Journalist, foreign correspondent, and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen was born 3 July 1913 in Chicago. It might've been predestined that Dorothy would be a reporter and adventurer – she was the daughter of Jim “Kil” Kilgallen, himself for many years a Hearst newspaperman, and his wife Mae Ahern.
THE EARLY YEARS and DOROTHY DISCOVERS JOURNALISM
Dorothy's childhood and adolescence were uneventful. She attended Erasmus Hall High School and, while there, got her first taste of journalism when she began writing for the school newspaper. Dorothy graduated sometime in spring 1930 and by the fall had entered the College of New Rochelle. She spent about a year there, and left when she was offered, by a friend of her father's, a job at the New York Journal.
At the Journal, Dorothy worked her way out of the women's department and into covering murder trials by 1932. She sat in on all the major trials, including the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping case, and as 1936 came to a close, she felt ready for something different. Dorothy, not one to settle for easy assignments, convinced the Journal to allow her to accompany a fellow reporter on his journey around the world.
It was a rough, grueling journey -- part of it aboard the famous dirigible Hindenburg and, though they were beaten by a competing newspaper, the pair completed the journey in record time. Like Nellie Bly before her, Dorothy's dispatches from the trip made her name and she was soon being called a “famous lady journalist”. After the trip, she headed to California intending to turn her experiences into a movie. “Fly Away Baby”, loosely based on Dorothy's adventures, was released in 1937 to indifferent success; undaunted, Dorothy spent some time writing a Hollywood gossip column and appeared in a few bit parts.
DOROTHY AND SHOW BIZ
In 1938, Dorothy returned to New York and started her long running column, “The Voice of Broadway”, for the Journal, now called the Journal-American. Keeping an eye on the doings of the theatre world, she moved in what was then known as 'cafe society' and managed to hold her own against competitors such as Ed Sullivan and the formidable Walter Winchell. Along the way she met and married a young actor, Richard “Dick” Kollmar, in 1940. Children soon followed; first daughter Jill in 1941, and then son Richard II (“Dickie”) in 1943.
Notwithstanding the pressures of marriage and family, Dorothy and Dick continued their full-time entertainment careers: she with the column and covering the odd trial, and Dick with appearances in movies and the theatre. In 1944 they produced a musical revue, “Dream with Music”, that was less successful than they might've hoped. The Kollmars had a much better time of it with a morning radio program, “Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick”, that premiered in April 1945. Each morning, listeners were treated to virtual coffee, chit-chat, and all the latest gossip about Dorothy and Dick's well-known friends and acquaintances. Radio listeners couldn't get enough of the show, and it was soon syndicated to the west coast. Though the show was a success and would remain so for nearly twenty years, a new medium soon came calling for Dorothy.
THIS THING CALLED TELEVISION
In early 1950, television producers Mark Goodman and Bill Todman invited Dorothy to be one of the panelists on their new game show, What's My Line. She was to be one of four people (the others were poet Louis Untermeyer, prominent neurosurgeon Richard Hoffman, and former New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman) whose job it was to determine, through the use of clever questions and answers, the occupation of contestants selected to appear on the show.
The program got off to a shaky start, mostly due to a lack of chemistry between the four panelists and host John Daly, a former CBS newsman. The poet, surgeon, and governor were soon replaced; but there was never any thought of replacing Dorothy. She soon emerged as a natural for the show, and with the advent of new panelists Arlene Francis, an ebullient well-known actress and television personality, Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, and radio star Fred Allen, the show at last found its audience. What's My Line set a standard among game shows for style and intelligence, and made Dorothy not only a nationally-known figure but perhaps the most famous female journalist of the time. She would remain a panelist on the show for the rest of her life.
In addition to What's My Line, Dorothy had other things on her mind. She stayed away from the Red Scare hysteria of the early 1950s, both personally and in her column. For her, senator Joseph McCarthy just didn't exist, nor did the dreaded witch-hunting publication “Red Channels” that ruined so many careers and lives. Dorothy was too busy with the birth of her third child, Kerry, in 1954, and with her column.
Once Dorothy recovered from Kerry's birth, she decided to make a tentative return to reporting. The Journal-American dispatched her to Ohio to cover the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, a prominent osteopath. The doctor was accused of murdering his wife, and the trial had gained national attention. Dorothy's presence at the trial served to increase public interest, and while covering it she produced some of the best work of her career.
Throughout the rest of the 50s and on into the early 1960s, Dorothy's life and career continued in the same vein. She covered the visit of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959, and traveled to California to report the trial of wealthy surgeon Bernard Finch, accused of shooting his wife. Dorothy became involved with two famous singers: a public feud with Frank Sinatra, and a not-so-public love affair with gospel-voiced Johnnie Ray. The feud with Sinatra would peter out by the end of the decade, but her romance with Ray continued well into the early 60s.
Around this time, also, Dorothy developed a problem with barbiturates. Originally prescribed as a remedy for some medical woes, she became increasingly dependent on the drugs, to the point of endangering not only her journalistic endeavors, but her position on What's My Line. With some effort, and numerous hospital visits, Dorothy weaned herself from the drugs, but alcohol soon replaced the drugs as a source of trouble, though she was able to keep the drinking under somewhat better control.
DOROTHY INVESTIGATES THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION
They've killed the President, the government is not prepared to tell us the truth, and I'm going to do everything in my power to find out what happened
-- Dorothy, to fellow investigator and New York assemblyman Mark Lane.
U. S. President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in November 1963 while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. The man accused of killing him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself gunned down a few days later by a nightclub owner called Jack Ruby. Now, in early 1964, Ruby was to stand trial for the murder. Dorothy was not assigned to cover the trial, but she nonetheless decided to travel to Dallas and look in on the proceedings.
Her reporter's instincts back in gear, Dorothy arranged a meeting with Ruby's attorneys, Joe Tonahill and the flamboyant Melvin Belli. They were impressed enough with Dorothy's work and credentials that Tonahill showed her some correspondence with the U. S. Department of Justice in which he'd requested copies of all evidence, reports, and other relevant material from the Warren Commission (charged with the official investigation of the assassination) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Both Justice and the FBI initially refused the request, but relented under pressure from the U. S. Attorney General's office. However, Tonahill and Belli received only material related to Ruby – the Warren Commission refused to make available any information pertaining to Oswald, on the grounds that such information did not appear to them to be relevant. Dorothy found this highly unusual and just a bit suspicious; she made sure it was a feature item of one of her first columns about the trial.
One day, during a recess in the trial, the defense attorneys introduced Dorothy to Ruby himself. They chatted briefly, and then she left him as the trial resumed. Dorothy subsequently returned to New York, but flew back to Dallas in late March. She requested another meeting with Ruby, this time a private one, saying she had some information for him from a mutual friend. Ruby's lawyers granted the request; indeed, this was the first of several meetings between the columnist and the defendant. No one knows what they talked about, who the 'mutual friend' was, or what (if anything) Dorothy learned from Jack Ruby. She never mentioned the meetings in her column, nor did she leak any details of what may have transpired. The trial ended with Ruby's conviction, and Dorothy returned home to New York.
BACK AT HOME
After the Ruby trial, Dorothy plunged back into New York's social whirl. She continued with her Voice of Broadway columns, and was more popular than ever on What's My Line. She went back to work on a planned book, Murder One. She even found time to appear in another trial; Dorothy was a surprise witness for the defense in comedian Lenny Bruce's well-publicized obscenity trial. Bruce was ultimately acquitted, thanks in part to Dorothy's calm, reasoned testimony.
The mystery surrounding the Kennedy assassination wasn't far from Dorothy's mind, though. In the fall of 1964, she resumed her investigation. She hadn't forgotten the Justice Department's refusal to release the Oswald material. Dorothy wanted to know why, and began to believe the government knew more than it was willing to say.
Dorothy stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest when she obtained a copy of the yet-unreleased Warren Commission's final report on the assassination, and began publishing parts of it in her stories. Furious at the unplanned release, the Commission not only then investigated their own people, but requested that J. Edgar Hoover (then director of the FBI) “... find out how Dorothy Kilgallen secured a copy of the report”. Despite the furor, Dorothy never revealed her source's identity, nor did anyone else discover it.
Days later, Dorothy returned to Dallas to check out discrepancies she found in both the Dallas chief of police's statements and the official police logs relating to the assassination. Again, her findings found their way into her column. Back in New York, she continued to publish revelation after revelation: a mysterious 'oil man' who met with Ruby; witnesses allegedly threatened by the Dallas police or the FBI; clandestine meetings between people involved in the crime, people that weren't ever supposed to have met. Dorothy told a few friends that she was going to get the real facts between what she called “the biggest story of the century”.
WHAT HAPPENED TO DOROTHY?
That's the question author Lee Israel asks again and again in the final chapters of his biography of Dorothy Kilgallen. During early 1965, she remained busy with her social obligations, her column, and of course What's My Line. She spent the summer in Europe and returned refreshed and ready to return once more to the Kennedy investigation.
It is known Dorothy believed that a famous photograph of Oswald with gun and socialist literature, that had been featured on the cover of Life magazine, had been doctored. It is known that she planned a return trip to Dallas, and a trip to New Orleans where she was to meet someone who would give her information on the case. It is known she taped an episode of What's My Line on Sunday, November 7, 1965, and was in good spirits afterward. Finally, it is known that Dorothy Kilgallen was found dead Monday morning, sitting up in bed.
What is not known are the reasons for the strange circumstances surrounding her death. The official cause of Dorothy's death was given, on the death certificate, as “acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication – circumstances undetermined”. What was “undetermined” was whether her death was accidental or suicidal. For his 1977 biography, Lee Israel questioned surviving witnesses and officials, many of whom were unwilling or reluctant to talk. He found evidence of misreported facts, stories from witnesses that didn't match up, discrepancies in the medication Dorothy was supposed to have taken, and confusion on exactly when Dorothy had been found. Israel concluded that some sort of cover-up had been staged, a deliberate attempt to cloud the facts of Dorothy's death.
Was Dorothy Kilgallen “silenced”? History may never know. She was said to have returned from one of her trips terrified by things she had learned, and had subsequently left behind a package of documents, “to be made public if anything ever happens to me”, but there is no evidence that this ever happened nor has any such package surfaced. Though it was ultimately ruled accidental, the exact circumstances of Dorothy Kilgallen's death remain unresolved.
Israel, Lee, Dorothy Kilgallen
. New York: Delacorte Press, 1979.
Morningstar, Robert, "The Death of Dorothy Kilgallen", Justice for JFK
. 1994. <http://www.jfkresearch.com/morningstar/killgallen.htm> (June-July 2006).
The Internet Movie Database, "Dorothy Kilgallen". <:www.imdb.com/name/nm0453015/> (June-July 2006).
Federal Bureau of Investigation
, "Dorothy Kilgallen", Freedom of Information Privacy Act
. <http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/dorothykilgallen.htm> (June-July 2006).