Kilgallen, Dorothy (1913–1965)
Kilgallen, Dorothy (1913–1965)
American columnist and radio and television personality. Born Dorothy Mae Kilgallen in Chicago, Illinois, on July 3, 1913; died under mysterious circumstances in New York City on November 7, 1965; eldest of two daughters of James Lawrence Kilgallen (a journalist) and Mae (Ahern) Kilgallen; attended grade school in Chicago, Indianapolis, and New York; graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn, 1930; attended the College of New Rochelle, New York; married Richard Kollmar (an actor and producer), on April 6, 1940: children: Jill-Ellen Kollmar; Richard Kollmar; Kerry Kolmar.
Considered by some to be the greatest woman reporter of her era, Dorothy Kilgallen was born in 1913, the daughter of famous journalist James Lawrence Kilgallen and Mae Ahern Kilgallen , an attractive red-head who at one time had a promising career as a singer. Dorothy and her younger sister Eleanor Kilgallen grew up in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Brooklyn, New York, where the family settled when James Kilgallen's career with Hearst's International News Service brought him East. Not much is known of Dorothy's childhood. Since her mysterious death of a barbiturate overdose in 1965, her family has withheld information about her. Her biographer Lee Israel found that Kilgallen's immediate family, teachers and schoolmates had little to relate about her early life, except that she was a good student and a voracious reader. Kilgallen, it seems, seldom reminisced with her friends about occurrences prior to her first job as a cub reporter with the New York Evening Journal, at age 17. Intending only to work during summer break from the College of New Rochelle, she won a byline for a story on a hospitalized child and decided to leave college and begin a career in journalism. James "Red" Horan, who worked with Kilgallen during her "sob-sister" days at the Journal, recalls that she stood out from the other young women who populated the newsroom at the time. "[T]here was something about the way Dorothy handled herself," he said. "I had the opinion that she was born for the business. That soft, quiet way of hers hid a steel ambition and a drive and also a very keen intelligence."
By age 20, Kilgallen, who had already covered a myriad of grisly murders and notorious trials (the Journal's specialty), had earned substantial stature at the paper. She first won national acclaim, however, for her "Girl Around the World" series, the chronicle of a competing round-the-world flight the paper sent her on in 1936. Vying with Leo Kieran of The New York Times and Bud Ekins of United Press International, Kilgallen, traveling only commercial routes, made her trip in 24 days, 12 hour, and 52 minutes and only placed third in the race, but the junket launched her as a celebrity and brought the paper some notoriety as well. Her dispatches later appeared in a book, Girl Around the World, and she was the subject of the song "Hats off to Dorothy."
In November 1937, Kilgallen went off to the West Coast, ostensibly to report on the movies for the new Journal-American (the result of a merger between Hearst's American and the Evening Journal). While in Hollywood, she also visited Warner Bros. to promote an autobiographical screenplay about her globe-trotting experiences, Fly Away Baby. The movie, with Glenda Farrell in the role of Torchy Blane, the "smart blonde" reporter, opened in New York in July 1937 to a "Fair-Good" rating. Kilgallen also tested and was given a small role as a reporter in the forgettable Sinner Take All, an experience she found boring, and one she would seldom mention in later life. In her role as a Hollywood gossip columnist, however, Kilgallen proved to be no competition for Louella Parsons , who had the Hollywood beat pretty much to herself by virtue of her chummy relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies . Kilgallen made a hasty retreat.
Upon returning to New York, the young reporter aligned herself with the city's flourishing Café Society. Instead of stories about crime and trials, she now covered such events as the wedding of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. to Ethel du Pont and the coronation of George VI. The Journal-American, however, had other plans for its talented reporter. Envisioning Kilgallen as a kind of female Walter Winchell, the newspaper officially awarded her the Broadway beat in 1938, promoting her as "the first and only woman Broadway columnist" and assuring readers that, though it was a man's job, Dorothy was up to the task. Indeed she was. Her daily column, "Voice of Broadway," was soon appearing in 24 out-of-town papers and, by 1950, was syndicated in 45 newspapers throughout the country. According to Israel, Kilgallen was no innovator and followed the style set by Winchell. The columns, writes Israel, dealt with "declarative name-naming, hard-core gossip about marriage, divorce, nose bobs, public drunkenness, pregnancy, brouhahas, comebacks, broken kneecaps, hairline fractures, lost dogs, nervous breakdowns, gambling losses, political shenanigans, hiring, firing, trysting, fisting, overnight success, and terminal self-destruction among the famous and the notorious." Though Kilgallen eventually eclipsed Winchell during the 1950s, and wielded a great deal of power in her heyday, she never adopted the mean-spirited approach that made Winchell such a formidable journalistic presence.
Kilgallen made her radio debut in 1941, on a Saturday morning chat show also called "Voice of Broadway," which Newsweek reviewed as "crisp and sparkling." She became better known, however, for her daily (except Saturday) program "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick," which was launched in 1945 with her husband Dick Kollmar, an actor and Hollywood producer whom she had married in 1940. The program, unrehearsed, was broadcast live from the large dining room of the Kollmars' 16-room apartment on Park Avenue and took the form of an impromptu exchange of small talk centering on the couple's glamorous lifestyle. Topics included theater and opera performances, celebrity parties (including their own), and items gleaned from their nightly rounds of the city's posh restaurants and night clubs, notably The Stork Club. On occasional Sunday mornings, the Kollmar children, Jill-Ellen and Dick, joined in the broadcast. (Another son, Kerry, was born in 1954.) The fact that the Kollmars were a few social notches above their audience, and made no pretense about it, gave the show an edge over other programs with a similar format, explains Israel. "They were rich, mobile, quintessentially cosmopolitan," she writes. "If Dorothy endorsed a food product—and she endorsed more and more as the show blossomed—she did not pretend to have cooked it. It had doubtless been served to her. As the months went by, their loyal listeners knew the names of their staff, the dimensions of their table, the quality of their glassware, a good deal about the extremely social permutations of the couple, and the names of most of their close, equally privileged friends." Israel also points out that the success of the show had nothing to do with the Kollmars' popularity as a couple. "On the contrary," she writes, "the Kollmars were compelling irritants to whom a large part of their audience was drawn in spite of itself, as tongue to a septic tooth."
Although the Kollmar marriage reverberated with good cheer on the air—"Good morning, darling," Kilgallen chirped daily at the show's opening—it was a troubled union. There were questions at the onset as to whether Kollmar had married Kilgallen because of her ability to advance his acting career, although he achieved moderate status as an actor and producer on his own. Later, his alcoholism and philandering drove a wedge between the couple, who would have probably divorced had it not been for their strong Catholic beliefs. As a compromise, the two increasingly adopted separate emotional lives, while remaining united on matters involving the children or their professional partnership. Kilgallen's name was frequently linked with other men, including the singer Johnny Ray, with whom she had a long-term affair beginning in 1956.
In 1949, Kilgallen made her television debut on "Leave It to the Girls," which featured a group of successful New York career women dispensing advice on life, love, and the battle between the sexes. Kilgallen reached a much larger audience, however, when she joined the pioneering "What's My Line?," a weekly game show in which a panel of celebrities, including Fred Allen, Arlene Francis , and Bennett Cerf, attempted to guess the occupations of guests. The show, moderated by John Daly, also featured a weekly mystery guest for whom the panel was blindfolded. Premiering on February 2, 1950, the show became a national institution and made Kilgallen one of the most visible journalists of her time. In turn, she brought to the show a love of the game and a fierce competitiveness that cast her in the role of villain. Her seriousness eventually came to be balanced by Arlene Francis' more ebullient and playful personality. Kilgallen disliked the role of the heavy and often complained. "Why can't I be the adorable one?," she frequently asked Francis during pre-show make-up sessions.
During her period as a successful columnist and television celebrity, Kilgallen also occasionally covered news stories, including the coronation of Elizabeth II and the trial of Wayne Lonergan, who was accused of bludgeoning his socialite wife Patricia Lonergan to death with a candelabra. During the mid-50s, Kilgallen began accepting assignments from the city desk, which, according to Israel, she turned into stories of great impact. "Flashy, skilled, rapturously or peevishly reflective of her own world view," writes Israel, "they are among the best examples of colorful, personal reporting." Among them was Kilgallen's coverage of the 1954 trial of Sam Sheppard, who was accused of brutally murdering his wife Marilyn Sheppard in their Ohio home, and who steadfastly claimed innocence and was later released from prison. Kilgallen's stories of the trial appeared on the Journal's
front page and were characterized not so much by the reporting of the events themselves, but by Kilgallen's reactions to the events. "We momentarily expected to hear that she had been chosen to deliver the summation or, at least, to be a surprise witness," commented Time magazine about her coverage of the Sheppard case. Kilgallen also covered the trial of society surgeon Bernard Finch, who was accused of shooting his wife Barbara Finch while his mistress hid in a clump of bushes, and that of Dr. Stephen Ward, who was part of England's notorious John Profumo-Christine Keeler scandal. Bennett Cerf then asked her to write a book for Random House on the trials she had covered. She agreed, thinking she could produce it within a year, but the book, Murder One, was not published until 1967, two years after her death. Allen Ullman, who was ultimately assigned to the project, never knew that Kilgallen had been working on it, and he assembled his manuscript entirely from old newspaper clippings.
Kilgallen, who was fascinated by illness and accident, had her own health woes beginning in 1959, when she collapsed in her bathroom and was hospitalized for more than two weeks. That was the first in a series of episodes that were never really clarified, although Kilgallen told her closest friends that her condition was a form of anemia. The columnist also drank increasingly and came to use barbiturates to help her sleep. Although her health never prevented her from working, it often concerned her friends. In March 1965, Kilgallen fractured her left shoulder in what was reported as a fall, but the two lengthy hospital stays after the incident may have been associated with her alcohol and barbiturate dependency. Meanwhile, Kilgallen was purportedly preparing a chapter for Murder One on Jack Ruby, who had been charged with the televised murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and with whom she had had a private interview. During the summer of 1965, the columnist also took an extended vacation in Europe, returning home looking and feeling better than she had in years.
On Sunday, November 7, 1965, after her usual appearance on "What's My Line?", Kilgallen had a drink with a friend, then made her way alone to the Regency Hotel where she sat down at a table in the cocktail lounge. The bartender there was the last person to admit seeing her that evening. Kilgallen was found dead the next morning, November 8, sitting up in bed in the master bedroom of her five-story townhouse. Cause of death was initially attributed to a heart attack, but a subsequent autopsy credited "acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication—circumstances undetermined." Her family deemed the death an accident, and there was no further investigation of the matter. Ironically, Kilgallen's husband Dick Kollmar died in much the same manner in January 1971. His death, too, was first thought to be a heart attack, but eventually was attributed to a drug overdose.
There are some, Lee Israel included, who believe that Kilgallen may not have taken her own life, but may have been murdered because of information she had obtained from Jack Ruby about the Kennedy assassination. Although Israel's own exhaustive three-year investigation turned up many ambiguities surrounding Kilgallen's death, it did not yield proof of a murder. In addition, nothing of what Kilgallen learned in her private talk with Jack Ruby, or on trips she made to Texas and New Orleans to investigate the Kennedy assassination, has ever come to light.
Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1952.
Israel, Lee. Kilgallen: A Biography of Dorothy Kilgallen. NY: Delacorte Press, 1979.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts