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The Dorothy Kilgallen Death Watch
Categories: Good Stuff, Media Beat

We recently got cable.

I seem to go through four-year periods of having cable and four years of just using my TV for viewing home video.  It makes for interesting observations, since this way I don’t have the ‘frog in the beaker’ syndrome with the medium of TV.  I can see how some cable channels have pimped themselves down (e.g., A&E or American Movie Classics), an escalation in the count of commercials during breaks, and other cultural / corporate trends.

The Cast of classic game show WHAT'S MY LINE?

The Cast of classic game show WHAT'S MY LINE?

I had never seen the Game Show Network, but I’m habitually recording its late-night offering of the classic TV show WHAT’S MY LINE? reruns.  As a kid, I never cared for it much, but last year I read a 1979 biography of crime reporter-turned-Broadway columnist and What’s My Line? regular Dorothy Kilgallen.  Kilgallen (who cut her journalistic teeth working for Hearst newspapers covering executions, kidnappings and disasters) parlayed her savvy instincts for lowdown stories into positioning herself as the inside-scoop girl on New York happenings, having her own syndicated column: The Voice of Broadway.  In 1950, she started a 15-year run as a celebrity panelist on What’s My Line? — a tenure that ended with her mysterious death.

November, 1965:  After taping a live episode of What’s My Line? — as she did every Sunday night — Kilgallen relaxed by having cocktails at one of her favorite Manhattan bars.  She was seen talking to someone in a corner, but the gentleman’s identity could not be ascertained.  The next morning, she was found dead, in a bedroom which she never used, supposedly while reading in bed although her reading glasses were upstairs and the book was one she had finished a couple of weeks before; she still had on her makeup and false eyelashes; the air conditioning was on full blast (Dorothy was always chilled and even wore old socks to bed…plus the air conditioning was on all the way on a November night in New York), wearing a housecoat that was not the type she wore to bed; the book which allegedly dropped from her hands in bed was found in a way that would suggest that she was reading the book with the print upside down, plus she was discovered sitting up in the dead center of a large bed — the light and nightstand were unreachable.  Meanwhile outside, two cops were parked in a police car in front of the house, waiting for some unknown agenda.

I tuned in last week to GSN and saw a mid-1960s What’s My Line? episode where it was mentioned that Kilgallen had just come back from a European press junket.  I knew, from reading the biography, that she had only weeks to live from the time of that taping.

So, why would anyone want to kill a game show celebrity??

Despite her Broadway beat, Dorothy had started newspaper work in the 1930s in a male-dominated field.  She was given tough, bloody assignments reporting on carnage and violence.  And these were the days when reporters would sometimes actually help solve crimes because of their prowl for a good newsbreaking story.  Even when reporting on the entertainment industry, her news hound instincts were always in evidence.

For example, when Marilyn Monroe died, Kilgallen wrote this in her column:

“If the woman described as Marilyn’s ‘housekeeper’ was really a housekeeper, why was her bedroom such a mess?  It was a small house and should have been easy to keep tidy … why was Marilyn’s door locked that night, when she didn’t usually lock it?  If she were just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on?  Usually people sleep better in the dark … Why did the first doctor [arriving at the scene] have to call the second doctor before calling the police?  Any doctor, even a psychiatrist, knows a dead person when he sees one, especially when rigor mortis has set in and there are marks of lividity on the surface of the face and body.  Why the consultation?  Why the big time gap in such a small town?  Mrs. Murray gets worried at about 3 a.m., and it’s almost 6 a.m. before the police get to the scene.”

Marilyn died 2 days after Kilgallen broke the news in her column that Monroe was sexually involved with one of the Kennedys.  There is speculation that the Kilgallen piece caused foul play in the death of Monroe.  Coincidentally, the causes of death for both Monroe and Kilgallen were identical:  a lethal combination of alcohol and barbituates.

Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Kilgallen


As with the death of Marilyn Monroe, Kilgallen felt that the official story of JFK’s assassination in Dallas didn’t hold water, and wrote of how key witnesses had been intimidated.  Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, had been a fan of What’s My Line? and was keen to be interviewed by Kilgallen.  Hers was the only private interview Ruby had.  As she interviewed more key figures, and made a clandestine trip to New Orleans, Kilgallen would excitedly say she was on the trail of “something big,” but in a short time, the excitement shifted as she began to confide that she feared for her life.  Then, she was found dead.

So my DVR is whirring and capturing the last What’s My Line? episodes of Dorothy’s life.  Soon to come is the episode where a cryptic announcement was made over the loudspeakers in the studio right before the show went on the air, referring to a little known aspect of Kilgallen’s personal life.  She was so shaken that she missed her cue to sit down with the rest of the panel at the appropriate time.  And then there’s her final episode, where she was originally dressed in a ballgown with flowers in her hair but she changed into a simple dress right before the show because she was going to meet someone afterwards, yet her hair still is in high-fashion with flowers woven into the coif.  Then, a few hours after the closing credits, she was found dead:  propped up in a bed she never used in clothes she never wore.

If you’d like to read more, the magazine MIDWEST TODAY has a good article about the Kilgallen mystery.

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5 Comments to “The Dorothy Kilgallen Death Watch”

  1. ** Marilyn died 2 days after Kilgallen broke the news in her column that Monroe was sexually involved with one of the Kennedys. There is speculation that the Kilgallen piece caused foul play in the death of Monroe. **

    Here is what Kilgallen wrote in that column that reached New Yorkers on Friday afternoon, August 3, 1962: “… And she’s cooking in the sex appeal department, too. She’s proven vastly alluring to a handsome gentleman who is a bigger name than Joe DiMaggio was in his heydey. So don’t write Marilyn off as finished.”

    What is your source on the notion that the “piece caused foul play in the death of Monroe ?” I’ve never heard that before. The most respected book on Monroe’s death, “Goddess” by Anthony Summers, says, “If either Kennedy brother saw the New York Journal American that day, they saw even more reason to shrink from contact with Marilyn.”

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for posting. My information came from Sara Jordan’s 2007 article in Midwest Today magazine: “On Aug. 3, 1962, Kilgallen became the first journalist to refer publicly to Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with a Kennedy.” She did not include the direct quote you provided. It’s a fascinating story to pursue, isn’t it?

      • I don’t know if it can get more fascinating than it already is. So many people who knew Kilgallen and Monroe are dead. The person who gave Kilgallen the tip for that August 3, 1962 column item, Howard Perry Rothberg, might be alive, but if he is he does not visit any website like this one or Facebook. He is in Miami Beach. If you Google “howard perry rothberg” you get several results, but they do not indicate if he is alive or dead. He would be in his early 80’s.

        Unless someone lives in that area, trying to find an email address for Howard probably would be a waste of time. A friend of mine wrote him a letter and spoke to him by telephone in 1995 before people could use Google. He said yes, he did give Kilgallen the item about Monroe, but before my friend and Howard could get into detail about it (Did Monroe and Kilgallen discuss UFO’s ?), my friend changed the subject to Kilgallen’s death.

        During that 1995 conversation, Mr. Rothberg said he had no first – hand knowledge about Kilgallen’s death. He was in Florida when she died. The last time he saw her was in New York approximately a year before she died. He knows nothing about the assassination. Howard is an interior decorator who grew up wealthy in New York. While he was in Florida in 1965, he was out of touch with his New York friends whom he shared with Kilgallen, so nobody phoned him long – distance to inform him of her death. He learned about it by watching network television, and he was very shocked.

        The Kilgallen book by Lee Israel accurately tells Howard’s stories about Dorothy drinking a lot with Johnnie Ray, but Howard’s memories of their drinking never gave him any signals that she might die young. He never had a premonition that she would give herself trouble with drinking or pills, and he was very shocked by the news he heard from the network television anchorman on his Miami TV set.

        • Jason Rothberg says:

          I’m Howard’s grandson. Dorothy was one of his best friends. Your information is quite accurate. If you have any questions, I’ll try to answer to best of my ability. Before he passed away in 2012, I did confront him with this allegation.

          • Doug says:

            Thanks for your comments, Jason! I’m glad to know the research was from trustworthy sources. Thank you for dropping by the blog.

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