By Patricia Eliot Tobias
Copyright © 1998 Patricia Eliot Tobias
“I cannot tell how the truth may be;
I say the tale as ‘twas said to me.”
— Sir Walter Scott
We’ve all heard the urban legends, those untrue and unlikely but oft-repeated stories – that a stagehand hung himself from a papier maché tree during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, that Bill Cosby bought up and destroyed all existing prints of the Our Gang films; that Max Fleischer’s animators inserted a cel of Betty Boop naked into a cartoon.
But what of the myths, the misleading statements, the factual errors, the out-and-out lies that pop up in biographies and develop a life of their own? The truth, once tarnished, hardly ever shines again like new. As far back as Aristotle, who said, “The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand-fold,” historians have grappled with the issue of error and its long-lasting consequences on the search for truth.
How many of us know that Marco Polo never reached China; that Richard III didn’t murder his nephews; or that an apple never fell on Isaac Newton’s head? And if we knew, would we care? British writer Paul Scott nailed the problem when he said, “Ah, well, the truth is always one thing, but in a way it’s the other thing, the gossip, that counts. It shows where people’s hearts lie.”
In doing research on the life and career of Buster Keaton, I have stumbled on misleading statements, factual errors, gossip and lies that have woven a fabric of myths that, unfortunately, many people believe to be true. There was a time when I, too, believed what I read. But over the years, I slowly began to untangle those myths and get at the heart of the truth.
Of course, Keaton is not the only film personality whose life story has been embellished or stained with inaccuracies. The obvious example would be his great and good friend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose reputation, career and, ultimately, his life, were ruined when he was accused of a monstrous crime that never even took place.
The lesson here is caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. Enjoy reading biographies, but read them with a skeptical mind and a reasoned heart. Just because a book is loaded with acknowledgments and footnotes, or because the author writes authoritatively, does not mean the information included is based in reality.
All of the myths that follow have been published, a few of them repeatedly. In some cases, we know exactly where the myth began; in others, it’s harder to find the origin. Some myths are easy to dispel; others a complicated mess. And in some cases, we don’t know the actual truth, but must make educated guesses.
Myth: Buster’s middle name was Francis.
Nope. It was Frank. He was named after a relative.
Myth: Buster Keaton worked for Mack Sennett.
Sennett, who did give Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd their starts in film, originated this myth. In his autobiography, Sennett mentioned Keaton as one of his discoveries. Well-intentioned encyclopedia writers picked up on it, so this myth appears in several otherwise reputable sources. Simply not true and easy to disprove.
Myth: Buster Keaton was given his nickname by Harry Houdini.
We don’t know who actually gave Buster his nickname. It may in fact have been Houdini, but probably not.
The circumstances are relatively clear. When little Joe Keaton Jr. was about six months old, he fell down a flight of stairs. According to some versions he laughed when he landed. In others, he cried a little but was essentially unharmed. Someone, a friend of the Keaton family, saw the tumble and said something to the effect of “That’s quite a buster your kid took!” and the name stuck.
Several variations of the story were repeated in the early vaudeville years. One clipping from July 20, 1901, describes it this way: “... the name Buster was conferred upon him by the members of the company with which his parents were then touring. The name has clung to him, and he finds it an admirable one under which to exploit his work in vaudeville.” By this time Houdini was the biggest star in vaudeville, so if he was responsible, why wasn’t he mentioned?
Other stories name specific vaudeville performers—not Houdini—who had supposedly planted the moniker on him. Even the midwife who delivered Buster on October 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas, claimed she gave him the nickname on the day he was born!
The people who run the Houdini museum in Wisconsin have nothing in their records to support the idea that Houdini was the man who named Buster. However, neither do they know anything that would disprove it. They have almost complete records of Houdini’s career except for the crucial years during which this incident would have taken place. Certainly the Keatons were friendly with the Houdinis and did go on tour with them in a medicine show immediately before Houdini became a world-famous magician. It’s also clear from surviving letters and documents that they remained friendly, so Houdini apparently did not object to getting credit for giving Buster his name—whether or not he actually did.
Myth: Buster never laughed or smiled on stage or screen.
This one’s easy. During his childhood stage appearances, Keaton was not a stone-faced performer, at least not always. As early as Nov. 5, 1904, Earl Remington of the vaudeville act Hines and Remington, wrote the follow ditty about nine-year-old Buster for the family’s weekly ad in The New York Dramatic Mirror:
“Love to ‘BUSTER,’ the Irrepressible
Whose ‘HIT’ is always incontestable.
Long may he flourish to beguile
the Public with his potent Smile.”
Keaton laughed or smiled in almost all of his early film appearances with his friend and mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was particularly animated in Coney Island, Goodnight, Nurse!, The Rough House and the recently rediscovered Oh, Doctor! Later on, there’s a broad Keaton smile at the finale of the 1934 French film Le Roi des Champs-Elyseés and another in the 1944 film San Diego, I Love You.
The real problem with this particular myth is that it has affected how biographers have perceived Keaton—several have looked at that somber stage persona and decided that he must have been an unhappy man, a sad clown. It also contributed to the idea that he must have been abused as a child.
What none of these biographers has taken into account is just what Keaton himself said about his lack of expression: “One of the first things I noticed was that whenever I smiled or let the audience suspect how much I was enjoying myself they didn’t seem to laugh as much as usual. I guess people just never do expect any human mop, dishrag, beanbag, or football to be pleased by what is being done to him. At any rate, it was on purpose that I started looking miserable, humiliated, hounded and haunted, bedeviled, bewildered and at my wit’s end.”
The Great Stone Face was a theatrical contrivance—nothing more, nothing less. It worked for him, and so he continued it. As he developed as a performer, Keaton worked very hard to maintain that public persona whenever he was on stage, in front of cameras, or even when he was being interviewed or having his picture taken by friends. So when biographers Tom Dardis or Marion Meade say (as both do, often) that you can tell Buster was unhappy at a certain times in his life because he looked that way in a photo, they are trying to use a theatrical device to prove a point about his personal life. Won’t work. At least not with Keaton
People who knew Buster best say he laughed and smiled often. Bartine Burkett, Buster’s leading lady from The High Sign (1920), said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow: “We’d be right in the middle of a take, and he’d think of something funny. He’d ruin the take, and we’d have to do it over again. But he laughed at everything very easily, and it was hard for him to be so solemn, you know.”
Eleanor Keaton, Buster’s widow, also talked about moments on stage or on live TV when something struck Buster funny. He always turned his face upstage or away from the camera so the public would not see him smile so the public persona would be maintained.
The biggest problem with this particular myth is that Buster himself created and perpetuated it. In dozens of interviews, as well as in his autobiography, Buster claimed he never smiled when performing. “Then when I’d step on stage or in front of a camera, I couldn’t smile. Still can’t,” he once said.
Just not true. He chose not to smile, and that’s not the same thing at all.
Myth: Buster Keaton was the victim of child abuse by his father, Joe Keaton.
The child abuse myth is one of the most persistent and pernicious myths about Buster Keaton. There’s no doubt that the family’s vaudeville act was a rough one, often called “the roughest act in vaudeville,” and Buster was often referred to as the Human Mop.
What do the facts tell us, and what can we conclude from them?
Let’s start with the family’s act. Sure, it was rough. Buster was thrown about the stage by his father. But does that necessarily prove that he was a victim of child abuse? Not at all. Even now, there are child performers. I can think of one in particular, a little boy with the Cirque du Soleil whose stock in trade is dangerous-looking acrobatics. Do they get hurt occasionally? Probably. But kids also get hurt riding bicycles, playing in the yard, jumping on beds, and swinging on swings. If a child gets hurt doing any of these things, do we accuse the parents of abuse?
After scanning hundreds of reviews and ads for the family stage act, reading dozens of interviews with Keaton and family friends, I have found references to only two on-stage accidents. And yet the Keatons performed at least twice a day for more than 17 years. Assuming they took three months off in the summer (which sometimes they didn’t) and assuming they worked only five days a week (which they didn’t), that comes out to a minimum of about 10,000 performances. Two accidents out of 10,000 would be an injury rate of .002 percent. Not bad.
Some writers have mentioned that Keaton’s father was occasionally taken before child labor authorities. Psychologist Alice Miller, who has perpetuated the child abuse myth, says: “When he was only three, Buster Keaton started appearing on the stage with his parents, who were vaudeville performers and helped to make them famous by taking severe abuse in front of an audience without batting an eyelash. The audience would squeal with delight, and by the time the authorities would be ready to intervene because of the physical injuries the little boy sustained, the family would already be performing in another city.”
In her indictment, not only has Miller confused performing with reality, she has left out crucial information. The Gerry Society, the child labor authorities, never found any evidence of mistreatment. No broken bones, not even a bruise. If they had, the Keatons would have been yanked off the stage. And although Joe Keaton was occasionally arrested for allowing his under-aged son to work, after the officials examined Buster, who had to strip naked, the Keatons were let go, or merely fined for allowing Buster to work, which is not the same as finding abuse.
“We used to get arrested every other week—that is, the old man would get arrested,” Buster recalled. “Once they took me to the mayor of New York City, into his private office, with the city physicians ... and they stripped me to examine me for broken bones and bruises. Finding none, the mayor gave me permission to work. The next time it happened, the following year, they sent me to Albany, to the governor of the state.”
A vaudeville friend, Will “Mush” Rawls, confirmed Buster’s version, saying: “...and then Buster would have to go down to the chief of police, pull off his little shirt and pants and show them that he had no bruises or broken legs.”
Some writers have gone even further, claiming Joe abused Buster off stage beginning in his early childhood. Until Buster joined the act, Joe and Myra Keaton were struggling to make a living on the fringes of show business. Almost as soon as Buster started appearing with them, they became a success, soon a big success. Joe Keaton was not a stupid man. Even if you think he might have been jealous of his young son’s talent, his family was dependent for its livelihood on Buster’s ability to perform. There is no way he would have endangered the family’s means of making a living or its reputation in the very small world of vaudeville by hurting his star, the family breadwinner.
By the time Buster was in his late teens, things changed. Joe’s drinking had ruined his on-stage timing and wreaked havoc with his temperament. Buster admits that the family act broke up in 1917 because of Joe’s dangerous behavior, which by then did include elements of abuse. But to take this information that Buster was quite candid about, as some writers have done, mix it up with the roughhouse nature of the act and conclude that Buster’s entire childhood was one of severe abuse, is irresponsible. The facts and simple logic just don’t support it
These same writers suggest that Buster’s claims that he loved the act and loved his father are really examples of repression. Keaton was never shy about discussing the unpleasant aspects of his life—his drinking, his marital troubles, his dislike of MGM. So why can’t we take him at his word about his love for his family? Is it because of that stone face? Is it because the cultural myth of the sad clown is so ingrained in us? Is it because we’ve superimposed the sensibilities of our own time on the 1900s?
Or is it because we’d rather believe the gossip? It makes such a tidy little picture. This poor, abused child who is deprived of love and a normal childhood stops smiling because he hurts so much on the inside but turns his pain into laughter that millions can enjoy. Sounds almost like a bad movie, doesn’t it? Come to think of it, it was a bad movie. It was called The Buster Keaton Story.
Myth: Buster Keaton was a lifelong alcoholic.
In the 1920s, Keaton seems to have been like many people during Prohibition—a social drinker, even a heavy social drinker on occasion. When his life fell to pieces in the late 1920s-early 1930s, he used alcohol disastrously as an escape from his many problems. His drinking was indeed severe. He went through delirium tremens, which is alcohol withdrawal and eventually was committed to a sanitarium to dry out. For a few years, Keaton was drunk almost constantly. In addition, his father had a serious drinking problem, which had forced Buster to break up the family act. A tendency toward alcoholism is considered an inherited trait.
After battling with it for several years, Keaton quit drinking cold turkey in 1935 and seldom had a problem with it again. For most of the rest of his life, Keaton allowed himself one beer every evening, with no disastrous side effects. I have interviewed many people who knew him well, some who spent months with him on tour during different stage productions, and all agree they saw no evidence of a drinking problem.
The true alcoholic, according to most experts, can never drink without having difficulties. The alcoholic must refrain or suffer the consequences. The experts also agree, however, that some people have episodes of serious drinking triggered by outside circumstances but, and this is an important distinction, that does not make them alcoholics. Keaton apparently fell into this category. His period of acute drinking seems to have lasted for only a few years, probably from 1930-31 to 1935. From then on, he was able to handle his liquor, with only occasional exceptions—exceptions not unlike moments experienced by other social drinkers.
Myth: Buster Keaton was illiterate.
Author Marion Meade started this myth, the newest in the Keaton pantheon, in her 1995 biography. It’s an easy one to disprove.
Buster’s handwriting was clearly the work of someone who has been taught penmanship in a day when penmanship was a basic part of education. And although Keaton attended only one day of public school, his parents apparently did hire governesses and tutors to teach him on the road.
There are countless examples of Keaton’s writing. I’ve seen his date books, which he kept faithfully from 1908, when he was 13, to 1919. In them, he recorded every city and theater in which the Keatons performed during those years. The books are written very neatly and mostly in pen. They include virtually no spelling mistakes—not even a crossed-out word.
When he entered World War I, Keaton was assigned to the signal corps. “I took being a soldier quite seriously,” he says in his autobiography, “studied the Morse Code regularly, also map reading and semaphore signaling. On mastering these subjects I discovered that I was the best-informed private in my outfit.” His date book for 1919, which is full of Keaton’s Morse Code practice, bears him out. It is unlikely the army would have taught Morse Code to someone who could neither read nor write.
In fact, Keaton considered reading one of his hobbies—certainly an unusual hobby for someone supposedly illiterate. His favorite reading was detective/mystery novels, but he also read William Pittenger’s The Great Locomotive Chase, the historical book that inspired his greatest film, The General.
Over the years, Keaton wrote stories, song lyrics and scripts. A brief sample of his writing, the opening scene from a treatment for a possible screenplay called Flannelfoot:
“On a drizzly, foggy London night, Mr. Whiteside, a tall man of middle years, turns up the collar of his trench coat and looks appealingly back toward the doorway of a stately English home. Framed therein is Mrs. Whiteside, who glares at him accusingly, pointing an unforgiving finger. He raises his hands in mute protestation of innocence, but she rejects him with an imperious gesture. He turns and slowly walks into the night. The door to the house slams behind him with a sound of doom.”
Pretty good vocabulary and grasp of the English language for an illiterate, no?
Myth: Buster Keaton was financially inept.
In his later years, Keaton turned over his finances to his wife, Eleanor. He seldom carried much cash on him, and seemed to have a naïveté about money that caused people who knew him then to think that he didn’t understand financial matters.
It’s understandable that people might have believed he was financially inept. For whatever reason, Keaton was careless with his money, but this is another myth not completely supported by the facts.
As early as the age of 13, Buster Keaton kept the financial records for his family’s vaudeville act, logging all their expenses and income in his date books. Each ledger is recorded with neat columns of figures, perfectly added in pen.
In the 1920s, he made several investments that should have reaped him major financial rewards. For example, he invested in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the La Brea Tar Pits. But Keaton was unlucky—perhaps it was just a matter of timing. The very same investments that made fortunes for his peers didn’t succeed for him. They made money; he lost it.
Keaton was also notoriously generous with his money. He was known as a soft touch, someone who would help anyone in trouble. For many years, he was the main financial support for his friend Roscoe Arbuckle when Arbuckle’s career collapsed after the Virginia Rappe manslaughter scandal in 1921.
Few people ever repaid him. One who did was Loyal “Doc” Lucas, who said that when he paid back a loan for a car in the 1950s, Keaton was so startled he could hardly believe it. “Eleanor!” he called to his wife. “I got my money back!” Lucas quoted Eleanor: “She told me later that if he got back even half the money he had loaned out, he would be a very wealthy man. That’s how generous he was.”
Keaton was simply indifferent to money. He was capable of dealing with it but just not interested. In the 1920s, he had been rich, lived in mansions, had the best clothes and expensive cars. When he lost his wealth, it doesn’t seem to have bothered him much. He had always wanted a modest home, which he got in 1957, thanks to his earnings from The Buster Keaton Story, and was content with what he had.
In this materialistic age, indifference to money may be hard to fathom, but Keaton was a man who apparently got his sense of satisfaction from the work he did and from his personal life, not from his bank balance, and from knowing that he had enough money to help someone in need.
Myth: Buster Keaton was just another pie-throwing Keystone Kops-type slapstick comic.
As early as 1931, when Keaton appeared with the Keystone Kops in a scene from a charity fund-raising film called The Stolen Jools, he allowed people to believe he was just a pie-thrower. Admittedly, he had thrown a couple of pies in a film in early Arbuckle shorts, including his debut, The Butcher Boy, but pie-throwing was the least of his talents.
Perhaps because the public seemed to believe it anyway, Keaton traded on this half-truth. In 1939, he threw a pie that accidentally hit Alice Faye in Hollywood Cavalcade, and in several live television appearances, he demonstrated the art of pie-throwing. That messy kind of slapstick seemed to be what the public expected, what they thought he had done back in the ancient silent-movie days, and far be it for him to tell them they were wrong. If they wanted pie-throwing, he gave them pie-throwing. Work was work.
Myth: When he was older, Buster Keaton was often gruff and distant.
Alan Schneider, who directed Keaton in Samuel Beckett’s Film, remembered meeting with Keaton in a hotel room in New York: “Now and then, Sam [Beckett] or I would try to say something to show some interest in Keaton, or just to keep the non-existent conversation going. It was no use. Keaton would answer in monosyllables and get right back to the Yankees—or was it the Mets?”
Photographer Larry Blumsack, who photographed Keaton in Boston in 1961, recalled: “The session had a chilling solemnity to it. Physically, he was sitting in front of me. He responded to me when I asked him to do something. To this day, as I look at the photographs, I still wonder what distant places Buster Keaton traveled to in his soul as I photographed him.”
This is the view of Buster Keaton by people who barely knew him: a remote man who was unresponsive and withdrawn. There were two things about Keaton that these strangers didn’t know, but friends and family did.
First, Buster Keaton was terribly, painfully, shy. Unless he was with friends, or in situations that he found comfortable, his shyness caused Keaton great difficulty. His third wife, Eleanor, was at his side almost constantly during their 26 years of marriage; her presence put him more at ease.
Second, Keaton was nearly deaf, especially late in his life. Most of the time Eleanor was on hand to make sure he understood what was being said to him. But when she wasn’t nearby, he had to fend for himself, and he was uncomfortable letting people know about his disability. Rather than tell someone he couldn’t hear, Keaton would often attempt to respond to what he thought was being asked. If he just couldn’t hear, he would often retreat emotionally or become frustrated and snappish—common reactions among people with hearing problems.
Myth: Keaton lost his creativity after the silent era.
In later years, Keaton was accused of reaching into a bag of old tricks rather than creating anything new. Instead of coming up with innovative ideas, he preferred to repeat old gags. The flaw in this myth is that Keaton had always repeated gags. A close analysis of his films with Arbuckle and on his own finds material recycled over and over.
For example, there’s the famous stunt from Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which the front wall of a house falls down around Buster and he escapes being crushed because he’s standing exactly within a window opening. Keaton used this gag, and variations on it, at least six times in his silent films, in one of the Arbuckle shorts, in The Blacksmith, in One Week, and three separate times in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Another favorite was the gag of the partially obstructed sign. He used it again and again. Many of his other gags appear over and over throughout his life’s work.
The only way to answer the question of whether he lost his creativity in later years is to see what he did that was new and different.
Try the 1936 Educational short Grand Slam Opera. In it, he sings, dances, juggles, and creates inventive new routines.
Or his 1934 French film Le Roi des Champs-Elyseés or the 1939 comedy Pest From the West, which are full of unique comedy material.
Or when he worked as a gagman at MGM in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Buster was often called in to find unique solutions to plot problems. None of these gags is like anything he had done for film previously.
Or his early television appearances on The Ed Wynn Show or Talk of the Town (later The Ed Sullivan Show), for which he put together brand-new material that had no apparent connection to anything he had done before.
Or some of his many TV commercials, for which he created completely new bits.
What Keaton lost was his creative control. The tragedy for most of us is the dream unrealized. What kind of films would he have made had he been allowed to continue? We don’t know because no one would let him do it.
Myth: Buster Keaton was a sad clown.
Again, it’s a tidy picture: the little boy who never smiled, abused by his father on stage and off, who had a miserable life but made millions laugh.
But everyone who knew Buster well, both during his childhood and in his later life, has said he was happy and contented. There’s no getting around the fact that he had a bad period—a very bad period—in the early 1930s, during which he lost his job, his money, his home, his family and his reputation, and then began to drink heavily, which aggravated his problems. He was not happy then. He was undoubtedly frustrated over losing the creative control he had been used to. But a condensed five-year stretch of misery in a life of 70 years is not too bad in the scheme of things.
Keaton was pragmatic about his career. He had known the ups and downs of show business since childhood, and he was sanguine about the way his career had gone.
Ultimately he married happily, worked constantly, earned almost as much money in the years before his death as he had during his heyday, and continued to receive the adulation of fans. He owned his modest house, raised chickens, grew an orchard, and got together with friends to play cards, tell stories and play the ukulele and sing.
Keaton was a man who got pleasure from simple things: fishing, playing baseball, building Rube Goldberg-like gadgets, barbecuing, playing with his dog or neighborhood children, finding a four-leaf clover.
Sounds like a pretty good life—one that most of us would be glad to have.
Keaton thought so, too. Here’s how he summed up his life: “Because of the way I looked on the stage and screen, the public naturally assumed I felt hopeless and unloved in my personal life. Nothing could be farther from the fact. As long back as I can remember, I have considered myself a fabulously lucky man.”
There’s no reason not to believe him.
“Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.”
—William Cullen Bryant
(Patricia Eliot Tobias, President Emerita of The International Buster Keaton Society, is a film historian, a writer, a designer and an editor. She has lectured at Oxford University, appeared on PBS, written for The New York Times, designed a mural for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, taught communications at the University of Connecticut, and often writes and lectures about film.)