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 discusses gun violence and violent extremism.

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 binged every episode of A.J. Benza’s ‘Mysteries and Scandals’ over a weekend (a 1990s series on the scandals of Hollywood’s Golden Age.) Maybe the suggestion came after an hour of searching 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 a couple of 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 a then unknown Colonel Harland Sanders – this was a year before he sold Kentucky Fried Chicken to a corporation that took KFC big. Sanders of course stayed on as the public face of the franchise.
By asking a series of questions with yes/no answers, the sleuths try to work out the contestant’s job, or ‘line.’ If the panel get ten ‘no’s, the contestant walked away with $50 in winnings. There was always a celebrity mystery guest also, where the panel wore blindfolds while guessing – those 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 charming just being so mannered and respectful to one another. The actress Arlene Francis would enter wearing an evening gown, and formally introduce comedian Steve Allen (in a tuxedo.) Allen would welcome journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, who would in turn welcome book publisher Bennett Cerf. Cerf usually welcomed the host, John Charles Daly to the stage. The cast all 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 important 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.”

Steve Allen was next, 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 devastated by the loss.

Dorothy! What the hell happened to you? I thought. Though it can happen, as a general rule most middle aged people this side of the Great Acceleration 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. First you get sick, then you fade away. On a little digging, I uncovered her immediate family all lived well into their 90s – making a sudden demise all the more shocking.

It turns out Dorothy Kilgallen had been out filming an episode of What’s My Line? Just the day before her death. She stopped at a bar for a drink with producer Bob Bach, 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 at around 2.20am.
At 9am, her friend and hairdresser Marc Sinclaire dropped by Dorothy’s Manhattan townhouse, finding Dorothy not yet awake, or for that matter, in her usual bedroom. He found her body, propped 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 that day.

A modern photo of Dorothy’s 16 room townhouse.

I am getting a little ahead of myself, we’ll come back to the scene later. Unaccustomed as I am to writing ‘true crime’, this week this is precisely the genre we’re delving into. You see Dorothy’s death was a little odd sure, but her behaviour for the 18 months prior does leave the door open to suggestions somebody did visit her that night and shut her up. A close friend of hers was murdered – and Dorothy being an acclaimed investigative journalist – she investigated this friend’s murder. She published a number of articles already which cast doubt on official findings, and claimed she’d uncovered leads which would expose a vast conspiracy. At the time of her passing, Dorothy was planning to travel to New Orleans to meet an informant, but she never made that trip.

Up front, I think her friend’s murder was far more straightforward. I can’t help but wonder what else she may have stumbled across in her investigation, however. Before I lay all this out it pays to first discuss What’s Dorothy’s Line? as I believe she has 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 several high profile tales including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Germany’s surrender at the end of World War Two. James once commented 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 completing two semesters at The College of New Rochelle, she took a writing job at the New York Evening Journal. She was initially at the paper on work experience. Once she had her first by-line (a story about a child who was hospitalized after a horrific accident) she knew her path in life was set. Dorothy quit college and took on a full-time role at the paper. By age 20 she was a capable journalist, who had covered a number of murder trials.

Dorothy came to national prominence in 1936, when she took part in a great race around the world, reminiscent of Around the World in 80 Days, and our Tale of Nellie Bly. Racing against two male journalists, Dorothy came second – however her regular reports on the race got the lions share of the publicity. She later repackaged those reports into her first book ‘Girl Around the World’. Her book, in turn inspired a 1937 movie, Fly-Away Baby – itself a sequel that featured intrepid reporter Torchy Blane, (a character believed to be based on Dorothy herself.) Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, in turn influenced Jerry Siegel to create Lois Lane in the Superman universe.

In 1938 Dorothy became “The Voice of Broadway” in William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal.’ Her column was eventually syndicated to 146 papers, going out to 20 million readers across the country, though for her coverage she never attained the artistic heights of a Louella Parsons.

In 1940 Dorothy married an actor named Richard Kollmar. The couple met while she was writing on, and he acting in a play called Knickerbocker Holiday (a play loosely adapted from a Washington Irving tale and a thinly veiled attack on Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal). They had three children together.

From 1945, the couple hosted a morning radio show, broadcast from their townhouse, called ‘Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick’. Though some of the clips I found of the show featured celebrity guests talking about upcoming projects, for the most part the couple talked about their glamorous lifestyle – reviews of nights out at the latest Broadway show, tales about fabulous soirées at their 16 room townhouse, gossip overheard at the most exclusive nightclubs. When not inventing morning radio, the couple were busy falling out of love with one another. Richard’s extravagant spending and womanizing led to the couple’s estrangement. As Catholics they didn’t divorce, and continued to live together at the townhouse, in separate rooms. In fact, having once caught Richard in their marital bed with another woman, Dorothy never slept in the master bedroom again – at least not before the night of her death.

In public, Dorothy and Dick gave every indication they were a happy couple. In private they had an open relationship for many years. For years Dorothy was secretly dating the complicated pop star Johnnie Ray.

Besides her entertainment column, Dorothy also continued to cover a number of murders – this kind of thing was the newspaper’s bread and butter. One case she covered was of Dr Sam Sheppard. I’ll do a short post on Shepherd as a coda to this tale (post note:I didn’t, but will come back to Sheppard) – but if you haven’t come across his tale before – you need to know he was a neurosurgeon accused of murdering his wife, Marilyn in 1954. The media circus around the trial ensured no way of getting an unbiased trial. Trial by media, predictably, found him guilty – even unduly influencing the judge presiding over the case. 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 also quickly mention she was famous enough in her time she has one of the initial 500 stars on the Hollywood walk of fame.
It is important to our tale though to discuss one friend in high places. Dorothy was a friend, and admirer of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The two met 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 with him until the president’s death. It was Flo who first introduced Dorothy to the President. As fellow catholics of Irish extraction, with similar political leanings, Kennedy and Kilgallen got on very well together. Dorothy Kilgallen became an active supporter of the president, and was absolutely crushed by his assassination.

Speaking of which…

Part Two.

Let’s just quickly reset the board to the morning of Friday 22nd November 1963. The location, the Hilton Hotel, Fort Worth Texas. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his entourage rolled in the night before on a five city, two day charm offensive. Several thousand well wishers milled around the hotel parking lot in the pouring rain. They hoped to catch a glimpse of the president. JFK didn’t disappoint. Venturing out in the rain -sans umbrella – he greeted the crowd. He shook hands, gave a speech on the need to win the space, and arms races, then returned to the hotel to dry off.

Later that morning, Kennedy made a speech to the Fort Worth chamber of commerce. He spoke on the importance of being prepared for the next big war. Some time that morning Kennedy read the local paper – on the front page an article discussing his visit – local segregationists and John Birchers accused the president of treason. Some time later he made a phone call to former vice president John Nance Garner to wish him a happy 95th birthday. From there they boarded a plane to Love Field – Next stop Dallas.

At Love Field Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy greeted more well wishers, before being ushered to their motorcade. The rain had stopped by now, so the decision was made to remove the bubble top on the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible John and Jackie, would be travelling in – alongside State Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. Kennedy’s security advised to keep the bubble top on, and to surround the president with secret service agents – but Kennedy insisted on as few barriers between himself and the people as possible. He was aware of a level of risk – US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson narrowly avoided and attack from a mob of far right wingers led by the John Birch society’s Edwin Walker in Dallas only weeks earlier – but JFK felt he had to balance safety with accessibility if he hoped to win re-election the following year.

The entourage would parade through the main street, give a speech at the Trade Mart, then move on to Austin – before staying the weekend at vice president Lyndon Johnson’s ranch. Coming up to 12.30 the motorcade arrived at Dealey Plaza, Dallas.

Content warning, sorry, the following couple of paragraphs describe a shooting.

At 12.29, the president’s limo turns onto Elm Street. A shot rings out, missing the motorcade. A car salesman named James Tague got a minor cut to his cheek, either from a fragment of the bullet itself, or from concrete gorged out of the sidewalk by the errant bullet. Seconds later, a second bullet peeled out – this one struck the president in the back, before veering into Governor Connally. Much has been written on this ‘magic bullet’ – some suggesting a second shooter from the grassy knoll nearby, and claiming Kennedy was clearly struck from the front (film footage from garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder shows Kennedy reflexively lifting his arm towards his throat, but medical experts counter this movement is an example of the ‘Thorburn position’ – a neurological reaction to spinal damage.)

The third shot struck Kennedy in the back of the head. Unbeknownst to the public at large, Kennedy suffered from a long list of medical problems – one of which was a bad back that required the use of a back brace. There is every chance without this brace, the President would have either slumped in his seat, or ducked – as it was, the brace held him bolt upright, making for an easy target for the shooter.
Within five minutes the president was admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital under the number patient 24740. Within half an hour he was pronounced deceased.

At 12.45pm that same day, an employee named Lee Harvey Oswald left work early at the Texas School Book Depository building. He climbed aboard a bus, exiting the vehicle seven blocks from the depository. The bus was stuck in the heavy traffic caused by the visit and subsequent shooting. Oswald took a cab back to his boarding house. He changed his clothes, grabbed his pistol, then left the premises. Earlier that morning Oswald had been with his estranged wife Marina. They were together the night before. In the early hours, he left his wedding ring and $170 cash on a table for her – a significant sum of money considering he only made $1.25 an hour. He then left for work.

Oswald was a former marine, with a troubled past. Diagnosed with a personality disorder as a child. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. While in Minsk, Belarus, he married Marina – the two were allowed to return to the USA in 1962 when Oswald managed to convince the US Embassy the boredom of the USSR had cured him of his communism. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Oswald had previously attempted to shoot a white segregationist politician named General Edwin Walker in his home on April 10th 1963. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination this was an unsolved crime with no solid leads.

At around 12.54pm veteran police officer J.D. Tippit is given instructions to keep his eyes peeled for a shooting suspect; a slender white male, approximately 5,10” tall, in his early 30s. In the Oak Cliff area of Dallas at 1.15pm Tippit comes across such a man, and is gunned down by him. The man of course, Oswald – flees on foot, stopping at a movie theater -where he would be arrested at around 2pm. The film, if anyone is wondering, a Korean war flick called War is Hell, narrated by real life war hero Audie Murphy.
By day’s end Lyndon Johnson would be sworn in as president aboard Air Force One, flanked by his wife Lady Bird to his left, Jacqueline Kennedy to his right. Jackie still wore the pink Chanel suit that bore her husband’s blood stains, and brain matter, wanting the world to see what really happened in any little way she could. President Kennedy would be autopsied. Oswald would be interrogated and charged with the murders, first of officer Tippit, then the president.

Also this day, Jack Ruby – a local bar owner with ties to organized crime – would show up at the police station to ask policemen he knew about the assassin. Ruby would return on the 24th, shooting Oswald with a .38 pistol as officers led the assassin through the police station basement. Ruby would be charged and eventually sentenced to death for the murder of Oswald. His death sentence was later downgraded to a life sentence, however he was on borrowed time. Ruby had lung cancer and would die of a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of an artery of the lungs, on January 3rd 1967.

Dallas police were convinced they had their killer, and the killer of that killer. The FBI – now is as good a place as any to mention J. Edgar Hoover called Robert Kennedy on the night of the assassination to advise they had the killer, before Oswald was even charged – they closed their investigation in early December. President Lyndon Johnson established a commission, chaired by US Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren on the 29th November. The Warren Commission’s role was to investigate the killing, and provide the grieving nation the definitive report on what happened.

Now we have covered the main facts of John F Kennedy’s murder, let’s turn our attention back to Dorothy.

Dorothy Kilgallen, herself grieving at the loss of her friend, was extremely skeptical of the initial findings. The most powerful man in the world is murdered in your city, in a decade which contained a number of high profile political assassinations and police were willing to write the killing off as the actions of a crazed loner? As a successful crime reporter, this story would have been irresistible to Dorothy regardless. As someone who knew, and adored the deceased, she felt the need to ensure justice was served. On November 29th 1963 she wrote, in relation to what she saw as an effort to sweep the case under the rug.

The case is closed, is it? Well, I’d like to know how, in a big, smart town like Dallas, a man like Jack Ruby—owner of a strip tease honky tonk—can stroll in and out of police headquarters as if it was at a health club at a time when a small army of law enforcers is keeping a “tight security guard” on Oswald. Security! What a word for it.

I will not try to speak for the people of Dallas, but around here, the people I talk to really believe that a man has the right to be tried in court. When that right is taken away from any man by the incredible combination of a Jack Ruby and insufficient security, we feel chilled. Justice is a big rug. When you pull it out from under one man, a lot of others fall too.

That is why so many people are saying there is “something queer” about the killing of Oswald, something strange about the way his case was handled, a great deal missing in the official account of his crime. The American people have just lost a beloved President. It is a dark chapter in our history, but we have the right to read every word of it. It cannot be kept locked in a file in Dallas

Dorothy Kilgallen, investigative journalist thus entered the affray.

So… What did Dorothy find out?

I’ll let you all make up your own minds if anything holds any value. To me most of what she published carries little weight. It does interest me however, that Dorothy was collecting notes for a book she was writing, Murder One, which would feature the assassination. She was planning to meet a mysterious informant in New Orleans she claimed was the key to the murder. All her notes relating to that chapter mysteriously vanished after her death.

One of her first observations related to Dallas police chief Jesse Curry. Curry, who was in the lead car of the motorcade, would state categorically he heard the shots ringing out from the School Book Depository. Kilgallen got copies of the police communications from the day, showing Curry noticed a group of men standing on the triple overpass – and when the first shot rang out, called for officers to get up there and see what was happening. This would harm Curry’s credibility, and cast doubt on the official narrative. Curry had already gone from hero to zero in short order after he allowed the press, and Jack Ruby, into the police station basement.

In late 1964 Dorothy began working with Mark Lane, an early JFK conspiracy theorist whose own work was yet to make much traction. Following Lane’s leads she published a number of articles which have entered the JFK conspiracy canon.

Lane pointed Dorothy to a local journalist named Thayer Waldo. Waldo was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, who was present at the police station on both the 22nd and 24th November. On November 22 Waldo struck up a conversation with Jack Ruby – Ruby clearly wasn’t press and Waldo wondered what’s his line? At least until the Oswald murder. Curious, Waldo began digging, claiming to uncover something he felt put his own life at risk if he published it himself. He alleged eight days prior to the assassination, Oswald met Ruby at his Carousel Club. Also at the meeting, Bernard Weissman – a member of the alt right John Birch Society, and co-author of the pamphlet accusing Kennedy of treason; a shady character about we know only as a ‘Texan Oil Man’ – and veteran police officer J.D. Tippit. Waldo never stated what the men discussed. All the same, over the years the alleged meeting – had it even occurred – has been taken on as proof of a shadowy cabal plotting to kill the president.

The Warren Commission was also privy to this information, finding a link to Oswald and a G.W Tippit (of no connection to officer Tippit), and that Weissman claimed he’d never been to the Carousel club, when questioned. They placed no credence in the alleged meeting.

She would also claim to have discovered a police cover up with the murder weapon, stating they booked in a completely different weapon at the scene – which was replaced by Oswald’s rifle later. She publicly questioned, via another Lane lead, if Lee Harvey Oswald had even shot officer Tippit. She would report a tale Lane had been openly discussing also, of a witness to the Tippit shooting named Acquilla Clemens. Clemens claimed two men shot Tippit – neither of them Oswald.

In the months that followed, Dorothy wrote little publicly on the assassination. She was known to openly discuss her findings, and her mistrust of the Warren Commission with colleagues. One wonders how this played out with What’s My Line’s John Charles Daly? Not so much as he himself was a renowned reporter – but because he was married to Chief Justice Earl Warren’s daughter. Rumours persisted Dorothy had a connection on the Warren Commission who was leaking information to her, but there were no career defining leads. In this time she secured the only press interview given by Jack Ruby – but we have no idea what Ruby had to say – it was never published, and the notes disappeared when Dorothy passed. She became paranoid the FBI were tapping her phones. Around this time she began dating an ‘out of towner’. The consensus of writers on Kilgallen state her mystery man was an Ohio based film critic named Ron Potaky. The same writers all suspect, without any evidence I could come across, that Potaky was a CIA plant, and that the two met on the night Dorothy died.

In summary, Dorothy Kilgallen had conducted an investigation where, thus far, she found a few interesting connections – were they true. Much of her writing was guided by Mark Lane, who had a few well thought of supporters – most notably the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (yes the same guy taken in by the fraudulent Hitler Diaries in 1983 – in the 1960s he was still taken very seriously). – but who was mostly thought a kook. She allegedly had notes from several leads which vanished. Importantly she did meet and interview Jack Ruby. There was also the man in New Orleans some believe she was killed over. I can’t claim he was just Jim Garrison – we don’t know who he was. He could have been Garrison, looking for an outlet for his conspiracy theories. The mystery man from New Orleans may legitimately have had some information that would lay bare a vast conspiracy to kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Truthfully, the more I read into the Kilgallen case, the more I’m convinced she was tilting at windmills. There are details I’ve omitted in this tale, like the night she stood a few doors down from her townhouse, in the dark – husband Richard Kollmar peering out of a fifth story window with a broomstick for a gun – to prove Howard Brennan, the eyewitness who saw Oswald in a sixth floor window – in the cold light of day – could not have seen the killer…. or that ten other eyewitnesses to the Tippit killing identified Oswald as Tippit’s killer.

What does interest me however, is Dorothy Kilgallen’s death IS strange. She had received death threats prior to her death. Given some of the names who do appear in Kennedy assassination lore; the Mafia, the CIA, even Fidel Castro, was Dorothy silenced not even necessarily for something she found so much as for poking her nose into places where she may stumble into something equally dangerous?

Next week we’ll discuss the strange death of Dorothy Kilgallen – or at least why I find it strange and disturbing.



5 thoughts on “The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen

  1. Pingback: The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part Three) | Tales of History and Imagination

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