NEW YORK -- In her regal suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, Kitty Kelley takes a deep breath and plows through the surreal melodrama that has captivated the universe.
Imagine what Princess Diana had to do to stand up to her in-laws, she says to one of the 13 reporters to have an audience with her yesterday. It is as if she is discussing a soap opera, whose twists and turns we all know intimately. The reporter nods knowingly.
By dint of her uncanny celebrity radar, it happens that Kelley, the take-no-prisoners unauthorized biographer of Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, has nabbed a supporting role in Diana's tragic fairy tale.
"The Royals" (Warner Books, $27), her account of one of the world's most prominently dysfunctional families, was scheduled for publication Sept. 23. Then, Diana expired.
It was the best of timing. It was the worst of timing.
There was no time to revise the book; it was shrink-wrapped and ready to go. So Warner Books advanced the publication date to tomorrow, pushing the book's publicists into overdrive. By yesterday afternoon, the ganglion media was at full attention, even as more family matters were spewing from Buckingham Palace.
Kelley, looking a tad wilted in a black suit and chunky pearls, says she was dismayed by the marketing decision. She had put four years into the book, and now it was to appear amid "all this grief and grieving."
The folks at Warner explained that it was all for the best, that
Americans needed a book like hers now more than ever, in order to understand such things as the House of Windsor's German origins and its arcane heraldic subtleties. Maybe only a Stephen King would have the kind of sway needed to postpone publication, Kelley says, as her husband, John Zucker, listens in a corner.
It was one thing for Warner Books to respond to the public's dire needs. It was another, says a peeved Kelley, for People magazine, also a Time Warner property, to pull its serialized excerpt of "The Royals" without explicit explanation.
The carefully constructed matrix of publicity for Kelley's book was built around People's purchase (for $25,000) of exclusive rights to publish pieces of the book in exchange for an embargo that precluded even a mention in Publisher's Weekly.
Kelley suspects that People didn't want to promote an "unvarnished" portrait of the queen, even as she was trying to heal the rift between the sovereign and the people.
Unvarnished -- and unapologetic. By amassing one embarrassing detail on top of another, Kelley's book presents a picture of an imploding royal family, whose pratfalls and foibles occur at a farcically quick clip.
Without stopping to analyze or synthesize her material, Kelley exposes such skeletons as the family's Nazi ties, poor education, lousy child-rearing skills, numerous affairs and so on.
See Albert mess around. See Diana pushing her stepmother to the ground. See Fergie talk dirty and fall for an investment charlatan. (Such details will prevent the book's publication in Great Britain, where the libel laws are fierce.)
Kelley calls it "cultural history," a mass of material that you take on face value.
"I'm not in the missionary business," she says. "I am not a royalist, I am not a Republican, I am a democrat with a small 'd.' "
She purrs with pleasure when shown a scholarly journal piece by a biographer who lauds her research methods and admits, "No less than celebrity biographers, literary biographers are on garbage detail."
If Diana hadn't died, Kelley's book would be best remembered for its sensational claims that the queen and her sister are turkey-baster babies, the products of artificial insemination. That Queen Elizabeth suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder. That the Queen Mother was illegitimate and that Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew's former wife, was at one time hooked on amphetamines. The book would become a reference for those citing royal hubris and secretly recorded phone calls.
Humor, if you subtract the Windsors tragi-comic behavior, is sorely lacking in "The Royals." Much of it comes at the expense of the queen's beloved corgi dogs. At one point, a documentary of the royal family was dubbed "Corgi and Beth."
But now, the book will be read for omens of Diana's tragic end, of which there are many.
"I saw something haunting. It is eerie to think of this book now and read certain passages," Kelley says. At one point, she cites the candles that nearly flickered out during Prince William's christening. In another, she quotes Prince Charles' quip that he might not live to be king.
Kelley also writes that the press turned on Diana after she lost her title and often dodged photographers in 100 mph car chases.
The book rises to Kelley's definition of cultural history when she addresses the royal family's love/hate relationship with the media. By chronicling their dependence on public relations firms and friendly reporters, Kelley inadvertently explains that the paparazzi conspiracy theory regarding Diana's death is
inadequate. The monarchy, in order to survive, has had to reinvent itself repeatedly through history. And that reinvention could not happen without collusion with the media.
Poor Kitty Kelley. Without Diana, her world is way off kilter. The "sadness came up from some place we hadn't counted on," she says. But there's a job to do. The Orange County Register is waiting.
And tomorrow, there's the "Today Show."
On Diana's diminished status at large, Kitty Kelley writes in her new book, "The Royals":
"Her once respectful press corps turned snippy. Photographers still showed up in full force to cover her because she remained the most famous woman in the world. But they started acting like hooligans, shouting in a way they would never have dared to do before. When she was royal they groveled: 'Please, ma'am, one more shot.' When she was no longer royal they were less respectful. Unflattering photos began popping up: one caught her getting out of a car with mussed hair; abother showed her skirt hiked up to her hips. Without the protection of her royal nimbus, Diana had been reduced to celebrity camera fodder like Mick, Michael, and Madonna.
Pub Date: 9/16/97