Secretive star deemed to have outsmarted notorious biographer Kitty Kelley

She began by debunking some of the mystique of Jackie Onassis and the sexual peccadilloes of JFK, went on to tear a strip through the reputations of Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and George Bush, and earned along the way the distinction of being the world’s best known poison pen biographer. But with the publication of Kitty Kelley’s latest book, critics are asking whether she has finally met her match.

The subject of Kelley’s latest output of investigation-cum-gossip-cum-rumour is Oprah Winfrey, and advance peeks at the book, Oprah: A Biography, ahead of its publication tomorrow by Crown, a division of Random House, suggests that for once the giant killer may have been outsmarted. As The New Yorker’s reviewer, Lauren Collins, puts it, the famously secretive Winfrey has proved to have such tight control over the people close to her that “Kelley’s pen is not dripping poison so much as slightly curdled milk“.

Janet Maslin of the New York Times concurs that though the book “aims for the jugular, it doesn’t draw blood”.

The most juicy piece of new information contained in the 524 pages turns out to be less than complete. Kelley claims to have uncovered one of the great remaining secrets about the billionaire TV celebrity, a fact so deeply buried that even Winfrey herself has yet to learn it.

The biographer claims in the book that Vernon Winfrey, the man who brought the teenaged Oprah up as his daughter in Nashville, Tennessee, was not her real father. The writer says in the course of three days of interviews with Winfrey’s cousin, 81-year-old Katharine Esters, in Kosciusko, the small Mississippi town where Winfrey was born to unmarried parents in 1954, she was told the identity of Winfrey’s biological father.

The revelation, as the New York Times notes, is the “only real ‘Gotcha!'” moment in the book. But even then it dissolves in the hand. Kelley says that she has decided not to share this nugget with her readers in order to give Winfrey the chance to discover her true father’s name from her mother, Vernita Lee.

It is a tease that, judging from early reviews of the book, sums up its mishmash of old Oprah quotes dredged up from newspaper and magazine interviews and fresh quotes from individuals who are too distant to the TV celebrity to be able to offer genuine credibility.

Kelley says she carried out 850 interviews over four years in her research for the book. But Gayle King, Winfrey’s close friend, told ABC News on Monday: “When I heard she interviewed 850 people, I’m thinking Oprah doesn’t even know 850 people.”

The problem appears to have been that, through a combination of legal and personal leverage, Winfrey successfully shut down access to her immediate coterie. It is well known that anyone who works for the doyenne, in whatever capacity, has to sign a confidentiality agreement; Kelley has said that about a third of the people she approached for interview turned her down.

Kelley has also complained that Winfrey’s grip over the TV networks is so strong, and her friendships with top TV personalities so wide, that several important potential showcases for the new book — including Barbara Walters’s The View on ABC, Larry King Live on CNN, Charlie Rose on public television and David Letterman of CBS — have shunned her, for fear of alienating Winfrey.

Whatever the reason, Kelley’s book appears to be less revelatory than her previous biographies, and will probably have little impact on Winfrey as she begins the next chapter of her astonishing career. On 9 September Winfrey will broadcast her last daytime talk show on network TV. She will thereafter dedicate herself to the development of her own cable network, OWN, and a new series called Oprah’s Next Chapter that will be put out through it late next year.

Kitty Kelley’s previous victims

Jackie Onassis

Kelley broke into the biography market in 1978 with Jackie Oh! It gives an iconoclastic take on JFK’s widow, whom she describes as ruthless and bullying.

Frank Sinatra

Her portrayal of Ol’ Blue Eyes as a misogynist friend to the Mob was so incendiary he issued a $2m lawsuit attempting to block the book on the grounds that His Way was unfair and unflattering. Big mistake. Sinatra eventually dropped the action, and the biography flew off the bookshelves.

Nancy Reagan

Sinatra made another prominent appearance in Kelley’s book on the first lady. She alleged that the two had had a steamy affair that may have even carried on during Reagan’s years in the White House.

The royal family

The Royals was published in 1997, but only in the US as it was deemed too hot to handle in the UK with its much tougher libel laws. A huge kerfuffle ensued, but the Guardian’s reviewer, Ben Pimlott, concluded it was all a storm in a teacup. Anybody looking in it for new information about the house of Windsor “should cancel their ticket to the US to purchase a copy”, he wrote. “So far from being hot, Kelley’s news is as cold as a dead grouse.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds