- both documented and rumored, with little distinction between them -- and persuades me to keep reading because this is political history.
Kelley's timing is auspicious. She writes after the vengeful books that flowed with each personnel change in the Reagan administration. These have already established Nancy as a grasping materialist, power-monger and hypocritical moralizer. So any new outrage, proven or not, has plausibility if it seems in character.
Did Nancy cuckold Ronald Reagan in an affair with Frank Sinatra? Kelley quotes a newspaper article: ". . . the singer has been a longtime favorite of Mrs. Reagan." An anonymous aide to Nancy admits to arranging a visit to Sinatra's hotel suite. From there, Kelley proceeds breezily: "The affair, which continued for years, was not out of character for Sinatra, who was unmarried at the time."
The masterful juxtaposition of circumstance and speculation creates a plausibility that is true enough for gossip. And when it comes to politicians and celebrities, we are all shameless gossips.
If Nancy Reagan was arrogant enough to think she could get away with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated dresses while she was First Lady, and if she was supposed to be liberal on some issues, who knows? She could have felt entitled to run off with a Sandinista comandante.
Kelley's self-consciousness about her technique shows as glaringly as any of Nancy's blood-red Adolfo gowns. Kelley counts up her recorded interviews to 1,002, lists eight pages of acknowledgments and makes chapter notes, but without linking them to the specific claims they are supposed to support. The back cover is a picture of Kelley in a room full of file folders, presumably her notes.
The salacious detail almost blots the telling portraits of Nancy, such as this one from an aide: "Something is missing from deep inside this woman, which is why she's so extremely acquisitive. She loves getting presents and needs to fill herself up with things so that she feels loved, but because of that hole inside herself she can never be satiated."
As Nancy rises from humble beginnings to high society, Hollywood and the summit of political power, she's never sure of her position and often prone to the vulgar pomps of the nouveau riche.
Kelley handles this sub-theme deftly at times, as in her account of Nancy's choice of George Burns telling dirty jokes for a banquet honoring the queen of England. But mostly, Kelley writes with the disdain of someone whose ancestors got their gouging for money over with long ago, so that the present generation can laugh at others still climbing the greasy pole.
Nancy's friends tended to be actresses and divorced models whose husbands got rich quick, Kelley says. Lest we be taken in by their pretense, she warns: "Behind their gleaming front doors, though, lurked a commonness that might have barred them in better circles."
Nancy's crashing into better circles may have been ugly, but when have those gates swung open at the first knock? Nancy apparently provided much of the steel and calculation that powered her husband to the presidency. Once in the White House, she functioned as his unappointed chief of staff who inspired fear in every level of the administration and cut her aides with remarks like: "I wish I could pull a shade in front of your face."
But the most damning theme of the book is hypocrisy. The president and his wife who proclaimed "traditional family values" apparently made their own contributions to Kinsey report statistics on unchastity and presided over the disintegration of their own family.
In the contradiction between political identity they were hypocrites. But in a purely political sense, they were as consistent as someone like Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose personal relationships with women have been a mess, but who is stoutly defended by feminists for delivering on the women's rights political agenda.
For all betrayals of principle backstage, the Reagan political performance delivered on many of its promises. Ask anyone who ponders the future of the nation's abortion policies in the aftermath of Reagan's appointments to the Supreme Court.
Kelley calls Nancy "America's most formidable petticoat president." The objections seem to lie with Nancy's decision to wield power behind the throne rather than sit on it herself. And in her recycling of "corporate greed," "leveraged buyouts" and other Reagan-hating cliches, Kelley is also at odds with the course of the presidential reign that Nancy manipulated.
This political subtext suggests that if Nancy had destroyed her family, stomped on as many people and made as many social faux pas as a successful politician in her own right, she might have been portrayed with sympathy as a woman willing to pay JTC the price of ambition in a male-dominated contest.
Kelley leaves my previously poor impression of Nancy unchanged, not because she provides more dirt to confirm it, but because the book is so hostile that I close it without knowing her much better.