Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Tortured Creature - The Death of Dorothy Kilgallen


The mystery had focused on who killed Dorothy Kilgallen. 40 years later, the important lesson is what killed her.

More than once Dorothy Kilgallen rhetorically asked Arlene Francis, “Why can’t I be the adorable one?” “What’s My Line?” audiences tended to cast the columnist in the villain’s role, awarding Francis that of bonne femme. It was the kind of snub that drove Dorothy to be tough and effective in the then man’s worlds of journalism and media. Ms. Kilgallen, a conservative, religious, plain, “good girl” rode this inattention to professional prominence, but it haunted her personal life.
Fifty-five years ago the Journal-American columnist was chosen as a panelist on what became one of the most popular nighttime game shows of all time. Forty years ago on November 8, 1965, this talented but fragile star was found dead in her bedroom. She was only fifty-two years old. Did she accidentally overdose on alcohol and drugs? Was she murdered? Did she commit suicide? The medical examiner issued a report two days later that said Dorothy Kilgallen died of “acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication – circumstances undetermined.”
Ms. Kilgallen had been the last to interview Jack Ruby, killer of Lee Harvey Oswald. She told friends his revelations were shocking proof of a conspiracy that killed John F. Kennedy. Her notes of that interview disappeared after her death, fueling speculation that she might have been murdered to maintain her silence. At the same time, Dorothy’s personal life was in a downward spiral. She was having an extramarital affair with one man, probably two. The men she chose were nothing like her ideal. Johnnie Ray, her main muse, was an early Elvis Presley-like entertainer who stayed out late, drank tremendous amounts of straight vodka, and ate only when necessary. When he did eat, it was often out of a can. Dorothy’s fatal attraction to Johnnie was a metaphor for what her life was to become. She even acquired some of his noxious habits. In her last nine months of life she fractured her shoulder in a drunken fall and afterward was treated for three weeks in a hospital for “allergies.”
The night before she died Ms. Kilgallen appeared on “What’s My Line?” The show ended about 11:00 P.M. Dorothy and her close friend, Bob Bach, met and went to a bar for a few drinks. Ms. Kilgallen’s favorite waiter served them. According to Bach, Dorothy informed him that she had a date planned for later. Asking no questions, he walked her to her car just after midnight.
Two hours after what was to be her final appearance on the game show that made her a household name, about 1:00 A.M. on November 8, Ms. Kilgallen entered the dark cocktail lounge of the Regency Hotel. She was greeted by an acquaintance named Harvey Daniels. He left thirty minutes later, never having seen her make an exit. She would have had to walk directly by him to leave. The next time anyone admitted to seeing her was dead in her bed.
Confusion was the rule at her home the next morning. According to official accounts, her body was discovered twice, at different times, by two separate household servants. Actions taken by people in the house beginning sometime around midmorning have led many to believe that others already knew of her fate and were preparing to sanitize the scene. NYPD conducted only a cursory investigation, never focusing on blatant contradictions and obvious inaccuracies in the reporting and evidence surrounding her death. Murder was not suspected and her family didn’t have to convince the police that there was no need to tag Dorothy with the suicide label.
The mystery of the few hours after she left the Regency Hotel the night before has never been solved. No one knows for sure, except possibly her date, what happened to Dorothy. Those who believed her escort worked for the CIA and killed her because of her Ruby interview point to the fact that there were two glasses beside her bed when her body was discovered. They concluded that the killer somehow provided an overdose via her drink. The evidence was unclear but neither family nor authorities believed she had been murdered. A tryst was a possibility and those around her did not want that reported.
Those who found her body thought another person had been, or might have been, in the room with her when, or shortly before, she died. Clearly they wanted any reports of her death to cast the most favorable light upon her legacy. They did everything they could to present the case that she was alone and accidentally succumbed to a dosage of alcohol and barbiturates that would not normally be deadly. The evidence didn’t really contradict that theory. Forensic science wasn’t what it is today. Analysis of the contents of her stomach and swabs of the drinking glasses beside her bed could not definitively determine the exact substances involved or amounts ingested.
A decade later, a more sophisticated analysis of the contents of the glasses found beside her bed that morning revealed a dangerous mixture of drugs and alcohol that, while more moderate in dosage than found in most suicides, was sufficient to do the job. The fact that she was dressed and made up, including false eyelashes and earrings, indicated that whatever happened did so mercifully and with dispatch. Estimates of the time of death ranged from 2:30A.M. to 4:30 A.M.
Those who believed Dorothy committed suicide pointed to a life that was out of control. Ms. Kilgallen was afraid of losing the house she so dearly loved. Her husband’s business ventures were not going well and financial pressures were building. She wasn’t as pretty as she wanted to be and it weighed heavily on her. Her infidelities were counter to her conservative, Catholic background and were a heavy burden. It is possible that, under these tremendous pressures, Dorothy decided to end her own life.
She could have even argued with, or been snubbed by a lover that night before she died, sending her into a tailspin. No evidence of either exists. Dorothy needed help and didn’t seek it. She tried to exorcise her demons alone. Her husband Richard couldn’t help. He was asleep in another room in the house, nursing his own troubles. The father of her children was living the same drunken life as Dorothy, only not with her. The two were walking parallel paths to destruction. Dick, as the family knew him, committed suicide six years later. He had lost the house she so loved and repurchased it with the proceeds from her estate.
Over the years Dorothy managed to alienate such stars as Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson.
“It’s like having your clothes criticized by Emmett Kelly,” Carson quipped when told that she had criticized some of his material.
During those same years Dorothy befriended Joan Crawford. Somehow she knew she had it backwards. Friends revealed after her death that she really liked Johnny Carson and regretted the animosity she had created. An earlier picture of her with Frank Sinatra shows her eyeing him like the chosen starlit she wanted to be.
Many thousands of mourners viewed the body at The Abbey Funeral Directors’ parlor in New York. Across the street, at the corner of East 65th Street was St, Vincent Ferrer Church. Dorothy had always wanted to excel. She craved being around the best and wanted to be the best. After her funeral she was taken to Hawthorn, New York where she was interred at the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven. Today she keeps company there with Babe Ruth and his wife Claire, James Cagney, Sal Mineo, Condé Nast, and former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. In death she has what she thought she never attained in life.
Dorothy Kilgallen never was the adorable one and she knew it. Resentment from the fear of that knowledge eventually killed her. She probably did take her own life. This star of the media never saw the talent others loved about her. “What’s My Line?” only lasted another two years after her exit. It was such a simple game, silly almost. Dorothy took it seriously. Viewers anticipated the competitive fire she brought to the show and responded positively. She was known to become genuinely frustrated when she hadn’t guessed the occupation of a contestant in a few games. Panelists’ gentle reminders that it was only a game fell on her deaf ears.
Vanity killed Dorothy Kilgallen. She thought the beauty she didn’t possess was the ticket to happiness. Ironically she could see the fault of false pride in others, but not in herself. Ms. Kilgallen, a few years before her own death, reported on the case of Marilyn Monroe. Pundits alternately speculated that Marilyn had died from accidental overdose, been murdered, or that her demise was of her own hand. In an obituary written for her magazine, Dorothy unhesitatingly labeled Miss Monroe’s death a suicide and the victim herself as “a tortured creature.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

At the Gonk


My phone rang as I painstakingly manipulated text boxes, photographs, and sketches of ballerinas and danseurs, creating the layout for my book on the exciting and talented Carolina Ballet.

Absent mindedly, I leaned over in my maroon, high back leather, executive chair, and managed to utter a weak, distracted, “hello,” fumbling with papers and dropping pens all the while.

"Is this Grey?" sang the melodious voice of the caller.

The voice startled me. It was a business line and I was expecting calls from Phil, who was repairing one of my computers, and Wayne, my mechanic. Somehow I knew this was not either. Slow recovery caused my instinctive lean to the primitive.

"You bet your sweet life it is baby," I thought.

Stability was restored momentarily but all I could muster was a high-pitched, smoothly delivered, "yes."

Surely whoever it was must think a ravenous school of man-eating hammerheads circled under my desk and perpetrated a savage gang violation of my lower extremities.

"This is Andrea Marcovicci," she continued, pretending not to notice the epic struggle developing near the shores three thousand miles away.

And then the realization struck me. I emailed this diva yesterday. But I remembered seeing an admonishment at the bottom of her website, to wit: PLEASE DO NOT SEND PERSONAL EMAILS TO MS. MARCOVICCI...SHE DOESN'T LOOK AT MESSAGES FROM THE SITE...THE PURPOSE OF THIS WEBSITE IS FOR HER FANS TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER.

It was at this point that I made my first distinctly recognizable response. I think it was something profound like, "Oh yeah, hi." I was on a roll.

This was my chance to shine. Still, I was haunted by the spectral vision of a scene in The Abyss, a movie in which a friend of mine played a small part. The only line he uttered was an exuberant "YEAH!" as he peered through a sub’s periscope, presumably reacting to a favorable event on the ocean’s surface above. Within minutes his character drowned ignominiously, not to be seen or mentioned again for the rest of the film. So far, my self-composed script hadn’t been much better.

The conversation was brief...we scheduled a phone interview for the next day. She gave me her home number; Susie Turner once directed me to the White Pages where her number wasn’t listed, so things were already going comparatively swimmingly.

Then as a parting surprise, Ms. Marcovicci gave homework!

"Read some background on the works we performed in Raleigh so you will have good questions," she explained matter-of-factly.

"I'll do that," I responded, rolling my eyes like I used to do in school. She seemed very sweet, but her actions were as heartless as the teachers at Martin Middle School. I had planned a titillating evening watching Kojack reruns and now this. But within an hour the sirens of Odysseus couldn’t have tantalized me more.

The night evaporated while I delved into the bios and words of Andrea Marcovicci, Noel Coward, George Gershwin, Maury Yeston, Irving Berlin, Lorenz and Rodgers, and Cole Porter. I briefly thought of my six year old granddaughter Sydney and her smiling countenance, often revealed when she deduces solutions to some of life’s puzzles. More than once that night, I caught myself suppressing the same expression.

Honestly, cabaret had never been on the top of my list for a night of entertainment but nostalgia became our “common ground” as I encountered praises of Ms. Marcovicci’s works and was drawn magnetically to her message of great composers and legacies, including those of her parents.

Soon it was dawn. The sun slipped above the trees outside my office window, casting a scarlet glow onto my desk. Until then there had been only the flicker of my laptop screen.

I don’t have reason to call Studio City much and could just hear it, “I regret that Ms. Marcovicci isn’t available at this moment. What was your sorry name again?”

Hey, I am a namesake of Zane Grey, a little respect here, “puuleeze.”

But it didn’t happen that way. Having been assigned a 2:00 call time (east coast), 11:00 a.m. in California, I waited a fashionable minute, until 2:01 (I’m not kidding), to call. The phone rang twice and, believe it or not, Andrea answered.

“You are right on time,” she complimented me.

“I’m all yours,” she professed.”

Susie Turner, eat your heart out.

The interview began with me thanking her for noticing my punctuality. Immediately, I commenced with a list of questions prepared the night before. When they didn’t elicit the anticipated responses I changed course and ventured into the dreaded plan B, being myself.

That was the ticket! Andrea took over the conversation. My few interjected prompts seemed to ignite a sentimental spark. Listening was fun. I didn’t want to spoil things by interrupting.

Thirty minutes into our conversation, as her penultimate act, my exclusive cabaret began. A plate of petit-suisse and croutons sat appropriately on the desk beside me, for I was already enjoying dessert, unaware that the best was yet to come. She began reading poetry, songs of the greats. She must have sensed that maybe I wasn’t grasping the spirit and essence of her art (I emphatically was). Anyway, it was the catalyst to an unexpected, exclusive, and stunning performance. By this time I felt comfortable with her and was hooked on her artistic style.

Time was passing quickly and I didn’t want to impose myself on her any longer than she could take but I hadn’t yet asked her about the individual songs she had performed with the Carolina Ballet. So I apologetically asked about December Songs, one of her CDs and the centerpiece for some of her performances, expecting her to offer some brief insights and hurry off.

You already know she read poetry to me. I reluctantly offered that to you gratis. Now it can be revealed, and I’m really not bragging, she began singing to me! The show wasn’t over.

Andrea sang excerpts from December Snow, Where are you Now?, When Your Love is New, Please Let’s Not Even Say Hello, Easy to Dance With, and Ten Cents a Dance as part of my afternoon cabaret delight. With each captivating song she offered a background story and related it in some way to the people I knew.

My song list had expired. I had what I needed and much more. My sincere and profuse thanks was extended and graciously accepted. She provided her publicist’s telephone number in case I needed pictures or anything else really.

Finally, I told her that our conversation would be paraphrased and included in my upcoming book about the Carolina Ballet. Her review and approval would be solicited before anything was published.

“Oh no,” she chirped, “I trust you, go ahead and publish. If you need anything else, you have my number.”

And we bade each other goodbye.

Since then some friends and I have visited Andrea at the Algonquin, seen her performances, and even worked on a beautiful calendar for her followers. Even my distinctive laugh can be heard in the background of her new CD, If I Were A Bell, recorded live at the Algonquin Oak Room in April, 2004. New York really is a great town.

-Grey Hall