Kitty Kelley, who is known for writing unauthorized, tell-all biographies that enrage her famous subjects, greets visitors with smiles and warmth. Partially concealed by foliage, her peach-hued house is perched high above a tree-lined Georgetown street, and a trip to the front door means climbing a quaint brick stairway into another world.
Kelley has lived in this remarkable spot since she purchased it in 1977 with her first husband. While the three-story, pre-Victorian home was always grand, with high ceilings, elaborate moldings, and three fireplaces, it required a serious update; Kelley recalls “no air conditioning and a toilet attached to the outside brick wall.” For 22 years, the home had belonged to Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, who wrote many landmark opinions there. “I’ve always felt the house has good karma because of Justice Brennan,” Kelley says.
When she remarried in 1992, her second husband, allergist John Zucker, moved in and they redecorated again, going for lush opulence with “swag and chinoiserie everywhere,” Kelley says. The couple collected drawings by Matisse (one is a study for a painting, Reclining Odalisque, that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), two Chagalls and a fanciful work by Raoul Dufy. These were interspersed with 1920s-era European posters in imposing gilt frames.
Sadly, Zucker passed away in 2011. A couple of years later, Kelley reached out to interior designer Sharyn Corry to help her redecorate. “I think I did it because I had a book to write and I was trying to put something in my way,” she laughs.
The two quickly developed an understanding. “Kitty knows exactly what she wants,” Corry comments. “So I would go out and get it for her, then figure out how to make it work—tastefully!”
Corry persuaded her client to go neutral, with a cream-and-beige palette to offset her vibrant artwork. Existing furniture was repurposed with textured fabrics, and a new custom sofa was made for the living room. “I had seen a picture of a Mark Hampton sofa and I drove poor Sharyn crazy till I got it customized with a camelback,” Kelley recounts. She had the back of another sofa built up to create a camelback for the wood-paneled library, too. “I love curves,” the writer explains. “Sharyn said, ‘Kitty, they are so out of style!’ I said ‘Well, so am I.’”
Kelley brings a sense of fun to her home’s interiors, which are formal yet welcoming. In the hall by the staircase, a six-foot brass giraffe stands sentry, and the powder room is adorned with framed satirical newspaper clippings and cartoons Kelley’s books have elicited over the years. “Guests look for excuses to go to the bathroom,” Kelley says, recalling a time when her sister emerged marveling at how Kitty had selected only the “bad stuff” to showcase. “My husband told her, ‘It’s because there isn’t anything good!’”
This irreverence was borne of necessity. Since her first unauthorized biography of Jackie Onassis in 1978, Kelley’s books have been roundly criticized for their salacious details—even as they’ve climbed the bestseller lists. Her subjects have included Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, the Bush family and Oprah Winfrey. “I choose living people who’ve had a lasting influence in our culture,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by people’s backstories.” Since each book requires years of exhaustive research, she selects her subjects carefully. “I was asked to write an unauthorized biography of Donald Trump,” she recalls. “I said no because I just don’t want to spend three or four years with Donald Trump.”
In recent years, Kelley has assumed a new authorial role. After inheriting the archives of photographer and close friend Stanley Tretick, she penned two well-received books: Capturing Camelot, which showcases Tretick’s collection of Kennedy photographs; and Let Freedom Ring, which depicts the 1963 March on Washington. She also supports charities such as Reading is Fundamental and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and hosts frequent fundraisers in her home.
Kelley is now under contract to write a biography of Georgetown itself—both the people and the place. It’s a perfect fit for the longtime resident, who keeps an office near her home. “I have always been attracted to Georgetown,” Kelley says. “The cobblestones, the history. It’s full of charm.”
And she revisited one of her most celebrated subjects—Frank Sinatra—to commemorate his 100th birthday this year. Her 1987 biography His Way will be re-released in November with a new final chapter by Kelley that delves into the ways in which Sinatra’s children “are merchandising their father.”
As far as new celebrity subjects go, there are none in Kelley’s sights. “I think the time for unauthorized biographies is passed,” she says. “It’s all out there already.”
Photographer Bob Narod is based in Herndon, Virginia.
INTERIOR DESIGN: SHARYN CORRY, Washington, DC.