Kitty Kelley's greenish-blue eyes grow really big at the idea. What if she could pen a biography of someone who actually cooperated with her?
She says she would love it. Especially if she could write about someone she truly admires. "Nelson Mandela!" she says. "Or Elie Wiesel!"
So far that has not been her modus operandi. Kelley is known far and wide as the Biographer of Reluctant Icons. Over the years, the Washington writer has chronicled the lives of Jacqueline Onassis, Frank Sinatra, the British royal family and other larger-than-life characters -- none of whom gave her the time of day.
Her latest tome, "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty," is being published Tuesday by Doubleday. But, as usual, the subjects did not play along. Kelley is already under fire from the White House.
In the book, Kelley delves into the history and mysteries of the Bush family. She focuses on the sweeping political prowess and power of three generations -- Sen. Prescott Bush, his son George Herbert Walker Bush and his son President George W. Bush.
Certain controversial aspects of the book, however, are already wreaking havoc and making headlines. Kelley writes of drug use and possible personal improprieties among the Bush clan. She writes that Sharon Bush, ex-wife of President Bush's brother Neil, "alleged that W. had snorted cocaine with one of his brothers at Camp David during the time their father was President of the United States."
On the "Today" show Monday morning, Matt Lauer pressed Kelley on the matter. "This book has been vetted by four sets of lawyers," Kelley replied, "including the chief counsel of Random House."
Lauer asked her why she didn't tape her conversation with Sharon Bush. Kelley says that tape recorders don't work well in restaurants -- there's too much ambient noise.
Later in the show, Lauer spoke with Sharon Bush. He asked if she had ever heard of any instance in which George Bush used drugs at Camp David during his father's presidency. "No," she told Lauer, "I'd never heard it. That's why I was so stunned when she referenced me on that. No, I had never heard that about Camp David."
The folks at Doubleday, which is a division of Random House, spent part of the day crafting a public response, pointing out that there had been someone else at the table when Sharon Bush met with Kelley and that the publishing company and Kelley "firmly uphold the accuracy and veracity of reporting on this topic." Lou Colasuonno, a former tabloid editor, was that third person and was providing public relations advice to Sharon Bush at the time, the publisher said.
Over lunch at Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel & Tower on Columbus Circle, Kelley, 62, is unfazed. She has begun her publicity whirlwind and is squeezing in a three-course meal between her "Today" appearance and an interview with a Dutch journalist. She has ordered tuna, then turbot, then veal. The portions are small, overpriced and overwrought.
Kelley is in fine fettle. She is coy, coquettish and disarming. No wonder people open up to her. She touches when she talks. And winks.
She has short blond hair and a quick smile. She is wearing a gray Armani suit.
Unlike her books, she is compact. Like her books, she is complex.
She sips on ice water and speaks softly. In the clatter and confusion of the restaurant, it is sometimes hard to hear her. She often responds to a question with a question. Asked about this habit, she says, "Do I?"
She pauses between responses.
She can be self-deprecating, but she bristles at the suggestion that she traffics in salacious details. She is, she says, a writer. And a biographer. Not a gossipmonger.
Writing biographies, she says, has not gotten easier over the years. After each one, she says to herself that she's not going to write another. But she always does.
"They take a long time," she says. "They take a really long time."
She began working on this book in 2000, after Bush defeated Al Gore.
For a biographer, she says, the Bush family has it all: money, power, influence, tragedy, joy.
But she discovered early on that the family was not interested. "George senior," she says, "said he wasn't going to cooperate. Doors closed."
She is used to her subjects being recalcitrant. And she says it doesn't bother her that she has to talk to other people, to triangulate information, to get at the truth about a person. "You can't thoroughly and completely represent somebody," she says. The book is more than 700 pages long. She amassed more than 3,000 file folders and 10,000 pages of interview transcripts. She spoke with nearly 1,000 people.
Asked about her plans for the future, she says she will keep doing what she does. "It would frighten me not to write," she says. Mostly she afflicts the comfortable.
On this day, Kelley appears pretty comfortable herself.
"I write books about subjects who don't want to be written about," she told a gathering of investigative reporters and editors last year. She said she begins each project by reading everything that is written about her subject. She lets everyone know what she is writing about and she listens to everyone's stories. She calls and writes and asks friends to intercede. She said she has a sign in her office that reads: "Speak the truth but ride a fast horse." She has a stone from the beach at Normandy that she holds for courage when calling someone on the phone.
The most unnerving way to get an interview, she said, is to show up at someone's doorstep unannounced.
"Nothing in the world," she told the reporters, "will take the place of persistence."
So now she is persistently flacking her new book. She is scheduled to be on "Today" again Tuesday. And Wednesday. And on other shows along the way.
She tilts her head coquettishly when told by a Doubleday publicist that she has to rush off to her next engagement. She excuses herself and heads for the door.
She doesn't even stick around for her veal.