Famed Biographer Kitty Kelley Wins Journalism Prize

New York — The American Society of Journalists and Authors, ASJA, will award its Founders’ Award for Career Achievement next month to Kitty Kelley at the group’s 43rd annual writers’ conference in New York. Kelley, a long-time member of ASJA, is the author of numerous best-selling biographies, all of them written despite the subject’s active attempts to thwart her research.

Minda Zetlin, ASJA president, announced the award. “We’re pleased to honor what’s been, and continues to be, a career marked by talent, meticulous research and the ability to persist in the face of discouragement,” said Zetlin. The award comes with a lifetime membership in ASJA.

Kelley’s first book was Jackie Oh! in 1978. It sold well and garnered considerable attention, as did Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, in 1981. Her next book, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, released in 1986, hit the number one slot on the New York Times bestseller list, sold a million hardback copies, and made Kelley famous. The book named Sinatra’s romantic connections and mob ties, and he tried to suppress it by filing a $2 million lawsuit. Some months later, after attorneys perused Kelley’s myriad boxes of interview notes, the suit was dropped.

In 2013, singer Paul Anka alleged in his memoir that Sinatra had wanted to put a mob “hit” on Kelley. At the time of publication, William Safire of the New York Times called her Sinatra book “the most eye-opening celebrity biography of our time.”

Kelley, who keeps a sign in her office that says “tell the truth and ride a fast horse,” went on to write best-sellers about Nancy Reagan (1991), the British royal family (1997), the Bush family (2004). Sales for her 2010 biography of Oprah Winfrey were disappointing after the television star made it known she would look with displeasure on anyone who interviewed Kelley, either in print or on television.

Kelley’s latest book is Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington, published last year. The award-winning photojournalist was a close friend of Kelley’s, whom he named executor of his iconic photos. Kelley released Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys, in 2012. A widow, she resides in Washington, D.C.

ASJA, which originally was organized in 1948 as The Society of Magazine Writers, is the professional association of independent freelance writers. Members, who must meet rigorous standards to join, write for a vast array of publications that publish in print and online, and they also write nonfiction books.

Kelly’s Acceptance Speech, April 24, 2014, Roosevelt Hotel, New York City

My love affair with the American Society of Journalists and Authors began on September 21, 1983 when we were introduced by Frank Sinatra. That was the day he sued me for $2 million to keep me from writing his (decidedly unauthorized) biography. In court papers, he declared that he and he alone or someone that he authorized could write his life story. No one else was entitled to what he called his “right of publicity.”

ASJA immediately stepped forward and joined with other writers’ groups to protest Sinatra’s assault on the First Amendment. In a press conference, they said: “The apparent goal behind Sinatra’s filing of this suit is to scare Ms. Kelley away from her investigation and, ultimately to force her to scrap the book.” They asserted that “the unauthorized or unblessed biography” is the essence of free speech and open commentary and declared that Sinatra’s lawsuit was an assault on all writers’ constitutionally protected freedom of expression and should be dismissed on its face.

This public stance stirred a great deal of publicity from outraged journalists, who wrote columns, editorials, and even a few cartoons. One of the funniest was drawn by Jules Feiffer, who showed a mug’s face under a snap-brim hat, swaying on skinny legs and snapping his fingers:

“I’m chairman of the Board. If some broad wantsa write a book about me . . . She gotta talk t’one of my boys who talks t’one of my other boys… who talks t’me. And MAYBE if the broad looks OK, I say, ‘Go Baby.’ Or Maybe I say ‘Shove it, Bimbo.’ And before she can write word one I sue her.

“So don’t give me any First Amendment crapola, I got the Frank Amendment and mine is bigger than hers. Ring a ding ding.”

After a year of litigation and over $100,000 in legal fees, Sinatra finally dropped his lawsuit, but by then he had sent his message to my publisher and the rest of the world that he did not want the book written. Many people were too frightened to speak on the record, and some actually feared for their lives, but over the course of three years I managed to interview 800 people, including members of Sinatra’s family, his mistresses, co-stars, friends, neighbors, employees, FBI agents, a few antagonists, and a couple of mobsters.

In 1986 “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra” was published, and– despite his threats– I lived to see the book become number one on the New York Times best seller list and sell more than 1 million copies in hardback. All very gratifying, but best of all was receiving ASJA’s Outstanding Author Award that year for “courageous writing on popular culture.”

Publication of the Frank Sinatra biography was a triumph for all non-fiction writers who struggle against immense pressure to find their way to examine the public figures who influence our society.

Thirty years ago ASJA made it possible for me to find my way– and for that I am profoundly grateful. I accept your award for Career Achievement because YOU made my career all it has been — and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

   — Kitty Kelley