Written for the 2023 Silent-ology Buster Keaton Blogathon
“I know he loved her very much, and I think she loved him very much in the beginning. . .”
No matter your personal opinion of Natalie Talmadge, she was a huge part of Buster’s life during his most prominent filming years. She was the center of his home life behind scenes and was often present on location, watching filming from The Playhouse to Steamboat Bill Jr. to some of her husband’s less popular MGM films. It is generally considered that their first few years together were happy ones.
Simply for the fact that Natalie was an important person in Buster’s life, I think she is a figure worth looking at as objectively as possible. Or even as positively as possible considering the “as negatively as possible” view of her has been covered well and then some. So here is my attempt at a short biography of Natalie’s early years focusing on some of the lesser known articles, accounts and moments of her early life.
Natalie was born in Brooklyn NY in April 1900 (although the year is somewhat up for debate apparently). She was the second of three sisters whose father was largely absent and whose mother possessed an unparalleled determination to make something of her daughters lives. They grew up poor– according to family friend, Anita Loos, at times not even having enough to eat.
Their father, Frederick Talmadge, would make random appearances boasting random jobs (including at one point salesman for circus souvenirs), and would present himself almost always as a drunkard. He would finally leave the family for good one Christmas day at their lowest financial point.
Their mother, Peg, was industrious and enterprising. She supported her daughters by renting out one of the rooms of their cottage and by taking in laundry, selling cosmetics and sometimes teaching classes in the latest kitsch art techniques. (TTG p.12) When the oldest daughter, Norma, showed promise as a model and then later an actress, Peg focused all her efforts into making a star out of her. Later on she did the same with the youngest daughter, Constance (aka Dutch), who had a certain undeniable spunk and charm.
Natalie, the middle child, showed no talent or interest for such things and was left out of these schemes. “Nate bore a certain resemblance to Norma, but she had a sort of pinched look, as if she harbored the same genes that produced her radiant sisters but had simply failed to blossom into full, lush bloom.” (TTG 5)”Strangers used to stop Peg in the street to comment on Norma’s dark beauty and Dutch’s tawny loveliness while little Nate stood meekly by, never mentioned in the compliments.” (TTG 13)
Natalie was the lone introvert of the family surrounded by natural movie stars. But there is no evidence to suggest that she harbored any aspirations or jealousy of any kind. She was happy to be busy behind the scenes.
In her highly advertised little book “The Talmadge Sisters” Natalie’s mother described her as conscientious and an avid reader from an early age.
Her mother goes on to say that Natalie (or Nate as she was almost always called) “kept a diary, and she kept it as neatly and regularly as clockwork. In this little book, she wrote everything she did and everything she thought, and a great many things that the rest of the family thought.” (TTS p. 42).
She says that Natalie “took to reading books far beyond her years and grew pale and overly quiet.” And that when she was young “at times, Natalie would write letters to herself, which she solemnly informed us came from ‘an angel.’ A most obliging angel, for the child was always told just what she wanted to know and believe!” (TTS p. 43) This inclination towards a love of words apparently manifested in “lousy puns” (as Anita Loos described them) that Natalie would contribute to conversation.
Peg describes their family as very happy and the three sisters as inseparable. They put on little plays together, supported one another, cheered each others achievements, and shared a love of animals sometimes raising stray and injured cats, dogs and birds in their basement. Buster would later confirm this happy relationship among the family: “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.” (MWWoS p.166)
Natalie also seemed prone to day dreaming. In 1928 she would tell an interviewer how Norma used to take her to the old Vitagraph studio in Brooklyn and permit her to sit on the sidelines and watch the stars of that period. She confesses that she “fell in love” several times, but that the actors she adored didn’t know anything about it. ‘I had a schoolgirl ‘crush’ on Tony Moreno, and then I thought that Francis Bushman was my ideal; and then I scrapped both of them for the dashing Maurice Costello-‘Dimples’ everybody called him in those days,” laughed Natalie. (Buster, sitting beside her on the set, exclaimed, “Ah, ha, now it’s all coming out!”) (United Artists Pressbook, 1928)
Before their first trip to Europe, taken early on in her sisters’ careers, Natalie was “beguiled by planning little journeys through grim castles which had once belonged to feudal kings; through the palace and wonderful gardens of Versailles; through quaint colorful streets in Naples, and odd out-of-the-way corners of Paris; through underground passages built and used by medieval monks, and many other mysterious places.” (TTS, p. 162)
“These old-world storied cities” (like Milan with its Gothic marble arches and the priceless treasures of the ancient and modern galleries in Florence, or the splendid overhanging palaces of the Doges, in the picturesque city of canals) “held a particularly potent charm for Natalie.” (TTS p. 168)
Though she showed little interest in it, Natalie did take on minor rolls in a few of her sisters’ films, as her mother said, “idleness, far more than inclination. . finally led her to enter the ‘movies’ and play minor parts with her sisters.” (TTS p. 158) However being of a highly different disposition and personality, Natalie didn’t light up the screen in the same way her exuberant, extroverted sisters did.
When it was clear that Peg would not be able to make a star out of her quiet daughter she “explained to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I told her that she must take up or at least learn some kind of work so as to be self-supporting, so she studied bookkeeping, stenography, and typewriting.” ( CttC, p.117)
So while her two sisters grew their careers and became world famous, Nate happily busied herself in the background and wings of the film sets, “painstakingly” answering her sisters fan mail and eventually taking a “brief course in business school to study secretarial work, stenography, book-keeping, and general business methods, ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I want to be a professional in my line as the other girls are in theirs.'” (TTS p. 109)
Between and around these small parts in film, Natalie became a secretary and script girl for Comique Films, Roscoe Arbuckle’s film company, making good on her own with her education and skills.
As a script girl and assistant Natalie was in charge of keeping the place organized and documented for continuity. She kept notes on entrances, exits, props, clothing and bruises if need be.
In her down time on set Nate would knit and carried around a carpet bag full of supplies for the purpose. She even moved with the Comique Company from New York to California, now promoted from script supervisor to Comique’s secretary-treasurer. She had small bit parts in a few of Arbuckle’s movies including The Bell Boy (The Evening Leader, March 19, 1918) and Coney Island. She even received a writing credit for her work in Out West.
It was of course at Comique that Natalie met Buster. She was present on his first day of filming in New York. Buster said “I was attracted to her at once. She seemed a meek, mild girl who had much warmth and great feminine sweetness.” (MWWoS, p.94)
During these years of Natalie’s career in film production she and Buster began dating. Natalie recalls the moment in 1928 on the set of one of Buster’s films:
When Comique moved to the west coast Natalie and Buster lived in the same apartment house (Elk City News-Democrat Feb 6, 1919) and spent a lot of their free time together making up a regular social group with Roscoe and actress Alice Lake. When Constance started up her own company on the east coast though, Natalie left Comique to move back to work for her sister.
Buster saw her again briefly before shipping out overseas during the war. He describes in his autobiography sneaking out of camp to spend the day with her in Long Beach at a fine eating a dancing establishment. And when he returned from France in a bad state due to an ear infection, “the moment I could get to a telephone I called my girl.” Natalie “haunted the hospital” during his convalescence until he returned to work on the west coast.
Many people, Buster’s later wife Eleanor included, thought that the quick progression of Nate and Buster’s relationship to marriage was orchestrated by Peg, Joseph Schenck or both. “I know he loved her very much, and I think she loved him very much in the beginning, but I think Peg Talmadge, the mother of the three girls, sort of wanted her married and off her hands and since Joe Schenck made the Constance Talmadge and Norma Talmadge films, and made Buster’s films, that would be keeping it in the family if Natalie married Buster. But at the same time, he was a lowly comic as far as they were concerned, and not all that important in the business or what they really would have liked to have had for her as a husband.” (LIM p.136) “Peg was a tyrant about what those girls had to do.” (p. 135)
Friend of the family Anita Loos would agree with this, saying that up until their marriage, “Peg was still searching the horizon to find a better mate for Natalie than Buster Keaton, but there weren’t even any gigolos around to take up the slack.” (TTG 65)
For almost two years Nate and Buster didn’t see each other again except in the movies and the papers. The extent of their long distance romance (or lack thereof) was debated. Even apparently, among Natalie’s own family. When Norma confirmed the announcement she said “don’t think she told me, though. . . she never tells me anything. She told Connie and Connie told me.” (Omaha Daily Bee May 22, 1921).
Natalie was interviewed about the engagement shortly after it was announced:
Buster, working hard on the west coast on one of his own films, didn’t seem too surprised by the whole thing.
After some drama involving another potential suitor known as the “butter and eggs” man (Owen Gilman, a wealthy man connected with the dairy industry) and a major injury to Buster’s ankle that put him in the hospital for eight weeks, Buster headed east.
“When I saw my bride-to-be, the big butter-and-egg man was hardly mentioned. . . She smiled and told me, “Oh, Buster, you know where I’m going.”
“Okay, where and when will we be married?” I asked in a brisk, businesslike tone.
“Let’s make it a week from Saturday at my sister’s home.” Though I didn’t say, “But this is so sudden,” I certainly thought of it. But all joking aside, I was very happy about the whole thing.” (MWWoS p.166)
They were married on May 31, 1921. Buster recalled, “it was in Norma’s garden – flowers everywhere; roses, I think.”
They almost immediately traveled back west so Buster could resume work with his new company and were greeted with a number of parties put on by fellow film celebrities (Los Angeles Herald, 6 June 1921) They quickly disappeared for a while into their small new home, apparently hiding from these enthusiastic well-wishers. (The Public Ledger July 13, 1921)
On the set of Steamboat Bill Jr. many years later, Natalie was asked about her recipe for a happy married life: “we are two romantics; we like the same things, laugh at the same jokes, love family life…”
Natalie seems to have thrown herself whole heartedly into the role of housewife for a time. There are several articles describing her changing Buster’s diet to something more proper to an athlete. They claim “Mrs. Keaton had him abandon sirloin steaks, French pastry and candies.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Nov. 27, 1921).
She also apparently had to remind her husband that year on October 4th that it was his birthday, as he had forgotten (Oakland Tribune, Oct. 23 1921) . (This lapse in Buster’s memory about his own birthday is mentioned at other times in his life as well.) Natalie boasted to her mother “he can fix almost anything with a penknife and a piece of twine.” (TTS p. 182).
When she wasn’t homemaking, Natalie spent a lot of her time on set with Buster. When he went to film on location she usually went too. “She is a charming little woman but takes no part in the picture. She accompanies Buster usually wherever he goes, on fishing trips, to ball games and to location.” (June 10, 1926, Cottage Grove Sentinel)
And there are a few instances where it is suspected Natalie filled small roles in Buster’s short films such as the silhouette of “the viper” in The Love Nest and as one of the identical twins in The Playhouse (though I have my doubts on that one.)
Buster was not a typical actor and no doubt Natalie worried about the daredevil comedian she’d married. It seems he was constantly coming home with bruises, sprains, broken ribs and fingers. Not only did everyone around Buster worry about him and protest some of his decisions to do things like regularly jump off buildings, but Natalie already had a tendency to worry. It’s a common trait among introverts and would continue to grow after she had children and into her later life. At least in newspapers she was considered the only one with the right to worry about Buster though, and sometimes (as in the case of leaping from the conductor seat right before the bridge collapse in The General) was able to prevent him from doing some of his most dangerous planned scenes. I haven’t found any accounts of Natalie’s presence at other of Buster’s stunts, but I would imagine she stayed out of the studio during the filming of most of them.
They often took little vacations away from work as well, frequently going up to San Francisco to see previews of Buster’s films but also apparently the occasional weekend away in small towns.
Throughout their marriage, Natalie was also apparently game for a few gag photos, one of Buster’s many loves.
When asked if actresses prefer handsome men for husbands Natalie replied: “I do not think looks count at all. A man may look one way to the world and another to his wife. For instance, my husband has never been known to smile on the screen and yet he has the most wonderful smile in the world which he keeps just for me. A woman does not marry a man for his character because she can never know what his real character is until after she has lived with him. It is his personality, an indescribable, intangible charm, which attracts her first, not his appearance.” (Great Falls Tribune, March, 1922)
Buster avoided interviews at all cost, but when asked if art and marriage mix he said: “Sure! Excuse me. Hurry up, boys, let’s shoot this scene before the light goes!” (Picture-Play Magazine, April 1922)
When they weren’t attending or throwing parties or working on set, Natalie continued to enjoy needlework and reading. She spent much of their first year of marriage pregnant which meant a lot of her time was taken up preparing for the baby. Buster’s close friend, Buster Collier, would later in life contrast “the vibrant Buster with the completely passive Natalie, quietly doing her needlepoint work day after day and nearly every evening, “a real quiet girl.” (The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, p.76).
Natalie is typically described like this: quiet, meek, passive, shy, sweet and feminine. One flash description of her from afar described her as: “the type of feminacy men are prone to speak of respectfully as a ‘nice little woman,'” (Yonkers Statesman, Sept 30, 1922). Her granddaughter, Melissa, would say, “She had a demure, feminine air about her, a lot like the character she portrayed in Our Hospitality. But there seemed to be little self-confidence and I don’t think she had ambitions of her own.” ( CttC, p. 166.)
But Natalie had her moments of stubbornness too, and when she wanted something she got it.
Buster recalls “My wife also was strong minded in certain ways. She had wanted a girl for her first child and put pink ribbons on the baby clothes. When the baby turned out to be a boy she refused to change them to blue. “Pink is for girls,” I told her. “Blue is for boys.” “No, pink is for boys,” she insisted. I didn’t argue, figuring she preferred pink. What did hurt me a little was when she insisted on naming our first boy Jimmy. I thought he should have been named Joseph like the four first sons who preceded him. But James was the name she preferred, and James he was christened.” (MWWoS p.185)
And one article early in their marriage illustrates her getting her way when it came to fine things.
Natalie seemed to really enjoy pretty and finely made things, particularly clothing. She designed an evening gown “of striking lines” for one of her sisters films on a bet from her mother that the girls couldn’t design a gown worthy of being in a film. (Monroe Evening news Sept, 28, 1922). My guess is it’s this one worn by Constance in The Primitive Lover (1922)
Natalie and her sisters, along with another actress and a costume designer, also planned to open a museum of period clothing in Hollywood in 1923. “Every period in history will be represented. Judicious purchases have been authorized to fill in historical periods which already are not represented” by the historical costumes of past Joseph M. Schenck productions. (The Morning Post New Jersey, Oct. 13, 1923)
Natalie filled their first homes with beautiful trinkets and furniture and after their first baby’s birth, he was absolutely showered in the finest toys, clothes and decoration. “It was a palatial nursery. All about were flowers–great baskets of sweet peas, white wicker cradles packed with roses, miniature baby carriages full of orchids. Hung all about were tiny garments, piles of bright blankets, small and fascinating paraphernalia–the exquisite layette of fashionable baby. Through wide French doors, I caught a glimpse of a sleeping porch, in the center of it a froth of pink satin, frilly lace, streaming ribbons and ivory wicker which I took to be a baby bed.” (Interviewing Joseph Talmadge Keaton by Adela Rogers St. Johns, 1922)
Natalie expressed just as much excitement (if not more) at being a mother as she did of being a wife. She had apparently zero regrets whatsoever that she did not have a film career to match her sisters. “My baby gives me all the occupation I require for my happiness,” says Mrs. Keaton, “and I think it quite as important to be a good mother as to be a popular star.” (San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 15, 1922) Her family shared in the excitement and all Talmadges moved west, several of them straight into the Keaton household. Natalie, no doubt, had deeply missed her family and enjoyed them being close again. Buster said: “I am fortunate insamuch as I have relatives who are more like friends . . . And I don’t say this under duress. I mean it!”
“Joseph Talmadge Keaton is no poor little weakling of a bottle-fed baby. He’s a regular two-fisted, pink-toed little he-person, and he takes his nourishment…just as God intended he should. Natalie Talmadge Keaton is a real little mother in every sense of the word. Though the baby has a nurse, Natalie insists on giving him his daily bath personally. She makes his little clothes and dresses him. In fact, there isn’t very much for the nurse to do, except mind the baby when mother is taking a nap or take him for an occasional airing in the baby carriage.” (Boston Sunday Post, Sept. 3,1922)
This lovely article describes a quiet moment during one of the Keaton’s trips to New York a few months after Jimmy was born. According to Natalie, baby comes first.
Natalie would often watch rushes of the day’s filming with Buster, and would bring Jimmy along.
When Jimmy got a little older, Natalie took part in one of Buster’s first full length films: Our Hospitality, playing the leading lady. How she came to get this role is up for debate. Some articles say Buster begged her to take the role after being left without a leading lady when Margaret Leahy returned to England. Others say Natalie did the begging, even going down to the studio and convincing Buster’s producers to let her have the part when he said no. Either way filming was a happy affair, and Natalie did a fine job in the role.
“Natale gave an excellent account of herself in the film, game for a lot of the physical stuff, even though she was aware that she was once again pregnant. Eunice Marshall watched her go through a scene with Ralph Bushman at the studio, costumed in a frock of rose taffeta and a full crinolined skirt: “She was playing a daughter of the Old South and seemed to have gained poise, having learned a thing or two about makeup.” But Natalie, she discovered, was dubious about continuing as Buster’s leading lady. “I’m not sure whether I shall do another picture after this one or not. I hate to be away from the baby so much. Of course, he is with Mother and in good hands. But I don’t want him to know anybody else better than me. Every morning I bathe him and dress him before coming to the studio. I miss being with him during the day. But it is pleasant here, too. They are very patient with me. It is four years since I have done anything in pictures, you know.” (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, p.238-9)
She even allowed baby Jimmy, now around a year old, to take part in the picture too, despite her earlier misgivings of her baby being in films (Buster wanted to put him in the very first film he made after his birth). Unfortunately Jimmy developed Klieg eyes, a temporary condition brought on by the powerful klieg lights, and it was announced that his pictures days were over.
During filming Natalie discovered that she was pregnant with their second child, and re-shoots had to be carefully framed to hide her growing middle. In this moment, upcoming second baby, Robert, can be clearly seen.
It was only after Robert’s birth that Buster and Natalie’s marriage began to deteriorate in earnest. We all know how rough things got, and how they ultimately ended, but during their first years it’s generally agreed that they were happy together and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Natalie would continue to support Buster’s filming, and could frequently be found on set and on location up until their divorce.
TTS : The Talmadge Sisters by Margaret (Peg) Talmadge
TTG : The Talmadge Girls: A Memoir by Anita Loos
MWWoS: My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton
TLIM: The Little Iron Man by Oliver Lindsey Scott
CttC: Cut to the Chase by Marion Meade
The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down by Tom Dardis
Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis
The Day Buster Smiled, presented by The Cottage Grove Historical Society
Articles found on Newspapers.com, Archive.com, Geneologybank.com, Newspaperarchive.com, among others
I kind of ran out of time putting this together so if you have any questions about a source or about anything at all let me know and I’ll find it for you!
Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions and any other information you might have!
7 Replies to “Natalie Talmadge: The Early Years”
Thank you for sharing your research on Natalie Talmadge and the early years of marriage with Buster Keaton. I knew very little about her personally, and I found this biography truly fascinating.
Glad you enjoyed it! It was fun for me to learn a bit more about her too, as she was so important to Buster for a little while there.
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Wow, this is a fabulous, well-researched post! I’ve written about Natalie (and her sisters) before myself, and you’ve found some clippings and photos I’ve never seen.
I also hadn’t considered just how often Natalie would’ve witnessed Buster working on films, this really put that in a new light for me. It really is a pity she became so vindictive towards Buster later in life, just imagine the incredible interviews we could’ve gotten from her about life at his studio.
An impressive and very fair piece of work, thanks so much for contributing it to the blogathon!
Thanks! And thanks for hosting/letting me contribute 🙂.
That’s actually what strikes me a lot about her too- like wow, she was huge in his life during almost all of his films. And she seemed so sweet. Really makes you wonder what the heck happened to make her so, as you say, vindictive. It’s really too bad.
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I am happy that you put in a good word for Natalie. Everything I used to read disparaged, but she never seemed like a bad person. I imagine that Buster, like many comedians, was a hard person to live with, especially when he embraced his hobby of drinking. I knew a couple whose lives paralleled Buster and Natalie’s in many ways and it was terribly sad.
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Thanks! I agree. She doesn’t seem to me the shrewish villain she’s sometimes made out to be, and I suspect things weren’t so one sided or easy.
Either way, I think if Buster could speak well of her after everything then we should be able to too. 🙂