The Trials of the Old Hollywood Silent Stars

Old Hollywood stars had lots of ups and downs during their time in show business. Some made their own financial mistakes and others had wives who gladly spent their fortunes for them. In the 1920’s, Buster Keaton, one of Hollywood’s top three silent film stars, found out just how easily money could be made and spent.

Keaton began performing at an extremely early age. His parents were also performers, traveling around the country providing entertainment with their medicine show, acrobatics, comedy routines and music. Keaton learned as much as he could about entertaining while he was growing up and it paid off in 1917, when at the tender age of 21, he was cast in a Schubert Brothers production. He travelled from Los Angeles to New York and soon met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a man who would change the course of Keaton’s life.

Arbuckle was contracted with another New York agency, Talmadge Studios, and asked Keaton to appear in a new film. After filming just one scene with Arbuckle, Keaton was offered a job as costar and gag man alongside Arbuckle. During the early to mid-20s, Keaton was a huge success. He made over a dozen short and feature films. He was in the high point of his career and money was steadily flowing in.

In 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge. Natalie and her sisters were actresses and her brother-in-law was the producer at Talmadge Studios. Natalie had a love for spending, buying new clothes weekly, upgrading homes regularly and doing whatever it took to stay in the elite spotlight that she felt she and her husband deserved. In 1924, Keaton bought a plot of land behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and began making plans to build an astonishing estate that cost him $300,000, an enormous sum at that time.

The home was placed on top a knoll on the 3-and-a-half-acre plot. Knowing that he would have many visitors, Keaton designed a two-story, 10,000 square foot home that provided twenty rooms for family and guests and an additional eight rooms for his servants. Natalie loved extravagance, and really, so did Keaton. Their home greatly displayed their mutual affection for the finer things. The front entryway itself was magnificent, with a wrought-iron and glass arched doorway and an Italian fountain gracing the vestibule once inside. The landscape was just as luxurious. Keaton had the Beverly Hills Nurseries to plant 42 giant palm trees along the driveway from Hartford Way to the home. Keaton also installed a Roman-bath swimming pool, a tennis court, an aviary and a playground for his boys.

After having two children, Natalie decided she would no longer perform her wifely duties with Keaton. Therefore, the upstairs was split into two wings. The east wing housed Keaton’s suite of rooms with a private entryway and the west wing was devoted to Natalie and included a separate room for her clothing, a mirrored dressing room and a lovely pink bathroom with gold-plated fixtures.

The cost of building the estate plus his wife’s outlandish spending did not end well for Keaton. Between his career quickly declining and the stock market crash, Keaton was left in a financial mess. Natalie refused to stop her excessive spending and instead divorced Keaton in 1932. She took everything, including their estate and their kids, and Keaton filed for bankruptcy. Just two months after her divorce, Natalie sold the home and grounds to a MGM dancer.

David Kramer