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Oprah, Kitty and Me

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I've never been able to control my public image. Because my first successful book was thought to be about sex, sex, sex, I got stuck being the happy ho of literature and that image has been hard to dodge -- especially in sex-crazed puritanical, America. In the rest of the world, I'm an author, not the happy hooker.

When I first met Oprah Winfrey in the sauna at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate Mexico -- just an hour down the road from San Diego, we were both pudgy and young and we dished about how hard it is for public women to find supportive and sexy men. It was a GREAT conversation. And following it, I accepted Oprah's invitation to come down to Baltimore and be on her local talk show. At that time, I was probably better known than she. I had already been published all over the world. But I liked her and thought we were friends from the spa.

"Don't worry if I nudge my co-presenter," she explained. "It's how we communicate on air." And indeed, she kept poking him. It was odd, but memorable. I'd done quite a few programs without ever seeing this.

I always liked her verve, her lusty humor, her bounce, and I really didn't care whether she was born rich, poor or middle class. Who knew? We had stuff in common, both were talkative and funny.

As she got more and more famous, I saw her again as an interviewee with my daughter Molly, talking about teenagers and sex.

I later saw her at Madison Square Garden where we both participated in the Vagina Monologues with Eve Ensler, Shirley Knight, Glenn Close, Jane Fonda, Calista Flockhart, et al.

Jane, then in retirement, was amazing. So were many of the other actresses. There was talent to burn in that common dressing room. Nobody seemed self-conscious. They were all eating up the camaraderie as I was. I adored being with all those famous women running around in our underwear and bonding like college kids. It was fun and collegial. Oprah was the only one of those icons with a private dressing room. I thought she'd missed out. Was she afraid to be seen undressed? Was she fat phobic? But I had met her first wearing a towel in the sauna. She wasn't embarrassed then. Puzzling.

I always liked her, found her fun and warm -- but I couldn't help noticing how guarded she was becoming. I understand. When everyone thinks they know you, it's hard not to be guarded. Fame is a shocker -- and Oprah by 2001 when we did the Vagina Monologues she had had far more of it than me. I understand her wanting to protect herself.

But wanting to protect yourself -- understandable as it is -- can backfire. People think they know you as accessible and friendly and when you disappoint them, they feel hurt and rejected.

I didn't feel rejected. I felt she was a friend and I got the self-protectiveness thing.

When Tina Brown asked me to write a profile of Oprah for the New Yorker, I came to it as an admirer. I loved Oprah's Angel Network and the philanthropy she was both doing and inspiring others to do. I still admire this.

I laid out my thoughts to Oprah and she didn't say yes, didn't say no -- but agreed to "pray over it." Fair enough.

When we spoke a week later, she declined, mostly, I think, because of a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison -- which I'd never seen. It had really stung her. And somehow she saw all New York publications as related. I understood this. I really did.

I have forgotten my rave reviews and memorized my vicious ones -- like most writers. So I understood. I went back to the current novel disappointed, but also relieved. It's hard to do fiction and nonfiction simultaneously. And I knew the research for this piece would be exhaustive and difficult. I'd already tried to find a biography of Oprah at used book dealers and found them scarce. Had someone bought them up, taken them off the market. Who knows?

But when you dodge interviews -- even one as classy as the New Yorker (which is not known for trashing people), people become intrigued. Why? A New Yorker profile is usually seen as a great coup.

"I don't need a white New York magazine -- I could have my own magazine," she said.

"Of course you could" I said.

Then I called up Ellen Levine at Good Housekeeping, met with her and suggested that we do a whole issue celebrating Oprah.

"She could be the editor," I said. That way she wouldn't be nervous.

I don't know if I suggested O magazine or if great minds think alike or if O was already in the works, but I have tons of ideas and give them freely. There are always more to come.

You can't copyright ideas, as I know from my cute lawyer husband. So if I enriched Hearst and Oprah so be it. I never became a writer for the money. I am a poet first. Even getting published is a miracle for poets.

When did I meet Kitty Kelley? Probably about a decade ago at a Riverdale reunion. Our husbands were high school classmates. Her husband, Jonathan Zucker M.D. is one of the nicest and funniest men I've ever met. So is my husband. That Riverdale class was full of smart, nice men. So Kitty and I met through our spouses and we really laughed a lot. Then we began renting houses in Provence with our husbands and we drank a lot and laughed a lot and ate at great restaurants and gained weight together and lost weight together, etc.

We complained about our worst reviews. We gossiped. I discovered that Kelley is a fiercely hard worker, has often been sued but never had a lawsuit stick because her research is so thorough. She works and works and works. When she's in the middle of a book, you can't even have dinner with her. She's maniacal and a perfectionist. She's also a loyal friend.

When she decided to write about Oprah it was out of admiration. That I know. I wasn't there when she wrote the book, but I know that writers rarely spend years on a book about someone they hate. You live with that person for years, after all.

But guardedness can backfire. And Oprah's attempt to be self-protective may have pissed people off. Never having experienced the madness of fame, they didn't get it. When you can make people sign confidentiality agreements (which I think are sleazy), you may start to think you're the queen.

I've met lots of famous people who were modest and self-effacing (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Liz Taylor come to mind) and the really great ones are not always manipulators or shits. They can be humble and funny. You are charmed by their ability to laugh at themselves.

Paul Newman told me to "write a western" for him. I guess he hadn't read my books.

But Oprah seems to have gotten more mistrustful with fame, not less. And she seems to have gotten more race conscious than she was when she was younger. You never felt that Oprah was a professional Negro. She seemed totally unaware of race -- but what do I know about being black? It's not like being Jewish with a Chinese nom de plume.

I believe that racism is far from extinguished in the world -- despite the celebration that greeted the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Racism lurks in our country and all over the world. But people who have transcended prejudice have a special obligation not to carry grudges. After all, grudges hurt the grudge-holder most. We also have a responsibility to set a good example by not holding grudges.

What do I think of Kitty's book? The truth is I've only begun it. Give me a few days to read it.

Still, you can go to the bank on her fact-checking -- that I know for sure. I admire it. Fact-checking is becoming obsolete alas.

As for Oprah, I wish we were still friends, though my feeling is that she's changed from that funky, funny girl in Mexico and Baltimore. I hope not. But think of the pressure she must be under. I get it. I understand her vulnerability. And I don't resent her. Being Jewish -- even if a Jewnitarian -- is not the same as being black, however much we may identify as tribes. I hope Oprah is happy. I hope she learns to laugh at the foibles of fame as I have. Who cares what the world thinks if you learn to love yourself?

May she find that peace if she hasn't yet.

I deeply regret offending readers of this blog. It was never my wish to do so. As a small gesture of amend, I am sending a check for $5000 to the United Negro College Fund in the hopes that my blunder can be forgiven.