So lately I’ve been investigating two of the most overlooked stars of the silent era, Norma and Constance Talmadge, and their sister Natalie (Buster Keaton’s first wife). While Norma and Constance were once wildly popular, critically praised, and well-liked by their Hollywood co-stars, they’ve become surprisingly obscure. And unfortunately, a kind of bizarre mythology has grown up around all three sisters–a mythology that’s painted them as cold, snobby, and somewhat scheming (mainly in pretty much every Buster Keaton book ever, unfortunately).
From what I can see, much of this is due to Anita Loos’s gossipy, jumbled book The Talmadge Girls, published in 1978, otherwise known as “several years after all the Talmadges were safely dead.” It’s been decades since the silent era, many books have been written about every silent star imaginable, and yet this–this–is still the only book available on the Talmadges.
…Or is it? Ah, my friends, there was one other book, published in 1924, called The Talmadge Sisters: Norma, Constance, Natalie, written by their mother Margaret “Peg” Talmadge. It’s difficult to find but well worth a read (I recommend doing an interlibrary loan). Whether it was ghostwritten under the family’s watchful eye or whether Peg did sit down at her typewriter is hard to tell, but it’s quite fascinating, released as it was during the heights of the girls’ careers and giving us their detailed story decades before folks like Loos got their hands on it. The style can be sentimental and romanticized (as all the 1920s “life stories of the stars” books are), but not to the point where I felt the whole thing was complete hokum (unpleasant details, like Peg’s husband abandoning the family, are simply not mentioned).
I’ll have to review it in near future (a double review with the Loos book may be in order), but thought I’d copy down the chapter that fascinated me the most. For such a “cold and snobby” family, as Keaton bios will state, Peg included an entire chapter on her son-in-law Buster and ended it with some pretty thoughtful and generous complements. It also includes much of the old “how Buster got his nickname” kind of lore, and it’s interesting to see how consistent certain stories were throughout his life.
Here it is–hope you enjoy! Any unusual spellings are original to the 1924 book.
NATALIE MARRIES BUSTER KEATON
After our return from Europe, Natalie’s letters and telegrams from Buster became more and more frequent, so that none of us was surprised when, while we were at Palm Beach, where Norma was taking some scenes for one of her pictures, Buster wired Natalie that he would meet her in New York and that she had better be prepared to give an answer to an important question! He then hied himself straightway for the East, notwithstanding an unromantic appearance cause by his having to limp on crutches as he had just been badly injured while doing an escalator “stunt” in one of his comedies.
A few days after his arrival, Natalie made it known that Buster felt just as we all did about the solidarity of our family. She wanted me to understand, I think, in the careful, thoughtful, conscientious manner that is Natalie’s, that while the courtship had been, as Constance teasingly persisted in declaring it, “a mail-order romance,” it was based upon very deep understanding and love.
It was difficult for me to share Natalie’s assurance that “all would be as it had been before.” I knew separations were bound to come, thought I did not dim her happiness by any such prophecies. Buster was–is, I should say–in pictures. His work would inevitably carry him here, there, everywhere, and Natalie, for all her love of us and all her desire to be with us, was too much the domestic type, too much the “whither thou goest, I shall go” kind, to leave him when his call came, to put it dramatically.
The wedding took place on May 31, 1921, at Norma’s country home at Bayside, Long Island, where two years previously, our friends, John Emerson and Anita Loos, had been married.
Norma and Constance designed the wedding gown, and I thought as Natalie stood before the flower-laden altar radiant in her soft bright folds, that perhaps the most beautiful part of it all was the love the sisters had put into the choosing of the dress. The jewels Natalie wore were not as precious as Norma’s quiet tears or Constance’s forced laughter. Of the lump in my own throat I will not speak. Natalie had been very near to me. Together we had watched the other girls mounting their ladders of fame. Behind the scenes, Natalie and I had done our silent parts. Together–that was the thing. Natalie and I. She had been, in a way, the “home girl” of the three. We had planned and discussed, engineered and maneuvered together, when trying in a hundred different ways to smooth the path for Norma and Constance.
But in the main, it was a very happy event. Natalie was married outdoors with the sunshine streaming down on bright faces and bright flowers, and she departed amidst a perfect bombardment of rice, old shoes, kisses, hugs, admonitions and congratulations.
The honeymoon was spent motoring from New York to Los Angeles with occasional stopovers of two or three days along the 3000 mile route. The new machine was a wedding gift from Joe Schenck.
Knowing Natalie’s nature as I do, I feel that she has found the fulfillment of her destiny, quite as truly and perfectly as Constance and Norma have found theirs. Her resolve to stay away from the screen except for occasional appearance in Buster’s pictures enables her to live in harmony and happiness with her husband, and to devote her time too her two boys–little Joseph Talmadge Keaton, affectionately known to our family as Buster, Jr. and Baby Robert.
Buster, Sr., got his name in a rather interesting way. When he was only six months old, Joseph and Myra Keaton, his father and mother, took him on tour with them through the Middle West, where they were appearing on the vaudeville stage. One day, baby Joseph Francis Keaton as he was christened, crawled to the staircase of a little hotel in Kansas City, where his parents were staying, and tumbled headlong down the entire flight of steps. While his mother fainted and his father stood helpless at the top step, another performer on the landing below hastened to “gather the remains.” But to the man’s astonishment the infant not only wasn’t killed, but wasn’t even hurt. He lay on the wooden floor, kicking his little feet and gurgling.
“Upon my soul, that’s some indestructible Buster you’ve got there,” exclaimed the vaudevillian as he handed the baby to his weeping mother.
“By Jove, you’ve said it! I think think we’ll have to keep that name for him,” replied Joseph, St. And from that day on, the Keaton baby was never called anything but Buster.
The man who had returned the youngster to his mother’s arms was Harry Houdini, now known the world over as the hand-cuff king. In later years, Buster often played on the same bills with him.
Buster was born in Pickway, Kansas, but he can never go back to his home town He has made thousands of dollars, and being somewhat sentimentally inclined, would like to buy the house where he was born, but this, too, is impossible No committee of leading citizens will ever greet him with a brass band and a Boy Scout parade to proclaim him Pickway’s most talented son. Buster is truly without a home town. When he was only two months old and already travelling around the country with his parents, a lively young cyclone came along and blew the town of Pickway off the face of the earth. As it was already off the face of the map, nobody thought it of enough importance to build up again.
Buster made his stage debut at the age of four. He had a natural talent for imitations and pantomimes and under his father’s tutelage became the champion child acrobat of the stage. He was particularly skillful in his gymnastic work at learning how to take falls without experiencing the slightest pain or injury. The more his parents threw him around in rough-and-tumble acts the better Buster liked it. He loved to have his father lift him by the little leather trunk handle which was sewed inside Buster’s coat, and nonchalantly drop him half a dozen times, or else hurl him out of the way against any nearby scenery. He was a sort of a baby battering-ram and made such a tremendous success that he soon drew a separate salary check of ten dollars a week, and the name of the act was changed from The Two Keatons to The Three Keatons.
It was sometimes difficult for the public to believe that any youngster thrown from ten to thirty feet could pick himself up without acquiring a single black-and-blue spot. Every now and then, a well meaning member of the Gerry Society or of some similar organization would cause the Keatons to be arrested, and on one occasion the child was even carried before the Governor of the State of New York, and actually stripped in order to prove that he had neither bruises nor broken bones .But the parents always avoided punishment by giving a private demonstration of how it was done.
“In all these years,” says Buster, “only once did I meet with any serious mishap…That occurred on night inn Pittsburgh when I accidentally lost my balance, fell over the footlights and crashed into the middle of the orchestra leader’s violin, smashing it to pieces. The astonished musician picked splinters out of his hand, then lifted my little coat and spanked me with his bow, cursing me all the while in words so explicit that even one of my tender years could not but understand them. .And would you believe it, the audience thought the whole thing a regular part of the act, and fairly howling with mirth, applauded for fully five minutes!”
While they were playing in London, the Keatons appeared on the same bill with Harry Lauder and Sarah Bernhardt. It was little Buster’s great delight to entertain the property boys back stage with amusing imitations of Lauder’s songs and dances, and no one enjoyed the fun more than Lauder himself.
But the great Bernhardt was filled with indignation the first time she watched the Keaton act from the wings.
No parents could be so inhuman. The boy is either a stepson or some poor lad they had kidnapped, she thought, and when Papa Keaton came off the stage she faced him with great indignation in her eyes.
“You ought to have ze great shame,” she declared, “making ze money from ze big cruelty to ze little garçon, you, you…!”
Before Keaton père could recover from his surprise, Keaton fils stepped forward and shaking his little fist in the divine Sarah’s face said stoutly, “I like it. And you let my papa alone, you hear?”
After Madame had seen the act a dozen times and was convinced that it was not “inhuman,” she quite took little Buster under her wing and they became great chums.
Natalie often gets letters from Buster’s screen friends asking if the frozen-faced comedian ever smiles in real life. Well, they should see him with his young sons! Or hear him tell an amusing story in his inimitable way. I’ve seen him keep a whole roomful of people entertained for hours, when he does original songs and dances to his own ukulele accompaniments, or juggles phonograph records, or imitates “wild movie actors I have known.”
Buster never smiles to ingratiate himself with anyone. He looks at strangers straight out of his serious brown eyes in an almost disconcerting fashion. Any vacuous politeness, or banality, ,or hypocrisy seems to be instantly killed under that direct straight-forward stare.
The story of how Buster became smileless dates back to his early days at home His father, being a student of audience psychology, believed that a performer who chuckled at his own antics committed professional suicide as he termed it. He was bent on making a real comedian of his son–one of subtle artistry, not mere slapstick methods–and so he determined to train Buster from earliest childhood to take his work seriously, and never to smile during the progress of the act. If Buster in the course of his tumblings or his recitations, violated the rule, father Keaton would whisper the one word, “Face!” which was the signal for hiss son to remove his grin at once. If this reminder did not have the desired effect, little Buster would be tossed into the wings until he overcame his hilarious tendency. This training in control of the facial muscles, over a period of fourteen years in vaudeville, stood him in good stead when the mournful mirthmaker deserted the stage for the screen. He made his film début in “The Butcher Boy” with Roscoe Arbuckle.
Buster’s pictures are now produced by Joseph Schenck, who is president of Buster’s company. His recent two-reelers have been released through the Associated First National Pictures and his series of five reel comedies is distributed through Metro.
Buster Keaton has always been a great home boy. His devotion to his family was one of the first things to attract Natalie’s admiration. His mother and father, his brother Harry and sister Louise dwell in a delightful bungalow in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. Buster has never been separated from his family for any length of time, except during the war, when he was overseas until five months after the signing of the armistice.
The first heir presumptive to the throne of Keaton, and nephew plenipotentiary of Norma and Constance–not to mention the offhand fact that he is the first grandchild of M.L.T.–was born on Friday evening, June 2, 1922, at precisely seven minutes past seven o’clock, weighing exactly seven pounds. “What’s more,” said his father, the first time he walked the floor with him, “he certainly was born with seven lungs!” Robert the second son was born in February 1924.
Joseph F. Keaton is still in his twenties, yet he has reached the front ranks of film comedians and is famous all round the world. He has brought a new phase of humor to the cinema which is more lasting than the slapstick or sledge-hammer methods of early screen days. Like Charlie Chaplin he blends pathos with foolery. Because laughter is first cousin to tears, and comedy is always stubbing its toes against tragedy, Buster regards all human nature as garbed in the cap and bells of a court jester, and sees beneath the motley a heart that years for sympathy and understanding–a wistful longing such as has constituted a part of the contradictory mental make-up of funny men down the ages. His comedies are always clean and wholesome, and some of the delightful bits that last but the flash of a few seconds on the celluloid, represent prolonged study of human nature.
He is not a great reader, except on practical topics, but he learned through observation and experience, and rarely makes a mistake in his judgments of either men or things. He has a decidedly inventive turn of mind, and Natalie always says he can fix almost anything with a penknife and a piece of twine. His originality is largely responsible for his success. He writes almost all of his own stories, directs his own pictures, devises the greater majority of his own “gags,” and always helps in the titling of his pictures.
Source: Talmadge, Margaret L. The Talmadge Sisters: Norma, Constance, Natalie. Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1924, 173-182.