Mystery: Buster the Lifeguard?

Frequently while hunting through articles I find one that makes me stop and go hmm…really? Usually it’s pretty obvious where the mix-up happened. A lot of times if a story was good, newspapers would dust it off, change the name of the film it’s related to and run it again as advertisement. At other times it’s clear that Buster had nothing to do with the quotes attributed to him, but that they were written by his publicist. There are dozens of printed jokes (some of them hilarious) that I wonder if Buster ever heard of at all.

But every once in a while I come across an article that creates a real mystery in my mind. It’s much harder to explain exactly what the writer was thinking. What rumor they heard and blew up like a shiny balloon, or if there is actually any truth to the information presented.

This is one of those suspicious articles:

(Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, September 16, 1920)

I rank it as suspicious, because the quotes do sound to me like Buster. Was a newspaper man present at a casual, playful conversation and decided to record it? Are they making a silly reference to Arbuckle’s “Coney Island?” Did Buster talk about saving one life and they decided to make the story a little more interesting?

Here’s my guess:

I’m wondering if someone either read these articles about Buster’s leading lady, or were present at a conversation where both Buster and Sybil talked about swimming and saving lives, and they got the stories muddled:

(The Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1920)
(St. Joseph Gazette, June 20, 1920)

Then they decided to exaggerate – seven lives to fourteen, and the actual quotes are Buster talking about lifeguarding in general and funny terms.

Or, I could be totally wrong. What do you think? Anyone ever heard of Buster being a lifeguard?

6 Replies to “Mystery: Buster the Lifeguard?”

  1. Those Sybil clippings are great finds!! Thank you for sharing. I figured she must’ve been a very good swimmer, it running in her family and all. Not to mention her Bathing Beauty days…!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, that’s very curious. When I first found this note, I was puzzled, and I still can’t say for sure if it’s a pure fiction. We all know how much Buster liked swimming since his Muskegon days – his getting into the water was a sign of a succesful movie for the crew, at almost every his house he had swimming pools, where he swam for at least an hour every day (according to Eleanor), and when he didn’t have his own pool in the 30s, he regularly went to the public one; so for me there’s no doubts he really swam very well and that technically he could be a lifeguard. Then, he had the opportunity to spend his free time at “a summer resort at the east coast”, for example, while working for Roscoe in the summer of 1917 – Minta Durfee once mentioned in an interview that then Roscoe with Alice Lake and Buster with Natalie rented beach house in Sheepshead Bay in NY.

    Also he possibly wanted to be not only cinematic, but also a real hero. I think you have seen his 1940’s photo where he applies the Red Cross first aid manual to his little nephew, Harry Jr.? Around that time, when he was 50 and that photo was taken, he, according to the words of Hedda Hoppper, with whom they were kind of pals, actually was “on a stand-by call for the disaster squad of the Red Cross”. And even in his autobiography, he himself mentions a case that hints at his lifeguard habits – when, in the late 20s, he saw a girl in the water who, as it seemed to him, would find it difficult to get ashore because of the waves, and rushed into the sea to help her. He cites this case not to brag about his heroism, of course, but only because the story ended funny – the girl turned out to be a famous swimmer who recently swam the English Channel – but this does not negate the fact of his try to be a lifeguard itself.

    So, 14 or not 14, as it seems to me, the story doesn’t sound so unreal – and who else would think of remembering Jack Dempsey, when talking about the work of a lifeguard? 😉


    1. Those are some great points! I hadn’t known they stayed at a summer resort on the east coast. I agree, it’s very easy to believe that Buster saved lives. I’ve personally found at least one article describing him saving a life in 1921 I think.
      Whether or not it was fourteen lives from drowning by 1920…I guess I don’t really know. Seems like a lot but I’ve never been a lifeguard in the early 1900s.
      So maybe the only really confusing part is the suggestion that he saved them all in one place? It doesn’t seem unlikely that he would’ve saved lives from the lake in Muskegon (I actually think I’ve seen an article about that too. I’ll have to dig up some time.)
      I agree it does seem very Buster to compare life saving to boxing : )


      1. I don’t think I ever had seen any notes about him saving lives from the lake in Muskegon – it would be very interesting to see! I can add here the newspaper story of how he saved one man from the fire during the work on one of his shorts in 1922 – no water here, but Buster still a superhero 😉 and that he apparently saved two people from the water during the flood after destroying the damb in the General (it’s a press report again – could be made up of course)


  3. I’ll try to find the Muskegon article. I believe it was from the Muskegon Chronicle. The article isn’t exactly Buster himself saving someone but rather that he was part of a rescue along with his father and others when they were out on the lake in their boat…I think. I might be misremembering the whole thing….
    It was a find and unfortunately they’re one of those that make you pay to see anything. I’ll look around though, I might’ve printed it out.
    I think I know the hero article you’re talking about – saving an invalid from a fire? Pretty cool stuff. I’m not sure about the one in the General though – if you have it ready I’d love to see it.

    I feel like since Buster refused to be photographed with a fish he didn’t catch while filming (Hospitality was it?) I’ll bet he would’ve been pretty angry about any false claims to heroism. So I like to think they’re all true. : )
    Then again who knows what kind of stuff promoters would get away with behind people’s backs.


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