My friend Katharine Carr Esters sounded forlorn this week, saying she wished that everybody—including me—would leave her alone about a subject that's made her life miserable lately: Kitty Kelley's bestselling book Oprah, which churns up every scoop of dirt Kelley could find on Oprah Winfrey, who happens to be Esters' second cousin. Esters let Kelley interview her over a three-day period in the summer of 2007. Now she wishes she could take it back.
"If I had it to do over again," she wearily said over the phone, "I wouldn't have talked to her at all."
"If I had it to do over again," Oprah's cousin said wearily, "I wouldn't have talked to her at all."
• Speed Read Kitty Kelley’s Oprah Bio The 82-year-old Esters, who still lives near the central Mississippi town of Kosciusko—where Oprah spent six years of her childhood—was quoted several times, usually attached to non-flabbergasting statements that, she concedes, Kelley conveyed accurately. One was Esters' observation that Oprah has sometimes exaggerated the level of poverty she endured as a kid—not enough toys, too many cockroaches on the walls, etc.—to self-dramatize her rags-to-riches triumph. Another was that Oprah repeatedly said "no" when Esters asked to be invited on her TV show to publicize Esters' self-published 2005 memoir, Jay Bird Creek and My Recollections.
"She did refuse to have me on the show," Esters told me in her distinctly non-whiney way. "She said my book was mediocre. That it was not something that would interest anybody to read."
But the revelation that has her in a tailspin—and that she flatly denies having said—is something that isn't found in the book. During a Today show interview with Natalie Morales on April 13, Kelley said Esters revealed the Big Oprah Secret to her: the identity of Oprah's biological father. (Oprah's male parent growing up was a man named Vernon Winfrey, but the identity of her bio-dad is reportedly still unknown to her, because her mother, Vernita Lee, won't reveal it.) From the start, Kelley has been dangling this newsmaker as a mystery morsel, a Deep Throat appetizer we're allowed to contemplate, even sniff, but not consume just yet.
"Kelley says Esters told her that . . . Vernon Winfrey is not her real father, and spilled the beans to her about who actually is," MSNBC.com reported that day. "Appearing surprised by Kelley's assertion, Morales said, 'If you reveal all of her other secrets, why not say, "Oprah, this is your father?" ' "
"I gave my word of honor I wouldn't do it," Kelley replied, "because Mrs. Esters says that Oprah's mother . . . it's her place to do it. And so Mrs. Esters has not told Oprah, although Oprah has begged to find out who her father is.' "
Whether that's fact or fiction, it's undeniably brilliant as a marketing gimmick. The truth is available, Kelley says. Indeed, I know what it is. But I'm ethically bound not to reveal what I know until the reluctant source turns the golden key that will unlock my lips. Bonus: Oprah will be happier if this happens.
I took a special interest in this fracas because I interviewed Esters myself in late 2007, in connection with a book I recently finished, The Eyes of Willie McGee, which concerns a famous capital-punishment case that played out in Mississippi between 1945 and 1951. I was trying to find information about a long-dead character who hailed from Esters' part of the state. Locally, Esters is well-known as a genealogy expert, and I'd heard about her from a Kosciusko librarian. Esters wasn't much help for my immediate needs, but I loved getting a chance to hear her life story, an amazing tale of survival and resilience during the Jim Crow era that's told (quite readably) in Jaybird Creek.
A tall, sturdy woman with a deep voice, Esters struck me as impeccably honest, straightforward, and old school. Example: She's a dialysis patient, and the day before I showed up, she had to be whisked off to an emergency room to—as she put it—get a dangerous blood clot "reamed" out of her left arm. Even so, she still made time for me, on the same night that she came home with a bandaged wing. We talked for two hours as she rested on a reclino-bed that's set up in the den of her house, which is nestled in the woodsy countryside north of Kosciusko. On the walls, there were photos of her and Oprah, along with an old image of Esters' great-grandfather, a white Civil War veteran named Alfred Carr.
Because of my previous exposure to Esters, I had trouble imagining her lying about anything, or, conversely, somehow "forgetting" that she'd dropped Oprah's biggest secret to a stranger. On the phone, Esters assured me that Kelley's statements about their meetings are a big, honking fabrication. She said Kelley asked the question but didn't get the answer she sought.
"So she did ask you about that?" I said.
"Yeah. But I told her, 'How could I know? Ask her mother. . . .' And then she bent it all out of shape."
Once Esters' denials vibrated through the ether, Kelley issued a statement that returned serve forcibly, saying the interview happened, that Kelley knows the secret name, and that she's personally anguished to hear that Esters is now disavowing it.
I spoke with Kelley on the phone—she was in Atlanta, on her book tour—and she presented a version of reality that differs in every possible way from Esters'. Esters said Kelley pretended to be an upbeat, happy-news sort of journalist, and that her goal was to write an Oprah book that swept away all the lies promulgated by other writers. Kelley denies any charges of chicanery. She also told me that she has the name of Oprah's dad on tape and in a notebook, but that she's going to honor her vow not to reveal it until Esters waves the green flag.
"She said, 'You have to give me your word of honor that you won't use this, because Oprah doesn't know,' " Kelley recalled. "She told me that Oprah has cried on her shoulder often, asking to know . . . She went into great detail about it, and I said, 'All right, I promise you that I won't.' "
In her press release, Kelley said she would soon contact Esters "to formally request that she release me" from her vow of silence. Had she done that yet? No. Is she going to? Yes, she said, as soon as she's not so busy with her book tour. Meanwhile, others are apparently clamoring. Esters said the Star called her, offering $10,000 for the goods.
As for Kelley's dispute with Esters, I pointed out that there seem to be only two possibilities: One of them was lying, or one of them somehow forgot what really happened. Kelley mentioned one other: That Esters has been stomped into submission by an 800-pound Harpo.
"Alex, I have written about the most powerful woman on the planet," she said dramatically. "I'm sure that great pressure has been brought to bear on Mrs. Esters." Did she have evidence for this claim, or was it just a hunch? A hunch. For her part, Esters says she hasn't heard from Oprah since the blowup started.
We may never know who's telling the truth. Is Kelley capable of lying? Um, yeah, I think so—entire episodes of The Larry King Show have been devoted to illustrating that proposition. Is Esters capable of forgetting? Probably. She sounds a lot older than she did just three years ago, which makes me worry about her health. The one thing I'm sure I don't believe is that Kelley is especially torn up about having put this great old lady in a bind. If that were a real concern, she should have never opened her mouth.
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside Magazine and the author of The Eyes of Willie McGee, which will be published May 11 by HarperCollins.