July 3, 1913 – Dorothy Kilgallen:
I actually turned down an opportunity for a private interview with Adolph Hitler.
She started her career when she was 17 years old covering crime stories and she earned the reputation of being a good, thorough reporter, someone that left no stone un-turned. By 1950, her column was running in 146 papers, with more than 30 million readers.
In 1936, Kilgallen competed with two other New York City newspaper reporters in a race around the world using only transportation available to the general public. She was the only woman to compete in the contest and she came in second. She wrote a book about the experience, Girl Around The World, which was the basis for the film Fly-Away Baby (1937) starring Glenda Farrell. Kilgallen was only 23.
Beginning in 1945, Kilgallen and her husband, Broadway actor Richard Kollmar co-hosted a radio talk show, Breakfast With Dorothy And Dick, from their 16-room apartment at 640 Park Avenue, and later from their townhouse at 45 East 68th Street starting in 1952. The radio program, like Kilgallen’s newspaper column, mixed entertainment with serious issues. Kilgallen and Kollmar continued doing the show from their home until 1963. Their show is slightly fictionalized as “Breakfast With Irene And Roger” in Woody Allen‘s terrific film Radio Days (1987), one of my favorites.
She also covered high-profile murder trials, including the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who denied killing his pregnant wife, and inspiration for the television series The Fugitive (1963-67). Kilgallen wielded power. She single-handedly led Sheppard’s murder conviction to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after she told defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey that when the trial started, Judge Edward Blythin called her into his chambers to get her autograph and blabbed: “It’s an open-and-shut case. He’s guilty as hell”.
Her marital problems and rumored affair with gay pop singer Johnnie Ray were fodder for gossip. She cultivated extensive sources, including underworld figures such as mob boss Frank Costello. Ernest Hemingway called her “the greatest woman writer in the world”.
Today, Kilgallen’s name is mostly unrecognized, but in the mid-1950s, she was the most famous journalist in America. People my age knew her as a panelist on the popular game show What’s My Line? (1950-1975), moderated by John Daly. She was joined by fellow panelists Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf, and she was on the show for 15 years, until her mysterious death in 1965.
When her hairdresser Marc Sinclaire found her, Kilgallen was propped up in bed, in full make-up, wig, and earrings, and dead. Sinclaire noted that she was not wearing her regular pajamas, but instead a blue matching peignoir and robe. A book was on her bed, a book she had finished reading weeks earlier. Her reading glasses, which she needed, were nowhere nearby. She was found in a third-floor bedroom of her townhouse, although she always slept on the fifth-floor.
Kilgallen was a good reporter of celebrity gossip, but she was also known for hard-hitting crime stories. She wrote about murder trials and was one of the first reporters to imply that the CIA was involved in working with the mob to try to assassinate Fidel Castro.
On August 3, 1962, Kilgallen wrote a piece about Marilyn Monroe‘s affair with President John K. Kennedy. Less than 48 hours later, Monroe was found dead. Kilgallen began writing of her suspicions that Monroe’s cause of death was an overdose of pills. She asked tough questions and challenged the police and medical evidence.
After Kennedy was murdered, Kilgallen was left devastated. She turned her attention, and her impressive crime investigation skills, to the assassination of the president.
She somehow got her hands on the Warren Commission‘s report even before President Lyndon Baines Johnson saw it. Kilgallen believed that the report was full of holes and contradictions and she began her own independent investigation. She pulled no punches as she wrote the first article on the FBI’s intimidation of witnesses. She interviewed Acquilla Clemons, a witness to the shooting of Officer J. D. Tippit whom the Warren Commission never questioned (Clemons claimed to have two men at the scene of the murder, none matching Lee Harvey Oswald‘s description).
Cross-dressing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent agents to her apartment to interrogate her, during which she reportedly said she would rather die than reveal her source. Kilgallen was trailed by agents, and her phone was tapped.
When the 1967 Freedom of Information Act made some documents available, it was revealed that the FBI and the CIA were keeping tabs on Kilgallen from 53 offices around the world.
She had been working on a book about the Kennedy assassination, and had conducted a private interview with Jack Ruby, the only journalist to do so. When the February 21, 1964, issue of LIFE magazine came out, with a controversial photo of Oswald, Kilgallen publicly challenged its authenticity.
The next month, she excitedly told her What’s My Line? makeup artist about a trip to New Orleans to meet with a secret source who had some information about the Kennedy assassination. Kilgallen said:
“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to break this case.“
In 1968, tissue samples were analyzed to determine the chemicals responsible for her demise. The glass next to her bed showed traces of Nembutol, a drug she was known to take, but that drug was not found in her body. Analysis showed a deadly combination of three barbiturates: Secobarbital, Amobarbital, and Pentobarbital.
Her death was attributed to a combination of alcohol and barbiturates, the same way that Monroe died. One of the queries Kilgallen had about Monroe’s death had been:
“If she were just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of the pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark.“
Chillingly, when Kilgallen’s body was found, her light was also on.
The large folder of notes on the JFK assassination that Kilgallen carried with her was never found after her death.
Her husband had been asleep on the fourth-floor of the townhouse. He gave inconsistent accounts of what happened that night. He claimed that she arrived home at 11:30 p.m., in good spirits, and went off to write her column. Yet, she was seen in the lounge at The Regency Hotel where the What’s My Line? cast and guests gathered until 2 a.m. The Regency was seven blocks from the townhouse and it is unknown how she got home or what transpired during this time. She apparently was not among friends in her final hours. Later, when asked about his wife’s JFK investigation, Kollmar said: “I’m afraid that will have to go to the grave with me”. And it did. Kollmar died of a drug overdose in 1971.
Weeks before her death, Kilgallen bought a gun for self-protection and had planned a second trip to New Orleans to investigate infamous Mafia don Carlos Marcello. She had told her colleagues at What’s My Line?:
If the wrong people knew what I know about the JFK assassination, it would cost me my life.
The events surrounding her mysterious death have become intertwined with the lore of the Kennedy assassination. She would be one of many suspicious deaths surrounding the case. In an odd turn of events, Dr. James Luke, the medical examiner that did the autopsy, did not sign the death certificate. It was signed by another physician, Dr. Dominick DiMaio, who when questioned, did not know why his name was appeared on the certificate, nor was he working in Manhattan at the time.
In 1975, Kilgallen’s son was contacted by the FBI concerning his mother’s JFK papers. He told them the notes were still missing. Why was the FBI interested in the papers after they had long decided that Oswald killed the president? Her JFK files have never been found.
Here is the official quote from the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act section on Kilgallen:
Ms. Kilgallen and Director Hoover corresponded with each other. Kilgallen printed information in her column several times about cases involving the FBI, none of which were true. Dorothy Kilgallen died in November 1965, from alcohol and barbiturates.
Among the 2,600 people in attendance at her funeral were: Arlene Francis, Ed Sullivan, film producer Joseph E. Levine, and Joan Crawford. You can find Kilgallen at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, NY.
54 years later, the Manhattan District Attorney-s Office is still looking into the mysterious death of Kilgallen.