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Author of Nancy Reagan Bio Subject of Press Barbs

April 20, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Some reporters call her a ″journalistic sociopath.″ Others denounce her as ″America’s premiere slash biographer,″ ″petty and vindictive″ and a ″gossip monger.″

Lashed with such invective, Kitty Kelley, the controversial author of ″Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography,″ recently was asked how she would describe herself.

″Beleaguered,″ she said with a sigh. ″I’m stunned that they’re making me the story. Of course, it’s unpleasant.

″I am not the story. The book is the story.″

Soon after her book’s debut, Kelley canceled her nationwide publicity tour because of an alleged tip that someone had ordered a Mafia ″hit″ on her. Instead, she did a 30-city ″satellite tour″ from a New York studio with a bodyguard standing by, who had been hired by her publisher.

″This book has exposed a lot of raw nerves,″ says the author.

The biography, portraying the former first lady as sexually promiscuous, manipulative and power hungry was ridiculed by one tabloid as ″Kitty Litter.″ Friends of Nancy Reagan called it ″trash.″

Kelley’s literary methods have been the focus of a public hullabaloo, and columnist Mike Royko suggests politics is at the heart of it.

In an interview, Royko noted that past scandalous revelations involving liberals such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy delighted those now criticizing the Kelley book.

″Gary Hart got it pretty good,″ said Royko of the Democratic senator whose presidential hopes died with disclosure of an extramarital affair. ″They got a big kick out of that - the Reaganites. Maybe the Republicans have been getting off easy. Maybe it was just their turn.″

Serious critics of Kelley’s writing fault her scholarship, noting that she carelessly mixed original material with recycled, previously published articles. Lengthy footnotes don’t clarify which is which.

She said the book represents four years of work and 1,002 interviews by her and her researchers.

But the book’s most sensational assertion of a love affair between Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra is only implied by accounts of their long private luncheons at the White House. No ″smoking gun″ evidence was presented.

″What were they doing up there all that time, humming?″ responded Kelley when questioned about it.

The author’s credibility has been challenged before and she acknowledges, ″I’m not perfect - never said I was. I’ve got more flaws than virtues.″ But she denies major accusations of the past:

-A critic who panned her book on Elizabeth Taylor said he received a gold Gucci box filled with fish heads and a card signed: ″From the friends of Kitty Kelley.″

-As for a claim that Kelley anonymously sent letters favorable to her to a Washington Post free-lancer working on a story about the author, she says, ″I’m not the anonymous letter type. It’s not my style.″

-Detractors note Kelley once claimed to have been Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s press secretary when she actually was a receptionist who handed out press releases.

-In 1973, novelist Barbara Howar accused Kelley of stealing an unfinished manuscript by Howar and trying to sell excerpts. Kelley claims she found the manuscript inside a table sold at a Howar yard sale.

Criticisms aside, copies of Kelley’s latest book with the white cover showing a slender woman in a red suit are flying out of stores faster than its publisher can print them. And even its most critical detractors concede that Kelley’s unflattering portrait of the former first lady ″rings true.″

The tome hit best-seller lists at No. 1 after only one week and has already outsold Kelley’s previous poison pen effort, ″His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra.″ Publishers say the book is sure to become the best-selling biography of all time.

″It’s been a most unusual week,″ the author said in a rare exercise of understatement. ″I expected a backlash, but not like this. ... Mrs. Reagan has marshaled her forces. And the unmasking of the Reagans has been sort of lost by an effective campaign against the messenger.″

When Time and Newsweek magazines devoted their covers to the book flap and made harsh assessments of Kelley, the author fought back.

″While I may have intimated that Nancy Reagan was in bed with Frank Sinatra, the news weeklies seem to have been in bed with Ronald Reagan for eight years,″ she said, attributing criticism to wounded competitors.

″When I wrote about Frank Sinatra, the press cheered and gave me awards,″ she said in a Monday telephone interview from her mansion in the Georgetown section of Washington.

″But this is the first lady. It’s ridiculous for the Washington, D.C., media to have missed the story. The story was there. ... I think they’re embarrassed by their own negligence. . .. If they had told the story for eight years, I wouldn’t have a book.″

Reagan daughter Patti Davis, whose family battles and ultimate estrangement from her parents are recounted in the book, said it contains ″some true things and some not true things. Some things are partially true.″

″Yes, it’s true my mother used to hit me,″ said Davis, a Los Angeles- based actress. ″No, it’s not true that I had abortions.″

Davis said although she refused to be interviewed by Kelley, the author’s researchers posed as reporters to talk to her during a book tour. Others quoted in the book also say they didn’t know they were speaking to researchers.

Few sources have accused Kelley of outright lies. Although some said she embellished on their remarks, few said she was totally off base about Nancy Reagan.

Newsweek noted in its scathing cover piece that, ″Despite her wretched excesses, Kelley has the core of the story right.″ Time said, ″Much of the portrait ... rings true.″

Many outraged parties leveling the harshest criticism are those skewered with the same sword that rips Nancy Reagan.

Conservative columnist George Will, who is portrayed in the book as a Nancy Reagan sycophant and her ″social director,″ used his syndicated column to lash out at the author. He accused her of ″malice, crudeness, mendacity and ignorance.″

Columnist Colman McCarthy, defended the Kelley book, saying Mrs. Reagan’s own persona incited such a biography.

″She chose to deal in fakery - the caring drug crusader, the champion of the elderly poor - betting that the inside story could forever be kept inside,″ he wrote, ″which it rarely can at that high level.″

Royko concurs that the Reagans’ pose of public high morals tempted such an expose - a literary genre he stresses that he dislikes.

″But in this case, there’s a certain warped justice to it,″ Royko said. ″The Reagans did portray themselves in a certain way. In fact, the entire Republican Party portrayed itself in a certain way. Maybe it’s good for the public to know: Don’t believe the image.″

One thing is certain, Kelley is keeping a sense of humor. When you call her home in Georgetown, an answering machine plays Sinatra’s rendition of ″Nancy With the Laughing Face.″

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