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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 3.35.33 PM

 

If Looks Were All It Took

If dashing looks were all it took to make a go of it in Hollywood, Robert “Bob” Kenaston Jr., the son of silent film actress Billie Dove, would have been one of the screen’s top matinee idols of the ’50s and ’60s. In the looks department, he was right up there with Rock Hudson, John Gavin, and a handful of other personal favorites.

Robert Kenaston Jr., he had the looks!

After my series of blogs ran on Billie Dove’s fan club president, Lee Heidorn, several readers asked for more information about the younger Robert Kenaston’s career in Hollywood. I dug around a little more.

Robert Alan Kenaston, the son of  millionaire rancher Robert Kenaston and actress Billie Dove, was born April 18, 1934. In his youth, he was a lifeguard, surf board beacher, rodeo rider, and sports car driver.

When producer Bill Perlberg, an old family friend, asked him to play a pilot in The Bridges of Toko-Ri (1954), Bob couldn’t say no. At age 20, young Bob got serious about a film career.

Billie Dove visits son Bob at the studio in 1957.

“I never encouraged or discouraged Robert from being an actor,” Billie told a reporter in 1957 (The reporter referred to Billie as the Elizabeth Taylor of the 1920s). “I started work very young, in my teens, and I decided that when I married I wanted to have a normal, or non-professional life.”

Bob echoed his mother’s recollection.  “I was never exposed to show business at home,” he said. “We never discussed it. I’ve never seen my mother on the screen. I didn’t know what profession to follow.”

For reasons not totally understood, Bob Kenaston’s career never took off.  Write it off to the fickleness of the business.

He appeared in uncredited roles in The Proud and Profane (1956), The Tin Star (1957), and The Rat Race (1960).  He made television appearances in Crossroads (1956), Men of Annapolis (1957), and Lock Up (1959).

Bob married at least three times. When Lee Heidorn last saw him, in 1982, he and wife Denise were living in Fort Lauderdale.

Bob Kenaston with wife Denise and Lee Heidorn in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1982.

In the course of conversation, Billie had little to say about Bob or her adopted daughter, Gail. When I visited Billie in December 1994, she confided that her son was in a serious battle with lung cancer. He died from the disease in February 1995. Nearly age 92, Billie, who experienced the pain of having to bury a child, was never quite the same. Her own health began to decline and she ended up at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. She died there in 1997.

Billie Dove, the Elizabeth Taylor of the 1920s.

What’s a year or two here and there?

I learned early in my career, which started as a newspaper reporter in the mid-1980s, to save the tough questions until the end of an interview. If there were delicate inquiries that could potentially cause my subject to pull the plug on the conversation, hang up the phone, or show me the door, I waited until I had the main meat of the story before asking.

As I looked over my Billie Dove files for my recent Dove Tails series of blog entries, I came across the questions that I saved for the end of my first interview with Billie.  I was told by people who knew her to stay clear of two subjects: her engagement to Howard Hughes and her real  birth date.

Billie Dove in the early 1920s.

Lee  Heidorn, Billie’s fan club president, didn’t know exactly when the actress was born. It was somewhere between 1900 to 1904. Lee claimed to have snooped around Billie’s desk one day and found her birth certificate that gave a 1900 date.

Before my initial interview was over, it was Billie who brought up her relationship with Hughes.  She never broached the age question.  When I asked her to help me clarify her birth year for the record, Billie bristled. “A woman who would tell her age would tell anything,” she said.  “Even my husbands never knew how old I was.”

It was worse for poor Mae Murray, who  not only forgot her birthday, but also a few husbands along the way. Imagine Jane Ardmore, who worked with Mae on her biography, The Self Enchanted, having to write the life of her subject without mentioning a single date in connection with the star. (Incidentally, my upcoming biography, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, mentions the dates and other details that Mae tried to forget. Look for the book this fall.)

By the time Mae’s film career ended, she’d moved the year of her birth clear up to 1898, which meant she would have appeared in the Follies of 1908 when she was 10 years old!

When Liliane Marie Madeleine Carré, who became Lili Damita, came to the United States, she left four years back in France. She came up with 1908 as her birth year — and stuck with it. It was actually 1904.

Lili Damita and husband Errol Flynn

When she married Allen R. Loomis in 1962, she gave 1908 as her year of birth. That date is also listed on her death certificate.

Lili Damita's application for a Social Security number

Lili surprisingly used 1908 on her application for a Social Security number. I always wanted to ask her whether she had to wait an additional four years before she started receiving benefits. If I had interviewed her, which sadly I didn’t, that would have been the question I would have held to the end.

Somewhere in the 1990s, when actress Jean Porter was driving me to Mary Brian’s home for our afternoon interview, Jean cautioned me about bringing up two subjects: Mary’s 1941 marriage to Jon Whitcomb and her age.  Through the census, I had determined that Mary was born in 1906.  Mary preferred 1908.  “Oh, Michael,” Jean said driving down Ventura Boulevard, “let Mary be whatever age she wants to be.”

Interviewing Mary Brian. No, I didn't get to the touchy question about her year of birth.

Film historian Roi Uselton, who never told me his real birth date, often told the story about actress Mae Busch. “I lied so many times  about my age, that I forgot exactly how old I was,” she said. “So, I went to the courthouse to look it up, and it was worse than I thought!”

Roi, who was a stickler for details, reminded me that it is the body of work and their contribution to films that really matters, not when they came into the world. Roi had a point, I suppose, but these are the kinds of details that I find fascinating. I love researching, digging through files and records, with the purpose of correcting the film history books. For me, these details set the context of the story. These esoteric facts are the icing on the cake, the butter on the popcorn!

The question of Billie Dove’s birth date nagged me for years. When she died in 1997, her daughter, Gail, gave 1901 as the birth year of her mother–that’s the date used on her death certificate and in obituaries. For years, I had a 1920 census record that gave Billie’s age as 16. Doing the math, taking into account Billie’s May birth month and the date the census was taken, I concluded the year was 1903.

The 1920 U.S. Federal Census for Lillian Bohny (Billie Dove).

The other day, I was digging around in the New York City birth index and came across the entry for Bertha Bohny, Billie’s birth name. It was as I suspected: May 14, 1903.

Billie Dove's entry in the New York City Birth Registry

With my own birthday coming up in a matter of days and the realization that I’m getting rather “long in the tooth,” I’m considering adjusting my own year of  birth. What’s a year or two here and there?

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.

 

Dove Tales — Tinseltown, Here I Come!

In early 1933, silent film Billie Dove actress ducked out of sight after her public affair with Howard Hughes several years before.

Billie Dove, once referred to as the Elizabeth Taylor of the 1920s.

Billie slipped away with her current flame, rancher Robert “Bob” Kenaston. She was away for over three months. When her train stopped in Chicago, Billie and Lee Heidorn, her fan club president, met for the first time.

That March, rather than traveling across country to Los Angeles, Billie and Bob sailed on the SS. President Van Buren. Also on board were Billie’s friends, Dixie Lee Crosby, and Sue (Carol) and Nick Stuart.

Other than promoting her films, Billie almost never used her professional name. She opted for her birth name: Lillian Bohny.

In this manifest, Billie surprisingly uses her real year of birth, 1903.

When she had settled down from her trip, Billie caught up with Lee.

A dog lover since childhood, Billie also sent along a photo of the entire family.

Billie and her children: Scotty, Stingy, and Lassie.

 

In mid-May 1933, Billie and her handsome rancher drove to the Arizona-California border and tied the knot in Yuma. The news made front-page headlines.

After honeymooning in Palm Springs, Billie and Bob went to work on a new home. By Christmas, the newlyweds had settled in.

While she never made it official, Billie retired from the screen.  In 1934, she gave birth to a son, Robert Jr.

Finally, in 1935, Lee and her sister, Doris, made the trip of a lifetime. They boarded the Union Pacific’s Pathfinder on September 14, 1935. They were Hollywood bound! They stopped in Salt Lake City for a short stopover. Lee picks up the story.

♥  ♥  ♥

Continuing on to Los Angeles, we were met at the train by Billie Dove and her husband, Bob Kenaston. This was our first introduction to Bob, who is more handsome than many of the best looking actors. Billie was dressed in white silk slacks and a yellow blouse, and she looked more beautiful than ever. They piled us in their car and we were off to spend a few days with them in their lovely home on the California Riviera.

Passing through Los Angeles, we found ourselves on Hollywood Boulevard, where Billie pointed out many spots of interest, including the Chinese and Pantages theaters, Sardis, the Brown Derby, the famous Trocadero Cafe and the Kings Club. Soon we were in Beverly Hills, and Bob drove around through some lovely drives and past many beautiful homes, including Jean Harlow’s gorgeous mansion.

Arriving at the Kenaston home, Billie showed us around, and then up to Bob’s room, which was to be ours during our stay there. She asked us to wait there a few minutes, and when she returned, we were introduced to their pride and joy, nineteen month old Robert Allan Kenaston. Bobby is a grand, healthy little youngster who looks much like his handsome Daddy.

Billie (Dove) and Bob Kenaston at the Swimming Club in Santa Monica

Then, after cleaning up and getting into our slacks–we were losing no time in “going Hollywood,” Billie took us down to the lovely Santa Monica Swimming Club for lunch while Bob went off for a round of golf. Arriving at the club, the first person we saw was Sam Hardy. While at lunch, we were joined by Bob’s brother, Jack, who is a swelll guy. Out on the porch, we could see Jackie Coogan,William Janney, and our old friend, Arthur Lake. 

 

Bob, Billie, and Lee

Bob, Billie, and Lee


Lunch over, we went outside, where Billie called Arthur over to us, and he was so surprised to see us. We chatted with him for a few minutes and then went down and lie on the sands and talked for awhile. Soon, two more of Bob’s brothers came over–he has five–and we were introduced to Gordon and Bill. As we were leaving the club to go for a drive, we met Bill Kenaston’s lovely wife, and a house guest of theirs, Bing Muller. 

Billie and Lee's sister, Doris

Billie drove us up through Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Bel Air where we saw many more beautiful homes, including those of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Barbara Stanwyck, Neil Hamilton, and Colleen Moore. From there, Billie took us over to see her mother, who has a lovely new home. We visited there for awhile and then went back to the Swimming Club, where we saw Jean Carmen, one of last year’s Wampas Baby Stars, who is lovely. Bob joined us then and we again piled into the car and drove down Ocean Highway past Marion Davies’ enormous beach house, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, and many other beautiful beach homes down to Malibu Beach. 

After a grand dinner, two of Billie and Bob’s friends, Mr. and Mrs. Rex Keller–he is a well-known inventor–came over and we all piled into their car and went down to Ocean Park, which is an amusement park located right on the ocean. There, Bill, Caroline, Gordon, and Bing Muller joined us and we started on a hilarious tour of the park–going through spooky houses, on exciting rides, driving midget machine automobiles with me beating everyone around the track. Billie said that I won only because everyone was afraid to try to get ahead of me. Billie got off a ride before the end because she knew what was coming–but we could take it! Thence home and to bed–and we were all tired. It had been a hectic, but grand day.

The next day, we again spent at the club, just resting on the sands, acquiring a nice suntan and playing pinochle. Arriving home for dinner, we found that Mother and Dad had arrived in L.A.–they’d left home a week before we did but we didn’t know whether they would get as far as California. After dinner, Billie and Bob drove us into Hollywood to Lina Basquette’s home, where Mom and Dad were going to be that evening.

Lina Basquette (second from right) with Lee and Doris in the Hollywood Hills

Lee (R) first met Lina Basquette (beside Lee) in Danville, Illinois, where Lina was appearing in a play.

Lina autographed this still when she was married to cameraman Pev Marley, her second husband.

They dropped us there at the lovely Italian-styled home that Lina and her husband, Teddy Hayes, had rented, and said they’d be back for us in a few hours. We heard all about the folk’s trip, told them of our experiences, and had a grant chat with Lina and Teddy, peeked in on little Eddy (their son), and then Billie and Bob stopped in for a little while before talking us back to Santa Monica with them.

Doris Heidorn and Billie Dove at the Kenaston home.

We took little Bobby down to the club with us the following day, and he was so cute as he waded into the ocean, of course, he held tight to his mamma’s hand. Then, after his nurse took him home, we settled down on the beach for our card game–this time it was Hearts. Saw Cary Grant, clad only in white shorts walking down the beach, and he’s very, very handsome.

Mother and Dad came down to the Club after they had lunched in Hollywood at the Brown Derby with Lina. They visited with us on the beach and then back to the house so they could see Bobby. After we left, we had dinner and then drove into Hollywood to look for an apartment for the remainder of our stay. We found a nice place just three blocks from Hollywood and Vine, the heart of Hollywood. The next morning, Bob, Billie, and Bobby drove us to our new home. Bob was going on a hunting trip that afternoon, so we wished him luck, and thanked them for being such grand hosts, and said au revoir for the time being.

(To be continued)


Dove Tails — Meeting Jean Harlow and other Adventures of a Fan Club President

Not long after Lee Heidorn took over the running of Billie Dove’s fan club, she met one of her all-time favorite movie stars.  Living in Chicago afforded Lee the opportunity to meet many who were making personal appearances along with the opening of their pictures. Said Lee,  “It was surprising to find that very few of them refused to see you when you went backstage to see them. Those I met on personal appearances were people like John Boles, Mary Brian, the Boswell Sisters, Jackie Cooper, Esther Ralston, Bing Crosby, Buddy Rogers, and Mary Pickford, who had a group of us up to her hotel suite for tea!”

Lee had written to Jean Harlow after seeing her in Hell’s Angels. The blonde bombshell wrote back almost immediately and enclosed a signed portrait. A few weeks later, Lee received a telegram from Jean, asking her to visit her when she was making a personal appearance at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

The ever-gracious Jean Harlow

“Nervous I was when I was escorted to her dressing room while she was on stage,” Lee recalled. “As soon as she came off stage, she rushed up to her dressing room to see me. We had a grand visit and when it came time for me to leave, she came down with me and the doorman took pictures of us. Later, every time she and her mother came through Chicago, I would get a telegram from her and while our visits were necessarily short, I’ll never forget them.

“After one of our visits, Jean went on to New York. She sent me a beautiful white-beaded evening bag from Magnin. She even wrote a letter on the day she married Paul Bern, and later, sent me a piece of her wedding cake. After Jean died, her mother would call me and send me gifts when she’d pass through Chicago. Jean is one of my fondest memories.”

In the meantime, Lee got business with Billie’s fan club, which was operated much like the other fan clubs of the day, said Lee.

Lee operated Billie Dove's fan club from her little home office in Chicago

 

“Most of them were sponsored by the stars. They would provide an autographed photo and would usually write a letter to go along with a club letter or magazine. Since this was the Depression, these magazines were not on a regular basis since the president usually had to pay for them.”

A 1932 issue of Dove Tales, the official organ of the Billie Dove Fan Club

 

Letters from Billie and Lee to fan club members

“In my day,” Lee remembered, “running the club was usually at the expense of the club president, helped by minimal  dues (usually a couple of dollars a year) and sometimes the star would make a small donation. At that time, the stars were proud of their clubs and I found proof in that, not only in my association of Billie Dove, but of those other stars whom I became acquainted with at that highlight time of my life.”

Billie graciously added photographs to Lee's collection

In 1933, a group of clubs that were located in Chicago formed the Movie Club Guild. “We published a beautiful magazine called The Audience. Billie and her new husband, Robert Kenaston, were on the cover of our first issue. Presidents of the clubs wrote articles about their ‘stars’ and had interviews with others when they were in Chicago. For a couple of years, we had a so-called fan club convention, and presidents from clubs around the country came.”

After that first convention, Billie wrote Lee a letter congratulating her on the accomplishment and inviting her to visit her in California.  That invitation from Billie started Lee to seriously consider a trip West to meet her favorite Hollywood movie stars.

Billie congratulates Billie on the First Annual Convention of movie fan clubs

Billie offers Lee a personal invitation to visit her in Hollywood

In my next post, Lee recounts her adventures in Hollywood!

 

Dove Tales – How Lenore Became Billie’s Fan Club President

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.”

"To you, Lenore, from me."

♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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.

Lee and Michael in December 1994

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.)

My first Italian love affair -- with Venice!

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!

Michael and Billie, December 1994

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).

Billie with Kenneth Thomson in The Other Tomorrow.

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.

Billie (top left) looks like she'd rather be any place but in the same photo as her husband, Irvin Willat (lower left), and Howard Hughes (beside Willat).

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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.”

Billie welcomes Lee as her new fan club president