Book review: 'Oprah: A Biography,' by Kitty Kelley

By Louis Bayard
Thursday, April 15, 2010


A Biography

By Kitty Kelley

Crown. 524 pp. $30

It would be easy to treat Oprah Winfrey's life as an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The problem would be coming up with just one title. "The Secret"? "I Lost the Weight and Gained It Back -- Again"? "Just Because I Love the Guy Doesn't Mean I Want to Marry Him"? "She's My Girl Friend -- Not My Girlfriend"?

Each title would take us only so far, and in the show's concluding segment we would have to discard any pretense of universality and segue into "Presidential Kingmaker," "Richest Black Woman in the World" and "Universal Absolver of Celebrity Sin." At which point we would realize that the show's hostess is something greater than her show: the only woman in recorded history to begin life, in her own words, as a "po' little ole' nappy-headed colored chile" from Kosciusko, Miss., before morphing into a show-biz titan with a net worth currently valued at $2.7 billion.

She might once have had cockroaches as pets (even this is in dispute), but now she FedExes horses from Indiana to Hawaii and sports $500 mink eyelashes and drives a $365,000 Bentley convertible with the top down and spends $4 million to fete Maya Angelou and treats guests to desserts like chocolate-and-raspberry pound cake gilded with 23-karat gold. No matter how many times we've heard Whitney Houston sing it over the show's credits, Oprah Winfrey is not every woman, although she has played one on TV.

And played it so well that one may question the necessity of a tell-all biography. Hasn't Winfrey told us all we need to know about herself? Relatively little has been made of her Baptist upbringing, but the act of testifying has always been sewn into her show's fabric, and over the course of three decades she has copped to food obsession, cocaine use, an affair with a married man, teenage promiscuity and teenage pregnancy. She has been forgiven, and she forgives, with the result that sinners as various as Mike Tyson and Bill Clinton come forward on bended knee, receive her blessing and go back into the world, shining like new money.

So what if these confessionals fall in the proximity of sweeps weeks? And so what if the most damaging truths about Winfrey have originated not with her but with her disgruntled family of origin? This at least has the benefit of making Kitty Kelley's latest book more scrupulously sourced than some of its predecessors.

It is Winfrey's own father, Vernon, who alludes to his daughter's secrets, and it is her cousin who announces that Vernon is not Winfrey's true father. Who is? In a rare outbreak of reticence, Kelley vows to keep the name secret until Winfrey herself is informed. "And you'll know when that happens," suggests the tart-tongued cousin, "because Oprah will probably have a show on Finding Your Real Father. As I said, the girl wastes nothing."

Nor does Kelley. Inevitably, a certain odor precedes her unauthorized biographies to the marketplace, but more interesting is the ink cloud of despair that rises from every quote-laden page. We may not believe that Jackie Onassis had electroshock treatment or that Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan made whoopee in the White House or that Laura Bush sold dime bags of pot, but we certainly feel how hard it is to be those people, if only because the sheer labor of being famous finds its analogue in Kelley's labors: the reams of books and articles she has digested and extruded, the hundreds of interview subjects she has lassoed to the ground. In her own cussed and occluded and occasionally mean-spirited fashion, she gives us a way in.

So here is Oprah Winfrey, a preternaturally confident young woman, high school orator and beauty queen, plucked from Nashville in her early 20s to co-anchor the evening news in Baltimore. The gig proves disastrous -- Winfrey isn't much of a writer, and she hates to prepare -- but her unforced empathy and gift of gab find a more congenial home in a daytime show called "People Are Talking." The Chicago market comes calling, and by 1985 Winfrey is going nationwide with what one critic calls "a yeasty mix of sleaze, freaks, pathos, tack, camp, hype, hugs, hollers, gush, fads and tease marinated in tears."

Tears are, in fact, Winfrey's lingua franca. From the start she recognizes the value of victims, and she realizes, too, that she needs to heal not just her guests but her audience. Decades before Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey is ushering us toward a post-racial America, simply by gazing into her predominantly white audience without a hint of rancor. "Truth is," she says, "I've never felt prevented from doing anything because I was either black or a woman. . . . I never in my life felt oppressed. . . . It doesn't matter how victimized any of us have been, we're all responsible for our lives." Her politics skew left, but her persona skews right (her longtime squire Stedman Graham is an ardent Republican), and she becomes, in the words of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, "a one-person demilitarized zone."

That's a hard position to maintain over the long haul, and, truth be told, Winfrey has been, like all enduring pop icons, a house divided: extroverted and narcissistic, philanthropic and close to the vest, noisily spiritual and hilariously materialistic. (The 5,500-square-foot Oprah Store, Kelley tells us, offers "O pajamas, O candles, O metallic purses, O canvas bags, O caps, O mugs, O place mats, even grocery bags marked 'grOceries,' " as well as Winfrey's personal hand-me-downs, ranging from size 10 to 18).

It is her mastery of television that allows Winfrey to subsume these contradictions into a force for "good" and, yes, good, too. We can see through her, but we can't see past her. And so the news that she is abandoning her daily high-wire act for higher-level, lower-visibility projects makes a peculiar kind of non-sense. Winfrey may be greater than her show, but she is inconceivable without it. The messenger, to break ranks with Marshall McLuhan, is her own message; she is also her medium.

Bayard is a novelist and reviewer in Washington.

Michael Dirda is on vacation.

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