Affair of State

A Dallas lawyer says her first novel is loosely based on her real-life romance with a Southern governor who gets elected president. Guess which Southern governor?

If there’s one novel Hillary Clinton won’t be reading this summer, it’s Purposes of the Heart . At first blush it’s not clear why she wouldn’t enjoy it: The just-published roman à clef tells the story of Dallas lawyer Kelly McCain , who fell in love at first sight with Cameron Coulter , a boy from her small Southern hometown, and carried on a relationship with him during their marriages to other people and, more important, during his tenure as attorney general and then governor. In short, it’s the sort of pulpy romance that anyone, even the first lady, might devour in an afternoon on a beach blanket. Except for one little thing: The book’s author, Dolly Kyle Browning , says that it is essentially nonfiction disguised as fiction and that the main plot point is true—the part about her affair with the Southern pol, who happens to be Bill Clinton .

Browning—who graduated from Southern Methodist University School of Law and is the founder of the Dallas-based Lawyers for Affordable Housing —says she and Clinton saw one another off and on from 1959 to 1992. She insists that the book is not intended to cash in on his fame; she began writing the story, she says, back in 1986, when he was largely unknown, and it was initially intended to be a substitute for a journal in her group therapy sessions. She changed a few details (her hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Vicksburg, Mississippi; proper names like “Hillary Rodham” to “ Mallory Cheatham ”) to protect “Billy” in case anyone ever read the thing. But over time, she alleges, “he kept insisting that I was a writer, and he encouraged me to publish.” Indeed, as Cameron tells Kelly in the book, “you’ll never censor or inhibit yourself in your writing because of me, will you? It’s your life and your story and you have to be true to yourself.”

In 1988 Browning sent a manuscript to a friend of a friend, Warner Books chairman Bill Sarnoff , who passed it on to an editor; the editor suggested revisions, she says, and she began a rewrite that took seven years. In the intervening period, of course, Clinton ran for president, making the story infinitely more interesting. Around the same time, Browning says, a tabloid threatened to run a story about her and Clinton, causing him to break off all contact with her. But then something odd happened: Nine publishers who were sent the book in 1995 by Browning’s agent at the time, Lucianne Goldberg , passed it up. Goldberg blames Browning’s insistence on peddling fiction: “Several publishers said they would reconsider if she would stand up, take the heat, and say these things are the truth, but she didn’t have the stomach for it,” recalls Goldberg, who maintains she could have gotten Browning “mid-six figures for an advance and millions if it sold.”

Browning retorts that she wants to be taken seriously as a novelist, so in late May her third husband, Doc, an athletic trainer at the St. Mark’s School of Texas , published the book himself, and he’s selling it for $25 by mail (660 Preston Forest Center, Suite 430, Dallas, Texas 75230).

And what does the president say about this? According to a Clinton spokeswoman: “The White House will have no comment.”

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