About Natalie Talmadge
An occasional silent film actress, Natalie Talmadge was more well-known as the sister of her movie star siblings Norma and Constance Talmadge until her marriage to silent film actor and comedian Buster Keaton. She appeared in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), and Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923), her final appearance.
She was born on April 29, 1896 in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Fred Talmadge, a chronic unemployed alcoholic, and Margaret "Peg" Talmadge, a witty and indomitable woman. (Although there have been questions about her actual birth year, her birth year is listed as 1896 on the 1900, 1910, and 1920 Censuses for Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York.)
Talmadge married Buster Keaton on May 31, 1921, after an unusual courtship where they did not see each other for two years and exchanged no love letters. She proposed to him in a letter in January of that year by saying, "I am alone now with Mother. If you still care for me just send for me." Keaton went east from Hollywood by train and married her. The reasons for marriage on both sides have never been fully explained. They had dated, but not too seriously. It was believed that Joe Schenck, Keaton's producer and Norma's husband and producer, influenced the match, possibly arguing that it would solve several problems at once and keep the business all in the family. There was also the fact that Natalie was a quite naive young woman (her mother allegedly said that she was "so dumb, her brains rattle") who went to the altar a virgin, while Keaton was a prolific womanizer who had lost count of how many women he had been with. Although Natalie was a practicing Catholic, Keaton was an agnostic who had no interest in religion and did not wish to be married in a church. As a result, the marriage was performed as a civil ceremony.
Their marriage resulted in two sons, James, (June 2,1922-February 14, 2007), and Robert, born February 3, 1924, but was rocky and tumultuous. Natalie spent prodigious amounts on clothes and ever-more elaborate Beverly Hills homes, and after the birth of their second son she suddenly announced that she no longer wanted sex. Although accepting of this exile (imposed on him for reasons he did not understand), Keaton made it clear that he would not go without sex and would find other partners (he had been faithful to Natalie until she cut him off).
Late in the marriage Buster's career began to suffer after his contract with Schenck was sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and he became more open about his affairs with other women and turned increasingly to drink. He eventually became an unmanageable alcoholic. The marriage finally collapsed after Keaton invited one of his mistresses to their home and told her to help herself to Natalie's huge wardrobe. Following the much-publicized and acrimonious divorce in 1932 Natalie legally changed the boys' names to Talmadge and denied them any contact with their father. The name change was especially awkward for James, who was ten years old and already accustomed to his last name. Natalie and her family rigorously instructed the boys that they were Talmadges and not Keatons.
During the next few years she became involved with an actor named Larry Kent. They lived together for a while in a house bought for her by her sister Constance after the famous Italian Villa mansion which Keaton had built for her had been sold in 1933. They also took vacations together on occasion, but the romance did not last. She never remarried, and in her solitary existence also developed a drinking problem (consuming up to a quart of whiskey every day) in addition to chain smoking. Natalie carried a vengeful hatred of her husband for the rest of her life and would not allow him to be mentioned in her presence. This eventually became a running joke in the family to the point where her grandchildren would often amuse themselves by saying Keaton's name just to make her enraged.
Natalie Talmadge was in frail health during her last years and died of heart failure in 1969. She was buried in the family crypt.