Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand





At 19, Howard Hughes father died (his mother had died earlier); he inherited a majority interest in the family company. Hughes bought the rest of the shares from his relatives. He married Ella Rice of Houston Texas in June 1925.  He completed his education at Rice Institute in Houston.  Moving to Hollywood he broke into moviemaking but Ella didn’t share his interest and they were divorced in 1929.

In public, Hughes was often seen with the star of the day − like Marian Marsh.  Then he became interested in one of the most beautiful figures of any of the “first ladies of the screen” She was Billie Dove.  Like so many young stars the Publicity Department at the Studios created early life, ages, family. For the record:  Billie was born on May 14, 1903; her name at birth was Bertha Bohny, her mother's name, but called Lillian Bohny--she legalized the name change in 1923 and "Billie Dove" was always a stage name. Her first films were actually made at Ft Lee but the names have been lost; one we do know about was a role in Polly of the Follies which starred Connie Talmadge.  Billie had in fact been in Ziegfeld’s the Midnight Frolic" on the Roof in 1920 at that time she was just 17.  Oh yes, one more lovely fact that Billie Dove  told the writer and film historian, William Drew; …she recalls, working in a film starring Mabel Normand made at Ft Lee, NJ  which, she believed, was "Joan of Plattsburg" in 1918.  Billie was married to Irvin Willat, the director; Billie divorced him when she met Howard.  Howard was enthusiastic about moviemaking and made plans for lavish scale films and saw less and less of Billie.  He was releasing his pictures through United Artists.  Howard and Billie made 2 films together Cock of the Air and The Age for Love. 

Billie had heard the stories about Howard’s casting couch how true the stories were is hard to tell in the Time Magazine dated December 21, 1970 they reported that it was said that in private,…”he had a habit of visiting many “starlets the − young, eager, and not too prudish unknowns. Hughes called them ‘crows,’ he once boasted that he had deflowered 200 virgins in Hollywood; the wonder was that he could find so many in Hollywood”.   And the “known” movies stars we know of included: Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Linda Darnell, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, and Ida Lupino.

Billie moved on and found another millionaire, Robert Kennston; they were married in May of 1933 and had a son she named Robert and she retired from films completely. In a 1962 AP article by Bob Thomas described her …. “Billie Dove is still a stunner.  The hair is white now, but the face is still smooth and faultless, the figure trim, the ankles slim.”

Billie died at the age of over 95! Howard went on to become very, very rich and very, very strange and of course have many more women in his life but Billie was the American Beauty that walked away.    

 information from:

1931 March 29, The Helena MT Daily Independent by Dan thomas

1932 March 26, Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune by A/P

1933 May 5, Nevada State Journal by U/P

1938 July 19, The Daily Courier Connellsville PA by Wallace X Rawles of Central Press

1962 May 18, The Eagle Gazette by Bob Thomas of A/P

1970 December 21 Time Magazine

private papers of Wiliam Drew, 2006 

and personal notes and letters from Howard Hughes to Billie Dove



The information in this article has a few inaccuracies but is very reflective on the type of errors that the media (press) generally make.

Love Letters by Howard Hughes to Billie Dove

This dark-eyed, wavy-haired beauty was born Lillian Bohny at New York City in 1901 and entered show business at age 15 after being an artist's model. Flo Ziegfeld discovered her and by age 16, Billie was a featured "Ziegfeld Girl" making the incredible sum of $50 a week. In 1920, she made her first movie; it was well received and she made 43 additional movies in the next decade. One of the most beautiful girls on the screen, she was known as the "American Beauty," the title of one of her starring films in 1927. In her heyday, she was ranked with Clara Bow and Colleen Moore in popularity and often surpassed Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and even Greta Garbo as a box-office draw.

During this same period, Howard Hughes was a young film producer, a millionaire from his family's business. Fate intervened one night in early 1929 when Howard and Billie met on the Starlight dance floor of the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. 

It was love at first sight and for the next few years they were one of the most talked-about couples in America. Dove's marriage was already coming to a close when they met, as was Hughes'. He arranged to pay off both spouses in exchange for uncontested divorces, freeing Hughes and Dove to marry. Why did they never marry? Theories point toward Hughes' philandering and his extreme jealousy that would eventually doom the relationship. Miss Dove kept all these letters below for more than 60 years. She obviously treasured them and her memories. Hughes spoke regularly and lovingly of Miss Dove for many years, often to the consternation of other lovers. Hughes truly loved the "American Beauty" and considered her his soul mate. Many of Hughes' friends have said that Billie Dove was the love of his life.












Heritage Auction House















updated 02 18 2012