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.
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.
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 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.”
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 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.
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?