“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.”

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 die, 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, 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.

Update (March 10)

Not every day I get an email like this. This one’s for the ages!

Kelly Email 1



  1. Roqeuntin March 6, 2016 at 7:14 pm | #

    Since Amazon was selling these used for basically the cost of shipping, I went ahead and ordered one. Here’s to hoping it lives up to your description of it.

  2. calling all toasters March 6, 2016 at 11:02 pm | #

    “Before I die, I still plan to teach a course on American Politics where Kelly’s biography is the only text on the syllabus.”

    God, I want to take that course.

  3. Stephen Zielinski March 6, 2016 at 11:35 pm | #

    I find it easy to see the affinities that exist between Ronnie and Nancy and the Frivolous Fascist and Lady MacDeath contending for the presidency. Trump may have not had to scale ladders like a parvenu, but he climbs them in any case because it is his nature to do so. Hillary’s quest appears to be nothing more than an attempt to accumulate honor and power. She embodies mindless ambition and a total lack of imagination.

    They differ when compared with the Reagans in at least one respect. Neither could peddle a new beginning like the Reagans. The Reagans promised renewal; Trump and Clinton promise the perfection of an American kind of decadence.

  4. Max March 7, 2016 at 6:36 am | #

    I can attest from my personal experience that some Communists do have an excellent sense of humor. What they typically lack is a sense of compassion for a non-Communist other.

    • Schitty Pete March 7, 2016 at 5:46 pm | #

      Cool story, Max. One time, communists tried to force me to eat my own mother. It’s true, I swear.

  5. lre March 7, 2016 at 2:31 pm | #

    Although critics gagged over Nancy Reagan’s thin sourcing and heavy innuendo, there was again agreement that Kelley was onto something. At the least her book was no more dishonest than the Reagans’ own carefully groomed Norman Rockwell facade.


    Also, reminded of a gem by Alex Cockburn:

    Years ago Roland Barthes wrote about the bourgeois propensity to think in essences, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way Americans think and write about their political leaders…


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