This is my own post for the Fifth Annual Busterthon–I hope you enjoy!
Let us consider Norma and Constance Talmadge. They were two of the brightest stars of the silent era, the role models of countless gals and the crushes of countless young men. And today, they are–you’ve guessed it–practically forgotten. While they’re starting to be recognized as important figures in cinema history, their films are rarely screened and seldom discussed. But there’s one big reason they’re still remembered: their connection to a certain beloved comedian–Buster Keaton.
Buster fans know the story well: the actresses’ sister Natalie (she was the middle Talmadge child) met Buster at Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique studio, where she was a script girl and secretary. Buster was attracted to her right away, later recalling: “She seemed a meek, mild girl who had much warmth and great feminine sweetness.” Norma and Constance were making their films in the same building, often under the watchful eye of their mother Peg, so it wasn’t long before the young comedian became acquainted with the whole family: “I thought they were all wonderful. They were gay and vital and full of good humor.”
Buster and Natalie would wed in 1921. Their first years of marriage passed quietly enough, with one public highlight being Natalie’s role in Our Hospitality (1923), and they had two sons, James and Robert. Sadly, in the early 1930s, a combination of the couple’s long-simmering personal problems (Natalie’s desire to have no more kids involved separate bedrooms, for one) and Buster’s alcoholism brought the 11-year marriage to an end.
To say that fans and historians are fascinated by this story is an understatement–I’d go as far as to call it an outright obsession. Post a photo of Buster and Natalie on social media, and in short order it will be flooded with…well, let’s conduct a little experiment.
Allow me to post this elegant portrait of Buster and Natalie in one of the larger silent film Facebook groups. I’ll add an innocuous caption. Here we go:
But a minute and several early “likes” later, here’s the first comment:
So it begins.
Let’s step back for an hour or so…
Alrighty, any new comments?
Hold on, here come some more:
So that only took about an hour. Note the main assumptions: the Talmadges were snobby; they looked down on comedy as inferior to drama; they basically conspired to ruin Buster’s life with the same gleeful vengeance as the Furies from the Greek tales of old; Buster should’ve kicked that nasty Natalie to the curb the second they had issues (sorry, little James and Robert).
My friends, I used to make similar assumptions about the Talmadges. But after getting to know the silent era and its many personalities a little better, I began to feel something was “off” about the Talmadge lore. The obvious remedy: why not find out more about them?
After a bit of research, two things became clear right away: a) Norma and Constance are amazingly underrated, and b) practically everything we think we know about the Talmadges comes from very few sources, mainly Anita Loos’s rambling biography-of-sorts-but-really-it’s-about-Anita The Talmadge Girls. (‘Tisn’t my favorite.) So let’s dive into the family’s history:
The Talmadge sisters’ childhood was a far cry from the glamorous lifestyle they would one day achieve. Norma was born in 1894, Natalie in 1896, and Constance in 1898, and they were raised in in Brooklyn, New York. Their father Fred was an alcoholic who would eventually abandon his family–reportedly on Christmas morning, no less. Their mother Peg, a witty and indomitable woman, scraped together a living doing laundry and odd jobs. As a result of these hardships the four of them grew very close, as they would remain throughout their lives.
The girls were bright and imaginative, always bringing home pets and writing little plays they’d act out in the family’s cellar. Today it’s often assumed that strong-willed Peg pushed her pretty daughters into their screen careers, but while she was definitely a strong hand behind the scenes it seems clear that they were entranced with acting early on. As they grew older they became obsessed with “motion pictures,” a new form of the entertainment at the time. Norma in particular idolized Florence Turner, the “Vitagraph Girl,” and began to dream of acting on the big screen herself.
Being the oldest, Norma started contributing to the family’s meager income by posing for illustrated song slides. Her acting ambition was still so strong that she would sometimes skip school to practice acting with her friends. In 1909 Peg finally consented to let her daughters visit the Vitagraph studio. Norma got hired to play bit parts, much to her, Constance, and Natalie’s excitement.
She would act steadily throughout the early 1910s, her roles gradually growing larger. By 1914 she was becoming one of the most recognizable actresses in movies, admired for her finely-molded beauty and refreshingly natural acting style. She was versatile, having a talent for both drama and comedy (yes, comedy too!). Period clothing fit her like a glove. She was apparently able to read through a new part once, and know just how it should be played.
Witnessing her sister’s success and thinking acting looked like fun, Constance thought she’d give pictures a try in 1914. Pretty, confident and graced with a playful personality, she was a perfect fit for light comedies, playing a series of characters with names like “Kitty Grey,” “Florence Hicks,” and “Nan Tubbs.”
In 1915 Norma won a role in The Battle Cry of Peace, a prestigious WWI-era feature (with plenty of anti-German propaganda), giving her career an extra boost. A year later Constance would experience her own big break–as the lively “Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s epic feature Intolerance, a role where she did her own chariot racing stunts. Her performance is as fresh and funny today as it was over a century ago.
And what of Natalie? Modern books have claimed that Peg “tried and failed” to push her into a screen career, but in reality she seemed to have been an intelligent and studious person who simply had no serious interest in being a professional actress. She loved reading and writing, and was described as having a knack for orderliness. Sensing a need when it came to managing her sisters’ stacks of fan mail and other day-to-day matters, she took a business course in bookkeeping, stenography, and general secretarial work and became Norma and Constance’s salaried secretary. She would keep busy behind the scenes until her sisters started their own production companies in the mid-1910s.
1916 seems to have been a lucky year for the Talmadges, not only because of Intolerance, but because that was the year Norma married the millionaire producer Joseph Schenck. The (older) Schenck had fallen head over heels for Norma and proposed marriage after only a couple months. Their union was profitable all around. It enabled her and Constance to start their own production companies, which Schenck carefully supervised. Norma’s studio spared no expense on costumes, set design, and the like, and Constance’s made charming light comedies.
Not wanting to be idle, Natalie took a few small roles in her sisters’ films (The Love Expert survives today) and then, thanks to her secretarial experience, she got a job at Arbuckle’s studio. The rest, as we’ve covered, is history. She seems to have been content with trading behind-the-scenes work for marriage: “I merely gave up a job, not a career.”
Norma and Constance were tireless workers and set high acting standards for themselves. They would watch each other’s rushes, offering critiques and suggestions. Fame did not seem to go to their heads–they had a refreshing lack of ego. “There’s a nice air of being ‘regular people’ about Norma,” an interviewer wrote in Motion Picture Classic. “…There is none of the irrational about her, no bizarre evidences of temperament. If you didn’t know her for a star…well, you wouldn’t know her for one, if you get my meaning.” Another interviewer wrote for the same magazine: “You come from meeting Constance Talmadge with just one distinct impression. Here is a healthy type of young American girl…a happy-go-lucky, rather tomboyish sort of person–but distinctly a regular girl.”
Indeed, that “regular girl” persona may be what endeared Norma and Constance to so many moviegoers. They not only represented screen ideals of beauty and success, but had friendly, relatable personalities that made those lofty ideals seem attainable to the average viewer. In 1920, Motion Picture Classic said of Norma:
…She has made the young women of her vehicles flesh and blood folk to those in front of the screen. Hers has been a healthy, natural girlishness. There was no forced cuteness, no “clever” touches, no be-curled super-innocence. She was a regular girl, with the feelings, the flapper viewpoint and the high spirit of a regular girl. Miss Talmadge has retained her hold because she has remained unspoiled; because, in the main, she has retained these things.
By the 1920s, Norma and Constance were well-established as major stars, respected by critics and well-liked by their Hollywood peers. (Constance’s frequent co-star, the silent era Harrison Ford, once enthused: “She’s great! I made ten straight pictures with her and each one was a holiday.”) In a poll held by Moving Picture World in 1921, Norma was voted the most popular actress with Constance in the number two spot–both beating Mary Pickford, who took third. Other 1920s magazines showed similar results. She and Constance were also among the first stars to put their handprints in the cement in front of Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater (Constance walked across her slab to make it look more unique).
Through it all the Talmadge sisters and Peg remained close. Buster recalled: “In my entire life I never knew a family so devoted to one another as my in-laws were. They all worked and thought together as a team without conflict or jealousy.” Indeed, any drama in the sisters’ lives seemed reserved for their marriages. Norma would marry three times (and have an open affair while still married to Schenck) and Constance married four times (men were always falling in love with her). Neither had children, but they happily doted on their two young nephews. After her divorce from Buster Natalie would not remarry, but she did have boyfriends over the years. Rather infamously, she had her sons’ last name legally changed to Talmadge when they were teens–although apparently they’d already been going by “Talmadge” for some time.
Feeling their careers had been satisfying enough, Norma and Constance retired from acting once talkies became popular. Fabulously wealthy due to wise investments and Peg’s smart money management, the sisters were able to spend the rest of their lives in comfort, and would often travel and visit each other. Constance, who had always gotten along very well with Buster, remained good friends with her ex-brother-in-law.
So if you take anything away from this peek into the lives of these talented sisters who were so familiar to Jazz Age moviegoers, it’s hopefully that the harsh criticism of them is misplaced. The Talmadge sisters weren’t perfect, of course, but neither were they cartoon villains. They worked very hard on their careers, two of them climbed their way to the top, and they supported each other through thick and thin–theirs is actually a rather inspiring story.
And there are still those who remember them fondly. Melissa Talmadge Cox, the granddaughter of Buster and Natalie, has spoken at a number International Buster Keaton Society conventions and other silent-related events, generously sharing her memories of her famous grandfather…and also of her grandmother and great-aunts. The following is from her talk at the 2014 Damfino convention, which she gave in her friendly, to-the-point manner:
“…People who are dedicated to Buster often blame Natalie for his downfall. You know, he was unfaithful and she spent too much money. The marriage didn’t work out. They were married for…eleven years, I think, my dad was about ten when they divorced, it was not a very pleasant divorce like many divorces aren’t very pleasant…Grandpa worked for Joe Schenck. He was given his own production studio, he became a very famous man who was married into the Talmadge family. A lot of his opportunities and a lot of his fame came from being related to this family…So, I just want to tell people that [Buster and Natalie] were divorced in 1932, they’ve both been dead for over forty years, so you need to get over it!”
(Laughter from the audience)
“…When I was growing up I would visit Grandma Natalie…And then, on weekends we went over to San Fernando Valley in Woodland Hills and we visited Grandpa and Eleanor…and it was never a big thing in our family, you know, she lived somewhere and she was Grandma, they lived somewhere and that was Grandpa. So, there was never any kind of bitterness or acrimony in the family when we grew up, I only heard this kind of thing as I got older and other people started telling me how awful the Talmadge sisters were because they ruined Buster.
“Well, you know…life goes on.”
Feel free to check out the rest of Melissa’s wonderful talk here:
One of my most important sources was historian Greta de Groat’s wonderful Norma Talmadge website. Her thorough research on Norma (and Constance!) was an indispensable source for this article: https://web.stanford.edu/~gdegroat/NT/home.htm
Golden, Eve. Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.
Keaton, Buster, with Samuels, Charles. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960.
Smith, Imogene Sara. Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. Chicago: Gambit Publishing, 2008.
Talmadge, Margaret L. The Talmadge Sisters: Norma, Constance, Natalie. Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1924.