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10 Famous Poisoned Pen Biographies

by Jennifer Lafferty
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Whether written for revenge, financial gain, or just to get the truth out, poisoned pen books exposing the darker side of a celebrity or public figure have long been a popular genre. Sometimes, these exposés are authored by a member of the celeb’s own family, such as the Joan Crawford book Mommie Dearest, penned by the actress’s adopted daughter, Christina Crawford. However, the authors are often professionals who are good at digging up dirt, like Kitty Kelley, who has written controversial bios on a wide range of people, from Frank Sinatra to the British royal family and Nancy Reagan.

While these juicy tell-alls usually draw a certain amount of skepticism, they also tend to be effective at piquing the curiosity of fans and journalists alike. Here are 10 of the most famous poisoned pen books.

Related: 10 Books That Accidently Showed Us Our Future

10 Bette Davis: My Mother’s Keeper

Bette Davis, her daughter B.D. Hyman and ‘My Mother’s Keeper’

Given the actress’s tough and abrasive image, it may be hard to picture Bette Davis as a mom. The 1985 book My Mother’s Keeper by Davis’s daughter B.D. Hyman presents a disturbing behind-the-scenes portrait of her mother. Among other things, Hyman alleges Davis removed her from school at the age of eleven to be her personal assistant. She also said that Davis would punish her children by staging suicides.

While Hyman talked about how different My Mother’s Keeper is to the tell-all book Mommie Dearest—written about Davis’s rival Joan Crawford—comparisons between the two are inevitable, especially given the alleged heavy drinking of Davis and the troubled relationship with her daughter. Hyman has stated that Davis did not abuse her, and she pointed out that she published this book before Davis died, which allowed Bette to respond to what Hyman had said about her.

Not only did Davis comment on My Mother’s Keeper, but she also addressed it at the end of her own memoir, which included a letter to her daughter, discrediting the claims made against her and accusing her of having a “glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life” that she said Hyman had been given. Hyman discussed her relationship with Davis again in the spiritually themed 1987 memoir she wrote with her husband, titled Narrow Is the Way.[1]

9 Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography

Andrew Morton Defends His Book on Tom Cruise

Acclaimed celebrity biographer Andrew Morton has a history of stirring up controversy with his revealing bios about the British royal family, such as Diana: Her True Story. But he has also shaken things up with books about other kinds of celebrities, including the 2008 biography Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography, which Cruise and the Church of Scientology fought hard to prevent from being published.

This book stunned readers with stories involving Cruise’s carefully guarded personal life, such as the claim by now-former wife Katie Holmes that she was required to “audition” to be in a relationship with him. This, along with other odd tales about the actor, paints him as extremely controlling. Another allegation Morton reports is that Holmes signed a contract specifying that “if she or any of her children were ever to suffer from mental or terminal illness, they must turn only to Scientology’s treatments.”

The book also offers a surprising view of Cruise’s marriage to ex-wife Nicole Kidman, including the recollection of one source who described how Cruise used to constantly keep tabs on Kidman. In addition to revelations about Cruise’s love life, the book also contains startling claims related to his involvement in the Church of Scientology. Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology reportedly considered a $100 million lawsuit. They also aggressively refuted allegations and attacked Morton’s credibility.[2]

8 Life with My Sister Madonna

Christopher Ciccone on Madonna

Pop music superstar and actress Madonna has always been a controversial figure due to her edgy and wildly unconventional persona, but the 2008 poisoned pen memoir Life with My Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone gives her critics more ammunition. Ciccone was in an interesting position to write about his sister because, in addition to sharing her childhood and being part of the same family, he spent 20 years working for her.

This book, which Ciccone wrote with co-author Wendy Leigh, portrays Madonna as a cold, disagreeable, and controlling narcissist. At one point, he says: “From her perspective, she is the only person in the universe.” He also talks about her using drugs and describes some strange incidents, such as the time when, according to Ciccone, a somewhat intoxicated Madonna, mysteriously covered in candle wax, was escorted out of a post-Grammy party.[3]

7 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Jackie Oh!

Jackie Kennedy: The Real Story Of America’s Favourite First Lady | Two Sisters | The American Story

There have been many biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widely considered to be the most glamorous and charismatic American first lady ever. In addition to her popularity, the mystique surrounding the very private “Jackie” helped pique the public’s curiosity about this iconic woman who went on to marry extremely wealthy Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

The 1978 book Jackie Oh! was the first biography journalist Kitty Kelley wrote. This huge bestseller depicts her as a spoiled, shallow diva and exposes secrets about the former first lady, including Kelley’s claim that her husband, John F. Kennedy, had, at one point, committed her to a hospital for electroshock therapy.[4]

6 Becoming Beyoncé: The Untold Story

The Making of “Becoming Beyonce” – A Mini Documentary

The singer-songwriter-actress Beyoncé has lived in the spotlight for most of her life, going into show business at the age of eight and rising to stardom first in the popular group Destiny’s Child before launching her iconic solo career and business empire. However, there’s a side to this multi-talented woman that remained in the shadows until prolific bestselling celebrity biographer J. Randy Tarraborrelli wrote about her in the 2015 book Becoming Beyoncé: The Untold Story.

Taraborrelli talks about the notorious elevator incident caught on tape during which her sister Solange physically attacked Jay-Z. It also explores speculation that Beyoncé faked her pregnancy with Blue Ivy, who some believe was secretly adopted. We learn about the many lawsuits waged against Beyoncé and the actions of herself and her ultra-ambitious stage father in the cutthroat music business during their aggressive quest for stardom.[5]

5 Martha Stewart: Just Desserts: The Unauthorized Biography

The Ugly Side Of Martha Stewart

In 1997, several years before Martha Stewart’s five-month imprisonment for obstruction of justice and lying to investigators in her stock market-related scandal, author Jerry Oppenheimer exposed a shocking side of the popular domestic TV host and writer in Martha Stewart: Just Desserts: The Unauthorized Biography. In this highly anticipated bestseller, Oppenheimer chiseled away at the perfect image this homemaking guru had so successfully embodied to reveal many flaws. In fact, she comes across as a petty, shrewish, ruthlessly ambitious woman and a tyrannical boss.

Readers learn about Stewart’s messy divorce, her difficult relationship with her daughter, and the destruction of many friendships over time. This controversial tell-all, which SFGATE referred to as “a hatchet job,” may have disillusioned fans of Stewart when it was first published, but it was also somewhat gratifying to those who felt they could never live up to Martha Stewart’s high standards.[6]

4 His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra

Kitty Kelley Canadian Interview about Frank Sinatra Book 1986 “His Way”

Author/journalist Kitty Kelley has been very successful at writing poisoned pen books about a wide range of celebrities; the most famous of these may be His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, published in 1986. One of the most surprising things about this book was that Kelley had the courage to write it, considering some of the notorious people Sinatra had been linked to, which Kelley herself wrote about in the bio.

While there had long been speculation that the legendary singer/actor had connections to members of the underworld, Kelley offered evidence of Sinatra’s close ties to organized crime in her impressively researched book, drawing on government documents related to the mafia. She also wrote about his repeated philandering and his temper.

Kelley painted him as a violent bully who, on one occasion, allegedly pushed a woman through a plate-glass window, almost severing her arm. Frank Sinatra did try to stop the publication of His Way by filing a $2 million lawsuit, which he later dropped.[7]

3 Poison Pen: The Unauthorized Biography of Kitty Kelley

One on One – Kitty Kelley

The tables were turned on the bestselling poisoned-pen author Kitty Kelley in 1991 when an unflattering book about her was published titled Poison Pen: The Unauthorized Biography of Kitty Kelley. This ironic expose by George Carpozi must have seemed like poetic justice to her critics and, most likely, the celebrities smeared by her controversial tell-alls. Carpozi argues that the sensationalistic books on which Kelley built her career as a non-fiction author are based on lies.

The bio casts her as a gossip monger and alleged thief. Barbara Howar said Kelley stole a manuscript from her house during a garage sale and sold it to Washington magazine. Howar’s threats of a lawsuit prevented publication. In reference to her Frank Sinatra bio, His Way, Carpozi reports that the date Kelley cites for an interview she supposedly did with Peter Lawford was actually 12 days after the actor died.

There is also the claim of her disgruntled former publisher, Lyle Stuart, that she once admitted to making up a personal conversation between Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis and Pete Hamil for the 1978 bio Jackie Oh!, which Stuart said he removed from the book. However, Stuart was also the publisher of Poison Pen, so he would have had a vested interest in attacking Kelley’s credibility.

Among the most colorful claims in Carpozi’s book is that Kelley’s first husband rummaged through Elizabeth Taylor’s trash while Kelley was working on the Taylor biography The Last Star. There is no shortage of outrageous stories about Kelley, but her own biographer doesn’t exactly come across as impartial. The Los Angeles Times says Poison Pen is “a book so hostile that if it were a person, its name would be Moose, and he would be holding a gun.”[8]

2 The View Cast: Ladies Who Punch

‘Ladies Who Punch’: Inside Hit Talk Show ‘The View’ | Studio 10

As provocative as the long-running talk show The View has been with the co-hosts’ heated discussions, their off-screen behavior can be even more shocking, according to Ramin Setoodeh’s book Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of The View. Watching The View, it’s easy to imagine stress and tension behind the scenes, but Setoodeh describes outrageous incidents and contentious relationships between the co-hosts.

It seems Rosie O’Donnell had trouble getting along with a number of people, including co-hosts and producers. Barbara Walters, who was both of these, was once the target of her verbal jabs in the dressing room after Walters continued speaking to Donald Trump during O’Donnell’s feud with him. However, O’Donnell may have met her match in Whoopi Goldberg, who O’Donnell perceived to be as mean to her as anyone she ever interacted with on TV.

Barbara Walters herself could be very intimidating. Jenny McCarthy admitted she used to sometimes hide from Walters, who was critical of her wardrobe. Even the sweet and frequently bullied Elisabeth Hasselbeck was driven to tantrums, like the time she was lectured by Walters during a segment of the show. “As the show cut to a commercial, Elisabeth ripped up her note cards and stormed off the stage.”

Corroborated by an audio recording, Setoodeh reported what happened next: “‘(Expletive) that!’ Elisabeth screamed in a narrow corridor behind the stage. ‘I’m not going to sit there and get reprimanded on the air.. ‘” but she was convinced to return moments later.[9]

1 Joan Crawford: Mommie Dearest

Joan Crawford ‘s Daughter Christina | Larry King Interview (2001)

Joan Crawford was one of the most popular movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to her successful career, she cultivated the image of herself as an ideal mother, so it was really shocking when her eldest adopted daughter, Christina, alleged physically and emotionally abusive treatment from Crawford in her explosive 1978 memoir Mommie Dearest, shortly after the iconic actress’s death.

The memoir portrays Joan Crawford as a vicious, controlling, unhinged alcoholic whose violent rages could be set off by something as trivial as the discovery of wire hangers in her child’s closet. Christina even claimed that Crawford choked her during one confrontation when she was 13 years old. In addition to being a fascinating exposé, Mommie Dearest was also very effective in bringing the subject of child abuse to the fore. The 1981 film adaptation, starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford, became even more famous than the bestselling book.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen