Dorothy Mae Kilgallen (July 3, 1913 – November 8, 1965) was an American journalist and television game show panelist. She started her career early as a reporter for the Hearst Corporation's New York Evening Journal after spending two semesters at The College of New Rochelle in New Rochelle, New York. In 1936, she began her newspaper column, The Voice of Broadway, which eventually was syndicated to more than 146 papers. She became a regular panelist on the television game show What's My Line?in 1950.
Kilgallen's columns featured mostly show business news and gossip, but also ventured into other topics such as politics andorganized crime. She wrote front-page articles on the Sam Sheppard trial and later the John F. Kennedy assassination and claimed she had interviewed Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald's killer, out of earshot of sheriff's deputies. The circumstances of Kilgallen's death have been the subject of conspiracy theories. As the cause of her death was officially ruled "undetermined," and because she openly criticized U.S. government agencies as early as 1959, some believe that Kilgallen was murdered in order to silence her.
Early life and career
Kilgallen, born in Chicago, was the daughter of the Hearst newspaperman James Lawrence Kilgallen (1888–1982) and his wife, Mae Ahern. The family moved from Chicago to Wyoming, Indiana, and back to Chicago before finally settling in New York City. Dorothy's sister Eleanor, six years her junior, became a casting agent for movies and television shows. After two semesters at The College of New Rochelle, Dorothy Kilgallen dropped out to take a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Journal, which was owned and operated by the Hearst Corporation. She was Roman Catholic.
In 1936, Kilgallen competed with two other New York newspaper reporters in a race around the world using only means of transportation available to the general public. She was the only woman to compete in the contest and she came in second. She described the event in her book Girl Around The World, which is credited as the story idea for the 1937 movie Fly-Away Baby starring Glenda Farrell as a character partly inspired by Kilgallen. During a stint living in Hollywood in 1936 and 1937, Kilgallen wrote a daily column mostly read only in New York that nonetheless provoked a libel suit from Constance Bennett, "who in the early thirties had been the highest paid performer in motion pictures," according to a Kilgallen biography, "but who was [in 1937] experiencing a temporary decline in popular appeal."
Kilgallen article about Elvis Presley, circa 1959.
Back in New York in 1938, Kilgallen began writing a daily column, the Voice of Broadway, for Hearst's New York Journal American, which the corporation created by merging the Evening Journal with the American. The column, which she wrote until her death in 1965, featured mostly New York show business news and gossip, but also ventured into other topics such as politics andorganized crime. The column eventually was syndicated to 146 papers via King Features Syndicate.
In April 1940, Kilgallen married Richard Kollmar (1910-1971) who had starred in the musicals Knickerbocker Holiday and Too Many Girls. Beginning in April 1945, Kilgallen and Kollmar co-hosted a WOR-AM radio talk show, Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick, from their 16-room apartment at 640 Park Avenue. The show followed them when they bought a Neo-Georgian brownstone at 45 East 68th Street in 1952. The radio program, which like Kilgallen's newspaper column mixed entertainment with serious issues, remained on the air until 1963.
The What's My Line?
panel in 1952. From left: Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis and Hal Block, with John Daly as the host.
In 1950, Kilgallen became a panelist on the American television game show What's My Line?, which was aired on the CBS television network from 1950 to 1967. She remained on the show for 15 years, until her death. Fellow panelist Bennett Cerf claimed that, unlike the rest of the panel members, whose priority was getting a laugh and entertaining the audience, Kilgallen was interested mainly in guessing the correct answers. Cerf asserted that she also would extend her time on camera by asking more questions than necessary, the answers to which she knew would be affirmative.
Cerf described Kilgallen as an outsider among her castmates for two reasons. The first was her conservative point of view, that of a "Hearst girl," which differed from that of the others. The second was that information Kilgallen elicited during conversations in the dressing room shared by all four panelists would subsequently appear in her newspaper column.Cerf, speaking for his fellow panelists, the panel moderator, and himself in an audio-tape-recorded interview at Columbia University two years and two months after Kilgallen's death, said, "We didn't like that."
Kilgallen was among the notables on the guest list of those who attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Kilgallen's articles won her a Pulitzer Prize nomination during this era.
In 1958, Kilgallen and her husband Kollmar, along with Albert W. Selden, co-produced a musical on Broadway entitled, The Body Beautiful. Kilgallen and her fellow panelists made mention of the show on various episodes of What's My Line? during this time period. On one episode, a cast member of the ill-fated musical (a well-built young man, billed as a "chorus boy" in the episode) appeared as a contestant and stumped the panel.
Sam Sheppard murder trial
Kilgallen covered the 1954 murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard. The New York Journal American carried the banner front-page headline that she was "astounded" by the guilty verdict due to what she argued were manifest shortcomings in the prosecution's case. The doctor was convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death at their home in the Clevelandsuburb of Bay Village. In the 1990s, the case was reopened and an aging convict named Richard Eberling became a person of interest, but concrete evidence for a conviction was lacking.
Many Clevelanders believed Dr. Sheppard was guilty, including the editors of The Plain Dealer, which carried Kilgallen's syndicated column. Immediately after she wrote that the prosecutors "didn't prove he was guilty any more than they proved there are pin-headed men on Mars," her column was banned from that newspaper. Nine years later, at theOverseas Press Club in New York, she revealed that the judge in the case had told her toward the beginning of the trial that Dr. Sheppard was "guilty as hell". When attorney F. Lee Bailey began the appeal of Sheppard's conviction, resulting in his July 1964 release from prison, he discovered other eyewitness accounts of the judge prejudging the case before hearing testimony or seeing evidence.
Arlene Francis, a fellow What's My Line? panelist, said in 1976, "I thought Dorothy was a marvelous journalist when she covered something like the Sheppard trial. As opposed to her gossip column." A 1991 history of the Hearst Corporation co-authored by Bill Hearst and Jack Casserly says the company milked famous bylines for all they were worth, encouraging the star reporters to do as many diverse stories as possible to increase circulation and newsstand sales.
Kilgallen's father, Jim, was still a "Hearst star" in 1955 when at age 67 he traveled to Mississippi to cover the trial of two men charged with the murder of Emmett Till for the Hearst-owned International News Service. He also wrote profiles of movie stars.
Reporting on UFOs
On February 15, 1954, Dorothy Kilgallen commented in her syndicated column, "Flying saucers are regarded as of such vital importance that they will be the subject of a special hush-hush meeting of the world military heads next summer."
In a May 22, 1955, report from London, syndicated by the INS, Kilgallen stated, "British scientists and airmen, after examining the wreckage of one mysterious flying ship, are convinced these strange aerial objects are not optical illusions or Soviet inventions, but are flying saucers which originate on another planet. The source of my information is a British official of Cabinet rank who prefers to remain unidentified. 'We believe, on the basis of our inquiry thus far, that the saucers were staffed by small men—probably under four feet tall. It's frightening, but there is no denying the flying saucers come from another planet.'" This article, which was separate from Kilgallen's column, appeared on the front pages of the New York Journal American, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and other newspapers. The Washington Post ran it on page 8. Gordon Creighton, editor of the magazine,Flying Saucer Review, alleged the information was given to Kilgallen by Lord Mountbatten of Burma at a cocktail party, but attempts to verify this were unsuccessful.
Kilgallen and the Kennedy assassination
Kilgallen claimed she conducted an interview with Jack Ruby inside the Dallas courthouse where he was tried for the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald, although she never revealed the subject of their purported conversation. Four or five months later, she obtained a copy of Ruby's testimony to the Warren Commission, which was published on the front pages of the Journal American, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and other newspapers. Most of that testimony did not become officially available to the public until the commission released its 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits in November 1964, around the time of the first anniversary of the assassination. The first of three installments of the Ruby testimony under Kilgallen's byline appeared in the Journal American on August 18.
Kilgallen had a history of government criticism, suggesting in 1959 that the CIA recruited members of the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro, which many years later was proven to be the case. By the time of the assassination, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had been keeping a file on the "flighty and irresponsible" columnist (his words about her were preserved in his own handwriting) for 25 years.
The FBI tried to determine who had given the columnist a transcript of Jack Ruby's testimony to the Warren Commission. The agency abandoned, in September 1964, all attempts to identify this source. The attempts had included sending two FBI agents to Kilgallen's house, where she told them she would not identify the source under any circumstances.
This is Kilgallen's reaction to the Warren Commission's release of its single book of conclusions approximately two months before it released its 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits to the public. This is how her column looked inBaltimore, Maryland six days after New Yorkers read it.
The Voice of Broadway as it was published in the Journal American on September 30, 1964, included the following about the release of the single book containing the Warren Commission report, which was about two months before the 26 volumes were released:
...from what I have read, I would be inclined to believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation might have been more profitably employed in probing the facts of the case rather than how I got them – which does seem a waste of time to me.