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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Barbara Kent: My Last Silent Film Interview

Barbara Kent was the last of the silent personalities that I had the pleasure of interviewing. I thought she might the final one, because there was pratically no one else living that I hadn’t already spoken with.

My favorite Barbara Kent photograph.

Since Barbara never talked to anyone about her career, I had little faith that she would talk to me. She did! It turned out to be her only extensive interview after her career ended in the 1930s. Barbara was very generous with her time and photographs.

I wrote extensively about Barbara and our interview in my book, The Sound of Silence, but I wanted to share some details with you  around the interview and some of her memorable quotes.

Next month will mark the one year anniversary of Barbara’s death at 103. Here is her obituary. I had intended to publish this entry in mid-October, but, alas, this time next month, I will be bound for Morocco (not Bound in Morocco, as in the silent film) for a long, much needed excursion. As it turns out, sharing this information with you today is perfect.

Last week,  The New York Times had an article about the release of one of Barbara’s finest films, Lonesome.  Check it out. It’s one my Christmas wishlist.

With Glenn Tryon in Lonesome.

I contacted Barbara Kent by mail at her home in Palm Desert in 1996. I was doing some research on her film with Marie Dressler, Emma (1932), and wanted to ask the former actress what memories she had about the film. I told her that I would call on such-and-such a day and time. I made it a practice to never call anyone without first testing the waters. (Well, Billie Dove was an exception, but that’s another story).

On the appointed day, I rang the number. Barbara’s husband, Jack, answered the phone.  Barbara was expecting my call, he said, but she was out on the greens playing a round of golf.  I was to call back later in the evening and she would be happy to chat.

Before that, however, Jack wanted to tell me about the woman he’d called his wife for over 40 years.

“She’s amazing,” he said. “You should see some of her pictures now. This coming year, she will be 90. She plays golf three times a week. When we’re in Washington (they had a home there) in the summer, she goes crabbing with me. She’s the most agile gal you ever saw.”

Barbara Kent Monroe

Not long before they married, Jack taught Barbara how to fly a plane. “I was a flyer. Barbara said to me, ‘I’ve got to learn to fly if we’re going to get married.’ I gave her some lessons and she was flying before I knew it.”

Jack didn’t remember Barbara from the movies.  He didn’t recall ever seeing her on the silver sheet. In fact, when they met, Barbara wasn’t anxious to talk about those years. Her first husband, Harry Edington, died in 1949. Edington, an agent for such stars as Garbo, John Gilbert, and Marlene Dietrich, was her final connection to Hollywood. She put the movie business behind her and rarely talked about the flickers.

“It’s so long ago. You forget all those things when you’re not with picture people any more, and I haven’t been with them in ages,” Barbara explained to me early in our conversation.

Barbara Cloutman had her parents to thank for getting her into the movies. They’d moved to Hollywood from a small town in Canada when Barbara was a teenager.

“There was a beauty contest and my folks sent my picture in to the newspaper and didn’t tell me,” she said.  “I won the contest.”

Barbara wins the contest.

Part of the responsibility of winning the contest was modeling a piece of jewelry for a Hollywood department store. Agent Paul Kohner introduced himself and invited her to Universal for a screen test. The rest, as they say, is history.

Her first film was Prowlers of the Night (1926), a Western with Fred Humes.

Barbara Kent in her first film, Prowlers of the Night, with Fred Humes.

Then she was loaned to MGM, where director Clarence Brown cast her as Hertha in Flesh and the Devil (1927). The film became a personal favorite.

Barbara, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, and Lars Hanson in Flesh and the Devil.

“John Gilbert was very nice to work with,” Barbara recalled.  “Garbo was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.  She was absolutely gorgeous. She was a very quiet person. More than aloof, she was shy. So was I.  I was very timid.”

The cast of Flesh and the Devil.

Clarence Brown, the director, was especially patient with his star. “He directed her (Garbo) in a whisper,” Barbara said. “He was so careful with her. That’s the way he directed all of us. He had the same style when he directed me in Emma. He was a quiet man anyway.”

Her other two favorite films were comedies with Harold Lloyd: Welcome Danger (1929) and Feet First (1930). They met at a party after Christmas in 1928.

With Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger (1929).

“I remember him standing up beside me,” Barbara recalled. “I didn’t know why. Afterwards, I realized he was sizing me up to see how tall I was, because he wasn’t a very tall men himself.  I’m only 5′ 2”.

Welcome Danger was shot as a silent film when talkies were revolutionizing the industry. Fearing it would be a box office failure, Lloyd had the cast dub dialogue straight into the film.

Another scene from Welcome Danger.

“Lloyd was very easy going, and as an independent producer, if something went wrong, we just did it over and over until we got it right,” she said.

After her contract ended, Barbara began freelancing. Her career took a downward turn in the early 1930s. “I preferred being under contact,” she said. “You didn’t have to worry about working or getting a job.”

Barbara Kent, early 1930s.

After she left Universal, she missed the family atmosphere at the studio.  “Carl Laemmle was a very nice man. He spoke quite broken English in a German accent, but he was very nice and respectful of me.”

Freelancing, Barbara found herself working in low-budget films on Poverty Row. After she met and married Harry Edington, Barbara worked in a handful of other films.

She called it quits in 1941 after her work in Under Age.

“It was a short career, and I was never terribly enthusiastic about being an actress,” Barbara admitted. “I think I was too shy. You have to be an exhibitionist to be in pictures.  That wasn’t me.”

Barbara Kent, 1927.

Barbara Kent was a patient interview subject, but about 30 minutes into our second conversation, she called a halt to further reminiscing that day. “Please excuse me, but I really have to go.” She was late for a hair appointment, after which she was meeting friends for dinner at the country club.  They were friends who never knew she once had a career in Hollywood.

When I asked about photographs, Barbara said she had boxes of stills out in the garage.  “I’ll make it a point to get out there and dig some out for you.” She did!  I’m sharing many of these in this blog. They are from her personal collection.

I’ve included the highlights of my conversation with Barbara Kent in this entry.  To read the full story, including her memories of working with Gloria Swanson in Indiscreet, check out The Sound of Silence.

Barbara, Gloria Swanson, and Arthur Lake in Indiscreet (1931)

Barbara Kent’s biographical sheet at MGM.

The Sound of Silence is Reviewed

I’m always appreciative to those who read my books and offer their feedback, especially when they review the book for a newspaper, magazine, or website. Here is a review by Laura Wagner for the May 2012 edition of Classic Images.

And, just for the record, I’m pleased to read those reviews that are not so positive. I believe in the old Mae West saying:

“It is better to be looked over, than overlooked.”

Thanks, Laura!

Dove Tales – Let’s Go!

Dove Tales was the official organ of the Billie Dove Fan Club, an organization that had its roots in the late 1920s.

Dedicated to one of Hollywood’s most ravishing movie stars of the 1920s, Billie Dove, the club remained in existence until the death of its long-time president, Lenore Heidorn Foote, in 1999.

My favorite Billie Dove portrait... well, one of my favorites!

Lenore, or Lee (as her friends called her), dubbed her friendship with Billie one of the longest that Hollywood ever birthed and fostered. After my 1994 interview with Billie for my book, The Sound of Silence, Lee contacted me with her stories. The next time I ventured to the Coast, I spent the day with Billie in Rancho Mirage and an afternoon with Lee at her home in Vista, California.

Within the next several months or so, I want to share with you the story of the friendship between Billie Dove and her fan club president. I’ll call this series, Dove Tales, after the fan club newsletter. I want to share the story of how a starstruck youngster from Chicago became the fan club president for one of the most beautiful stars Hollywood has ever known.

In the course of my series, I’ll share with you Lee’s firsthand account of traveling to Hollywood in 1934 and how she was entertained by Billie and scores of other “picture people.” Her diary is fascinating, I think, especially for those of us who feel we somehow belonged in that bygone era.

Billie and Lee

While sharing Lee’s story, I will also sprinkle in some of my own recollections of Billie and Lee.  For instance, here is an anecdote that didn’t make it into my book. Billie and I were on the phone one evening when the subject came around to Greta Garbo. Billie had a story.

“We were at a party of the Mayfair Club, which had the Ritz in New York and the Biltmore in Los Angeles as its headquarters. The professional people (film stars) were there. The doors opened and there stood Garbo. We were such fans of hers–all of us!  She was so outstanding as far as we were concerned. We didn’t look at her at all. We didn’t want her to feel any different. We wanted her to have fun. She had a good time. Then, it so happened that she and I left at the same time. They didn’t have parking boys at the time, so our escorts went to get the cars. Garbo and I just looked at each other. Finally, she came over to me, put out her hand, and said, ‘I am Garbo.’ I replied, ‘I am Dove!’  Imagine her thinking that no one saw her or recognized her.”

Like Billie, Lee was a great storyteller. You will recognize many of the stars she encountered on her adventures in Hollywood: Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Lina Basquette, Ruth Roland, Ivan Lebedeff, and others.

Here’s the letter that Billie mailed to Lee in preparation of Lee’s trip to Hollywood.

Letter to Lee Heidorn from Billie (Dove) Kenaston

 

Happy New Year, everyone!  I’m looking forward to journeying back with you to Hollywood of the 1930s —  in 2012.  Let’s go!