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