Obituary: Billie Dove

Kevin Brownlow
Wednesday 14 January 1998 00:02

Lillian Bohny (Billie Dove), actress: born New York 14 May 1903; married 1923 Irvin Willat (marriage dissolved 1929), 1933 Robert Kenaston (died 1973; one son, one adopted daughter), 1973 John Miller (marriage dissolved); died Woodland Hills, California 31 December 1997.

Billie Dove was one of the greatest stars of the silent days of Hollywood. At the end of the 1920s she was voted, with Clara Bow, as America's most popular actress, and at the box office exceeded even the drawing power of Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo. The singer Billie Holliday named herself after her.

Billie Dove was born Lillian Bohny in New York City in 1903. (Her brother, Charles, became a cameraman in Hollywood.) Her parents were Swiss immigrants. She visited Switzerland as a child, and spoke German before she spoke English. Her parents were Lutheran and their church organised sports events; the girls on the basketball team called her "Billie". The family lived far from the theatre district, but nearby was an open-air movie house, known as an Airdome. Here she was entranced by serials and was smitten by Bobby Harron in The Birth of a Nation.

"I had always liked the movies," she told the film historian William Drew. "All of the girls wanted to be in the movies. I didn't want to be. I knew I was going to be. I'm not psychic, but there have been instances in my life when I have been absolutely sure of something and this was one of them."

A neighbour worked as an extra at Fort Lee, across the Hudson from New York City, and Billie's mother had her registered at the studios. One of her first appearances was in Joan of Plattsburg (1918), a Mabel Normand picture. The director instructed her to rush up to her brother and kiss him. She couldn't wait for the picture to come out so she could surprise her friends. As it happened the surprise was hers; the cameraman had merely photographed her legs.

Billie was an exceptionally beautiful girl, and was in great demand as a model by such eminent artists as Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomery Flagg, who called her "The Dove" because she was so lovely yet so shy. "Billie Dove" soon became her professional name.

The impresario Florenz Ziegfeld saw her portrait in an advertisement and called her for an audition. Still determined to break into pictures, Billie haughtily informed him that she had no interest in being a chorus girl, so Ziegfeld gave her a featured role. Her timing could not have been more propitious. Eddie Cantor, the star of Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, had gone on strike with many of the girls and Ziegfeld had to replace them in a hurry.

On the opening night, Billie was met at the stage door not by a suitor carrying flowers but by her mother. Billie told her firmly that she knew how to get home on her own, and her mother never did that again. Yet it was one of the few hints she ever had of her concern. Her parents displayed no affection towards her or towards each other. They had separated before she entered show business and neither of them revealed to her the facts of life. The result was that she was dangerously naive; at the onset of her periods, she was convinced she was dying. Alarmed by what she heard from her far more sophisticated showgirl friends, Billie decided to avoid sexual encounters until she was married.

Ziegfeld she considered a kind man, but he had a firm rule that any girl moonlighting in pictures would be fired. Billie took the risk of playing an extra role to help another girl who had double-booked. The film people offered her more substantial parts and she resigned from the Follies. She met a press agent who exploited her Ziegfeld training by booking her in for personal appearances with her pictures. The scheme led to a year's contract with Metro, and a platonic relationship with one of the heads of the studio, Joe Engel.

Her second picture for that company was All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923), with Lon Chaney. The director was Irvin Willat; he had fallen for Billie Dove from his first glimpse in the Follies. Willat was the Sam Peckinpah of his day; he had won notoriety for a propaganda film in which a U-boat commander was skinned alive. He cast Dove in this whaling story, shot in San Francisco Bay.

"We were on location for a whole month and all the way back it was marry me, marry me, marry me, marry me," a million times until I finally said "yes" just to stop him. But I liked him - I liked everybody.'

On her next picture, at Fox, her leading man was John Gilbert, who would eventually succeed Valentino as the Great Lover. He also entreated her to marry him. "I said, `Sure', not kidding exactly, but, of course, I wouldn't have married him. I wouldn't have married any actor, as a matter of fact, no matter how much I liked them. But he took it seriously." When Gilbert was reconciled with his wife, Leatrice Joy, the producer Paul Bern was despatched to break the news. Billie Dove couldn't have cared less. She was having the time of her life.

She and Willat were married in 1923. "We were fine," she said, ambiguously, "but it was not the sort of love you have in marriage." She spent much of her time in the Mojave Desert, making westerns with cowboy stars like Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Jack Holt. "Whenever one western was finished, they'd say, `Where is Billie Dove?' and the next day I'd be in another one. It didn't make any difference to me. I was in motion pictures and I loved it."

In 1925, while making Wild Horses Mesa (with a 15-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jnr), she met the famous author Zane Grey. "He wrote me a beautiful letter in which he said that I was so much like his favourite character."

The previous year, Dove had starred in Zane Grey's Wanderer of the Wasteland, directed by Willat and shot entirely in two-colour Technicolor. It was this picture which led to her most celebrated role in another early Technicolor film, The Black Pirate (1926), directed by Al Parker. Douglas Fairbanks had wanted Evelyn Brent or Esther Ralston - there was even talk of his using a non- professional - but he was so impressed with the way her flawless complexion photographed in colour that he gave her the part. "All I did was stand round and look scared, but it was a good picture, really good. The colour in it was so beautiful. Every scene was a work of art."

Mary Pickford, then married to Fairbanks, would not permit him to kiss any of his leading ladies in a picture, and she stepped in, wearing Dove's costume, for the final clinch.

Her next picture was at Universal - The Marriage Clause (1926), directed by Lois Weber, one of Hollywood's few women directors. "I'd never heard of her before, but she was the best director I ever had. If I'd had anything to say about it, I would have had her direct all my pictures." She was rewarded by exceptional reviews.

Weber also directed Sensation Seekers (1926), in which she played a flapper. To the amusement of the crew, it turned out that Dove did not smoke and had to be taught how; unfortunately this was enough to hook her on nicotine. Willat was a fanatical anti-smoker and it helped to break up the marriage.

After working with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow in Kid Boots (1926), Billie made a picture for Harry Cohn - "it was the first picture Columbia could get into a big house, not because of me, but because of Bert Lytell". By this time, all the studios were after her. She considered MGM, but realised she would be playing the same roles as Norma Shearer. So she signed with First National. It was generally assumed in Hollywood that she was to play the lead as the world's most beautiful woman in Alexander Korda's satire The Private Life of Helen of Troy, but he gave the role to his wife, Maria. She was hardly convincing, and Korda returned to Billie Dove for three more pictures with much more success. The New York Times critic, Mordaunt Hall, wrote that she played in these films with "considerable,charm and intelligence".

In one month she received 37,320 fan letters, beating Clara Bow's record. But she discovered that stardom meant brutally long hours - she often had to stay at the studio until midnight and be up next morning at five. Her marriage came under further strain. "We never had any big fight. Still it wasn't a passionate love affair. So we had a sensible agreement to separate and I went to live with my mother."

One of Hollywood's myths alleges that Billie Dove was a casualty of sound, but she made the transition so well that First National extended her contract. She made a total of 11 talkies.

She had legions of admirers. Marion Davies, mistress of William Randolph Hearst and another Follies veteran, introduced her to Howard Hughes, a multi-millionaire industrialist, movie producer and aviation enthusiast who was still only 22. The tall, gangly young man simply stared at her. "I thought, `Good God! is this the guy they're talking about who's making Hell's Angels?' I was glad when he left the table."

Dove only realised he was serious when he appeared at every nightspot she went to. "Then I got to know him and found out that he was brilliant, charming and had a lovely sense of humour." Willat, however, refused to give Billie Dove a divorce - "I was very much in love with my wife," he said. "She was a great girl. My friend [Hughes] decided he wanted her,and he had so much more money than I did and I think she did much better. She never married him of course. It was better for her but worse for me, because she had so much to do with helping me."

In 1930, in one of the most extraordinary transactions in Hollywood history, Hughes paid Willat $325,000 in thousand-dollar bills to give Billie a divorce. "I begged Howard not to," said Billie Dove, "but there was nothing I could do once he gave the money to Irvin. I felt like I'd been bought and sold."

Dove had become dissatisfied with her pictures at First National. Howard Hughes bought up her contract but her first picture for him, The Age for Love (1931), was an embarrassing flop. She was happier with Cock of the Air (1932), which exploited her talent for comedy. Alas, the Hays Office found it too risque and insisted on savage and damaging cuts, and this flopped as well. Some historians consider that Hughes ruined her career.

After three years they split up. Dove steadfastly refused to reveal why. "It had nothing to do with any man and nothing to do with any woman - it was really such a tiny thing that you wouldn't believe it if I told you." Hughes is said to have regarded her as the love of his life and they remained on friendly terms.

She had never flown with Hughes, being afraid of aeroplanes, but now she took flying lessons. She met Robert Kenaston, a handsome young millionaire rancher, who invited her on a round-the-world trip. On her return, she was persuaded by Irving Thalberg to play with Marion Davies in Blondie of the Follies (1932). She regarded her part as the best of her career, but when the picture was run for Mr Hearst, he growled, "Well, it's a good Billie Dove picture". Panic followed this verdict; the finale was scrapped, writers were offered to change the story to boost Marion Davies's part and Billie's role was transformed. "When it was finished I was the heavy and I never played a heavy in my life. I think I would have sued but Marion and Mr Hearst were my friends and I couldn't do that to them."

Blondie of the Follies was Billie Dove's last picture, although she insisted that her retirement was not the result of that disappointment. She married Bob Kenaston in 1933 and her son, Robert Allen Kenaston, became an actor. She adopted a daughter, Gail.

Dividing her time between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Dove took up painting and writing. She was an avid reader, she had met Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at the Willat house and Dorothy Parker had inscribed a book; "To Billie Dove - God loves her, I do, too!" She was also fascinated by poetry. She took a course in creative writing at UCLA and became a successful author under the name Lillian Kenaston. She received many awards; the one that amused her most she received in 1962 for an advertising slogan. Her first prize was a small part in a movie.

- Kevin Brownlow

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