Dove Tails — Lee, Billie, and the Rest of the Story

 

Billie gave me this original Melbourne Spurr photograph from her collection.

 

Billie Dove’s disappointing experience with Blondie of the Follies (1932) was a factor in prompting her to leave films. The film centered on the Follies rivalry of two showgirls and friends, Blondie (Marion Davies) and Lottie (Billie). Before the last scene was filmed, William Randolph Hearst, Marion’s companion and financier, called a halt to the production. “That’s a good Billie Dove picture,” he said. That was fine, except he wanted a Marion Davies picture. Billie knew it would be a great Billie Dove picture. “I had given a damned good performance,” she said.

Hearst ordered the rewriting of scenes. The cast was called to retake scenes that favored Marion. It became obvious to Billie that Hearst, in his attempt to elevate further Marion, was making Billie the villain.  “It broke my heart,” Billie told me in a 1994 interview. “I realized too late that I should not have done the picture. I should have known better. After all, it was Hearst’s money.”  Billie and a beau saw the final version in a theater.  Midway through the film, Billie leaned to her escort and said, “Let’s go.  I’ve had enough.”

Robert Montgomery, Marion Davies, and Billie Dove in Blondie of the Follies.

After marrying Robert Kenaston in May 1933, Billie felt the time had come to shift her focus.

The Kenastons

“I thought I had attained everything I wanted to attain,” Billie said. “I was still in my twenties (early thirties, actually), and I wanted to do like other people. I wanted a family.” Their son, Robert Jr., was born in April 1934.

Billie’s fan club president, Lee Heidorn, kept her fan club alive. From her letters to Lee, it was evident that Billie’s first concern was her family, not her film career.

 

After some time, Lee broached the subject of starting a fan club for another film player.  Billie was in complete support.

The Kenastons adopted a daughter, Gail, in 1937. Billie focused on her family. She dabbled in drawing and painting.

Billie drew this portrait of her son in the mid-1930s.

 

During World War II, Lee’s correspondence with Billie was sporadic.  Billie explained her silence in a 1943 letter.

When Lenore moved to California in 1944, she and Billie reconnected and never lost touch.  They saw each other as often as time allowed, between Billie raising her family and Lee’s work at a telephone company.

In the 1950s, Billie’s son, Robert Jr., tried breaking into films as an actor. After minor roles in several films, he concluded the film industry was not for him.

Billie's son, Robert Kenaston Jr.

 

The Kenastons maintained an active social life in Palm Springs. When not entertaining, Bob played golf; Billie wrote and  painted.

Bob and Billie Kenaston

Billie with her paintings in her home in Rancho Mirage.

Billie penned this poem in the 1960s:

*Cocktail Party*

Lying in state on a sliver of bread,

A tired sardine, long since been dead;

An ounce of bourbon, Scotch or gin

With water, ice and lime thrown in;

The laughter forced, the voices loud,

So to be heard above the crowd;

The aching feet, nowhere to sit,

No place to put the olive pit;

Redundant chatter, the old stale joke

In a room too hot and blurred with smoke;

Too hard trying to have some fun — 

Too big the head that greets the sun!

 

No matter how busy their lives became, Billie and Lee (now Lenore Foote) stayed in touch for the rest of their lives.  In a 1966 letter, Billie fills Lee in on the activities of the Kenastons.

 

Lee with Bob Kenaston Jr. and wife, Denise.

Billie, Lee, and Billie's mother at Billie's home in Rancho Mirage in 1970.

Billie and Lee in Billie's Rancho Mirage home in 1979.

Billie, Lee, and Doris (Lee's sister) in Palm Springs

in 1992 .

 

I received a letter from Lee after my interview with Billie appeared in Classic Images magazine in 1994. Billie was, at first, a reluctant interview subject. She had said she was saving her memories for her own memoirs.  She said it my persistence — and Southern accent– that weakened Billie’s defenses. We spent hours on the phone. She gave me the first interview (which last several hours) while standing in her kitchen.  The cord on her phone was short and she had no where to sit, so she leaned against the counter and reminisced about her life in films.

When I made plans to journey to the West Coast in December 1994, Lee and I made plans to meet at her home, where she lived with Doris, in Vista, California. I asked Billie about visiting her in Rancho Mirage.  She was reluctant to having a visitor.  Lee was not surprised. Billie, somewhere in her early 90s, saw fewer and fewer visitors, and she rarely went out. She did not encourage Lee to drive to the desert to see her.  Yet, Billie was lonely! It was only after I arrived in Los Angeles that Billie called me to say she was looking forward to my visit.

I enjoyed a fabulous Chinese lunch with Lee and Doris in Vista.

I finally have MY picture made with Lee, the avid movie fan who had rubbed shoulders with the greats during their heyday: Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Bing Crosby, Sue Carol, Ruth Roland, and others.

On to Rancho Mirage, where Billie and I spent the day together. In person, she confided about her much publicized romance with and engagement to Howard Hughes. We watched several of her films and spent time in her movie room.  She was generous with her collection of stills.  “Pick out what you want,” she said. “I’ll autograph them for you.”

As evening approached, we dug around in her freezer for some frozen Swanson dinners. We ate by candlelight at her enormous dining room table. Just the two of us.

It was an unforgettable day.

Billie and Michael

Billie and Timmy

Billie began suffering monumental losses in her life. Her son, Robert Kenaston Jr., died in 1995. As her health faded and her savings dwindled, she left her Rancho Mirage home and moved into the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. She was chipper and in good spirits to the end. She died of pneumonia on December 31, 1997.

Lee asked a friend to drive her to Glendale for Billie’s simple funeral at Forest Lawn. She spoke briefly with Billie’s daughter, Gail, whose relationship with her mother was strained, and Arleen Sorkin, an actress (Days of Our Lives) who befriended Billie in later years. Lee was bewildered that Billie was buried in a “pauper’s coffin.”

Over the next year, Lee’s health began to fail and I heard less and less from her. Lee passed away on February 20, 1999. Gail, Billie’s daughter, died two days later.

Lee’s death marked the end of a fascinating story about a starstruck teenager from Chicago who reached out to her favorite movie stars in the 1920s and 30s at a time when the greats of Hollywood reached back! Billie’s and Lee’s long friendship is now part of Hollywood history. I was privileged to know them both and honored they shared their lives with me.

 

Note: My interview with Billie Dove is covered in full in The Sound of Silence.

 

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2 thoughts on “Dove Tails — Lee, Billie, and the Rest of the Story

  1. Wonderful story and terrific pictures. Hollywood may have made a mistake in not promoting Billie’s son Robert = he was as handsome as she was beautiful.

  2. Was watching a Billie movie on tcm and looked up a few actors. Found this site about Lee and Billie. Enjoyed very much. Thanks for brief look into lives of those who helped start the movie industry. Will try to visit again.

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