Bestselling author Kitty Kelley has written about the lives of American celebrities Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Oprah Winfrey. Kelley, who lives in Washington, will be the guest speaker at the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington’s annual Sylvia Blajwas Productive Aging Award Dinner on May 21.
At the dinner, Sandy and Neal Kursban will receive the 2017 Humanitarian Award for their work with the Family & Nursing Care Foundation, and Family and Nursing Care.
In an interview, Kelley talked about celebrity, politics and the one subject she doesn’t want to write about.
You’ve written about some of the biggest celebrities in America. What draws you to these people?
I don’t just write about celebrities. In the past I’ve only taken people that have had an immense impact on our lives socially and politically. And I’m fascinated by the power that they exert. That’s, I guess, the definition. I write what’s called an unauthorized biography, which does not mean untrue. I don’t write with the subject’s permission or editorial control. I think there’s certainly room on the bookshelf for memoirs and autobiographies.
Why do your books sell?
I don’t know how to answer that because the books themselves take me three to four years and 1,000 interviews. So in order to tell a life story, it’s not just about private life. The context is how they affected our times. All of the people I’ve written about have been so powerful and so wealthy that they have created their own public image. The image that they really want. So I guess my task was to look at that image and go behind the scenes and see if the reality squares with the image.
Have you ever considered writing a book about Donald Trump?
Three years ago, I was offered a contract to write about Donald Trump, before he ever ran for president. And I really believe in the people I’ve written about. I believe in their power and their influence, and I don’t believe that they’re inherently negative. But I just felt everything about Trump that was on the public record was just so negative that I didn’t want to surround myself with that. So I didn’t do it. You know it was at a point in my life where I had recently lost my husband, and so I really didn’t want any negativity. And he just seemed then to be just a dark force, and even more so now.
How has Trump influenced our culture?
I haven’t made him a Ph.D. study like the others. But I guess time will really tell. I’m not doing a book on Donald Trump. And I’m not longing to do it. I have to really believe in the intrinsic value of the life story I’m writing about. It’s not that I don’t believe in Donald Trump, but I’ll leave it to someone else. You know it’s the same reason David McCullough turned down a contract on someone after he had started writing for a year. He said it was too negative. And I really understand that. You just don’t want to fish around with that kind of depravity.
But you have written about the Bush family and other politicians. What makes a politician book-worthy?
I thought the Bush family dynasty… they weren’t just politicians. It really was a dynasty, like the Kennedys. And I covered President [John] Kennedy when I wrote about Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis. I’m fascinated by people’s influence on politics. At the time I published the book, George W. Bush was president and the blowback was ferocious, absolutely ferocious. You had the White House denouncing the book, the Republican National Committee denouncing the book, [House Majority Leader] Tom Delay denouncing the book. But I don’t really know how to answer that question.
How do you think our politics have evolved?
We’ve had the advent of the Internet, and so that has made a great deal of difference in politics. I think there’s been a swing to the right in the country, but I can’t tell you why.
Are there areas where celebrity and political culture have merged?
I think they’ve merged … Donald Trump is a creature of self-creation, self-invention on television. And we’ve always rewarded our entertainers well. I just never thought we’d be giving them the presidency. We do applaud singers who move us. We do salute dancers and writers and rappers and sports figures. Anybody that entertains us and helps us out of ourselves, but his particular talent … he touched something, I guess, that P.T. Barnum touched a long time ago.
What was that?
Circus. And that’s kind of what Donald Trump represents right now.