She is remembered by most as a regular panelist on the popular TV show, What’s My Line?, but Dorothy Kilgallen was much more than that. Hailed as “the greatest female writer in the world” by Ernest Hemingway, Kilgallen’s influence as a top journalist reached heights few women of her generation could aspire to. Perhaps the best word to describe her is “relentless,” a trait that may have led to her mysterious death in 1965. Was she murdered for figuring out who killed John F. Kennedy? That question and many others are tackled in Mark Shaw’s compelling 2016 book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of What’s My Line TV Star and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen. The conspiracy theories and possibilities discussed in the book and the names attached to each make for as interesting a story as does Dorothy’s own life and career.
Dorothy Kilgallen, Dolly Mae to her friends, was the daughter of one of the Hearst Syndicate’s star reporters, James Lawrence Kilgallen. Dorothy started her career shortly before her 18th birthday as a reporter for the Hearst Corporation’s New York Evening Journal. Her column, “The Voice of Broadway” began as a local gossip-about-town entry regularly referred to as, “Gossip in Gotham.” Kilgallen penned the column from 1938 to 1965 when she was found in her apartment dead from “moderate doses of pills,” or as her own newspaper, the Journal American simply noted, “Miss Kilgallen died in her sleep.” Such stories about her cause of death were reported by most, if not all sources at the time, but her death has always been suspect. Since 1965 the mundane stories have been replaced by numerous, more sinister possibilities several of which are quite convincing. A staged death scene and the fact that the doctor whose signature appears on her autopsy report denied ever having performed it are just two of the reasons some type of foul play is suspected.
Kilgallen’s “The Voice of Broadway” column was eventually syndicated to nearly 150 papers throughout the country. People came to rely on the column for news on entertainment, politics, organized crime and sometimes stories that combined all. There was no personality or story out of reach for Dorothy Kilgallen and she minced no words in her opinions. Here are two entertaining examples of her gossip column:
Don’t let the purely entertaining gossip pieces fool you, however. Ms. Kilgallen was a fearless journalist with an uncanny ability to get a scoop. Her skills and reputation as a serious journalist were well-respected. One of her most famous reports included calling judicial misconduct in the sensational trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard who was accused of murdering his wife, sentenced to life in prison and eventually exonerated in a retrial. Kilgallen never cared what enemies she made whether they were judges or famous movie stars, like Frank Sinatra with whom she feuded after reporting the singer had ties to the mafia. The most famous (or infamous) story Dorothy Kilgallen wrote about was the JFK assassination. She was the only reporter to interview Oswald killer, Jack Ruby whom she claimed gave her details about a conspiracy. Dorothy Kilgallen’s steady opinion, which she shared often, was that the investigations concerning the JFK assassination stunk to high heaven. She regularly disputed the Warren Committee findings and vowed to break the conspiracy story, but that was never realized due to her untimely death. That’s if she was close to a different truth, which I tend to believe.
Mark Shaw’s book, which was inspired by an article in Midwest Today, “Who Killed Dorothy Kilgallen?” is a comprehensive study of the woman and the journalist who was made legendary by a no-nonsense, aggressive style. The Reporter Who Knew Too Much is a well-researched piece of pop culture history that’s well worth your time. The author, a former legal analyst for CNN, ESPN and USA Today, discusses Kilgallen’s story to include previously unknown details by using uncovered interviews and government documents. As a result the woman who the New York Post referred to as “the most powerful woman in America” due to her tenacity to get to the truth, finally has her own story given similar treatment.
By the way, for more book recommendations visit Raquel at Out of the Past blog where she’s hosting her yearly, Summer Reading Challenge. I’m making a long list of must-reads based on the entries this year.
On the Radio
Given my admiration for radio I’d be remiss not to mention Dorothy Kilgallen’s work in the medium, which came about due to her popularity as a journalist. Kilgallen was asked to host troops on a tour of New York in 1944 for a special Command Performance. Along with her husband, Richard (Dick) Kolmer star of radio’s Boston Blackie. Kilgallen hosted “Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick,” which aired every morning from the parlor of the couple’s 5-story, NYC brownstone. The format of “Breakfast” would be copied many times by many people. The show ran from 1945 until 1963. Dorothy’s own Dorothy Kilgallen’s Diary, which featured the host interviewing Broadway personalities, was in style and content similar to her syndicated column. The Diary was short-lived, but it was so popular during its run that it was syndicated for the Treasury Department’s Victory Bond Drive.
Worthy of note – Dorothy Kilgallen appeared in only one movie (to my knowledge) playing a journalist in Errol Taggart’s Sinner Take All (1936). Here’s a clip.
What’s My Line?
What’s My Line? remains hugely popular in classic circles. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, however, here’s a brief description:
The weekly panel show game show originally ran from 1950 until 1967 on CBS. The celebrity panel of four were required to question guests in order to guess their occupations. The best part of the each episode for this fan was toward the end when the contestant was a celebrity who changed his or her voice in order to fool the panelists. The words, “Will the Mystery Guest enter and sign in please!” are forever exciting.
What’s My Line? is the longest-running game show in the history of prime time network TV. The show was hosted by John Charles Daly and the regular panelists were Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf. When the panelists couldn’t make a show famous celebrities would take their place. What’s My Line? won three Emmy Awards for “Best Quiz or Audience Participation Show” (1952, 1953 and 1958) and a Golden Globe for “Best TV Show” in 1962. (Archive of American Television)
The year after What’s My Line? went off the air it returned in syndication enjoying success until 1975. By that time the panelists were house-hold names, with Dorothy Kilgallen cementing her popularity across mediums of entertainment. As a popular and tough participant of What’s My Line? and one of the reasons for its success, the show took a hit when Dorothy died in 1965. She was found dead in her NY Brwonstone just 12 hours after having appeared live on What’s My Line? The November 19, 1965 episode, which featured Maureen O’Sullivan as a celebrity guest, was in tribute to Dorothy Kilgallen:
Memories of What’s My Line?
As a supplement, here are memories of What’s My Line? sent to me by friend and classic media guru, Alan Hait (@AlanHait). A few years ago I posted a clip of Bob Cummings on What’s My Line? (WML) to remember the actor on his birth anniversary. Shortly after posting the clip Alan sent me an email – an email so fantastic that I asked him if he’d mind if I shared it on my blog. He didn’t mind and here it is…
(Note: I can’t seem to locate the exact clip Alan references in his email, but I think you’ll enjoy the memories regardless.)
From Alan Hait:
“What’s My Line?” was done every Sunday night at 10:30 pm LIVE (as a very little kid I remember begging to stay up late on Sunday – Candid Camera was on at 10 pm and WML was always at 10:30 – the last thing America watched before bedtime and work on Monday mornings – one key reason why Kellogg’s was a sponsor of the show for so long – subliminal messaging around Monday morning breakfast!
Before video tape came into use, WML was live. If John Daly had to miss a show, for example traveling to cover a news story, they had to have a substitute host (once it was Eamonn Andrews, the host of the British version; once it was Clifton Fadiman, and once it was even Bennett Cerf!). If I recall, John only missed, like, 3 shows in 17 years. In August 1956, the show was broadcast live from Chicago, as John Daly and Dorothy Kilgallen had to cover the Democratic National Convention. They packed up the flimsy NY sets and shipped them to Chicago, and the panel either flew out or took the train. So the show was done just as it always was, with the same people, just from Chicago for that one evening. Funny bit of trivia: the producers had approached and had an agreement for Harry Truman to be the Mystery Guest. (Margaret Truman had been an occasional panelist in the early years of the show.) But instead, the Mystery Guest turned out to be Perle Mesta. What happened to Truman? One of the show’s sponsors was Remington Rand, and retired Gen Douglas MacArthur sat on their board of directors – when he heard that Truman was going to be Mystery Guest, he threatened to pull the sponsorship. Shows how vain and petty he was, and that Truman was probably right to fire him!
The only other show outside New York was the one you linked to. It was January 12, 1958 and came from the then-newish CBS Television City. Not sure if they shipped out the New York set or had one assembled in L.A. for the occasion. I read somewhere that it was actually a “test” color transmission (only the B&W kinescope survives). Since John Daly had to be in LA on news business, they decided to give the regular panel a night off (rather than paying for the then-expensive and time-consuming cross-country trip – this was before jet planes!) and use a star-studded Hollywood panel. FYI, Laraine Day was a favorite of Goodson-Todman and was one of the few Hollywood stars easily available in New York, since she was married to Leo Durocher, manager of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. She was on To Tell The Truth, I’ve Got A Secret, The Name’s The Same and – after the Dodgers moved to LA – on You Don’t Say, Hollywood Squares, and of course this one episode of What’s My Line? Being a devout Mormon, she didn’t drink alcohol, so unlike a lot of the other panelists she was on-time and reliable!
Once video tape came into regular use and was economical, John Daly never had to miss another Sunday as CBS made sure they had 4 or 5 taped episodes “in the can” for use in case of ill-health, or during the summer vacations.
So much to absorb in your extensive article. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dorothy or read any of her articles. That book sounds very interesting .
I’ve always loved Dorothy Kilgallen. What’s My Line? is one of my favorite shows.
Thank you for bringing ‘The Reporter Who Knew Too Much’ to my attention. I will definitely check it out.
Some of us are old enough to remember ‘Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick’ on the radio. A very different world!
I haven’t found episodes to listen to yet! I’d say you’re lucky.
Thank you for the great memory. I remember watching this episode of What’s My Line. Amazing, they’re all gone now. I wonder about the contestants.
Awesome review! I can’t wait to read this book. When Game Show Network used to play What’s My Line a few years ago, it was one of my favorite shows and Dorothy was my favorite judge. After learning about her death and journalism, I’ve always wondered more about her. It’s great that an author took the time to delve into her life and share it with us.
Thanks so much. Well worth the read.
Interesting review! I loved always loved Dorothy on What’s My Line. Her death has always been fascinating to me…
Very interesting article. I only know her from What’s My Line. I had no idea about most of the rest of what you mention.
Thanks for such a great post. I never knew. I’ve seen some old “What’s my Line?” shows and thought Dorothy was just a pretty witty ex-actress or singer. That she’d been a journalist since the late 30’s was surprising. That she died from alcohol/drugs was shocking. She seems so level headed and intelligent. I can see why her death is a mystery.
Tragic end, but an interesting life and brave woman.