Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 3: “I hope I can beat the men.”

Do you know who this is?
-She was known as ‘the modern Nellie Bly’.
-She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
-Her death is shrouded in mystery.

Dorothy Mae Kilgallen was born on July 3, 1913 to Hearst newspaperman James Lawrence Kilgallen and Mae Ahern Kilgallen. The family moved often during her childhood years – moving from Chicago to Wyoming, then to Indiana, then back to Chicago. They finally settled in New York City, where Kilgallen would spend one semester at the College of New Rochelle. After that semester she would leave college to follow in her father’s footsteps by accepting a job as a reporter for the New York Journal-American.

Twenty-three year old Kilgallen would skyrocket in notoriety and readers in 1936 when she would compete with to other (male) New York reporters in a race around the world. The trip was to be completed by using means of transportation what was available to the general public – no special charters or use of government transportation. The reasons for the race were threefold: to break existing around-the-world travel records; to become some of the first travelers to use the China Clipper to cross the Pacific Ocean; and to increase the circulation of their respective newspapers at home. Kilgallen attracted quite a bit of attention, as she was the only woman in the ‘race’.

Before leaving she said, “I'm off to race around the world - a race against time and two men. I know I can beat time. I hope I can beat the men.”

The New York Evening Journal printed her reports on her journey daily and, through the headlines, became known as the ‘modern day Nellie Bly’. She traveled via the Hindenburg from New York to Germany, and then used different airlines to fly to Rome, Hong Kong, and Manila. At Manila she booked a flight on the Pan Am China Clipper to Hawaii, then San Francisco, finally catching a commercial flight back to New York. She completed the trip in twenty-four days, placing second to Bud Elkins of the New York World Telegram (who took twenty-one days) and beating Leo Keiran of the New York Times. She became the first woman to fly around the world. Later that year she published an autobiographical book titled Girl Around the World chronicling the event, moved to Hollywood, and the following year wrote a screenplay for the movie Fly Away Baby. The movie would star Glenda Farrell as a character which was inspired by Kilgallen’s travels called Torchy Blane.

Kilgallen gave up her film-writing career in 1937 returned to New York to work for the New York Journal-American where she was given her own column, the Hollywood Scene. The next year She would start a new column titled The Voice of Broadway, and would write it for the next twenty-seven years, until her death in 1965. The Voice of Broadway focused on the news and gossip of the New York show business industry, but it also included articles on politics and organized crime. The column appeared in 24 other newspapers by 1941, and eventually the column was syndicated to 146 newspapers through the King Features Syndicate. She had an estimated twenty-million readers by 1950, and was being recognized as one of the most important columnists in America. Her columns were an unusual mixture. As Midwest Today article by Sara Jordan stated:

“The Kilgallen approach was a mixture of catty gossip ("A world-famous movie idol, plastered, commanded a pretty girl to get into his limousine, take off all her clothes"), odd tidbits of inconsequential information ("The Duke of Windsor eats caviar with a spoon"), and dark warnings ("Anti-American factions are planning to blow up the Panama Canal").”
Kilgallen was married in 1940 to actor Dick Kollmar – who played Boston Blackie in a popular radio crime show. The couple would have three children – two of which can be seen in this snippet from an episode of What’s My Line.

In 1945 the couple started Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick, a morning live radio show broadcast that would be on the air until 1963. The program discussed plays, books, films – the various social activities that were available to New Yorkers.

Kilgallen was invited to become a panelist on a television game show originating in New York called What’s My Line?, airing from 1950 – 1967. She would remain on the show from 1950 until her death in 1965. While the show was designed for entertainment – with a priority on getting a laugh and providing entertainment for the audience – Kilgallen’s main interest was very competitive: guessing the right answers, and the name of the mystery guest - even if it was her own father. While she was popular on-air, she often was in conflict with her co-panelists because of her competitive nature, her using information overheard in the dressing rooms in her gossip column, and her being a ‘Hearst girl’. Arlene Francis was soon brought on the show as a regular panelist to counter-balance Kilgallen.

During the 1950’s Kilgallen continued to publish her columns and perform in her radio and television shows. She extended the scope of her articles by attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, as well as covering criminal trials. It was her investigative reporting that got Sam Shepard a new trial. Shepard’s case was later the basis for “The Fugitive”, a popular television series and movie. Her articles during this time were the basis of her nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.

She was also the only reporter to privately interview Jack Ruby, who was in jail accused of murdering the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald. Kilgallen had been impressed with President Kennedy, and used her investigative talents to start to raise some hard questions, especially about the thoroughness of the Warren Report. She interviewed witnesses to the shooting that the Warren Commission – headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren – had neglected to interview. Much of what she discovered remained unpublished – her claim was that she was gathering the information for a book.

After she had obtained a copy of Ruby’s testimony to the Warren Commission and shocked the public with her revelations of the inept questioning of Ruby by Warren, Kilgallen found the FBI on her doorstep. An FBI memo reported that when asked to reveal the name of the individual who leaked the 102 page transcript of Ruby’s testimony to her, "she stated that she was the only person who knew the identity of the source and that she 'would die' rather than reveal his identity."

America loves conspiracy theories, and Kilgallen’s death – connected to her investigation of Kennedy’s assassination – provided a wonderful one. Kilgallen was found dead in her apartment on November 8, 1965. While the official verdict was suicide, many believed that it was murder – the fact that her notes on the Ruby interview were never found and other inconsistencies in her death keeping the conspiracy theory alive over forty years later.

Kilgallen died as she lived – making the news.

Our local library has no biographies available on Dorothy Kilgallen.


Find A Grave
Midwest Today


01. Portrait, FanPix
02. China Clipper: Flying Clippers
03. American Airlines
04. Masked Dorothy
05. Typewriter
06. Gravestone: Find A Grave, picture by Elliot

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