Picks and Pans Review: Leading with My Heart

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Virginia Keller with James Morgan

The family members of Presidents often seem to exist for no loftier purpose than to embarrass their brother (hello, Billy Carter) or father (nice Playboy pix, Palli Davis). President Clinton's mother, Virginia, who died this January of breast cancer, would seem to have had enormous faux pas potential. She'd been married five times (second husband Roger Clinton was alcoholic and abusive; third husband Jeff Dwire did time in prison for his involvement, however innocent, in a stock scam). And she was hooked on horse racing, favored boldly colored clothes, wore makeup that looked as if it had been applied by Sherwin-Williams and never shrank from speaking her mind.

In fact, what emerges in Leading with My Heart is the portrait of a strong, fun-loving woman who never lost the capacity to learn from her mistakes and who had dignity, heart and determination to spare. "I like people to notice me," she says at one point. "I think Bill and Roger and I are all alike in that way." The daughter of a gentle-souled farmer turned iceman and of a vicious-tempered nurse, Virginia grew up in Hope, Ark., and was studying to become a nurse when she met Bill Blythe. The two had a quick hot courtship and a brief marriage that ended in tragedy when Blythe died in an auto accident. At the time, Kelley was six months pregnant with the 42nd President of the United States.

This posthumously published autobiography is a frank accounting—often funny, often poignant—of Kelley's life. Highlights include her pitched battles with the entrenched medical community when she attempted to establish a practice as a nurse-anesthetist; her injudicious marriage to Roger Clinton (in one now-famous anecdote 14-year-old Bill comes to her aid and tells Roger Sr., " 'Hear me! Never...ever...touch my mother again.' "); her son Roger's imprisonment for drug dealing; and her failings as a mother ("Looking back, I see that I made it easy for Roger to get away with the lie that had become his life"). And then there's her first meeting with young Hillary Rodham. "No makeup," Kelley writes. "Coke-bottle glasses, brown hair with no apparent style...I would grind my teeth and wish I could sit Hillary on the edge of my tub and give her some makeup lessons." It's a story worth reading, even putting aside Kelley's relationship with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Simon & Schuster, $22.50)

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