A thousand years ago, back when I was writing book reviews for Newsday, Laurie Muchnick and Emily Gordon asked their stable of regular reviewers to make a summer reading recommendation. Mine was Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. Before I retire, I still plan to teach a course on American Politics where Kelly’s biography is the only text on the syllabus. In the meantime, here’s what I said back in 2000, about Kelley’s biography.
A friend of mine in graduate school, a member of the Communist Party even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liked to brag that when he taught American politics he would assign only Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. I thought he was crazy. Until I read the book.
Authored by a reporter dubbed “the Saddam Hussein of privacy invasion,” Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography (Pocket Books, out of print) was more than a nasty assault on a nasty woman. It was also a poignant chronicle of America’s hidden history: the obsessive quest for privilege in a country that denies its existence. Through Reagan’s persona, Kelley profiled those Americans who reinvent their pasts, invoking imagined genealogies of gentility as cover for working-class backgrounds. Not since Alexis de Tocqueville had anyone produced such a devastating cultural biography of a nation committed in theory to equality but in practice to elitism.
“Two entries on Nancy Reagan’s birth certificate are still accurate—her sex and her color. Almost every other item was invented then or later reinvented.” So begins this merciless epic, straight out of Dreiser, of a poor, unhappy girl who lies her way to the top. The detritus along the way is extensive: the hushed-up suicide of an uncle broken by a miserable marriage; a birth father spurned and an adopted father embraced, all for the sake of money; a desperately engineered marriage to a second-rate actor with a wandering eye, wayward heart and shared penchant for ambitious fantasy.
“Nancy Reagan” suggests that the cost of social climbing in America goes beyond personal unhappiness. Because of our ache for aristocracy, we’ve suffered a terminal case of collective self-deception in this country, refusing to acknowledge that the poor are one of us, that a society built as a monument to personal success means that only a few can achieve it, that wealth is not a measure of merit but luck, power and personal connection.
As the Greek tragedians understood so well, an act of deception—particularly about one’s family—can wreak havoc upon the body politic. In this regard, Kelley’s biography remains a work of unfulfilled prophecy, anticipating not the Clinton impeachment scandals but the conflict that is to come when America wakes up and realizes the inequalities created in the name of Nancy.
Having said that, I found “Nancy Reagan” to be an exceedingly funny book—maybe because it was a pleasant distraction from a summer of lethal reading in preparation for my PhD qualifying exams, or because I was amused at the thought of my friend’s forcing rich kids to read it. Whatever the case, I giggled my way through a hot July. Who says Communists don’t have a sense of humor?
Actually, if you’re interested in the wider cultural ramifications of Nancy Reagan (and would like a little historical perspective to avoid the canonization that has already begun; live long enough, and you really do see everything), I’d also recommend another book: Deborah Silverman’s Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America.