Billie Dove and the End of a Nagging Question

It was one subject I couldn’t bring up to Billie Dove.  What I wanted to ask was, “Billie, how old are you?”  Well, I would have never asked it in those exact words. But I wanted to clear up the question of her year of birth.  To a researcher determined to set the record straight, asking those questions is critical, especially when film reference books cannot agree on one date.

"To you, Lenore, from me."

“To you, Lenore (her fan club president), from me.”

One can use the tactic of bringing up the most sensitive questions until the end of the interview. That way, you have the story in case they hang up on you and show you the door the moment the question rolls off your lips.  But I couldn’t ask it then, either.

The Kenastons

Billie and husband Bob Kenaston

I didn’t have to.  Billie addressed the subject herself near the beginning of our first interview.

“I simply don’t believe that the number of years a person has lived is how old they are,” she said to me. “Two people, exactly the same age, can be entirely different.  It’s what you have absorbed that counts.”

Fair enough.

I kept digging. The film reference books were all over the board on the question. They had Billie being born from 1900 to 1904. Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia suggested 1900 as Billie’s year of birth.  Her fan club president told me 1900 was the date. Billie’s maid had found the birth certificate when going through some papers.

Dewitt Bodeen’s excellent career article on Billie for Films in Review suggested 1901. The 1920 U.S. Federal Census indicated 1903.

Billie and Michael

Billie and Michael

When The Sound of Silence, the book that included the lengthy interview I did with Billie went to press, I played it safe. I presented the possibilities as I had uncovered them and put the information out for the readers to decide.

When Billie died, the mystery was still unsolved. Her obits indicated 1900 and 1901. Her death certificate gave 1901. In her 1954 application for a Social Security Number, Billie gave 1903.

Billie’s words came back to haunt me, “Even my husbands didn’t know how old I was,” she once said.

Last week, I was delighted to hear from Paul Melzer through Facebook, a reader who has acquired Billie Dove’s driver’s license and birth certificate. With his permission, I am sharing them with you.

One more mystery solved. Researching for the facts becomes obsessive. See how much fun we have!

Anyway, Billie Dove, according to her birth certificate was born May 14, 1903. Now we know. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief. Slow exhale.

Billie's birth certificate

Billie’s birth certificate (Courtesy of Paul Melzer)


Take a look at her California driver’s license from 1979.

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5 thoughts on “Billie Dove and the End of a Nagging Question

  1. Dear Michael,
    I love your articles, and this one just made my day.
    Billie Dove is one of my favorite actresses. 🙂 And this was always one of those ‘mysteries’ that a gave her a certain mystique. Finally we know. 😀
    All the best,

    P.S: I have some promotional pictures of a movie with her, called ‘The Age for Love’. She starred on it with Charles Starrett. It is considered a ‘lost movie’… I wonder: is it possible you know something about it? 🙂

  2. I agree that this is an issue we can put to bed—thanks for your diligent efforts, Michael. If you look closely at the driver’s license you can see that it was torn in half. I assume by Billie, although I’ve no idea why. One might assume that she had acquired a new one and thus was destroying the old, but then why would she have kept it in her belongings? Who knows.

    I have three copies of the April 1979 Films in Review magazine Billie kept and had marked up with corrections. Two are pretty much the same notations, the third mostly unmarked. The marginalia is fascinating and I will copy and send along to you, Michael. Although I don’t know which corrections she subsequently pointed out to Dewitt Bodeen, he replied in a letter dated June 22 that he’d sent in a letter of corrections to the editor Ron Bowers, hoping they would be in the Aug/Sept issue. In that issue they did publish a short thank you note from Billie, but it was not until the October issue that a letter was published from Bodeen. Curiously, in it he corrects a few things, one of which will only serve to keep the DOB waters muddied a slight bit. Firstly, he corrects his statement that she had gotten her divorce from Irvin Willat in Nevada—it was in Los Angeles. He corrects a statement regarding her contract with First National—that it was bought by Howard Hughes.

    But here’s the one “correction” that Billie decided not to correct again (or had miscorrected in the first place—without knowing the content of that letter to Bodeen, it would be hard to confirm one way or another): Bodeen writes that he was wrong in stating her year of birth as 1901, but then he states “Billie Dove was born in NY on May 14, ’04.” In one of her the copies of FIR she wrote “why make me older than I am??” In the other she wrote “My mother and father hadn’t met yet. Mother was in Switzerland, my father in America.” Both copies she has scribbled out the “01” date, but neither did she write in ’04 [or ’03]. I think it safe to assume that while she was loathe to think she was being made to look older, she was, perhaps less concerned with her being made younger.

    Another quite curious notation she made in both copies of FIR was “that was not how I got my name,” pointing to the passage about Montgomery Flagg calling her “The Dove.” No further notation on that subject, though.

    One thing is certain: Billie Dove was an extraordinary beauty and deserved all the admiration she received during her relatively short film career.

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