The Life and Death of Dorothy Kilgallen

My reading this week led me into a fascinating story that’s nearly sixty years old. It’s the story of Dorothy Kilgallen, her career and her death.

Many people remember her as a panelist on the mid century television game show “What’s My Line?” She always appeared in formal wear, perfectly coiffed and with the most charming manners every Sunday night for more than fifteen years.

However, Dorothy was a renowned society columnist and a gifted investigative reporter as well. She covered all the big trials of her day and was a respected wordsmith.

She was found dead in her New York City townhouse one cold November Monday in 1965. She had appeared on the television show the night before, met a mysterious stranger at a bar and then went home. The next morning she was found dead of an apparent overdose.

She was just 52.

This is the 10,000 foot view of Dorothy’s life and death. I took a deep dive this week with “The Reporter Who Knew Too Much,” a book by attorney Mark Shaw.

This book. Oh dear. This book.

Please understand that I’m not recommending this book or anything else that Shaw has written but he certainly has piqued my interest in Dorothy.

The biographical portion of the book is well researched and written. What he writes about her death ventures into the territory of a crackpot with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. He raises more questions than he answers, calls into question the character of many people in her life and pieces together a combination of fact and theory.

With that said, there’s something there. I’m sure of it.

The official cause of death was alcohol and barbiturate overdose. But there was no investigation to determine whether it was accidental, suicide or murder. The police report and the medical examiner’s report are inconsistent with each other. They didn’t really interview anyone. They didn’t even pursue how the drugs were ingested.

Dorothy’s friend and hair stylist found her body early that morning but the police either weren’t called or didn’t appear until afternoon. There were oddities about where she was found in the house (in a bed where she didn’t sleep), what she was wearing and the way she was positioned in the bed. It was a cold November night but the air conditioner was inexplicably running in that room.

In short, a major celebrity and one of the best investigative journalists of the day was sent to her grave without any answers.

During her career, Dorothy made more than a few enemies. That list includes J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, the mob, Frank Sinatra, the FBI and a host of celebrities who she either snubbed or called out in her newspaper column.

Lots of people might have wanted her dead.

The biggest story she worked on was the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and the subsequent trial of Oswald’s killer Jack Ruby.

Dorothy didn’t buy the single shooter theory and had embarked on a lengthy investigation of JFK’s death. By all accounts, she was like a dog with a bone, compiling an extensive file on the JFK case and delving deeper and deeper into a story that she knew was dangerous.

Days before her death she had expressed to friends that she might be in danger because of the work she was doing with this case.

That file she had on the JFK murder? It was missing after she died.

I know that happy people can be depressed and commit suicide but I don’t buy this theory for a minute. She was a devout Catholic who was enthusiastically writing a book that was published posthumously. She was planning trips and had asked her hairdresser to help her get ready for a meeting at her son’s school. She was rewriting her will.

An accidental overdose? Maybe. One drug in her system was something we use today for assisted suicides and is quite dangerous. But I find this hard to believe too.

Honestly, I am not one for conspiracy theories but I’m with the author who believes someone had her killed.

While I’m not thrilled with the book, I spent a fair amount of time online watching videos and learning about some of the places and people in her life. Her Manhattan townhouse still exists and you can see pictures in a real estate listing. It’s five stories and could be yours for about seventeen million. Although, it has clearly been renovated to appeal to modern sensibilities and isn’t nearly so lavish as when Dorothy lived there.

You can see her in action on the black and white television series “What’s My Line?” There are a ton of episodes on YouTube and I have found them absolutely addictive. I’ve even been researching some of the guests. She was confident, inquisitive and a master at the show. Click here for her last episode of the show and here’s another one for good measure.

To be clear, Dorothy was no saint. In fact, she stepped out on her husband. She was trapped in a loveless marriage and was known to have a couple of gentlemen friends including the rock and roll pioneer Johnnie Ray. He was fourteen years her junior and had issues of his own. By all accounts, they unabashedly frolicked around New York City together. It had to be humiliating for her husband who was floundering in both their marriage and his own career.

It’s quite the world she built for herself. While she presented a smart and sophisticated public image, it’s clear that she wasn’t without flaws. However, it is troubling to me that a woman who devoted her career to getting to the truth died in a way that was simply swept under the rug.

This is the kind of story that Dorothy would have relished. She would have asked the tough questions and gotten to the truth.

During the Jack Ruby trial, she was troubled by the poor representation Ruby received from a mob affiliated attorney hired to help him. It bothered her that the state didn’t present a thorough case, instead holding back evidence that she felt needed to be part of the public record. She was certain there was more to the story and took it upon herself to find the truth.

At the time, she famously wrote “Justice is a big rug. When you pull it out from under one man, a lot of others will fall, too.”

I don’t know what happened to Dorothy Kilgallen and I suspect the world will never know. Most witnesses are long dead, the police investigation was a joke and the Medial Examiner’s Office has declined to release her autopsy to the public.

It’s just a shame to think that this vibrant life was cut short and that she was silenced. It seems the only person who has advocated for her is this author who has had doors slammed in his face at every turn.

The week following her death, the show went on as planned and ended with tributes to Dorothy from each of the panelists. Her friend and fellow panelist Bennett Cerf said “A lot of people knew Dorothy as a very tough game player; others knew her as a tough newspaper woman. But we got to know her as a human being, and a more loveable, softer, loyal person never lived, and we’re going to miss her terribly.”

4 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Dorothy Kilgallen

  1. I’m an avid fan of old game shows and came in contact with WML and Dorothy during insomnia-filled nights watching Game Show Network in the middle of the night. I remember well the day the episode aired where they carried on after she died. I feel sure they had some idea of the stinky circumstances surrounding her death, and that had to make it all the harder for them to do the show that day.

    • The night of her last show, some of the show people and the contestants met for cocktails at a nearby bar. Dorothy met with a man in a dark and secluded booth. The cops didn’t think to inquire about his identity so no one knows who she spent her last hours with.

      I felt especially bad for the host. He seemed to have the hardest time of them all.

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