December 28, 1995
As I mentioned the other day, our Perry Carnegie Library has just received a copy of "Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase," a new biography by author Marion Meade, published by HarperCollins. I was the first to borrow the library's copy and I am reading it as fast as I can, but still it's a slow job because there is so much to savor in this excellent book. Don't give up. It is well worth waiting for.
For one thing, the author did a thorough and painstaking job of researching Keaton's life story. As a result, she devotes a portion of the early chapters to the Keaton family's years in Perry around the turn of the century when Buster was just learning to entertain audiences by tumbling onstage. That chapter is headed "Cherokee Strip," but Meade also refers to Perry later on in at least three more chapters.
One of these is chapter three, entitled "Keep Your Eye on the Kid." In that, the author reprints a one-paragraph letter from Buster's father to the Gerry Society in New York City. Dated December 27, 1900, it is signed by "Joseph Keaton, 624 G Street, Perry, Oklahoma." If you'll recall last Tuesday's Northwest Corner, I related information from county clerk Ronita Coldiron about the Keaton property at 610 Grove street. Before our city addresses were reviewed a few months ago in preparation for the 911 emergency phone system, the Beier house now listed at 610 Grove street had been erroneously given the 624 street address. That explains the address used by Joseph Keaton in his letter. Bill Gengler has a rare 1910-11 edition of Hoffhine's Perry City Directory which shows Lydia J. Keaton to be a resident of 624 G street at that time. Lydia was Buster's paternal grandmother.
The Gerry Society was a private child-welfare agency also known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Its founder, Elbridge T. Gerry, was the grandson of the U.S. vice president who originated the practice of "gerrymandering.” Keaton was writing the agency to assure them that Buster was not being subjected to cruelty in his New York stage performances. As things turned out, the society did manage to bar the Keatons from using Buster in their vaudeville act in New York for a full year because of the rough and tumble acts he starred in as a young child of five years.
Near the end of the book, Meade again refers to Perry in telling about the feature film, "The Buster Keaton Story," which was premiered here in 1957. Buster and his third wife, Eleanor, were here that day and many Perry residents had a chance to meet with them on an informal basis. The author notes that reviewers roasted the picture, which starred Donald O'Connor in the title role, and adds that even Buster was embarrassed by it. Still, the film made money. The production cost $800,000 but it has earned perhaps triple that amount and is still being shown on TV.
Earlier this year I wrote that Keaton birthday centennials were being held during 1995 in Piqua, Kan., where he was born, and in Muskegon, Mich., for no reason that I knew of then. Meade's book explains that. She tells about the Keaton family home in an actor's colony at Muskegon which Papa Joseph Keaton helped establish. Buster, his parents, brother and sister all spent many happy months there in the off seasons when they were being highly acclaimed as major vaudevillians between 1909 and 1920.
Bert Keaton, Joseph's brother and Buster's uncle, was perhaps better known in Perry than others in the family because the lived here longer than they did. He worked at a local department store. In the early 1920s, when Buster was becoming established as a megastar in the Hollywood film colony, the entire Keaton clan lived in Los Angeles and were supported by Buster, who was happy to do so. A genuine loving family feeling existed as a result of their close relationship in the vaudeville years, and in spite of some personal difficulties between Keaton's parents, Uncle Bert and Papa Joseph appeared in several Keaton films, as did his mother, Myra Keaton; his brother, Jingles; and his sister, Louise.
Buster's unhappy marriage to Natalie Talmadge is described at length. She was one of the three intriguing Talmadge sisters, the others being actresses Norma and Constance. Buster's accumulation of wealth through his movie successes and his profitable real estate investments also are described, as well as the 1929 Wall Street crash which wiped him out, financially. After divorcing Natalie Talmadge, Keaton married Mae Scriven, a nurse. That marriage did not last, and in 1940 Buster married Eleanor Norris, a dancer with beauty queen good looks, and that proved to be a perfect match.
I'm still reading this book. It covers a relatively modest 306 pages but it also includes a coda to update us on later events in the Keaton family; a chapter containing Buster's favorite recipes; a filmography with dates and credits on all of his movies; detailed notes on all sources consulted by the author, including the Noble County Genealogical Society's "History of Noble County"; a bibliography; the author's thanks to various individuals and organizations for assistance; and an index which mentions some, but not all, of the references to Perry. This book belongs in our library and probably in our museum, as well.
Meade's book was enthusiastically reviewed by Time magazine last October. Anyone with even a slight interest in knowing more about Buster Keaton, a one-time resident of Perry, Oklahoma, will find this book well worth the reading. I heartily recommend that it be added to your home library.