Monday, October 21, 2013

Arlene Francis

A long-time friend and colleague of Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis figured into the multi-faceted life of the journalist-television-radio personality as a co-panelist on What's My Line?  

But her story begins far from twinkling New York City studios, in Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire. Tyrannical head of the empire, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, instituted Pan-Islamism as a state ideology toward the end of the 19th century.  As part of this campaign, he mounted a brutal, protracted massacre of Armenians, a Christian minority in the region.

During this genocide, Arlene's paternal grandparents were cruelly murdered.  At that time, her father was in Paris, and when he learned of the death of his mother and father, he fled to the United States.  He found sanctuary in Boston, bringing in some money as a portrait photographer.  He married Leah Davis, and on Oct. 20, 1907, Leah gave birth to Arline Francis Kazanjian, who we would later cherish as Arlene Francis.  Arlene grew up mostly in New York City, where so much of her career would be based.

Like Kilgallen, Francis was a vivacious, confident college student who wasted no time pursuing her career goals.  She appeared in the Broadway play La Gringa at just 21.  
In 1932, she played a small part (that of a hooker) in the Bela Lugosi film Murders in the Rue Morgue.

From there, it was a spate of Broadway performances in productions of The Body Beautiful, Horse Eats Hat, The Women, Angel Island, and All That Glitters.

Beginning at the end of the 30's, she continued Broadway work, but also worked steadily as a radio actress, before hosting her own show.  She followed in the footsteps of big Broadway stars by appearing on well-written radio drama programs such as The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, The Mercury Theatre, and The Campbell Playhouse.

In 1940, Arlene joined the cast of the long-running soap opera Betty and Bob.  It was in 1942, though, that her radio career took a turn that would make her a household name.  She began hosting the game show Blind Date, a forerunner of popular television shows like The Dating Game, and The Love Connection.

The format of this show might sound slightly comical today, or at least would be played up for maximum intrigue if aired today.  It aimed to pair up--not ordinary couples--but furloughed servicemen and professional women.  They would talk via telephones on either side of a partition.  A recording of the show reveals Francis to sound slightly jittery and awkward, yet still somehow charming, with an attractive, sparkling voice.

She later hosted the television version of the show.

Speaking of game shows that flourished on both radio and TV, we come to What's My Line?  Arlene appeared on the show's second episode and continued as a regular for the show's entire run.  

She and Kilgallen were reportedly close, and one interesting detail about the night of Kilgallen's death comes from Francis.  Arlene says that after the performance of Dorothy's fateful last episode of WML? she didn't kiss Arlene on the cheek when saying goodnight--a first for that omission.

During the time Francis was on What's My Line?, she was also on My Show of Shows and Blind Date, which meant that every network carried an Arlene Francis program. A few years later, she would again turn to radio for one of her life's major projects, one that probably doesn't get enough recognition: The Arlene Francis Show.  This was a one-hour interview show on which she garnered celebrity guests.  No flash in the pan, it ran from 1961 til 1990.

Arlene was twice married, once to Paramount Pictures staffer Neil Agnew, and the second time to producer-actor Martin Gabel.  Near the close of her long, full life, she began a battle with Alzheimer's Disease, succumbing on May 31, 2001, at the age of 93.

She's remembered as a sharp wit, a pioneer among women broadcasters, and a versatile radio and television personality.

Dorothy Kilgallen and JFK

The New York Journal American was William Randolph Hearst's baby, a roaring juggernaut of a newspaper, the very one to carry Richard F. Outcault' comic The Yellow Kid, which is responsible for the immortal phrase "yellow journalism."  Hearst staffed his paper with writers now familiar to any cub reporter or journalism student: Jimmy Cannon, O.O. McIntyre, and Dorothy Kilgallen.

Kilgallen, who began her journalism career as a sort of wunderkind, having left college to begin as a reporter, had a strange, bifurcated lifer as a journalist.  Under Hearst, she developed both as a gossip columnist and a crime reporter.  Some of her early work included covering the trials of Richard Bruno Haptmann, Eva Coo, and Anna Antonio.

Some thirty years into her career, having become a star of radio and television, Kilgallen still wrote for the paper.  On Sept. 30, 1964, she penned a column that would become immortal.  In it, she discussed the Warren report, which was charged with investigating the assassination (a year earlier) of John F. Kennedy.  One passage of her somewhat scathing indictment of the report reads

At any rate, the whole thing smells a bit fishy. 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.

However, Kilgallen didn't draw the ire of the FBI for criticizing them or the report.  Instead, she apparently received a copy of Jack Ruby's testimony to the Warren Commission well before the commission's report was published.  Further, she claimed she'd interviewed him, yet never released the content of their conversation.  In Sept. '64, just before the Journal column, FBI agents visited Kilgallen's home to get her to reveal her source for the Ruby transcripts.  But she held firm.

Kilgallen died one year later, with an FBI file still open.  Because of the slightly odd circumstances of her death, conspiracy theories began to develop.  Her involvement with JFK, particularly the at-large information she supposedly had on Jack Ruby, caused some to speculate that some of the sinister parties responsible for the JFK assassination also stood to gain from her death.

Dorothy Kilgallen's Children

Dorothy and her husband Richard Kollmar had three children, Jill, Richard, and Kerry.  Jill was born in 1941, Richard (Dickie, Jr.) in 1943, and Kerry in 1953.

While very little is known about the oldest children Jill or Dickie, Jr., they did appear as mystery guests on the TV version of What's My Line? in 1954, with Dickie turning in a particularly funny performance.

Kerry, like his siblings, chose not to follow his parents into careers in the media or to be part of the New York social scene.  After being credited as Little Boy in the Tommy Kirk/ Annette Funicello movie Pajama Party, Kerry felt he'd had enough of the acting business. He is now reportedly the President of Martial Hearts, Inc., which aims to teach self-defense and end violence against women and children.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dorothy Kilgallen and Johnnie Ray

Johnnie Ray was a hit machine at the dawn of the 50's, in the small expanse between the pop era and the explosion of rock and roll.

He appeared as the mystery guest on What's My Line? and struck up an intense relationship with Dorothy Kilgallen.  Though Ray was very openly homosexual, some say that his relationship with Dorothy was a romance.  Dorothy's infidelity to her husband Richard was well-known, with an affair with Ron Pataky being common knowledge.

One interesting wrinkle in the coalition of Dorothy and Johnnie was that both of them had no love lost for Frank Sinatra.  After Dorothy made a critical remark or two about the Chairman of the Board in her column, not only did he start calling her the "chinless wonder," but also began to ridicule her during his nightclub act.  Fuel to these flames was her closeness with Johnnie, who had displaced Sinatra on the charts for a few weeks in 1951.  

Biographers report that Dorothy's 1964 death threw Johnnie into an emotional tailspin.  Theirs was a close friendship, with Dorothy providing valuable support to the singer.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Death of Dorothy Kilgallen

Marc Sinclaire was not only Dorothy Kilgallen's hairdresser, but also a close friend, a listening ear.  On the night of November 7, 1965, he found her, while he styled her hair, in a somber mood.  In 2007, he'd tell Midwest Today "she was subdued, but no more than usual," adding she was bushed from a hectic work week.  

Dorothy asked Marc if he'd like to get together later in the night, after she'd taped What's My Line? In a move that one might consider fateful--or at least regrettable--however mundane it was at the time, Marc declined in favor of catching a movie.

The next morning, Kilgallen was found dead--by Sinclaire--in her brownstone, with the cause of death being large doses of alcohol and barbiturate.

Footage of the episode of WML? shows Kilgallen to be roughly herself, if a little staid or glum.  She was the one to guess the person's occupation, and came through with a few witticisms.   

After the show, Dorothy met with her producer Bob Bach for a drink--she ordered a vodka and tonic.

When Sinclaire found Dorothy in the morning, she was sitting up in bed, dressed in a peignoir and robe.  He went to her and immediately ascertained she was dead.

The medical examiner declared to be from "acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication, circumstances undetermined."

Thousands of people lined up to view her coffin.

In the 70's and 80's, theories were developed that Kilgallen's death was a murder.  She had done extensive and controversial reporting and writing about the Kennedy assassination.  A bombshell was her claim that she had undisclosed information from an interview with Jack Ruby during his trial for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald.  That and other controversies in which she was embroiled, became fodder for many rumors and conspiracy theories about a possible murder.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Was Dorothy Kilgallen Murdered?

Dorothy Kilgallen died on Nov. 8, 1965, several hours after taping an episode of What's My Line?  Medical examiner Dr. James Luke established the cause of death as "acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication," but added, "circumstances undetermined."   Though her death was sudden and not associated with any illness, the possibility of murder was firmly ruled out.

The suspicion that Kilgallen may indeed have been murdered has not been at a fevered pitch; hasn't been constant or consistent; and hasn't unearthed much new information.  But there are parties who carry in their hearts the belief that Ms. Kilgallen neither committed suicide nor accidentally overdosed.

The conspiracy theories emerged not long after Kilgallen's death.  The first known published speculation about a murder came from an article the Nov.1966 issue of Ramparts by David Welsh and William Turner.  The article focused on anyone who'd recently died who was in any way connected with the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Kilgallen's reporting of the event will be discussed below).

That article was reprinted in the Feb. '67 issue of Cosmopolitan.  Not much happened until 1975, when Dorothy Kilgallen's son Kerry Kollmar began assisting Lee Israel in that author's biography of Kilgallen. Israel  was interested in the cause of death, but didn't find or publish any strong evidence.  From there, the issue popped up a few times as a tenuous conspiracy theory.

Found By Hairdresser

Much of the existing information concerning the circumstances of Kilgallen's death comes from Marc Sinclaire, Kilgallen's hairdresser and the man who found her body on the morning of her death.

Sinclaire styled Dorothy's hair on the evening of Nov. 7, for her appearance on What's My Line, finding her to be subdued but not excessively so.  He did invite her to join him for a movie afterward but she declined.

Suspicious Details

Anomalies, out-of-place details, and discrepancies are the life's blood of conspiracy theories.  A few of these exist regarding the death of Kilgallen.

  • She was found in the master bedroom--  Sinclaire made much of the fact that he found Kilgallen in her master bedroom, strange since she usually slept in a different room, on the fifth floor.  
  • She was made up and wearing a robe-- Sinclaire found his client and long-time friend in a strange state.  While, like many women, she usually slept in comfortable sleeping attire, she was on this morning wearing a peignoir and robe.  Further, she was wearing the false eyelashes she wore on the town, as well as make-up.  She was sitting up in bed.
  • An ominous phone call--  A managing editor of two small movie magazines, Mary Brannum, received a call the morning of Kilgallen's death, saying simply that Dorothy Kilgallen had been murdered--the caller then hung up.
  • Slightly strange behavior from the medical examiner-- The medical examiner at the scene was Dr. James Luke.  Luke was with her for forty-five minutes, though some reports state an hour and fifteen minutes.  He added the word "undetermined" to his conclusion that alcohol and barbiturates were the cause.  When asked in what form she'd taken the barbiturates, he answered, "we don't want to give that out because...well, just because."  What adds to the slight strangeness on the medical front is that the death certificate was not signed by Luke, but by a Dr. Dominick DiMaio, who would later tell Midwest Today he doesn't believe he signed the certificate and says he was in Brooklyn at the time.   Further, Dr. Charles Umberger, toxicology director at the New York City Medical Examiner's office, later said he privately suspected a murder.

Where There's JFK, There's a Conspiracy Theory

Let's remember that Kilgallen was a far cry from being just a gal about town or a game show panelist.  She was a big-time journalist.  In fact, she was the first reporter to reveal in print Marilyn Monroe's relationship with the president. 48 hours later, Monroe was dead, and Kilgallen wrote a column asking very pointed questions and charging that there was foul play.

But she also covered the JFK assassination.  As an experienced crime reporter, Kilgallen had a mind for asking critical questions about investigations.  Thus, she asked, in print some tough questions about the actions of Dallas police officers at Dealey Plaza.  She accused chief Jesse Curry of lying to reporters about his initial reactions to the shooting.

Some say that information she may have had about the JFK assassination, about which she was very coy, may have posed a threat to those responsible for the president's death.  She claimed to have had a meeting with Jack Ruby and wouldn't reveal its content.  Further, she criticized the Warren Commission's work, implying she had information, and thus a reason to doubt the commission's findings.

Since drugs were involved, the medical investigator's work involved a hiccup or two, and several odd occurrences dotted the circumstances of her death, those pursuing the murder angle have something to chew on, if not much in the way of conclusive proof.