The Unauthorized Biographer's Challenge
When Isabel Vincent set out to write about Lily Safra, one of the world’s wealthiest widows, she encountered silence and obstructions at every turn. She writes about her experience and how others like Kitty Kelley face a similar difficulty.
Earlier this year when I was deep into the final edit of my book, Gilded Lily, executives in the legal department of my publisher received a visit from a courtly and very distinguished gentleman who also happened to be one of the most powerful lawyers in the country.
Brendan Sullivan arrived at the E. 53rd St. offices of Harper Collins with a binder of legal documents. He said he just happened to be passing through from Washington, and wanted to make sure that we were aware of some of the key events in the life of his client, Lily Safra—a socialite and one of the world’s biggest philanthropists. Among the documents were court transcripts from Monaco, where Safra’s fourth husband, the legendary banker Edmond Safra, was killed in a fire set by his American male nurse in December 1999. There were also police and autopsy records from Rio de Janeiro detailing the suicide of Safra’s second husband, an appliance store magnate who shot himself twice with a revolver in 1969.
So what’s an unauthorized biographer to do? Remain undaunted and keep working.
Although he was by all accounts very pleasant, there was no mistaking Sullivan’s message. When you are one of the biggest attorneys in America, with a list of former clients that includes Lt. Colonel Oliver North you don’t just drop by to be friendly.
Embarking on an unauthorized biography requires a strong stomach. During the four years that I spent researching Safra’s life, I struggled with public records searches on three continents. Then there were the friends and former employees who were reluctant to speak for fear of being sued by a woman who is used to getting her way. In some cases, I tracked down Safra’s friends and acquaintances only to be told that they didn’t have a clue as to whom I was speaking about.
But for me, the most difficult part surely came after all the research and legal reviews by Harper Collins’ lawyers were completed and the book was finally published. That’s when most people ignored it. Publishers in countries with weak libel laws admitted they wanted nothing to do with the book. The United Kingdom, for instance, is dangerous territory, since describing the inside of someone’s home there can result in a libel suit. But journalists and media executives in this country who are protected by the First Amendment preferred not to make waves, either.
Still, I was luckier than my much more famous counterparts. When Andrew Morton published his unauthorized biography of Angelina Jolie in August, just about every talk show in the country refused to have him as a guest, for fear of upsetting the Hollywood star.
“Even the Hollywood Reporter was moved to point out the self-censorship practiced by these broadcasters,” said Morton, who has also written what he calls “independent biographies” of Tom Cruise, Madonna, and Princess Diana. “It is a depressing development.”
According to Morton, the network executives are “guilty of genuflecting to Hollywood’s celebrity elite.” As a result, they simply “ignored a book that made headlines around the world.”
Much the same happened to veteran biographer Kitty Kelley when her unauthorized biography of Oprah Winfrey was released in April. “I saw the full force of Oprah's power and influence upon publication… when some in the mainstream media boycotted this book,” writes Kelley in an introduction which will be included in the paperback version to be released early next year.
“Larry King barred me from his CNN talk show because he did not want to offend Oprah,” she said.
Barbara Walters did the same thing. She refused to have Kelley on The View, and then went on the air to denounce unauthorized biographies in general. The authors of such tomes, she said, simply try to “get dirt” on their subjects.
It didn’t matter that Walters had not read Kelley’s book. Besides, she may have had other more pressing reasons to ban Kelley: “At the time she was negotiating with ABC for The View to be syndicated in the 4 p.m. time slot of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011 when Oprah retired from broadcast television. In the end, notes Kelley, ABC refused to syndicate Walters' show, which she acknowledged lost her millions of dollars.
So what’s an unauthorized biographer to do? Remain undaunted and keep working. That at least was the advice of Dominick Dunne, the legendary Vanity Fair columnist who had spent years writing about celebrities and wealthy people who might have preferred to keep many things under wraps.
But in the end it’s not so much the subject’s repudiation that stings, it’s the reaction from your own peers. Morton emailed me the following epigram from the poet Humbert Wolfe. Although he was speaking about British journalists, Wolfe’s observation equally applies to many of their American counterparts: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”
Isabel Vincent is an award-winning investigative journalist currently working for the New York Post. She is the author of Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas; Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice; and See No Evil: The Strange Case of Christine Lamont and David Spencer. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times "T" Magazine, the Independent, Marie Claire, L'Officiel (Paris), and many other international publications. She lives in New York City.