Lee Israel


Lee Israel lives in New York City. Her first book, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, was published in 1972. This was followed by Kilgallen (1979), a biography of Dorothy Kilgallen. In the book Lee Israel discovered a great deal about Kilgallen's investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

He third biography, Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic, was published in 1986.

Primary Sources

(1) Lee Israel, Kilgallen (1979)

There had been some snide little items about her (Dorothy Kilgallen) in the columns, an occasional short profile in the magazines, and frequent strafing from television performers. Jack Paar led the pack in 1960, taking up Sinatra's slack. That tempestuous round began when Dorothy swiped at him in the column over his impassioned support of Fidel Castro. She was violently opposed to the new Cuban leader and peppered her column with anti-Castro items, many of which appear to have been fed to her by Miami-based exiles or CIA fronts on an almost daily basis. Paar retaliated on his prime-time, high-rated television show.

(2) Lee Israel, Kilgallen (1979)

Under the headline NEW DOROTHY KILGALLEN EXCLUSIVE - TALE OF "RICH OIL MAN" AT RUBY CLUB - Dorothy printed Mark's secret testimony. But his testimony implicated a trio at the Carousel: Ruby, Tippit, and Weissman. Reexamining the transcript of Ruby's testimony before the commission, she noticed that the questions posed to him concerned not a trio, but a quartet. Earl Warren, in his questioning, informed Ruby that Lane had said: "In your Carousel Club you and Weisman (sic) and Tippit... and a rich oil man had an interview or conversation for an hour or two."

Dorothy, who did not have access yet to the complete Warren Report, had to deduce:

"The mention of the "rich oil man" by Chief Justice Warren would indicate then, that the Commission was informed of the meeting by a source other than Mr. Lane, and that this second source provided the name of a fourth party - the oil man. If that is not the case, if the Commission had only Mr. Lane's testimony to go on, it would appear that the oil man was "invented" by the investigators. And it is difficult to imagine the Commission doing any such thing.

The introduction of the rich oil man into the questioning effectively discombobulated the already-confused Jack Ruby.

When the report was released, it was clear that no testimony was given by any of the 552 witnesses about a rich oil man. Either there was a significant omission in the report of the Warren Commission, or the oil man was part of the unofficial corpus of information to which Warren was privy, or Dorothy's thesis - however "difficult to imagine" - was correct.

(3) (3)Lee Israel, Kilgallen (1979)

During one of her (Kilgallen’s) visits - sometime in March, before the verdict – she prevailed upon Joe Tonahill to make arrangements through Judge Brown for a private interview with Jack Ruby.

Brown, awestruck by Dorothy, acceded readily to Tonahill’s request. The meeting room in the jailhouse was bugged, and Tonahill suspected that Brown’s chambers were as well. Brown and Tonahill chose a small office off the courtroom behind the judge’s bench. They asked Ruby’s ubiquitous flank of four sheriff’s guards to consent to remain outside the room.

Dorothy was standing by the room during a noon recess. Ruby appeared with Tonahill. The three entered the room and closed the door. The defendant and Dorothy stood facing each other, spoke of their mutual friend, and indicated that they wanted to be left alone. Tonahill withdrew. They were together privately for about eight minutes, in what may have been the only safe house Ruby had occupied since his arrest.

Dorothy would mention the fact of the interview to close friends, but never the substance. Not once, in her prolific published writings, did she so much as refer to the private interview. Whatever notes she took during her time alone with Jack Ruby in the small office off the judge’s bench were included in a file she began to assemble on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

(4) David B. Herschel (18th November, 1993)

As the thirtieth anniversary of the JFK assassination approaches, I must tell the world about a 58-year-old man who can identify the conspirators. What follows has never been published before. I am a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University who was born after the assassination. I don't have the money to travel to New York City where I know of people who can testify that this 58-year-old man holds the key. In the limited time I have had to solicit media people who could expose this story, they have all dismissed the idea as libelous. The Washington Post and the New York Press (a free weekly) turned it down. My faculty has no pull.

So please, somebody, steal the following story! I'm a poor student who must prepare for final exams. Can you send this along to a journalist you know who can publish or broadcast it? He or she knows that the best defense against libel is the truth, which is:

The JFK assassination conspirators recruited Ron Pataky, now 58, to seduce and kill journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. Their motive was to prevent her from printing the truth about November 22, 1963 in her widely read newspaper. She had already published front-page stories in newspapers around the country implicating Chief Justice Earl Warren and the Justice Department in the cover-up. She worked closely with Mark Lane, a lawyer who in 1964/65 was working on his ground-breaking assassination book "Rush To Judgment." He gave Kilgallen leads for her news stories. In the fall of 1965, she told him and other friends that she was about to travel to Dallas, where she expected to find evidence that would break the JFK case wide open.

But on November 7, 1965, a newspaper columnist named Ron Pataky waited for his intimate friend Dorothy Kilgallen to arrive for a prearranged meeting in the cocktail lounge of New York's Regency Hotel. That night she appeared as usual as a panelist on the TV game show called "What's My Line?". Millions of people around North America saw her figure out the careers of two contestants as CBS broadcast the series live from 10:30 to 11:00 pm. She then joined Bob Bach, the producer of "What's My Line?", at a club called P.J. Clarke's, whose employees later admitted having seen her. After midnight, she left Bach to visit the cocktail lounge of the Regency Hotel (Park Ave. and 61st St.), whose employees have never admitted what they saw.

One Regency employee, Harvey Daniels (press agent), did tell a writer in 1976 that he saw Kilgallen enter the cocktail lounge at about 1:00 am on November 8. But he did not pay attention to where or with whom she sat. He left the building shortly thereafter. This writer who interviewed him is Ms. Lee Israel, a veteran magazine journalist whose conversations with Helen Gahagan Douglas and Katherine Hepburn had appeared in Esquire and Saturday Review. When Ms. Israel tried to interview other Regency employees for the Kilgallen book she was working on, the management (Loews Hotels) warned her away.

I found out earlier this month (November 1993) that several employees of the Regency who were on duty that night still work there. The only name I know is John Mahon, a bartender. He told me that he and various waiters and bellhops will talk if you clear it with Loews Hotels. The contact person, Debra Kelman, did NOT work there in 1976 when Loews told Lee Israel to keep away.

The direct line to Debra Kelman is 212-545-2833. On the phone she sounds too young to remember the assassination. But I don't have the money to stay in New York to interview anyone.

What could you get out of an interview with a Regency employee? Well, the official cause of Dorothy Kilgallen's death is an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, "circumstances undetermined." I interviewed Ron Pataky and I believe he gave her a Mickey Finn in that hotel lounge. When Loews Hotels warned away Lee Israel in 1976, the media did not have the power it has today. Oprah Winfrey and cable TV had not yet come along, and the JFK assassination was still largely a taboo topic. Someone who approaches Loews and then bartender John Mahon and other Regency employees may get better results today.

You might wonder about contacting Ron Pataky. I already interviewed him on the phone for three hours and taped it. In the beginning of the conversation he became very upset when I asked about his frequent stays at the Regency in 1964/65. He then rambled on about his "close friendship" with Dorothy Kilgallen. He later admitted to talking to her on the phone long distance five times a week, often at three in the morning. He revealed that she made overseas calls to him from a vacation she made to Europe, and she sometimes used his Regency Hotel suite to change clothes before they painted the town in New York. He says he wrote the lead paragraph to one of her JFK articles. He first met her a year and five months before she died, but he denies that they had an affair.

(5) Donald Nolen, review of Lee Israel, Kilgallen, Amazon (14th January, 2004)

So posterity needs to evaluate each mysterious death according to how plausible the murder theory is. Lee Israel puts in this book some evidence that a broken love affair with Johnnie Ray and the fall of the Hearst newspaper empire gave Dorothy Kilgallen trouble sleeping, and she could have mixed barbiturates with booze. But Lee also details the strange circumstances of Dorothy's death. Police and medical examiner reports say her body was found in a bed in which she never slept. Nobody slept in it. It was a showroom to convince celebrity houseguests who partied in the next room that everything was hunky dory in the 25 - year marriage of Dorothy and her husband Richard Kollmar.

There was no pill bottle on the bedside table or anywhere else in the death scene. Dorothy had fallen "asleep" while reading a new novel by Robert Ruark, even though she had said in her newspaper column four months earlier that the protagonist of the book dies in the end. She had discussed said novel with her hairdresser Marc Sinclaire some weeks before cops and doctors found the book in her dead hand. She had told Mr. Sinclaire that she had enjoyed the work after having finished reading it.

That's what you will find in this book. Now I'll add the two things I've seen while sight seeing. First, you can find Dorothy Kilgallen's death certificate at the National Archives in Maryland, a popular tourist site. In the section where the doctor makes the classification of natural causes, suicide, homicide, etc., the thing says "undetermined pending further investigation." Strangely, the deputy medical examiner of Brooklyn signed it "for James Luke," the chief medical examiner. Kilgallen died in the borough of Manhattan, and Dr. Luke had no reason not to sign it. He visited the death scene for 45 minutes, according to the Washington Post obituary. That Brooklyn deputy M.E., Dominick Di Maio, is still alive.

The second thing I've seen that's not in the book is a video interview with criminal defense attorney Joe Tonahill preserved at Lamar University in Texas. On it he says his last telephone conversation with Dorothy Kilgallen happened a short time before she died, "maybe a week before." They planned to participate in a radio talk show about the JFK assassination, but she died before the plans could materialize. Shortly before that conversation, Dorothy visited Miami to discuss Oswald, etc. on the talk show of a young Larry King. The same Larry now on CNN.

(6) Eric Paddon, Dorothy Kilgallen and the JFK Assassination (2002)

Kilgallen ran one last column on the JFK assassination on September 3, 1965. It was little more than a rehash of questions surrounding the photos, and an assertion that if Marina Oswald could explain the "real story" it would undoubtedly cause a "sensation." She closed by vowing, "This story isn't going to die as long as there's a real reporter alive - and there are a lot of them."

She evidently found time to investigate one lead on her own in New Orleans. Her make-up artist for "What's My Line?" recalled Kilgallen telling him in October that she had planned to go to New Orleans to meet someone who would give her "information on the case." The appendix to Israel's book indicates that the contact was either Jim Garrison or one of

his associates. This would make a great deal of sense. Mark Lane, in addition to providing Kilgallen with information, would also become a prime source of assistance to Garrison once his "investigation" kicked into high gear, and it may be possible that he or one of the other conspiracy authors he associated himself with, had referred Garrison to Kilgallen. It is worth noting that the connections of Lane and his associates to Garrison is never mentioned in Israel's book.

What she learned, if anything, was never written up. In the early morning hours of November 8, 1965, just four hours after doing the live broadcast of "What's My Line?" and not long after she had left her next-day's column under the door of her apartment, Dorothy Kilgallen died under circumstances that remain puzzling to this day. The official explanation of complications from barbiturates and alcohol remains dubious to some people because they felt that Kilgallen was largely over her addictions by 1965, especially since she had recently begun a happy affair with a gentleman Israel describes as "The Out-Of-Towner". The tape of the "What's My Line?" broadcast however, clearly shows her slurring her speech at various points (not "crisply perfect" as Israel falsely claims). None of this affected her game-playing abilities, which were always superior to any other member of the panel, but it is clear that she was not in the best of health that particular night. In 1978, HSCA counsel Robert Blakey asked for a review of Kilgallen's autopsy (a copy of which is in the JFK Assassination files in the National Archives), but he and his staff evidently found nothing worth pursuing since no mention of Kilgallen ever made it into the final report.

Someone might be able to prove someday that there was more to Dorothy Kilgallen's death than met the eye that night. But if someone succeeds in doing that, he will still not be able to show that it could have had any remote connection with the JFK assassination. If one encompasses everything she knew at the time of her death, it is clear that she did not have a clue as to what the truth really was. Her entire investigation had consisted of shoddy detective work on her part, coupled with false and misleading information from a dishonest gentleman named Mark Lane. Had she been able to tell the world everything she knew on the night of her death, they would have been given another sneak preview of some of the stories Mark Lane would trumpet in his book (I) Rush To Judgment (I), as well as a possible preview of some of Jim Garrison's outlandish assertions that culminated in his witchhunt against Clay Shaw. In both instances, Kilgallen had been nothing more than a courier, not an investigator. Considering that no ill-fortune befell either Lane or Garrison when their respective work appeared in full bloom by 1966 and 1967, the likelihood of Kilgallen's death being assassination-related becomes even more remote. Indeed, the FBI files available to us, indicate that at no time were they ever concerned about the nature of any of her 1964 assertions about the case that were fed to her by Lane. The only thing about Dorothy Kilgallen that ever worried the FBI was the prospect of more columns unjustly maligning their image if they continued their investigation of who leaked the Ruby transcript to her.

Dorothy Kilgallen was without question a bright, intelligent woman who had solid credentials as a reporter, and who was the key to much of the success of "What's My Line?". It is unfortunate that at a time when she was not up to her best standards of health and deductive reasoning, she became a willing target for the deceptions of Mark Lane and company. She would not have been the first intelligent person to fall victim to Lane's chicanery. The distinguished historian Hugh Trevor-Roper also would be suckered by Lane, when he agreed to write the introduction to (i) Rush To Judgment (ii) and made assertions about the case that only repeated unchallenged what Lane had told him. So too, did Dorothy Kilgallen have a bizarre willingness to accept everything Lane had given to her without utilizing any of her usual skills of reporter's skepticism and investigative prowess. The end result caused her tragic death to be surrounded in pointless sensationalism and disinformation that ultimately did her memory a tragic disservice.