A TORTURED CREATURE
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.”