Buster Keaton was the greatest talent in the movies—until Hollywood destroyed him. One moment, the Great Stone Face was on top of the world, the next, he was hitting rock bottom. With a life as harrowing as his, is it any wonder that Buster Keaton never smiled?
Piqua, Kansas's greatest claim to fame is that it's the birthplace of Buster Keaton. It's true that Keaton was born in Piqua on October 4, 1895—but it wasn't his home. It's just where his parents, two traveling vaudevillians, happened to be performing. Keaton grew up on the road, as his parents endlessly dragged him from one town to another.
Some days, Keaton's childhood seemed like a dream come true. On others, it was more like a horror story.
Keaton's parents were Joe and Myra Keaton. Joe owned a traveling show with none other than Harry Houdini. The troupe rambled across the United States, and little Buster Keaton came along with them, sleeping in a suitcase most nights. Keaton grew up surrounded by performers—though they all quickly realized this little kid was more than they could handle.
Buster Keaton got himself into no end of trouble when he was a boy. When a show started, it was all hands on deck, and no one could look after him. So of course, that's when he got himself up to no good. One day, an exasperated Myra put her son in a costume trunk while she had to go on stage. She promised she'd come back for him when she was done—but she almost never saw her son again.
Buster did as he was told and stayed in the trunk—but in the hustle and bustle of the show, a stagehand accidentally knocked the lid over. The trunk slammed shut over Keaton and locked in place. Myra eventually finished the show and went to get her son, but she was in for the shock of a lifetime. By the time she opened the trunk, Keaton had nearly suffocated.
Clearly, they needed a better way to make Buster behave...
The Keatons' methods for controlling their son were truly insane by today's standards. They tried tying him to a pole like a dog. When he made too much noise, they made him drink booze in the hope that it would quiet him. Finally, when that didn't work, Joe simply hit Buster to make him behave. It's safe to say that Buster Keaton endured a lot as a kid—but the thing about Buster Keaton is: He could take it.
Buster Keaton's real name wasn't "Buster". It was Joseph, like his father. A legendary performer actually gave him the nickname. Harry Houdini, Joe Keaton's friend and business partner, spent an evening with the Keatons once. That night, he witnessed their 18-month-old baby fall straight down the stairs. Everyone panicked, but then the child simply bounced back up.
Houdini exclaimed, "He's a regular buster!" and the name stuck. But that was far from the last fall Buster Keaton would take.
Buster Keaton started performing on stage when he was three. Were child labor laws a thing back then? Absolutely, and the Keatons had to dodge social workers and mistreatment charges wherever they went. But the authorities didn't just have a problem with young Buster performing—the nature of the act also horrified them.
The Three Keatons' act was simple. Myra played the music. Joe and Buster would take center stage. Buster would goad his father in one way or another...then Joe would pick up his son and throw him across the stage. Sometimes, Buster would smash through the scenery. On particularly wild nights, Joe would send him careening out into the audience!
This isn't a story about a shy boy whose cruel father flung him across a stage against his will: Buster Keaton loved every minute of it. He quickly learned how to take a fall without getting hurt—a skill that served him well when he became a movie star. His parents started billing him as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged".
Unfortunately, that wasn't true. Buster Keaton could take any fall, so Hollywood had to find other ways to break him.
Buster Keaton never quite knew what he was going to get when he stepped on stage with his father. Joe Keaton was a drinker, and his moods could vary wildly. Buster eventually learned to expect the worst when he could smell whiskey on his dad's breath from across the stage. Maybe those were the nights he ended up in the audience?
But still, the boy adored performing with his father—in fact, he might have enjoyed it a little too much.
If audiences thought that the boy flying across the stage was having a bad time, they only had to look at his face: Many nights, they'd see him laughing as he soared through the air. Only, Keaton noticed that the audience didn't seem to find the bit as funny if he was laughing. When he tried adopting a deadpan expression though? The audience thought it was hilarious.
The Great Stone Face was born. But while Keaton thought his crazy childhood was a dream, all good things must come to an end.
Buster Keaton was around to see the advent of a new kind of entertainment: Movies. Joe Keaton hated this new medium and refused to take part in it—but his son wasn't quite so closed-minded. When Joe's drinking started to get embarrassing, Myra took Buster and moved to New York. By now, Buster was a young man, and finally out from under his dad's thumb.
The movies were calling—but then fate got in the way.
Before Keaton could go off to chase his dream, WWI got in the way. He ended up serving with the American Expeditionary Forces in France for seven months. In all that time, Keaton saw a bed for a single night. The rest he spent on the ground of mills, barns, and stables. Now, Keaton wasn't exactly the hardiest soldier in Europe. He quickly developed an ear infection from the cold night.
He started to go deaf in one ear—and it almost cost him his life.
One night on the Front, Keaton played some cards, then headed back to his barrack. As he approached, a sentry called out asking for a password, but Keaton couldn't hear him. The guard kept warning him and Keaton just kept walking. Finally, a sound cut through Keaton's broken eardrum: A rifle clicking.
Keaton stopped in his tracks at the last moment, just barely avoiding getting shot. He eventually made it back to New York in one piece, but his hearing never fully recovered. For the rest of his life, his poor hearing drove him "half-crazy permanently". He constantly feared he might be missing something, just like he missed the sentry's shouts.
But at least Keaton was done being a soldier—only now, he had a new battle to fight.
Freshly back from Europe, Buster Keaton met Fatty Arbuckle at New York City's Talmadge Studios when he was 21. Keaton impressed the comedy star so much that Arbuckle immediately asked him to start appearing in pictures. Within three years, they had made 14 films together. Keaton, the boy who grew up performing, was obviously a natural.
His partnership with Arbuckle was quickly turning Buster Keaton into a star. Then a disturbing scandal cut it short.
In 1921, a gruesome murder case filled headlines across America, and Fatty Arbuckle was the prime suspect. Though a jury eventually acquitted him of all charges, the scandal completely and utterly destroyed Arbuckle's reputation. No studio would hire him, and he never recovered, eventually succumbing to a heart attack in obscurity at just 46 years old.
But in a bittersweet twist, Arbuckle's loss was Keaton's gain.
Keaton couldn't save his friend and mentor, but that didn't mean he had to go down with him. He took over Arbuckle's old production unit, creating Buster Keaton Productions. The next six years saw Keaton put out the greatest work of his career. But his movies weren't the only thing going for him—Keaton found love in this time as well.
Buster Keaton married actress Natalie Talmadge, one of his co-stars, on May 31, 1921. You could call it mixing business with pleasure: Natalie's sister, famous silent actress Norma Talmadge, co-owned the same Talmadge Studio where Keaton worked. It seems like a fairy tale marriage: Two silent film actors meet on set, fall in love, and the rest is history, right?
Not quite. It was the first nail in Keaton's coffin.
Keaton's first marriage was doomed from the start. For starters, acting was pretty much the only thing they had in common. Keaton was an incorrigible womanizer, while Talmadge was still a virgin when they wed. On the other hand, Keaton lived a modest lifestyle at home, while Talmadge spent money like it was going out of style.
They were off to a bad start—and it was only going to get worse from there.
As the movies moved out West, newlyweds Keaton and Talmadge moved out with them. As a surprise, Keaton personally designed a modest, comfortable cottage as a wedding gift. If you ask me, that's a beautiful romantic gesture. But when Talmadge saw it, her reaction was brutal. She exploded on Keaton, furious that he'd built her such a tiny house—there wasn't even space for the servants!
And did Keaton push back? Not exactly...
Even though he'd worked night and day over his little cottage, Keaton did as his temperamental bride asked. He flipped the house, then shelled out $300,000 to build a 10,000-square-foot palace in Beverly Hills. Problem solved right? Well, as long as the money kept coming in, there was nothing to worry about, right? Right??
Keaton and Talmadge had two sons together, Joseph in 1922 and Robert in 1924. Maybe they, like so many couples before them, thought that kids might solve their problems. Well, that has never worked—and in this case, it only made things worse. Talmadge hated sleeping with her husband, and after Robert's birth, she declared herself "Closed for Business".
If you think that sounds harsh, you don't even know the half of it...
Keaton's wife didn't just stop sleeping with him in the figurative sense: She kicked him out of their bedroom for good! Keaton found himself relegated to the spare room in a house he didn't even want in the first place. But at least he was a movie star, right? And with good reason, too. Keaton performed all of his own stunts, and he created some of the most iconic sequences in the history of film.
Only, when you do your own stunts, you tend to get hurt. Bad.
Everyone knows the most famous Buster Keaton gag of all time. Keaton is standing in front of a house when the entire facade topples forward onto him—only to be saved by a perfectly placed open window. It has been recreated countless times in the years since, but Keaton did it for real. Had his planning been off even slightly, the falling house would have crushed him.
Thankfully, no houses ever crushed Buster Keaton while making a movie—though one stunt did almost kill him.
Buster Keaton's worst injury came while filming 1924's Sherlock Jr. In one scene, Keaton is walking across the top of a train. As it leaves the frame, he grabs onto a waterspout, pulling it open and unleashing a cascade of water on his head. In the shot, you see Keaton hanging in mid-air one moment, then stumbling out of a mass of water below the next.
He looked totally unharmed, but later claimed he had a headache. After a few days of "treating it" with Jack Daniels, he decided to go to the doctor. That's when he made a chilling discovery.
The doctor revealed that Keaton had actually broken his neck during this stunt. But did that stop him? Of course not! His movies were bigger than ever, and he had plans for the greatest work of his entire career. By 1926, it was finally ready: The General. Well, because fate is a cruel mistress, that's exactly when everything started to go really wrong.
Today, critics cite The General as Keaton's greatest work and one of the greatest films of all time. Back then? Pretty much everyone despised it. Evidently, the Civil War was still too fresh, and critics considered it no laughing matter. Even worse, the movie had been ludicrously expensive, yet it still flopped. Keaton put everything on the line to make his greatest picture yet—and the gamble ended up ruining him.
You know what happens when a studio gives you a blank check to make your movie and it flops? They never give you that chance again. The work suddenly dried up, and Keaton had to do something he never thought he'd do: He signed a contract with MGM, the biggest studio in Hollywood. He was floundering, and he figured MGM would be his life vest. They were really an anchor.
Keaton would later call signing with MGM the worst decision he ever made in his life. The magic of his early work was the fact that Keaton did whatever he dreamed up—and he did it himself. From jumping off a roof to having a house fall on him, Keaton did everything himself. It's what gives his greatest movies their magic, but apparently, MGM disagreed.
He could no longer do his own stunts, and the studio interfered with every decision he made. His movies got worse and worse—and then sound came along and ruined his career for good.
Buster Keaton must have felt like he was approaching rock bottom. He hated making sound films and they couldn't hold a candle to his earlier work. He was once one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and now he was fast approaching the D-list. And don't forget, life at home was no walk in the park either. Keaton started spiraling even more, and it wasn't pretty.
Keaton did what most movie stars do when everything falls apart: He started drinking and sleeping around.
Keaton's wife wouldn't share his bed, so he started up affairs with actresses Dorothy Sebastian and Kathleen Key. No surprise, they didn't solve his problems. Neither did drinking—but that didn't stop Keaton's addiction from getting worse and worse. The worse his movies got, the more he drank, and then the worse his movies got, and so on and so forth.
What else could go wrong? Well, how about going broke?
Remember how Keaton's wife demanded a palace? She didn't suddenly become a penny-pincher after that. Throughout their marriage, it's believed she spent up to a third of all Buster Keaton's earnings. She was also "embarrassed" of him. The final years of Keaton's marriage were truly a nightmare—but it's not like he was innocent in all this. The affairs were just the beginning.
Buster Keaton wasn't a shopaholic like his wife was, but he had his own flaws. He started gambling when his career was on the upswing, and soon, he was losing $50,000 in a single poker game. That wasn't a huge problem when he was the biggest movie star in the world—but when the work dried up, it was a different story.
The Keaton/Talmadge marriage somehow limped along for over a decade, but by 1932, Talmadge had finally had enough.
Natalie Talmadge divorced Buster Keaton in 1932, and it was far from amicable. She took their boys with her and immediately changed their last names to Talmadge. So now, Keaton's marriage had imploded, he couldn't see his sons, and his movies had lost their magic. If you thought his drinking was bad before, well...buckle up.
Up until now, Keaton had mostly managed to keep his breakdown from affecting him too much at work. That ended when his wife left him. He started showing up to set sauced, just like his father all those years ago. His antics on set attracted the wrong kind of attention. Louis B Mayer himself, the head of MGM, personally told him to knock it off.
But Keaton was way past listening. MGM finally decided this washed-up silent movie star wasn't worth the hassle and fired him in 1933. That was rock bottom, right? Nope, not yet...
In 1925, Buster Keaton was on top of the world. By 1933, his wife had left him, his movies stunk, and his money was all but gone. His drinking got so out of control that he eventually found himself locked in a mental institution. He had finally reached rock bottom. But even though he was at his lowest point, Buster Keaton still knew how to make people laugh.
At one point, Buster Keaton's doctors allegedly had to put a strait jacket on him—but they forgot who gave him the name "Buster". The doctors couldn't believe it when they found Keaton had escaped his restraints. Even all those years later, he remembered a few of the tricks Harry Houdini had taught him.
You know the good thing about rock bottom? It's all up from there! Keaton had finally reached his breaking point, and he vowed to give up drinking. He underwent a miserable bout of aversion therapy, but it managed to keep him totally sober for five years. But just because Keaton had stopped spiraling doesn't mean his trials were over.
There were still painful years ahead.
Once Keaton sobered up he could start working again, but his days as a star were long over. He took work wherever he could, writing gags for acts like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges for a fraction of the salary he used to command. It would take a miracle to get Keaton's life back on track. Fortunately, a miracle was coming, and her name was Eleanor.
In 1938, a young dancer named Eleanor Norris was looking to improve her bridge game. She heard tell that an old washed-up star was one of the best players in all of Hollywood. One night, she found herself at Keaton's house, where a friend introduced them. Keaton was 42 and thoroughly beaten down by life. Eleanor was 19, beautiful, and bursting with energy.
They seemed like an unlikely couple, but this was a match made in heaven.
Eleanor Norris was Buster Keaton's true love, but it wasn't love at first sight. Norris claimed that she played bridge at Keaton's house multiple nights a week, but barely interacted with him at all for an entire year. Then one day, a player insulted Norris's game. Word to the wise: Do not comment on a lady's bridge game.
Norris tore the man a new one—and caught Keaton's eye in the process. The rest, as they say, is history.
When Buster Keaton married Eleanor Norris in 1940, more than a few people raised their eyebrows. Keaton was infamous as a has-been: the man who'd lost it all. It seemed like he was dragging his beautiful bride, 23 years his junior, down with him. Really, the opposite was true: Eleanor was finally going to drag Keaton out of his misery.
Eleanor was everything Keaton's first wife was not. She saw him for the genius he was and supported his work, but more importantly, she knew he needed structure. She revitalized his career, helped him get his drinking under control once and for all, and started managing his finances. Ever since The General came out, it seemed like nothing could go right for Keaton.
Now, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Buster Keaton never again reached the same fame as he'd known in the 20s, but at least he got the chance to ride off into the sunset. After years of obscurity, the public began to rediscover his work. He started getting work appearing on TV shows, where he could still show off some of his old rough-and-tumble stunts well into his 50s.
While there were many dark years, at least Buster Keaton got to enjoy the twilight of his career—though there were still some dark moments.
In 1962, Keaton was set to star in a new TV show with comedian Ernie Kovacs, only a tragedy stopped the show from ever seeing air. Keaton and Kovacs shot scenes for the show together on January 12, 1962. The next morning, Kovacs lost control of his Chevy Corvair while taking a turn. He smashed into a telephone pole and was thrown from the car.
He died instantly, and his show with Keaton never saw the light of day. Perhaps the incident made Keaton consider his own mortality—but he couldn't have known how little time he had left.
In early 1966, Buster Keaton began dealing with a persistent cough. His doctors told him he simply had a bad case of bronchitis and sent him home. As his symptoms grew worse, the hospital had to admit him. The days passed and Keaton grew restless, desperate to return home. But what he didn't realize was: His doctors and family both were keeping a terrible secret from him.
Buster Keaton didn't have bronchitis. He had lung cancer. His family made the decision not to tell him. He spent his final days pacing around the hospital, unsure why he couldn't go home. He passed on February 1, 1966, at 70 years old. His wife claims the day before, he'd been well enough to get up and play a game of cards.
Buster Keaton died with his wife Eleanor at his side. She was the type of woman he deserved—better than Natalie Talmadge, and far better than Keaton's second wife. Wait, did we forget to mention her? Well, remember when Keaton hit rock bottom? There was more to the story.
Buster Keaton's first marriage was awful, but his second marriage was a true disaster. In 1933, while institutionalized, he married his nurse, Mae Scrivens. Keaton's memories of the wedding day are disturbing. Or, we should say, his lack of memories. He claims he was so sauced that he didn't even remember the ceremony.
But Keaton wasn't the only person making questionable decisions that day. Let's just say, Mae Scrivens was no Eleanor Norris...
Mae Scrivens didn't particularly love Buster Keaton—she didn't even know his real first name when they tied the knot!—but she did love the idea of marrying a movie star. Keaton's friends claim she took advantage of him when he was at his lowest. We tend to believe them, because this marriage crashed and burned almost immediately.
Maybe blacking out before your wedding ceremony is a red flag? Keaton certainly didn't seem particularly smitten with his new wife. That's probably how she ended up finding him in the arms of millionaire Barton Sewell's wife. Turns out, Mae Scrivens didn't want to be a movie star's wife that badly. She divorced him within three years of their wedding—and she took just about every penny Keaton had left.
Had Eleanor Norris not rescued Keaton after that, Lord knows where the Great Stone Face, perhaps the greatest comedic actor in history, might have ended up after that.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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