Sunday, November 8, 2015

This Day in Literary History (Columnist Kilgallen Dies Mysteriously)

November 8, 1965—Dorothy Kilgallen, veteran newspaper columnist and celebrity panelist on TV’s long-running game show What’s My Line?, died at age 52 in her New York City apartment. Had she been alive to see it happen to someone else, the odd circumstances surrounding her demise would have thrilled to the marrow this longtime crime reporter and gossip maven.  The timing alone was eye-opening, as she was well into what promised to be the biggest story of her career: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

In a prior post, I discussed how Kilgallen and husband Richard Kollmar became involved in a radio feud by imitating the spouse-breakfast talk show of Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald. Kilgallen’s career and her relationship are worth entire posts in themselves.

But the nature of her death says much by itself about how even the spotlight inevitably created by great celebrity is not enough to ensure more than a cursory police investigation—and how conspiracy theorists batten on such amateurish detective work.

What happened to Dorothy?” is the insistent, breathless refrain of Lee Israel’s biography Kilgallen. At points, she gives serious credence to the fevered speculations of arch conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. It is also difficult to know Ms. Israel’s own subsequent troubled history (a guilty plea in federal court to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce, part of a scheme to forge and sell hundreds of letters by the likes of Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Lillian Hellman) and not wonder seriously about the biographer's credibility.

But a number of the circumstances that Ms. Israel and others have recounted about Ms. Kilgallen’s death can only lead to wondering about the slipshod work of the NY Police Department at this time:

*She was found in the apartment’s master bedroom, which she had not occupied for several years;

*She was found sitting up with a book, but her eyeglasses were not in the bedroom where she died;

*She went out, after taping What’s My Line?, to both her usual bar, P.J. Clarke’s, and the Regency Lounge, but no patrons at the former were interviewed and police were not even aware that she had gone to the latter;

*She was known to be working on the Kennedy assassination story, but none of her notes were ever discovered.

The coroner’s determination that Ms. Kilgallen died through a mixture of alcohol and barbiturates did nothing to quell the nascent JFK assassination conspiracy industry. The columnist had never been satisfied with the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, and the rumor that she was pursuing leads following an eight-minute interview with Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer, only increased skepticism among those inclined to distrust the official version of events.

Kilgallen was definitely among the latter. Her interest in the assassination was a natural outgrowth of her fascination in the last few years before her death with several types of stories: CIA attempts to murder Fidel Castro, famous homicide cases, and gossip about high-level officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

In addition, she had learned, at least by the second year of Kennedy’s administration, that he was a philanderer, and, after receiving a copy of the Warren Commission Report prior to publication, she had started raising pointed questions about it, both on particular points (Who was the “rich oil man” mentioned in the report’s discussion, since no witness was cited?) and in general (“It's a mite too simple that a chap kills the President of the United States, escapes from that bother, kills a policeman, eventually is apprehended in a movie theater under circumstances that defy every law of police procedure, and subsequently is murdered under extraordinary circumstances”). She was hoping that a chapter on the assassination in a proposed book of hers, Murder One, would land the biggest scoop of her career.

Israel’s biography offers ample evidence of Ms. Kilgallen’s increased drinking and unhappy marriage (including an affair with singer Johnnie Ray). Indeed, the biographer could not dismiss the possibility that Kilgallen may have taken her own life, in despondency of a much younger man referred to by Israel as “The Out-of-Towner.”

No matter in what way Ms. Kilgallen died, it came to obscure a career in which she was a trailblazer for subsequent female journalists. She had leaped to fame in 1936, the result of a 21-day race around the world against two older male reporters (recounted in her book Girl Around the World). By 1950, her column had an estimated 20 million readers. Her métier may have been murder trials, most notably those involving Bruno Richard Hauptmann and Dr. Sam Sheppard. (In the case of the latter, her disbelief about the initial jury verdict and deposition about the judge’s bias were instrumental in eventually freeing the defendant.)

Despite the occasional archness of her prose and descents into rightwing nonsense about Communists in her gossip column, Ms. Kilgallen brought a skeptical, questioning intelligence to her work. The NYPD could have used some of that in investigating her death.

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