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).
The Talmadge ladies travelling.
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! Continue reading →