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Unauthorized Biographies: A Glimmer of Truth

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: gossip, biography, great writing, Kitty Kelley, The American Scholar, Will Wlizlo,

Kitty KelleyOver the course of her career, unauthorized celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley has been accused of many ethical lapses: She’s been dubbed a “poison-pen biographer” and “an assassin of honorable statesmen,” her journalistic drive portrayed as “all about finding dirt, not the truth,” and her work accused of being “garbage and sleaze” and “exceed[ing] the bounds of decency” with “flagrant and absurd falsehoods.” You’d be excused if you find her salacious, door-busting profiles of the rich and powerful little more than sensational A-list gossip—this has been the press’ narrative of Kelley’s work, from her biography of Frank Sinatra to a profile of George Bush and family to her latest book on Oprah Winfrey. Kelley, in an essay for The American Scholar, argues that her work (and unauthorized biographies in general) occupies a much higher place than mere tabloid rumor: a gritty bastion of the free press.

“I believe that the best way to tell a life story is from the outside looking in,” begins Kelley’s defense,

and so I choose to write with my nose pressed against the window rather than kneel inside for spoon-feedings. Most of the great biographies are written about people who are dead, and thus the biographies are unauthorized. Championing the independent or unauthorized biography might sound like a high-minded defense for a low-level pursuit, but I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives. So I only pursue the kings (and queens) of the jungle.

In the essay, Kelley also takes issue with celebrities’ “corrosive sense of self-entitlement”:

In an interview that Maria Shriver granted to The Washington Post not long ago, she waved off the reporter’s questions, telling him instead which questions she wanted to be asked. To the reporter’s credit, he wrote about her taking over the role of questioner and answerer, “as if she’s conducting a sit-down with a ventriloquist-doll version of herself.” And that was moments after she dismissed the Post’s photographer, snapping, “That’s enough.”

Celebrity demands could easily be dismissed as amusing diva excesses if they weren’t so readily indulged, and it’s the indulgence that enables celebrities to construct their own mythologies in the public consciousness.

One of Kelley’s best quotes comes toward the end of the article. She recounts how she was included in a book called 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (number 80): “Granted, this was not nearly as illustrious as being on Nixon’s enemies list, but when the Associated Press called for a reaction, I said I was proud to be included in any group with President Jimmy Carter, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, and actor/activist Harry Belafonte.”

Source: The American Scholar 

Image courtesy of www.kittykelleywriter.com.