Unauthorized biography charts Oprah Winfrey’s Baltimore years

Opening chapters follow her seven years as journalist for WJZ

April 14, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

Charm City gets plenty of face time in Kitty Kelley's "Oprah," the unauthorized biography of Oprah Winfrey. In fact, "Baltimore" is the seventh word in Kelley's book, appearing well before "Hollywood," "talk show," "book club" or even "successful" (but after "Chicago," Winfrey's base of operations for the past 26 years).

Released in bookstores today, "Oprah" follows Winfrey from her hardscrabble beginnings in Mississippi (while quoting relatives who insist her youth wasn't nearly as impoverished as she's made it sound) to her current status as a media superstar and philanthropist. Kelley spent four years writing the book, which presents Winfrey as an intelligent, driven woman, emotionally fragile at times but determined to succeed and not above stepping on a few toes if necessary. Much of what Kelley includes in the book has been revealed in other places, including the tabloids and, occasionally, by Winfrey herself. Kelley also contends that she knows the identity of Winfrey's real father but can't reveal it.

Chapters 5 and 6 of the book, 36 pages, chronicle Winfrey's seven-year stay in Baltimore, where she honed her on-air style and populist interviewing skills as a co-anchor, reporter and morning talk-show host at WJZ, Channel 13. "Oprah" details how she was brought here to share the anchor desk with the enduringly popular Jerry Turner, who dominated the local evening news like no one has since, but was thought to be shouldering a workload too great for one man to handle. Winfrey, at age 22, was hired away from Nashville's WVOL. The teaming never clicked, however — Kelley writes that Turner resented Winfrey and found her too lightweight — and after eight months, she was unceremoniously demoted.

"On April Fool's Day 1977 … Oprah lost her crown," Kelley writes. "Toppled from the most prestigious position at the station, anchoring the news, she was tossed into television's scut bucket, to do early-morning cut-ins."

Just over a year later, in August 1978, Winfrey again was tapped to co-host, this time with a nascent morning talk show called "People are talking," alongside veteran reporter Richard Sher. The show was seen as a throwaway by many — including Oprah, writes Kelley, who had to be pleaded with before tearfully accepting the assignment. But it soon took off in the local ratings, and Winfrey's career as a talk-show innovator and superstar took off along with it. Five years later, she left Baltimore for Chicago and national prominence.

Kelley's chapters on Baltimore contain little that's new or truly revelatory, but it does gather into one place threads of the early-day Oprah legend that have been talked about elsewhere. Former on-air co-workers Sher, Bob Turk and Beverly Burke are quoted, as are a host of other WJZ personnel. Former Baltimore Sun TV critic Bill Carter is also quoted often, usually from pieces written while Winfrey was at WJZ (Carter is credited with seeing potential in her at a time few others did).

A lot of ink is given to Winfrey's doomed-from-the-start love affair with Tim Watts, a longtime figure in Baltimore radio who, according to Kelley's book, was "a married man with a young son and no intention of leaving his wife." Winfrey, again according to the book, has never spoken of Watts by name publicly, but has frequently referred to an obsessive, unhealthy relationship she had while living in Baltimore. "This is a guy I used to take the seeds out of the watermelon for so he wouldn't have to spit," she's quoted as telling Entertainment Weekly.

There's also lots of talk about her appetite (voracious, apparently, especially in times of stress) and fluctuating weight, and a passing reference to her drug use, something she first acknowledged on-air during a memorable edition of her show in January 1995. And Kelley quotes extensively from a commencement address Winfrey gave at Goucher College in 1981, where she urged the graduates "not to believe that Mr. Right was the answer to their prayers."

Ironically, it turns out that Baltimore is not just the place that put Oprah Winfrey on the road to the big time. It's also the place where Kelley first met Winfrey, while promoting her unauthorized biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, "Jackie Oh!" in 1981.

"I don't approve of that kind of book," Winfrey said at the time.

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