Kitty Kelley, Sinatra, and the Problems of ‘Authorized’ Biography

Her courage in defense of writing about Sinatra, who sued her even before she had put a single word on paper, is an example that has inspired generations of biographers.

CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons
Frank Sinatra performing in September 1962. CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons

If a book was offered to the public as the authorized history of the French Revolution, your first thought would likely be: Who could have possibly “authorized” such a work? The very idea, of course, is preposterous.

Yet when it comes to biography, the word “authorized” carries weight — at least with some publishers and readers. To be authorized is understood as being reliable. It would then follow that to be unauthorized is understood as unreliable. This distinction is also preposterous.

The biographical subject often assumes an ownership — indeed, a proprietorship — that precludes anyone else from getting into the business of writing about the biographical subject’s life. Yet as with history, what Danton or Robespierre thought of themselves is not the last word. Why should that be different for biography?

Yet as soon as a biography is called “unauthorized,” it is presumed to be, in some way, illegitimate, and perhaps even scurrilous, or as the British are fond of saying, “salacious.” In my five decades as a biographer I have rarely encountered anyone who immediately responded to an authorized biography by saying: “Well, that’s a coverup.” 

Yet, to get “authorization,” to apply for permission to write a biography, seems to me an aggravated assault on the very idea of what biography, like history, is supposed to be. Subjects of biography do not, in fact, own their own lives. They have already given themselves away to friends, family, lovers, accountants, psychiatrists, and, in some cases, to fame, which they often nonetheless try to control by any means necessary.

I resumed thinking about authorized biography after hearing Kitty Kelley address the Biographers International Organization on May 20 at the Levy Center for Biography, part of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She recounted her career as a so-called unauthorized biographer, sued for $2 million by Frank Sinatra even before she had put a single word on paper. She refused to abandon her biography. 

Sinatra asserted the property rights in his own life, but his case fell apart and he dropped the suit and his effort to hold history hostage to his amour-propre. Ms. Kelley’s courage in defense of writing about Sinatra is an example that has inspired generations of biographers, among whom I include myself. That she has now donated $1 million to the Biographers International Organization simply makes the careers of many new biographers possible and practical.

Authorization presumes there can be some kind of coalescence between biographer and subject, but in effect authorization is co-optation, with the biographer becoming the agent of the subject or of the subject’s estate.  

I subscribe to what might be called a conflict of interest theory of biography. There is Martha Gellhorn’s interest in her life — to name one of my subjects — and my interest in that life, and those two interests conflict, as they must.  To be clear, while Gellhorn resented my biography of her, I never resented her objection to my work. She could always write her autobiography.  

I’m not sure why what seems to me obvious — that no one can authorize a biography — is so hard for some to grasp. Early on in my career, the poet Richard Wilbur told me why he had rejected Lillian Hellman’s command to speak to no one except her authorized biographer. “What right did she have to tell me who I can speak to?” he said to me. “After all, it is my life too.” 

So, Wilbur talked to me while John Hersey and William Styron were among those who wrote apologetic letters to me explaining they were under the Hellman edict to speak only to the authorized biographer who, by the way, never produced his book. They kept their promises even after she died, and even though her injunction had not been directed specifically at me. Such was her hold; such was the shackle of authorization that hobbled writers who otherwise thought of themselves as bold truth tellers.

Sinatra was notorious for his recalcitrant behavior on movie sets.  He resented directors and said to one of them who began to direct him: “Suggest.” That scene is in Kitty Kelley’s splendid biography, and it tells us so much about her biographical subject and why he could not be allowed to have the last word.

Mr. Rollyson is the author of “Confessions of a Serial Biographer.”

The New York Sun

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