"Over 20 years ago I found out people won't believe you if they don't
want to. They won't even hear what you have to say in the first
place. But now almost 25 years later someone was interested in hearing
about my two-year stint working for my cousin Oprah and that person is
Kitty Kelley. From 1986 to 88 I was Oprah's Vice President of
Development at Harpo and most of what I had to say about her is in Miss
Kelley's paperback. But I recently remembered one story that I had
buried because it was so painful and decided to share it..."
That's how Oprah's cousin, Jo A. Baldwin, started a blog she wrote about submitting to be interview by Kitty Kelley, for the release of Kelley's book Oprah: a Biography in paperback.
Kitty Kelley explains how it came to be that months after her book was released in hardcover, Baldwin was willing to speak: "A few months later I received a call from Mrs. [Katharine Carr] Esters' daughter, Jo
A. Baldwin, who had once worked for Oprah in Chicago as V.P. of Harpo.
I had tried to interview Baldwin at the time but she would not talk. 'I
was too scared of Oprah,' she said. 'Oprah told me if I ever talked
she'd ruin me.... But I can talk to you now.' 'Why now and not then?' I asked. 'Because I now have tenure and Oprah can't take my job away from me.' "
Katharine Carr Esters, Jo's mother, talked to Kitty Kelley in the original print of the Oprah book, but once it was released, she refuted ever talking to Kelley. Kelley had this to say of the incident: "I'm not surprised, but I am disappointed that Katharine Carr Esters claims
that she was 'tricked' into divulging her true feelings about Oprah and
that she now denies that she revealed to me the identity of Oprah's
biological father. While I found her to be a strong woman with the
courage to speak her mind, I gather that she may have come under some
pressure...The facts, as supported by extensive notes from three days of
in-person, on-the-record interviews with Ms. Esters in Kosciusko, as
well as from subsequent phone interviews and correspondence, is that
Ms. Esters was both forthcoming and candid in sharing with me her
conflicted feelings about Oprah and in revealing to me the identity of
Oprah's biological father, which I promised her I would not divulge in
my book." Esters seemed to be on more-than-friendly terms with Kelley, even so much as to give her a signed copy of her self-published memoir Jay Bird Creek with the inscription "To Katherine Kelley, an angel in disguise." Jo Baldwin, later, corroborates Kelley's story: "I know now that you wrote the truth when you wrote about mom telling
you the name of Oprah's real father. My son, Conrad, [who
lives with Mrs. Esters], told me he heard mom say it."
So, finally, Jo Baldwin, tenure in place, decided to talk to Kitty Kelley, biographer of rich-and-famous, and what she did divulge, was golden. Baldwin tells a story of how her grandmother, on her deathbed, willed her granddaughter to have a signed Tiffany lamp, which was later to be valued at $65,000, as well as several pieces of jewelry.
Cut to many years later. Baldwin is now working for Oprah, as Vice President of Development at Harpo. Baldwin describes working for Oprah: "The first year I worked for her was exciting. I traveled with her,
wrote the core of her speeches because she was best when improvising,
and advised her on what to say and not say. She listened to me but
ended up doing what she wanted most of the time. I got a lot of
exposure, which she didn't like, so the second year she practically
ended my traveling with her and doing things in her office in Chicago. The second year I mainly worked out of my house in Milwaukee." Oprah only payed her $1200 a month for her work.
"She had given me a mink coat and Stedman's old Mercedes I thought as
gifts, but I found out she had counted them as cash income and that she
wasn't paying my taxes but that I was supposed to take the taxes out of
the $1200 a month. So I asked her for a raise to pay the taxes but she
said she wasn't giving anybody a raise that year. That's when I
learned another valuable lesson. When you're naïve after a certain
age, you get punished for it. Shortly after that she fired me with no
notice sending me a check for $5,000 severance pay. I used the money
to relocate because she had already started having parties and
celebrations in Milwaukee and inviting everybody but me, so I moved out
of state." That is what Baldwin had to say about her crossing paths with Oprah, and finally getting fired for it.
Eventually, Baldwin got a call from the IRS saying that she owed $9,000 in back taxes for the time she worked for Oprah. She had a job, but she didn't have enough money to pay the debt, so she asked her mother, Katharine Carr Esters, for money. But, struggling to make ends meet in Mississippi, she had no money to spare for her daughter. That is when Jo Baldwin made the tough decision to sell her grandmother's Tiffany lamp, that was willed to her on her grandmother's deathbed. She got $16,500 for the lamp, and was able to pay the taxes, but she says "it took me years to get over hearing about how she gives millions of
dollars away to people she doesn't even know and wouldn't give me a
raise for the work I did for her so I wouldn't have to sell my lamp."
The true closer of the situation came in a conversation she had with Oprah a while later: "To this day I don't know how she found out I no longer have the lamp,
but in a conversation I had with her about my novel--that she lied and
said she never read--she had the nerve to say I was just upset with her
about losing the Tiffany. If she only knew what I know, she'd do differently."