From the moment that Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography hit the bookstores, it has been under attack. Could the figure Kelley portrays really be the former First Lady—petty, greedy, compassionless, a social climber and manipulator? Or is it caustic Kitty’s own methods and standards that aren’t so pretty—the barrage of unattributed assertions, the jabs from some unreliable sources, the absence of context and evaluation?
“You can see that something is right about this book,” Kelley maintained last week. “It is disturbing too many powerful people not to be taken seriously.” As for the denials that filled the air, Kelley said, “I’m accustomed to this. I am fully prepared for people to step forward and say, ‘I didn’t talk to her.’ ”
The Reagans, whose Bel Air house was swamped with calls and flowers from well-wishers, continued on their appointed rounds. Ronald threw out the first ball at Dodgers’ stadium. Nancy attended a baby shower at a Beverly Hills restaurant. Both turned up at a dinner party at industrialist Allen Poulson’s house, where, according to one friend, they seemed “quite relaxed and normal.”
Meanwhile, the debate raging around them is a morass of contradictory charges and countercharges, few capable of being resolved. The following pages offer voices from both sides—Kelley and her sources, and Reagan loyalists and defenders. Readers may, as they must ultimately, judge for themselves.
EX-STARLETS & ALLEGATIONS
Kelley’s book contains startling claims about Ronald Reagan’s past; we visited three of her sources
JACQUELINE PARK: “HE WAS A SWINGER IN THOSE DAYS”
KELLEY CLAIMS: After the breakup of his marriage to Wyman and before he met Nancy, Reagan had an affair with starlet Jacqueline Park, later the mistress of Warner Bros, studio boss Jack Warner. Park told Kelley that when the two began dating, Reagan “couldn’t perform sexually. I think he was still suffering withdrawal pains from [former wife] Jane Wyman.” Throughout their liaison, Park said, “He never took me out in public, never gave me a present and never ever paid for a cab for me.” According to Park, she became pregnant; Reagan denied that the child was his and ended the affair.
JACQUELINE PARK SAYS: Kelley quoted her fairly accurately. “When I told him I was pregnant, he said he didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. He just ran out on me. He was a swinger in those days. He went out with this girl and that girl. But the moment he married Nancy and became a Republican, he was reformed, and there’s nothing more boring than a reformed swinger.”
WORTH NOTING: Park is now a Manhattan “psychodramatist,” or sex therapist (in photo at left, supplied by her), who charges her male clients $100 an hour to “act out their fantasies.” She is seeking a publisher for her 10-year-old book manuscript, Memoirs of a Hollywood Mistress.
SELENE WALTERS: “THE BATTLE OF THE COUCH”
KELLEY CLAIMS: Reagan met starlet Selene Walters in a Hollywood nightclub in the cart) 1950s. Although I was on a date,” she quotes Walters as saying, “Ronnie kept whispering in my ear, ‘I’d like to call you. How can I get in touch with you?’ ” Hoping that Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, could boost her career, Walters gave him her address and was surprised when he came calling at 3 A.M. “He pushed his way inside and said he just had to see me. He forced me on the couch…and said, ‘Let’s just get to know each other.’ It was the most pitched battle I’ve ever had, and suddenly in a matter of seconds I lost…. They call it date rape today….”
SELENE WALTERS SAYS: Kelley’s account of his late-night visit is essentially accurate, although he never forced his way into her apartment. “I opened the door. Then it was the battle of the couch. I was fighting him. I didn’t want him to make love to me. He’s a very big man, and he just had his way. Date rape? No, God, no, that’s [Kelley’s] phrase. I didn’t have a chance to have a date with him.” Walters says she bears Reagan no ill will, and has even voted for him: “I don’t think he meant to harm me.”
ALSO WORTH NOTING: Walters, who writes a column in Spotlight Casting Magazine and lives with her third husband, a CPA, in an apartment in Beverly Hills, hopes to find a publisher for a book she has written about her Hollywood experiences.
DORIS LILLY: “HE WAS VERY GENTLE, VERY SQUARE”
KELLEY CLAIMS: Writer and columnist Doris Lilly (How to Marry a Millionaire) told the author that she and Reagan “had a delightful little romance” for about a year in 1948. Lilly is quoted as saying, “Intimately, he was nothing memorable, but he was an appealing-looking guy who was very, very sweet. I hale to say that he was weak—maybe a nicer word would be passive…. He loved to go out and be seen at all the nightclubs in those days, and he loved to drink, so we used to go out and get smashed.”
DORIS LILLY SAYS: “I never used the words ‘get smashed. I don’t talk that way. Those were the days when everybody drank. He was never drunk. He never did anything in the extreme. He was a very gentle, very square, very hayseed type of a man.” Lilly (with Reagan, left, at the Stork Club in Manhattan in 1949) adds, “And I never said we had an intimate relationship. I don’t talk about sex. That’s not my generation.”
LUNCH WITH SINATRA: WAS LOVE ON THE MENU?
KELLEY CLAIMS: That Nancy and Sinatra began having an affair when her husband was Governor of California and “continued for years.” As First Lady, Kelley writes, Nancy entertained Sinatra at the White House, which he entered “in the back way,” for three-or four-hour “private ‘luncheons’ ” in the family quarters. When Nancy was with him, Kelley quotes a staffer as saying, “She was not to be disturbed. For anything. And that included a call from the President himself.”
SHEILA TATE, NANCY’S FORMER PRESS SECRETARY, SAYS: “The instance I know [was] a very innocent lunch, without any quotations around it. There was a meeting with the whole senior staff and Sinatra and Nancy. Then they did have lunch, but by 1:30 or 2:00 he was in the Oval Office.” Tate says that all guests were always escorted to the residence elevator. “[Kelley] loosely calls that being brought ‘in the back.’ And it was not unusual for calls to be held during a meeting or when a guest was visiting. It was out of common courtesy.”
JOE CANZERI, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ASSISTANT: “I’m not saying that they might not have been alone together. But if [Kelley says] they were jumping up and down on top of one another, that would be a lie. There are too many people upstairs at the White House. There’s the Secret Service right outside the door.”
AN EVENING OF REEFER MADNESS WITH JACK BENNY?
KELLEY CLAIMS: While Reagan was Governor, he and Nancy attended a dinner party at the home of society pals Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale at which marijuana was smoked. After Betsy’s peach ice-cream dessert, Kelley’s source reports, Alfred brought out a joint and passed it among the guests, who included the Jack Bennys and the George Burnses. The source, Bloomingdale aide Sheldon Davis, claims he heard Alfred talk about the incident at the office later: “Within five minutes they all started giggling but claimed they didn’t feel a thing and said they couldn’t see what the big deal was.”
BETSY RLOOMINGDALE SAYS: “That never took place. Have you got a mental picture of me serving marijuana to George Burns and Jack Benny and the Reagans? George Burns puffing away at the table and without his cigar? I looked at that and said, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ That’s my answer to that and the rest of the book.”
OF PATTI, ABORTION AND TEDDY BEARS
KELLEY CLAIMS: Nancy’s daughter, Patti Davis, “had abortions,” according to the daughter of one of Nancy’s close friends. Kelley writes that Nancy “once rushed [Patti] off’ for “surgery on a botched-up job.” As for stepson Michael, Kelley alleges that Nancy made a birthday present to his son Cameron of a teddy bear that had been recycled from the White House gift closet—the same toy Cameron had lost there a few months earlier.
PATTI DAVIS SAYS: “I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never had an abortion. If I had had one, I would have written an article on it for MS. magazine, because I’m pro-choice.” But I don’t blame Kitty Kelley for that because she must have gotten the story from one of my mother’s friends. They have nothing else to do but sit around at the Bistro [a Beverly Hills restaurant] and tell stories.”
MICHAEL REAGAN SAYS: “The stories about me come right out of my book [On the Out side Looking In, 1988].” The teddy bear tale, he says, is essentially true, although his parents “had no idea that Cameron had already seen that bear, or where it came from. And it came with a card and inside the card was a check. The check isn’t mentioned in Kelley’s book. [As told] it implies cheap.”
MUCH ADO ABOUT NANCY’S HAIRDO
KELLEY CLAIMS: One of Nancy’s hairdressers, Julius Bengtsson of Los Angeles, “dyed…the President’s gray roots.” She quotes Joanne Carson, Johnny Carson’s former wife, as saying that Nancy did not pay for hairdressing. Kelley also quotes a presidential assistant calling Bengtsson “a pain in the ass,” and she writes that he traveled in the Reagans’ helicopter to the 1981 inaugural gala so he could do last-minute touchups.
JULIIS BENGTSSON SAYS: “I’ve never tinted [Reagan’s] hair. Never. He doesn’t tint it.” Bengtsson, who says he was never interviewed by Kelley, reports that when Nancy was the Governor’s wife she always paid for her hairdressing. “Obviously there were some people at the White House who didn’t like me. [The book] makes me out to be a real prima donna, [but] I never asked anybody for anything. I just went where [the White House aides] told me. [For the inaugural gala] I went on a helicopter, not their helicopter. I went with some of the staff.”
ROBIN WEIR, NANCY’S WASHINGTON HAIRDRESSER, SAYS: “The thing about her not paying was absolutely not true with me. Mrs. Reagan was insistent that she get a bill.” Weir, who is not mentioned by Kelley, once mistakenly charged Nancy for a comb-out on June 6, 1984; the item was crossed out and “Normandy” was written next to it, indicating that Nancy had been abroad. Eight dollars were deducted from her bill.
JIM AND SARAH BRADY: THE RIFT THAT WASN’T?
KELLEY CLAIMS: After press secretary Jim Brady was gravely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on the President, Nancy “refused to invite him to any White House social functions” because his condition was too painful a reminder of what had happened to Reagan. “Only when she found out that she was going to be publicly criticized in a  biography of Brady for such callous disregard did he receive an invitation…” Kelley writes. At a dinner party a few weeks after the shooting, Nancy and Jim’s wife, Sarah, sat at the same table, where “Nancy, still rattled by the shooting, monopolized the conversation by talking about how much she had suffered when the President was shot. She seemed oblivious to Sarah Brady.”
SARAH BRADY SAYS: “I don’t ever recall going to a ‘large dinner’ and being sealed at the same table with Mrs. Reagan in those years. And it’s totally out of character for her to monopolize the conversation.” According to Mrs. Brady, Nancy invited the couple to the White House “an awful lot” both before and after the shooting: “I felt that we got more support from [the Reagans] than we could ever have hoped for from anybody. [In 1982] we were at a state dinner and we had to leave because Jim wasn’t feeling well. We weren’t home an hour before a car arrived with a mousse cake. She had had the cake sent because we missed dessert. She always did thoughtful things like that.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ‘A CUTE LITTLE BIMBO SHE IS NOT’
Who is the pint-size woman ’round whose poufy blond curls the maelstrom swirls? Kitty Kelley, 49, was born in Spokane, Wash., the eldest of seven children of a well-to-do lawyer and an alcoholic mother. After graduating from the University of Washington, Kelley worked as a receptionist for Sen. Eugene McCarthy (she would later say she’d been his press secretary), then as a researcher for the Washington Post.
Kelley can be “smarmy, nicey, charmy,” says a former friend. “She’s a great actress and can work up a tear in a flash,” says one Washington, D.C., editor. “She tells very funny stories, but you can’t take their pedigrees for granted.” Veteran journalist Sarah McClendon admires her digging skills, but adds, “She does not impress me as being spontaneously sweet.”
Kelley, who is divorced from onetime publicist Michael Peter Edgley, drives a red Mercedes-Benz, jogs, hates cooking, guzzles diet cola and works with one full-time researcher out of her Georgetown home, hiring others as needed. She comes to an interview stunningly well prepared and, says her friend, author Nicholas von Hoffman, “has the perseverance of an aluminum siding salesman.”
What drives the Kelley machine? “She’s been underestimated all her life,” says another friend, columnist Marianne Means. “She is cute and lovable, and it’s easy to think of her as a little bimbo, and she’s not.”
Got any dirt? Tell it to George Carpozi Jr., a prolific contributing editor for the tabloid Star, who early this summer will publish Poison Pen: The Unauthorized Biography of Kitty Kelley.
MARILYN BALAMACI, MARGIE BONNETT SELLINGER AND SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington
ANDREW ABRAHAMS, LOIS ARMSTRONG AND DORIS BACON in Los Angeles
KHOI NGUYEN in New York City