A good story, even without famous son

May 09, 1994|By Frank Davies | Frank Davies,Knight-Ridder News Service

Virginia Kelley's life reads like an improbable Southern Gothic novel. A fun-loving, hard-drinking railbird at the horse track, she favored thick rouge and extra-long eyelashes and had buried three husbands (killed by car wreck, cancer and diabetes) by the age of 51; one husband was an abusive alcoholic. She watched her domineering mother become addicted to morphine, saved a friend who attempted suicide, married a fourth time, stood by her second son as he went off to prison for drug dealing and fought a nasty small-town feud that cost her her career.

Then, one year before she died of cancer, she saw her first son, Bill Clinton, become 42nd president of the United States.

In recent years, presidential relatives have become minor celebrities with books by or about them, including such matriarchs in the classic mode as Rose Kennedy and Lillian Carter. But it's difficult to imagine a Kennedy or Miz Lillian spending Christmas Eve with a good friend in a truckers' motel in Texas, munching on Snickers bars and drinking whiskey, steeling herself to visit her son in prison.

"That night I finally realized why I had never liked country music," Kelley wrote. "My life was too much like a country song."

That's why "Leading With My Heart," Virginia Kelley's autobiography, is a lot more readable -- and a lot more fun -- than most White House-kin literature. It passes a basic test: Take away the presidential son, and there's still a pretty good story there, "colorful enough without the rouge."

Of course, this is the sort of book whose first chapter weaves together the events of Inauguration Day with makeup tips. "When you wear as much as I do, you don't want to repeat the process," Kelley explained about her careful 45-minute morning ritual.

This is the sort of book we would not read had her only son been Roger, sometime musician and recovering cocaine addict. So Kelley, along with writer James Morgan, tells us a few new things about her presidential son's early days and his family.

Bill Clinton's father, "wild and impetuous" William Blythe, was killed in a wreck a few months before his son's birth. "I needed someone older to embrace both me and my fatherless son" is how Kelley explained her marriage to Roger Clinton, the sharp-dressing "life of the party" from Hot Springs whose heavy drinking later led to violence.

Much has been written about how Bill, at age 14, pushed in a bedroom door to confront his abusive stepfather. "Never -- ever -- touch my mother again," he said.

Kelley soon divorced Clinton, only to take him back out of pity a few months later. Her older son told her that was a mistake. He was proved right by a harrowing episode that Kelley described for the first time. Roger Clinton had her down on the washing machine, holding a pair of scissors to her throat. Six-year-old Roger screamed for his stepbrother:

"Bill went absolutely crazy. . . . Big Roger threw me down and wheeled to face Bill, who pulled little Roger behind him with one hand and me behind him with the other. Bill was seething. 'You're not going to hurt them anymore,' he said to his stepfather. 'You're not going to hit Mother and you're not going to hit Rog anymore. . . . If you hit them, you're going to have to go through me.' "

There are several other revelations. Kelley's first impression of Hillary Rodham ("no makeup . . . Coke-bottle glasses . . . brown hair with no apparent style . . . quiet, cool, unresponsive") led to years of tension between them. Kelley admits she was intimidated by her future daughter-in-law, and it was her third husband, Jeff Dwire, who helped her realize they were actually a lot alike. Kelley eventually warmed to Hillary.

Kelley doesn't call herself a feminist, but she learned early on the need to pursue her own career as a nurse anesthetist: "I realized that a woman needs her own money -- money enough, to put a fine line on it, so that she can take care of herself and her children if need be."

Kelley acknowledges that she "led with her heart" in trusting too many people over the years, that she was over-protective of son Roger, and that her own stubbornness contributed to a bureaucratic medical battle that led to her early retirement. She regrets that heavy smoking and drinking made her susceptible to the cancer that killed her in January at 70.

But Virginia Kelley's life was not about regrets. "Leading With My Heart" tells a lot about the origins of Bill Clinton's survival skills, his glib tongue and his love of life and people -- and it tells how a young man grew up fast.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Leading With My Heart"

Author: Virginia Kelley with James Morgan

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 286 pages, $22.50

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