The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of What’s My Line TV Star and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen
by Mark Shaw
Post Hill Press, 2016
In 1931, at the age of 17, she was a cub reporter for the New York Evening Journal. At age 23, she was the first woman to fly around the world on commercial airlines. In 1937, she wrote the screenplay for the film, “Fly Away Baby.” She had a cameo role in the Hollywood flick, “Sinner Take All,” and her moniker is enshrined on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her name is Dorothy Mae Kilgallen, and she broke the glass ceiling for women in her chosen profession.
Kilgallen was born on July 3, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois. Her dad, James, was a highly respected reporter for the Hearst newspaper chain. From her earliest days, “she yearned to be a reporter like her father.”
In his book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of What’s My Line TV and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen, author Mark Shaw tells her compelling story. He focuses on her work as a first-class investigative reporter and more particularly on her highly suspicious death, on November 8, 1965, at her townhouse in Manhattan.
Kilgallen’s journalism background was extensive. Her “Voice of Broadway” column, where she also covered Hollywood and politics, was syndicated in close to 200 papers. She attended and wrote about some of the biggest trials of her era: Bruno Hauptmann, Dr. Sam Sheppard, Dr. Bernard Finch, Wayne Lonergan, Anna Antonio, and John Profumo.
Kilgallen also was a regular panelist on the popular CBS TV game show, “What’s My Line?” from 1950 until her death. She was known for having a “terrific sense of humor.” Variety praised Kilgallen as “The First Lady of Broadway.” Ernest Hemingway himself had labeled Kilgallen as one of the “greatest women writers in the world.” She had become “a media icon” in her own time. Shaw wrote that Kilgallen was a feminist “before the word was coined.”
Kilgallen was very fond of President John F. Kennedy (JFK). She boosted him whenever she could in her Journal-American column. In 1962, thanks to JFK’s aide Pierre Salinger, she and her youngest son, Kerry, then eight years old, visited the White House and met the president. The meeting left a deep impression on Kilgallen.
When JFK was murdered in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, Kilgallen refused to accept the party line put out by the FBI’s Director, J. Edgar Hoover. He insisted that the supposed assassin Harvey Lee Oswald “acted alone.” His agency then took over all the files of the Dallas Police Department. When Oswald was shot and killed, on November 24, 1963, by Jack Ruby, Kilgallen made it her business to attend his trial. Like some Americans of my generation, I watched Ruby shoot and kill Oswald on live television. It was beyond shocking.
Investigating JFK’s death became a passion for Kilgallen. She asked a lot of questions. Given that Ruby was the owner of a “strip tease honky tonk,” she asked: How was he allowed to “stroll in and out of police headquarters in Dallas as if it were a health club?” She let Hoover and his cronies know that she was on the job. On November 29, 1963, she filed a column entitled, “Oswald File Must Not Close.”
Not only did Kilgallen cover Ruby’s trial, she got to interview him twice. She started to believe that he, like Oswald, might have been a “patsy.” Kilgallen also made a trip to New Orleans to talk with sources. She was zeroing in on what Mob boss Ruby may have been working for at the time of the hit on the president. She began building an investigatory file on the case that she intended to turn into a book that would be the “scoop of the century.”
The book, sorry to say, never happened. Kilgallen was found dead in her townhouse on the morning of November 8th. The police went along with the medical examiner’s report that she most likely died from an “accidental” drug overdose of a prescription sleeping pills mixed with alcohol. There was no investigation of foul play.
Shaw rips that scenario apart. He states the death scene was “staged.” The body was found in “the wrong bed” and in “the wrong bedroom.” In addition, Kilgallen’s “makeup, false eyelashes and hairpiece” were still on her. She was found in a blue bathrobe with nothing underneath. According to her hairdresser, she always wore “her favorite pajamas and old socks to bed.”
Kilgallen had a prescription for the sleeping pills, “Seconal.” A second drug, “Tuinal,” however, was also found in her system. She had no prescription for that one. Was she slipped a “mickey?”
On top of all that, Kilgallen’s file on the Ruby case was missing and it has never been found. Shaw, I must add, goes off the rails when he tries to show who may have done Kilgallen in. It’s all speculation in my opinion and lacks any probative value. Also, in the book, I found it irritating that he was repetitive in places. Plus, he got Kilgallen’s birth date wrong.
Shaw also doesn’t show much expertise with respect to the JFK assassination. My Bible on that crime of the century is Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, by Peter Dale Scott.
If you want a quick overview on that complicated subject, with supposed who-done-it theories tossed in, check out, for educational purposes, the History Channel’s You Tube videos, particularly this episode, #9, “The Guilty Men (2003).” It’s my favorite.
To his credit, Shaw has been trying to get the current District Attorney, in NYC, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. to reopen the investigation into Kilgallen’s death. Even though it has been fifty years, there is no statute of limitation with respect to murder.
Kilgallen was one of the finest journalists of her generation. Justice demands that the truth finally comes out about how this fearless reporter really died. Mark Shaw’s book is a tribute to her distinguished career and legacy. It is long past the time for the stain on Kilgallen’s memory to be removed.
Bill Hughes is an author, actor, and photojournalist.