Monthly Archives: September 2020

The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen

If she was just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark. – Dorothy Kilgallen on Marilyn Monroe.

Warning! This Tale begins with a shaggy dog tale involving YouTube and my recurring insomnia. Scroll to the bottom for pages 2 and 3.

I’ve no idea why YouTube algorithms saw fit to drop episodes of the 1950’s-60’s gameshow What’s My Line? in my feed – maybe my love of ephemera, or the time I watched every episode of A.J. Benza’s ‘Mysteries and Scandals’ (a 1990s series on the scandals of Hollywood’s Golden Age). Maybe the suggestion came after a session of looking in vain for live footage of 1940s jump blues shouter Wynonie Harris… I wanted to see if Elvis really did steal all his moves. Whatever the site’s rationale I’m glad they did. On many a night where I’ve woken at 3am, old episodes of What’s My Line? Have become a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Running from 1951 to 1967, then rebooted several times after that – What’s My Line? was an American game show that pitted a celebrity panel of sleuths against hundreds, if not thousands of contestants. The contestant could be a dynamite salesperson, the man who made President Kennedy’s inauguration top hat, a hotel detective, a flight instructor – at one point an unknown Colonel Harland Sanders – the year before he sold Kentucky Fried Chicken and became the public face of the franchise. By asking questions the sleuths had to work out the contestant’s job. If the panel got ten ‘no’s, the contestant would walk away with $50 winnings. There was always a celebrity mystery guest where the panel wore blindfolds while guessing – the celebs are the primary reason most of the show footage survives to this day.

Colonel Sanders and John Charles Daly on What’s My Line, 1963.

For this bleary-eyed writer, struggling to get back to sleep in the wee small hours, these shows were a godsend… not because they would bore you to sleep either. I think as much as I like the concept itself, I think (yes the same me who loves The Sopranos and Breaking Bad) it’s refreshing to watch a cast so intelligent, personable and so damned charming just being so mannered and respectful to one another. The actress Arlene Francis would enter and formally introduce comedian Steve Allen, who would welcome journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, who would in turn welcome book publisher Bennett Cerf, who would in turn welcome the host, John Charles Daly to the stage. The cast wore evening attire – evening gowns or tuxedos – they stood on ceremony and manners. The show was nicer, and more wholesome – probably by a factor of 1,000s than my usual fare. It was because of this I was shocked, one night to click on a partial episode aired on November 14th 1965, where the cast made an announcement.


John Charles Daly: “Now, until next week, good night Arlene Francis”
Arlene: “Thank you John, and I just want to say that in the… more than 15 years of Sundays that we’ve spent together on this programme, we have become, not just associated but a kind of family. And, it is not so much as a co-worker that we miss Dorothy, though certainly she was a game player that was better than almost all the rest of us – it is really as a family that we are saddened by her absence.”

And so they go on down the line, Steve Allen eulogized her stating “the world knows her as a very brilliant woman, very quick- minded and very intelligent. A writer of a very fine newspaper column… but we also think it is very important that she was a very fine wife and a mother, and we all miss her in those capacities”. Dorothy’s ringer for the night, actress and panelist on the similarly themed show To Tell the Truth, Kitty Carlisle, briefly spoke her condolences, passing to Bennett Cerf.

Well, a lot of people knew Dorothy as a very tough game player, others knew her as a tough newspaper woman. When she went after a story nothing could get in her way. But we got to know her as a human being, and a more lovable, softer, loyal person never lived; and we’re going to miss her terribly.”

John Charles Daly, it turns out when I found the complete episode, said his piece up front. The poor guy looked and sounded completely devastated by the loss.

Dorothy! What the hell happened to you? I thought. Though it does happen, as a general rule most middle aged people don’t just die suddenly. Yes, her death occurred half a century ago, but healthy, well heeled, middle aged folk tended not to die suddenly, even then. On some digging, I uncovered her immediate family all lived well into their 90s, making a sudden demise all the more shocking.

It turns out she had been out filming an episode of What’s My Line? the day before her death. Stopping at a bar after for a drink with producer Bob Bach, she then left to meet a ‘mystery man’ at the Regency Hotel. The two were seen in the bar of the Regency at around 2am, where it was believed she made a phone call to a friend around 2.20am. At 9am, her friend and hairdresser Marc Sinclaire would drop by Dorothy’s Manhattan townhouse, finding Dorothy not yet awake, or in her usual bedroom. He would find her body, sat upright in bed in the master bedroom – her makeup and false eyelashes still on, decorative hairpiece in, wearing a dressing gown he’d never seen her in before. Open beside her, Robert Ruark’s final novel The Honey Badger. Rigor Mortis had set in, which put her time of death somewhere between 2am and 4am.

A modern photo of Dorothy’s 16 room townhouse.


I’m getting a little ahead of myself, we’ll come back to the scene, going over it’s oddities later. What I think germane to our understanding of the tale right now though, Dorothy was on a mission. Convinced there was much more to the assassination of her friend John F. Kennedy. For 18 months she had investigated his murder, publishing a number of articles already which cast doubt on the Warren Commission’s findings that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. She claimed she had uncovered a lead which would expose a conspiracy to kill the president, and planned to travel to New Orleans to meet a source. She never made that trip. Before I lay all this out it pays to first discuss What’s Dorothy’s Line? as I believe she has largely faded from the public consciousness.

What’s Her Line?

Dorothy Mae Kilgallen was born in Chicago, Illinois, July 3rd 1913 to James and Mae Kilgallen. Mae had been a promising singer before her marriage. James was an accomplished journalist himself, having covered, among a great many other tales, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Germany’s surrender in World War Two. James once commented on his own career he had

…covered railroad wrecks, airplane and ship disasters, sitdown strikes, beauty contests in Atlantic City, eucharistic congresses in New Orleans and Barcelona, Spain, the World Series, golf championships, major prize fights, courtroom dramas, executions and national political conventions – in fact every conceivable type of story in this country and abroad.”

Dorothy had shown an early interest in her father’s work, and on graduating Erasmus Hall High School, then two semesters at The College of New Rochelle, she took a writing job at the New York Evening Journal. Though initially there for work experience, once she got her first by-line (a story about a child who was hospitalized in some accident my secondary sources don’t explain) she decided to leave college and take on a full-time role at the paper. By age 20 she had covered many stories, including a number of murder trials.

She came to national prominence in 1936, when she took part in a race around the world using only public transport. Reminiscent of our earlier tale of Nellie Bly, she raced against two male journalists, filing updates for the paper as she went. Dorothy came second, but got the lions share of the publicity, and the material for her first book ‘Girl Around the World’. Her book would inspire a 1937 movie, Fly-Away Baby – itself the second in a series featuring the intrepid reporter Torchy Blane, a character believed to be based on Dorothy herself. (As an aside, Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, would in turn influence Jerry Siegel to write Lois Lane into the Superman universe). In 1938 Dorothy would become “The Voice of Broadway” in William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal- American’ newspaper – a role which would see her eventually syndicated with 146 papers, to 20 million readers across the country.

Dorothy married an actor named Richard Kollmar in 1940. The couple met while she was writing on, and he acting in a play called Knickerbocker Holiday (a play which both loosely adapted a Washington Irving tale, and was a thinly veiled attack on Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal). They would have three children together, and from 1945, host a morning radio show from their townhouse called ‘Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick’. The couple would have a less than functional marriage – which plays into the tale later – though, being Catholic, they never divorced. Richard’s extravagant spending and womanizing led to the couple becoming estranged. They continued to live at the townhouse together, in separate rooms, and never let on to the public they had grown apart. In private they had an open relationship for many years.

Besides her entertainment column, Dorothy also continued to cover a number of murders. Prior to the John F. Kennedy assassination, one of the most famous cases she covered was of Dr Sam Sheppard. I’ll do a short blog post on Shepherd as a coda to this tale – but if you have not come across his tale before – what you need to know for now is Dr Sheppard was a neurosurgeon accused of murdering his wife, Marilyn in 1954. The media circus around the trial ensured he would not get an unbiased trial. Trial by media found him guilty. Dorothy was one of the few who believed Sheppard was innocent, and used her influence, investigative skills, and pen to help the doctor overturn his conviction.

I could write on the myriad connections Dorothy made in high places, or her more colourful feuds with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tonight Show host Jack Paar; her cruel literary hit job on Nina Khrushcheva – wife of Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, or her ongoing campaign against Cuba’s Fidel Castro. I should quickly mention she was famous enough in her time she has one of the initial 500 stars in the Hollywood walk of fame. It is important to discuss her friendship and admiration for former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She had met the president on occasion through friends in common. One particular friend, the fashion editor and journalist Florence ‘Flo’ Pritchett-Smith, dated a young JFK, and remained close friends until the president’s death. Flo had first introduced the two. As a fellow catholic of Irish extraction, with similar political leanings, Kennedy and Kilgallen got on very well together. Dorothy would become an active supporter of the president, and would be absolutely crushed by his assassination.

Next week we’ll look at the death of the president, and Dorothy Kilgallen’s 18 month investigation into the murder. Join us next week.

|Two|Three|

Reader Challenge: On J.F.C Fuller

Hi everyone, this week I’m doing things a little differently. I think this will be a one off, but the process was fun. A few weeks before this will publish I got a message via the portal from WordPress follower Tom Doberman – Hi Tom. His question, have I thought of picking a date then doing a post based on that date. Short answer yes, I did the Christmas Carol episode last year, on the stories of O Henry – writer of Gift of the Magi, and Lee Shelton, the man behind the Stagger Lee legend.

I’m also planning a Halloween week this year, a post a day for five days all on ghosts, and monsters and other spooky things.

But’, Tom replied, ‘what about a normal day on the calendar?’
I said no, but I could. The next date free was 15th September. According to the ‘today in history’ type sites, what happened on this day that I could spin an odd tale out of?

Hmm… not my usual brand of history really…. OK let’s go with the tanks.

A Very Graceful Machine

As stated – tanks were first used in the Battle of the Somme, September 15th 1916. The Western Front had devolved into a messy stalemate with an ever growing death toll, while the opposing trenches stretched out for hundreds of miles. Neither side’s infantry, or cavalry could make any headway on the other. They just sat there in the damp trenches waiting to become cannon fodder. The top brass were eager for any solution to this dilemma, no matter how mad. Putting Da Vinci sketches aside for a moment, the idea of a tank like contraption had been floated before.

In 1855 inventor James Cowen had built a model he named a ‘Locomotive Land Battery’, hoping Britain would develop and use his steampunk contraption in the Crimean War. The top brass passed on Cowen’s invention. In the First World War the ‘landship’ got the green light – Lincolnshire agricultural machinery manufacturers William Foster & Co were awarded the contract. The prototype, nicknamed Little Willy, was described by one officer who is very important to our tale as


…a very graceful machine with beautiful lines. Lozenge- shaped, but with two clumsy looking wheels behind it.


Little Willy came to be known as the Mark I. Landships were re-named tanks.
The first tanks were horrendously unreliable; buggy and constantly breaking down. Many early crews found them death traps – but at their best, they were spectacular. Where soldiers were stuck in the mud, a tank could just roll over trenches, crush razor wire, and shake off machine gun fire like it was nothing. Over the course of the war they developed – the bugs ironed out of the design. The French seemed especially tank mad in these early days, making a lot of tanks, and working out many of those teething pains. The Germans also got into the tank game towards the end of the war, but of course were banned from owning any tanks after, as per the Treaty of Versailles.

For all the French innovation, Britain should have had an unassailable lead in the tank game. It didn’t work out that way. To explain why, we first must meet the man from the ‘lozenge’ quote, Major General John Frederick Charles ‘Boney’ Fuller (1878- 1966).

Now, when discussing J.F.C Fuller you must keep two things in mind. 1. He was a brilliant military strategist, and 2. he was a remarkably unlikeable guy. Perhaps his sense of ‘otherness’ distanced him from other soldiers – he was a short, slightly built guy who preferred staying home reading classic literature over mixing with his peers (if you recall the tale of his contemporary Adrian Carton De Wiart; De Wiart’s downtime was full of sports, drinking and pulling off dangerous stunts) – I don’t think it justifies his argumentativeness, bloody-mindedness, and utter disdain for his fellow officers; so evident in letters, essays and documents left behind by (or concerning) him. By today’s standards, his white supremacist views would be abhorrent to wide swathes of society today, but it was his strong belief in occultism, particularly the Thelemic Mysticism of his close friend Aleister Crowley, that separated him from many of his peers.


Fuller had been trained at Sandhurst, before being assigned to the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in the 2nd Boer War. During the war he formed an opinion that wars should be fought with increasingly agile forces, at lightning fast speed, as opposed to slow, steady and methodical formations. After the war he was sent to India – where he fed his passion for occultism – before coming back to the United Kingdom to take on a role at Staff College, Camberley. When World War One broke out, the top brass put him to work coming up with strategies and tactics. Much of the time he rubbed his superiors up the wrong way – in one task they were worried a large number of sheep on rural roads would hamper a quick defence if needed and tasked Fuller to come up with signs. Fuller replied asking what to do with the sheep who were illiterate. When the tank came along however, Fuller began planning tactics in earnest. He came up with a strategy called ‘Plan 1919’.

Fuller believed the way to stop an army was to win the battle in a single, decisive attack on it’s command. If you took a large contingent of tanks, and drove them straight through enemy lines – directly for the high command who were safely ensconced an hour from the front – the front lines would not realize what was happening till it was too late. They would also be powerless to stop you. When you smashed the command, the army would turn into little more than a rabble and soon surrender.

Fuller never had the chance to test his plan. The war came to an end in November 1918, by other means. In peacetime he became an advocate for the widespread adoption of the tank by the military. He met opposition, on the face of it from generals who wanted to return to using cavalry. In 1919 he wrote an essay advocating for tank warfare, reminding everyone of the great advances made – but of a need to keep developing. Fuller wrote

Race horses don’t pull up at the winning post”.

His essay won him a gold medal from the think tank The Royal United Services Institute. His superiors were furious at his subordination. Fuller continued to be a thorn in the side of top brass until 1926. In 1926 he was offered a promotion, and command over a new infantry force, which would include tanks – but also included foot soldiers. Fuller wanted no part of the foot soldiers, and resigned. In the following years Fuller would become involved in fascist groups, including Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists; but far more concerning, the Nazi party. General Heinz Guderian was a particularly big fan of Fuller, and invited him to see the rollout of the Panzer tank in 1935.


Why did Britain not take up the tank?

… at least not till much later (it is true that as war broke out the top brass ordered 1,000% more hay for their horses, even insisting their few tank commanders also keep a horse in reserve.) This would change, at a huge cost to them.

Fuller’s unlikeability probably played a small role, but it appears the biggest reasons revolved around the British armed forces not being set up for tanks. First, who owns them? If they are put in with cavalry they are a bad cultural fit and sow discord among cavalry officers, concerned the tanks are there to take their jobs. As a result they will do their best to undermine them. If a separate division, then they become competitors with every other division of the army, for attention and resources, running the risk of being deliberately stifled by top brass looking out for their pet projects. Does the British army even have the organizational architecture to develop tank divisions, people (Fuller aside) with the skill sets to build the division, and to know what to do with it? Think of recent examples in business – Xerox built the first personal computer in their Palo Alto ‘PARC’ facility in 1970, but were not set up to do anything with the invention. Sony built a digital music player before the iPod, but did not have the organizational architecture to capitalize either.

No doubt some generals were struck with the ‘innovators dilemma’ if you’re in at the ground floor, you also get to see all the flaws, all of the bugs. These blind you to the future potential of the tank – baggage other nations are not burdened with. No doubt some generals just felt mechanized warfare ‘ungentlemanly’ and wanted no part in it.

Of course one power had none of that baggage. Nazi Germany more or less rebuilt their military from scratch, free of such limitations. General Guderian turned to Fuller’s writings, and put his plan 1919 to use, first in the invasion of Poland, then much of Western Europe. Dunkirk was quite a wake up call. Of course they gave it a different name – the Blitzkrieg.

OK, back to normal transmission next week – Simone.

Charles Lightoller’s worst night ever

Today’s tale is set in the North Atlantic ocean, around 400 miles off the coast of the then Dominion of Newfoundland. The date 15th April 1912. The time, around 2.30am. Picture our subject, a 38 year old former Navy officer named Charles Lightoller. Tonight may well be his worst day on the job.

Sitting in a lifeboat watching his expensive new ship sink below the waves, something he was assured could not happen – he must have paused to think if he bore any responsibility for the disaster. Just two and a half hours earlier the scene aboard the ship had been anarchic. The unsinkable ship, on her maiden voyage, was sinking! Torn to shreds below the waterline, she was taking on much more water than one could hope to keep pumping back out. With no chance of caulking up the gaping hole, many would die before the night was out.

As men tried to muscle their way onto the scant few lifeboats, ahead of women and children, Lightoller stood in their way, pointing an empty service revolver at their heads – cursing them for their cowardice, and threatening to murder the first man who stepped forward. Many women and children would survive because of his bravery – that is good right?

He must have questioned his culpability. It was hardly as if he was in charge at the time of the disaster. He’d only just been commanding the bridge watch, but had handed responsibility on to William Murdoch. He was asleep, in his pajamas, when it hit… something attested to by the fact he still had them on under his hastily thrown on uniform.

Lightoller must have looked on, aghast, as the ship sunk below the waves. 1,503 souls onboard would be dragged down to Davy Jones Locker that night. How could you not look on so? Only 705 passengers and crew would survive the shipwreck. Of the more prominent victims were John Jacob Astor – science fiction writer, socialite and co-founder of New York’s iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel; the investigative journalist W.T Stead; Macy’s department store part owners Isidor and Ida Straus; Benjamin Guggenheim, the mining magnate, and Archibald Butt, a military aide to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Various other executives, and even investors in the company drowned in the wreck. Even Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the ship, drowned in the disaster.



Lightoller was not the highest ranking member of the organization to get off safe – that honor would go to a cad named J. Bruce Ismay – a White Star executive who was one of the first to get into a life boat; and who later commented to press he flat out refused to look at the sinking ship – and was glad he hadn’t.

J. Bruce Ismay.


But still, for whatever public ire comes the company’s way, he WAS the highest ranking officer on the ship to escape; and Ismay was just some toff, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Some rich guy who ascended to chairman on his father’s death in 1899. Ismay never steered the ship…. If anyone was likely to be a scapegoat… could it be him?
Well… here’s the thing, there are a number of reasons the RMS Titanic sank – disasters like this usually are a combination of factors. Much of which could be laid at Ismay’s feet (well maybe not the claims by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, of Ismay ordering Captain Smith to push the ship faster than it should safely go – there is no evidence this ever happened).. Most everything else requiring executive sign off perhaps… But there is one element – often overlooked – for which Charles Lightoller does bear a little responsibility… a locker key which could have saved everyone from this mess.


You see, Lightoller was appointed second officer aboard the Titanic only two weeks before the ship was set to sail. There had been a number of changes in positions among the officer class in the lead up to the maiden voyage, leading to promotions, and demotions – and the original second officer, Davy Blair, being dismissed from the ship rather hastily on 9th April. He left, accidentally taking the only key for a locker which held the binoculars – much needed up in the crow’s nest. This was discovered while out at sea. While lockers are really only designed to keep honest people out, when brought to Lightoller’s attention he advised to leave the locker as is. When they got to New York he would buy a new pair of binoculars from his own pay-check.

Did Charles Lightoller know the risk of hitting an iceberg? It appears so. On his watch that night he gave orders to the lookout to continually watch for “small ice… (and) particularly growlers” till sun up. At congressional hearings after the disaster lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee both brought up the lack of binoculars as the main reason for the wreck. How much sooner would they have spotted the iceberg, congress asked “well, soon enough to get out of the way” was the reply.

If one is looking for a moral in this tale, maybe you could go with ‘you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette’. Yes it wasn’t great Charles Lightoller was faced with the prospect of vandalizing a locker… but which holds more value, a cheap locker or 1500 lives? Perhaps the moral is one for greedy organizations to empower your employees to make the hard decisions? Lightoller had every right to be scared of vandalizing the locker – in the wake of the tragedy, the White Star Line sent bills to the families of deceased staff asking them to pay for the brass buttons on the deceaseds’ uniforms. Maybe it is a tale about hubris; when they claimed the ship couldn’t sink you knew exactly how that tale would end. I don’t know, take you pick.

As a post note, however, I should comment briefly on that key. Davy Blair went to his grave feeling guilty for the sinking of The Titanic. At some time he gave the locker key to his daughter, who passed it on to The International Sailor’s Society. In 2007 the key was sold for £32,000.00, and has since resold to a Chinese businessman for £90,000.00.
I should also speak a little more about Charles Lightoller. He was a highly respected mariner before the Titanic, and would remain so after. He would serve with distinction in World War One, and would become a footnote in another landmark historical moment of the 20th century. In what became known as ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’, 26th May- 4th June 1940 – Lightoller was one of thousands of civilian sailors who crossed the English Channel to rescue the Allied Expeditionary force from certain destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany.