Shortly after Lenore Heidorn became Billie Dove’s fan club president and started a lifelong friendship with the movie actress, Billie presented her an autographed portrait: “To you, Lenore, from me.”
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In July 1994, not long after my first interview with silent film actress Billie Dove was published in my Classic Images column, Billie’s long-time friend and fan club president, Lenore Heidorn (Foote), asked Billie for my address and got in touch. She was anxious to tell me how she and Billie got acquainted in the late 1920s and how a starstruck teenager from Chicago came to Hollywood and came face-to-face with some of the movie industry’s favorite idols.
When I ventured out the West Coast that December, I made a trip to Vista, California, and had lunch with Lee and her sister, Doris, at a local Chinese restaurant.
My fortune cookie that day read, “Be daring. Try something new.” (Not long after, I hopped a plane for Italy. It’s been a love affair with that country and its people ever since.)
After leaving Vista that afternoon, I drove over the mountains into Palm Springs for a couple of days. I spent a day at Billie’s Rancho Mirage home, chatting about everything from her days in the Ziegfeld Follies, her engagement to Howard Hughes, to how it felt being one of the most beautiful and sought after actresses of her day. Time had not changed Billie. She was a knockout, both inside and out. When night fall came, she urged me to stay on for dinner. We dug around in her freezer and found two Swanson dinners.
We sat side by side at her long dining room table. That table was probably meant to seat 25 or more for elegant dinner parties she must have thrown in the past. Now, it was just the two of us.
Billie insisted we light the candelabra. The ambiance reminded her of the lavish dinners her friends, William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, used to host at San Simeon. Now, at 91, Billie seemed lonely, living alone with Timmy, her poodle, behind the gates of the Thunderbird Country Club. I think she appreciated the company — I did!
Lee had similar stories of Billie’s generosity. Their friendship went back to the late 1920s when Lee, a recent high school graduate, became Billie’s fan club president. Here’s how it happened.
“I had recently graduated from high school and had been employed by Illinois Bell in Chicago, where I was born and raised,” Lee remembered. “This was the time when the economy went boom. We, my parents and sister, had gone to visit some friends of theirs who had two daughters. Visiting there, we saw a lot of autographed photos of stars adorning the walls, and having been a great fan all of my life, I was curious to see how they had gotten them. ‘Just write to them,’ they said. ‘Tell them you’ve enjoyed their pictures and ask for a photo.’ That was the beginning.”
Lee started writing to the stars. Her first photo was from Richard Dix. Then, she found out about fan clubs devoted to her favorites. “In Photoplay magazine, I read about the various clubs, and since Billie was a favorite of mine, I joined her club, run by a gal in Milwaukee.”
Billie, who had started her career on the stage in the Ziegfeld Follies in the late 1910s, was riding the crest of her film career, which began in New York in 1921; she came to Hollywood in 1922.
In the late 1920s, Billie’s career seemed to be on solid ground as she approached the talkie revolution. She had just completed work on The Other Tomorrow and was preparing for A Notorious Affair (1930).
Her personal life, however, was another story. Her rocky marriage to director Irvin Willat was falling apart, and she was embarking on a serious relationship with Howard Hughes. In no time, the bashful billionaire offered Willat $325,000 if he would loosen the marriage chains on Billie so that he could have her as his own.
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A few months after Lee joined Billie’s fan club, the club president wrote to Lee, saying she had to give up the club. She asked Lee if she would like to take it over. “Of course, I did,” said Lee. “We notified Billie. That became one of the longest friendships in history.”