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Sinatra's Biographer Is Doing It Her Way : The Author Defends Research While Others Claim That Book Is Based on Lurid Gossip

September 26, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The insults and accusations are rolling in.

Elizabeth Taylor has told New York Daily News columnist Liz Smith that Kitty Kelley "is no lady. She is not even a writer but a fabricator."

Taylor was referring to Kelley's new book, "His Way, the Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra," in which the author writes that Taylor had an abortion after Sinatra got her pregnant. Millions have already read about that in the People magazine excerpts of the book.

Mia Farrow, one of Sinatra's ex-wives, was equally miffed by the book, saying via her publicist that "the references as to how Frank Sinatra treated me"--throwing furniture out the window and being otherwise impolite to her--"are absolutely untrue," even if they, too, were in People magazine.

Frank Sinatra Jr., who is among the 857 people Kelley says she interviewed for the book, is depicted as the forgotten child. His response: "All lies. Any facts are coincidental."

Sinatra himself has said, through a publicist, that "comment might be delayed because it is hard to complete reading a boring book. From what we understand a lot of the material is regurgitated."

All this, and only the third day of publication!

First Commandment of the book biz: Anything that makes people who are this famous this mad this quickly is going to pique people's interest. According to Bantam Books Vice President Stuart Applebaum, after three days on the market the book is "probably the fastest-selling hardback" in the company's history, which includes best-selling autobiographies of Lee Iacocca and Chuck Yeager. "His Way" is already in its fourth printing, Applebaum said, with 672,000 copies.

Bantam has paid Kelley $1.6 million, which says gobs about its expectations for the $21.95 book.

As celebrities seethed, Kitty Kelley strolled through her office, displaying at least 1,000 file folders on Sinatra. Kelley, 44, is a former teacher, World's Fair hostess, Eugene McCarthy aide, magazine free-lancer and researcher for the Washington Post (where she departed in controversial circumstances).

Cache of Information

These thousand folders are Kelley's tickets to respectability. They are stuffed with items more precious than Liz Taylor diamonds-- information ! And all of it about Sinatra.

Many of the people Kelley interviewed are not public figures. There is, for example, the wife of a cameraman for one of Ava Gardner's films, who was quoted as saying she accompanied the actress to England for an abortion.

Gardner, then married to Sinatra, said she had the abortion because "she hated Frankie so much," according to the cameraman's wife, a quote that also made People magazine.

Mention the word gossip to Kelley, and her girlish giggle transforms to a near-growl, which she performs equally well.

"There's no gossip in the book," said Kelley, who, when being interviewed eight years ago about her unauthorized biography of Jacqueline Onassis, said, "If it hadn't been for gossip, we wouldn't have three books of the Bible because Mark, Luke and John never knew Jesus. They wrote 100 years after the guy died. At least I got to people who are still kicking."

The Sinatra book is filled with accounts of alleged extramarital affairs, abortions, suicide attempts, Mafia brawls and a car being run off the road.

There is one file in Kelley's office, she pointed out, that footnotes every single sentence in the 509-page biography. The book itself contains 18 pages of source notes.

Kelley seems to want, more than anything, respect for this four-year effort--something that seemed to elude her after her spicy biographies of Jacqueline Onassis in 1978 and Elizabeth Taylor in 1981.

And Kelley gets respect in many quarters.

"No matter what else anybody tries to say about Kitty," said Peter Range, her friend and a diplomatic correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, "she's a deadly serious researcher who doesn't do quick, gossipy books. She is first, last and always a reporter."

Range said that he has never read any of her books "all the way through because I'm not interested in these people. But the work she does reminds me of the work we do on a cover story, voluminous detail and unstinting effort to get every last interview, especially the hardest ones."

'A Good Researcher'

And her former boss at the Washington Post, then editorial page editor Philip Geyelin, said that he had "no quarrel with the actual work she was doing," which was gathering research material for editorial writers, as well as secretarial work. "She was a good researcher," Geyelin said. But Geyelin said he was forced to dismiss Kelley over a matter of trust.

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