09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
LIKE MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AROUND the world, Kitty Kelley will never forget the moment she learned of Princess Diana's death. That evening, Aug. 30, the 55-year-old author, known for her dishy, best-selling biographies of Jacqueline Onassis, Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor, was "just hanging out" at her Virginia country retreat with her second husband, allergist John Zucker, 56. Then she turned on the 11 o'clock TV news. "I just couldn't believe what I was watching," she says. "I am so saddened and shocked."
Kelley's feelings are compounded by worry that years of researching and writing The Royals, her much ballyhooed, warts-and-all biography of Britain's House of Windsor, will be tarnished by Diana's death, which occurred just weeks before its scheduled Sept. 23 publication. "Usually you want to celebrate a book that you've spent four years on," she says, sitting in the opulent study of her 19th-century Washington home. "I don't feel that way now."
In the days immediately following Diana's death, Kelley says she pleaded with Warner Books (owned by Time Warner, which also publishes PEOPLE) to postpone the book's release until January. "But it was impossible," she says. "We couldn't change the date." Truckloads of bound volumes (first printing: 600,000 copies) sat in warehouses waiting to be shipped. Indeed, the publication date was advanced by six days "because we had so much press calling to talk to Kitty, who decided that she would not do interviews until we released the book," says Maureen Egen, president of Warner Books. In the end, Kelley says, her publisher (which had paid her a $4.4 million advance) convinced her "that the book would help to make sense of the tragedy."
Despite her own impulse to postpone, Kelley says she was disappointed by PEOPLE'S decision to cancel publication of an excerpt from The Royals scheduled to run in this issue. The plans changed "within hours of Diana's death," says assistant managing editor Carey Winfrey. "It just seemed an inappropriate time—while so many people are in mourning—to run a book that, in the author's own words, takes an 'unvarnished look' at the royal family." Says Kelley: "It's an unsparing look at the royal family—but it's fair."
Fair or not, The Royals contains a smorgasbord of scandalous tidbits. For example, Kelley reports that the Queen Mother's tippling "might be described as incipient alcoholism in anyone else"; that her daughters Margaret and Elizabeth were conceived through artificial insemination and that, upon marrying Elizabeth in 1947, a soon-to-be-unfaithful Prince Philip complained to friends of his bride's insatiable sexual appetite. "I'll stand up to what I've written," Kelley says.
The book was first projected as a biography of Philip, at a time when Kelley—feared and, in some quarters, loathed for her gossipy approach to pop icons—was riding the crest of 1991's controversial Nancy Reagan, which alleged the former First Lady had been the de facto president and once engaged in a White House tryst with Sinatra. Kelley says she wants The Royals to be read on its own terms.
"I don't want outside events to color the book's reception," she says, "I want to take hits on the work itself." And she surely will, as her book, along with a coming tidal wave of Diana bios and commemorations in all media, feeds a ravenous public hunger. Yet because of her sensitivity to criticism, Kelley says The Royals will be her last biography.
"Oh, she always says that," offers one close friend, Washington attorney Penny Farthing, 53. "She said that after the Nancy Reagan book. She'll write another one."
ELIZABETH VELEZ in Washington and NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City