PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH
Inside the Italian Villa
In 1903, fiction author Edith Wharton
(The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth), was assigned to write a series
of articles for Century Magazine to be illustrated by Maxfield Parrish,
on the "Italian Villas and Their Gardens". Wharton spent
four months in Italy and her book has become a standard work on the
subject; much of this article refers to design principles she has
pointed out as applied to Buster Keaton's home.
curious thing happens when a house is opened up to the elements -- with
the fads, furniture and decorative changes of subsequent owners removed,
the structure returns to its original lines, much like an architectural
drawing. The obscured significance of the rooms becomes clear even after
a span of 75 years. Due to its historical value in the rapidly changing
Los Angeles landscape, and by virtue of its age, the Italian Villa is
nearing the true antique status awarded anything that holds up for a
So much has already been written
about what happened afterwards, as if with hindsight the house itself
were somehow responsible for the marriage that should have worked but
didn't, or as though it were a symbol of the evils of wealth in the
extravagant 20s, when everyone was extravagant, and could afford to
be, until a national depression and a war put an end to all the gilded
parties. Its true character, both as an architectural type, transplanted
and blended with Hollywood movie fantasy, and as a family home, has
been as distorted and warped as Keaton's character was at M-G-M under
the big studio system. Buster, after all, had much to do with the design
and planning of the house and gardens, which took a year to complete,
and his personality is everywhere. There is a sense of amusement about
any "grand" touches that keep the house from being austere
or imposing, and dozens of little acknowledgments to everyone's needs,
which remind one irresistibly of Buster's little tip of the porkpie
hat, followed by the gag. He was very proud of his home, and often referred
to it deprecatingly, as he referred to anything he was proud of; in
later life when he did not own his own films and was unaware of their
true value, his studio long gone, the Italian Villa still stood as a
concrete reminder of what he'd been capable of as an engineer (his avowed
other vocation, had he not been born into show business.)
The word "villa" carries
this meaning too -- it can mean "pleasure house" or "playhouse".
During the Renaissance, a villa was a country retreat, where a noble
could retire to oversee his vineyard, hold entertainments (many villas,
based on the old Roman designs, had amphitheaters), and without the
constraints of the city, cultivate his gardens and live as a gentleman
farmer. Although the historic villas of Italy vary greatly in design,
they had some important design principles in common, all of which are
ingeniously applied to their latter-day descendant of 1926. These include
the harmony of the design in its original setting and landscape, the
use of perspectives and views, the incorporation of local materials,
and the practical and elegant arrangement of the rooms and gardens.
Little is known about its architect,
Gene Verge. But there can be no doubt he was a student of the classical
architectural principles of Palladio, the best-known architect of the
In 1920, the year before she married
Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, her mother Peg, and movie star sisters
Norma and Constance, took a trip to Europe. According to Peg, Natalie's
favorite stop on the tour was Italy. Domesticated and quiet, it is likely
that the order and formality of the Italian style appealed to her, and
having known poverty as a child, it's also likely that the stateliness
and permanence of a palazzo made a great impression. "These old-world
storied cities held a particularly potent charm for Natalie," her
mother noted in her memoirs.
Keaton had grown up in vaudeville, as a child star. The Keatons, by
contrast, had never truly been poor. The depression of 1899 (when Buster
was four) was too long ago for him to recall; he said later they had
always earned a comfortable living , and during their heyday on the
big time circuits Buster had taken home "the same pay as his Pa
" -- far more than most adult workers in America made all year.
Buster took his savings and bought his first car at the age of 13. (There
was then no set nationwide driving age limit, or license requirement.)
The BrownieKar cost $500, a considerable sum for a boy to save up even
now. The eventual goal of all vaudevillians was a home of their own;
and Buster had especially fond memories of summers in their cottage
on the lake at Muskegon and of his grandfather's ranch in Nebraska.
Some vaudevillians collected diamonds, others went in for real estate
or the stock market. The newsstands constantly displayed magazines for
boys with titles like "Work and Win", or "How Fred Fearnot
Won Over Wall Street". Buster grew up in an era when boys were
not only expected to earn their way, but to achieve a great deal, to
When Buster and Natalie met for
the first time at the Norma Talmadge Studio in New York in 1917, they
appeared to have a great deal in common, including a love of family
and pets. Though he was a comedian, the off-screen Buster was in fact
rather serious, and Natalie's seriousness appealed to him. He said in
his autobiography: "I was attracted to her at once. She seemed
a meek, mild girl who had much warmth and great feminine sweetness.
Shortly after our first date I met her mother and the rest of her family.
I thought they were all wonderful." His love of family appealed
to her, or as her mother said: "Natalie made it known that Buster
felt just as we all did about the solidarity of our family. She wanted
me to understand, I think, in the conscientious manner that is Natalie's,
that while the courtship had been, as Constance teasingly persisted
in declaring it "a mail-order romance" it was based upon very
deep understanding and love."
After the marriage in 1921, the
couple returned to California, where Buster was finishing up a picture,
and due to his work commitments, did not even have a real honeymoon.
There had been some serious discussion about leaving New York -- for
many years the Talmadges and many others persisted in viewing New York
as the hub of Civilization - and it was in fact still the home of the
front offices of the picture business. Buster admitted he too would
miss New York, at least socially: "New York then, at the beginning
of the Riproaring Twenties - was the most exciting town on earth."
he said. Constance, Natalie and Norma had all been West before -- Constance
and Norma to work for the great D.W. Griffith, and Natalie as Roscoe
Arbuckle's secretary and occasional Scenarist and extra girl. Norma
had moved her production company to California in 1920, and Natalie
had even lived with Buster's family, taking Buster's room while he was
away in France in 1918, and impressed his mother Myra as The Girl her
son was in love with. When Nat gave Buster a ring before he went to
war, Myra remembered thinking "there will be a ring coming back
the other way soon". In any event, the Talmadges were much like
the Keatons -- comfortable rather than upstage. "I can't wear all
the beautiful things Joe gave me," said Norma Talmadge to her friend
Miriam Cooper. "I have to keep them put away." Rather than
a safety deposit box, Norma kept her jewelry in a brown paper bag in
the refrigerator, with vegetables on top. "Insurance companies
won't touch picture people." she said. Her husband, producer Joe
Schenck, believed in a star living like a star, and encouraged all his
stars to do so, not only Norma, but also Constance, Roscoe Arbuckle,
and, now that he had his own studio and was married to another Talmadge
Girl, Buster Keaton.
Natalie and Buster's first "Hollywood"
home was located at Westchester Place, Los Angeles. Westchester Place
was considered "fashionable" and was centered inside a large
private square formed by Wilshire Boulevard to the north, West Pico
to the south, South La Brea on the west and Vermont on the east. Further
east of Vermont was the high-society neighborhood of Roscoe Arbuckle
and Edward Doheny's homes - West Adams Boulevard. 1921 had been eventful
enough -- the first trial of Buster's friend and mentor Roscoe Arbuckle
had taken place, and a pregnant Natalie had accompanied Buster to the
train station for Roscoe's return. An open letter to Variety from Joe
Schenck, and signed by Norma Talmadge, Constance Talmadge and Buster
Keaton, appeared near Christmas to agree with the Hayes Office decision
that Roscoe's films should be withdrawn until the trials were over.
It should be understood that at this time there was much debate raging
as to whether there would be a picture industry at all, and did not
solely concern Roscoe's career. For several months previous to Roscoe's
ill-fated Labor Day party, the pages of Variety had been filled with
unpleasant power-plays between the studio management back in New York
and the carefree actors and crew out on the coast; there were several
strikes , pay cuts, and studio shutdowns. Viola Dana, one of Buster's
first friends in Hollywood, recalled that actors were always expecting
to be summoned back to New York, and no one was really sure if they
would be able to stay in California. Most of them were still renting
homes. Norma and Joe Schenck bought and moved into Roscoe's Tudor-style
place (once the home of Theda Bara) to help him meet lawyer's costs.
Keatons' first child, James, was born in June, 1922. After a brief stay
in a pretty, white house with a red-tiled roof on Ardmore Avenue, they
lived in a three-story pseudo-Tudor mansion owned by Peg Talmadge on
Westmoreland Place -- the house that is featured in "The Electric
House", (1922). Therein, with a young baby, the Keatons anticipated
nightly the 11 o'clock gong which signaled next door neighbor Mack Sennett's
less rowdy guests departing, and suffered the incessant quacking of
Mack's mother's favorite bird, ducks. Buster's dogs probably enjoyed
the ducks, and Mack's swimming pool, which Sennett bragged was "about
the size of Puget Sound."
Norma and Constance had
homes of their own -- they may have moved west to give Nat moral support,
but between them they ended up owning a nice amount of property -- Norma
with several houses from Coronado to Beverly Hills and Constance with
a beach house or two in Santa Monica and a home in "Hollywood".
Inspired and encouraged by Joe Schenck, Buster and the Talmadges bought
homes and soon sold them again at a profit. Beverly Hills in fact was
so new at the time that they were advertising for buyers, and practically
the only building was the Beverly Hills Hotel, built in 1911, and showing
flickers every Saturday night for the locals.The rest of the Keatons
had moved West permanently when Buster took over the Comique studio
from Roscoe Arbuckle in 1920, and they lived in a large, pleasant bungalow
style home in the Wilshire district, partly paid for with profits from
Buster's real estate jumping.
was shooting a picture: by 1923 Constance was in one of her hits, "Dulcy"
(from the stage play) and appeared in "Potash and Perlmutter in
Hollywood" as herself, a sure sign of her popularity. Norma was
shooting four pictures on the heels of two of her greatest successes
of 1922: "Smilin' Through" and "Ashes of Vengeance"
(costarring Wallace Beery, who also appeared in "Three Ages"
that year). The picture business had made it through and survived gingerly
by the grace of Will Hayes after several scandals. Buster and Natalie
(now carrying their second son, Robert) were shooting "Our Hospitality",
often on location in Truckee. Buster's longtime friend and screen adversary,
Big Joe Roberts, suffered a heart attack and died during the filming.
With one cherished friend gone and a new baby on the way, the Keatons
turned their attention to building a home of their own, and settling
down for real. "It was time to roll your own," Buster said.
In 1924, Buster picked out two
choice lots and built and furnished one house before presenting it to
Natalie as a fait accompli. Natalie, who had been looking forward to
a spacious sanctuary like that of her sisters, was disappointed in the
size of the house, which had been designed without a view to servants'
accommodation and was, in her eyes, and in the light of their expanding
family and Buster's expanding career, just too small. Buster describes
it as a ranch house, but it's unlikely the style was a problem; simply
not enough space. A "ranch house" in 1924 would very likely
have resembled the home of screenwriter Frances Marion or another Mission/hacienda
Berenice Mannix, Eddie Mannix's
wife, loved the house and offered to buy it on the spot. Buster was
crushed by Natalie's reaction, but he lost nothing on the deal, and
invested this money in 1925 in building a new house that should be big
enough to satisfy anyone socially and accommodate all their needs -
the Italian Villa. Professionally, Keaton was also in a very creative
and productive phase, getting his cowboy kicks in "Go West"
and experimenting with Technicolor in "Seven Chances". He
was also getting ready to film his most ambitious and expensive project
yet. This film, which he told the press would be called "The Engine
Driver", we know today as "The General."
While Buster was in Los Angeles,
he and architect Gene Verge, aided and abetted by Keaton's special effects
man, Fred "Gabe" Gabouri, and the Beverly Hills Nurseries,
planned the Villa and its grounds with an eye to Buster and Natalie's
and the childrens' needs. Natalie would have the largest bedroom suite,
in a completely feminine style, in the most private part of the house,
the west wing, so she could sleep late. She would have a room to house
the various boxes of hats, suits, afternoon dresses, tea gowns, evening
gowns, tennis dresses, riding habits, coats, furs, slippers and shoes
and gloves that a lady needed in an era when women changed their clothes
according to rigid fashion rules several times a day, and according
to the seasons of the year. The Talmadge Girls were considered doyennes
of fashion and everyone always noticed and reported what they wore to
parties and public appearances. She would have a small octagonal mirrored
room in which to dress and make sure her toilette was correct from head
to foot. This room resembled a princess's tower and from its narrow
windows she could look out over the front drive. Her bathroom would
be all in pink tile, all the fixtures gold-plated and sized to her petite
height. Her bed would be king sized and on a platform, and Buster designed
and made these pieces at the studio, as well as his own bedroom furniture.
Buster would have a slightly smaller
suite of rooms at the of the end of the short hallway, keeping the children,
who also each had their own domain, in between. In the round vestibule
outside his rooms was an alcove with an intercom. He would have two
large closets to house his numerous shirts, ties, hats, hunting gear,
etc. and access to a sleeping porch in the hot weather (later also used
as a flower cutting room). He had his own entrance and his own bath
(which he scarcely used, having full dressingroom facilities at the
studio). The dumbwaiter could send up food and there was that mainstay
of the 20s, the sewing room, where clothes and costumes could be fitted
and mended (or bootleg liquor stored). And Buster had enough room to
rehearse. His bedroom mirror still remains in the house. A gilded gate
at the top of the stairs, allegedly imported from a palace in Spain,
kept the family safe and together at night.
The boys would each have a room
with their own bath in between, an outdoor playhouse that mirrored the
Villa itself, animals and toys galore. Both still under the age of 5,
their shenanigans were already being reported in magazines like Photoplay
and Motion Picture World. Buster said they were spoiled shamelessly
by their aunts, Constance and Norma, aided wholeheartedly by his wife
and his own sister, Louise Keaton.
Buster also had his playroom,
complete with projector and rollout movie screen, card tables, pool
table and record player, along with a hidden bar in one of the downstairs
Buster had brought Natalie and
the boys to Cottage Grove for the filming of "The General",
and together they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary at the
Bartell Hotel there in May. By Thanksgiving, their new home was ready
to move into.
and see the restorations...