The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part One)

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.

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.

5 thoughts on “The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part One)

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

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