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 — 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!