Dorothy Kilgallen, circa 1952 (irishamerica.com)

Dorothy Kilgallen, circa 1952 (irishamerica.com)

Booknotes: Fearless reporter among the greatest of all time

Mike Selby

“Success has not changed Frank Sinatra,” wrote journalist Dorothy Kilgallen in 1956. “When he was unappreciated and obscure, he was hot-tempered, egotistical, extravagant, and moody. Now that he is rich and famous, with the world on a string and sapphires in his cufflinks, he is still hot-tempered, egotistical, extravagant, and moody.”

Ol’ Blue Eyes never forgave Kilgallen. He would be bring her name up at performances, calling her “the chinless wonder” and “female fink.” When she wrote about his mafia connections, he sent an tombstone with her name embossed on it to her home. None of this fazed Kilgallen though — one of the most remarkable woman of the 20th century.

Born in 1913, Kilgallen was writing true crime stories for Hearst newspapers at age 17. She was also the first woman to fly around the world; wrote and starred in Hollywood films; hosted a popular radio show; and her long-running syndicated column — The Voice of Broadway — was read each week by 20 million readers. What she is most remembered for though is her 15-year run on the television game show ‘What’s My Line.’

A type of “20 questions” game, ‘What’s My Line’ featured a celebrity panel trying to guess the occupation of a contestant by asking “yes” or “no” questions only. Kilgallen frequently won, using her hard-hitting journalist instincts to her advantage. It remains one of the first and most popular television game shows of all time, and Kilgallen (seen as a personable and funny) was always the viewers’ favourite.

All her success tended to obscure the fact that she continued to write serious investigative journalism (Hemingway called her “the greatest woman writer in the world.”) Her work exonerated Dr. Sam Sheppard, a neurosurgeon who was convicted of murdering his wife. Kilgallen’s reporting uncovered that the murder wasn’t by Dr. Sheppard at all, but an intruder who only had use of one arm (‘The Fugitive’ television show was based on this case).

She also was the first reporter to suggest the CIA was working with the Mafia to try and assassinate Fidel Castro. While many probably knew, or at least guessed at it, she was the first person to put into print that President Kennedy was having an affair with Marilyn Munroe. Marilyn’s death was another hard-hitting series of articles, with Kilgallen asking some very tough questions the police hadn’t asked. “If the woman described as Marilyn’s housekeeper was really her housekeeper…why was her bedroom such a mess? If she were just trying to get to sleep, and accidently took an overdose of sleeping pills, why was her light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark.”

She was equally fearless investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. She was in Dallas almost immediately, and her ‘What’s My Line’ fame got her interviews with police and witnesses no one else was able to get. Much of what she reported directly contradicted ‘The Warren Report’ — causing her to have many interviews with the FBI. “The FBI,” she later wrote, “might be more profitably employed in probing the facts of the case rather than how I got them.”

She was also the only reporter to interview Jack Ruby. His lawyer — Melvin Belli — was willing to grant her access to his client only if she would recommend him to anyone she knew in Hollywood (an aspiring actor, Belli would play the alien Gorgon in the ‘Star Trek’ episode ‘And The Children Shall Lead.’)

A trip to New Orleans uncovered organized crime connections to Lee Harvey Oswald, with possible conspirators Guy Bannister, David Ferrie and Clay Shaw (this was a full year before Jim Garrison launched his investigation). While she was saving her Ruby interview for a book about the assassination, in her column she called out ‘Life Magazine’ for their clearly doctored photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, as well as Oswald’s wife for verifying it.

Soon after the above was published, Dorothy Kilgallen was found dead in her home. An overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills had caused the 52-year-old to die in her sleep. Thousands attended her funeral, and ‘What’s My Line’ broadcasted a remembrance episode. A lot of people believe she was murdered (Melvin Belli said at the time, “They’ve killed Dorothy; now they’ll go after Ruby.”

Of course she may have just drank too much that night with too many sleeping pills. Her death isn’t as important as her life. She remains one of the greatest reporters of all time.

Mike Selby is Programs & Community Development Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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