Buster Keaton seemed to have it all in the mid-1920s. His career was riding high, as the public loved his film comedies, making him one of America’s top film personalities. He had a beautiful wife, Natalie Talmadge, and two lovely boys, though the public didn’t know that behind the scenes, the marriage was shaky. All he needed was a grand house to complete the image of the successful gentleman.
The Keatons first built a nice though average size home that Natalie considered too small for the family and staff once completed. After selling it off, Buster began planning an elaborate estate for his wife, one to rival that of her more successful sisters Norma and Constance, as well as top stars Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Keaton’s home in a display ad, Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1927
The Keatons bought land at 1004 Hartford Way in Beverly Hills, and hired architect Gene Verge as architect. Verge designed homes around Los Angeles, as well as schools, churches, and club buildings, mostly in the Italian Renaissance or Spanish style. The Jan. 3, 1926, Los Angeles Times stated that Verge had drawn plans for a home to cost around $200,000 in the Italian Renaissance style, with “spacious forecourt,…terraces, cascade dropping from a height of fifty feet to the pool beneath…extensive grounds will have room for tennis, archery and numerous other sports.” Supposedly Keaton’s special effects man Fred Gabourie lent assistance to the project.
The 10,000-square-foot home named “the Italian Villa” by Keaton was completed in late 1926 at a cost of $300,000 per Marc Wanamaker in his “Early Beverly Hills” book. The house contained 20 rooms over three acres, with a pool, tennis court, guest house, and a small shed in back where Buster would cut his films as well as store his own private film prints. Detailing included painted ceiling beams in the dining room, wrought ironwork for staircases, and an elaborate, motorized movie screen that retracted into the screening room wall when not in use.
A long driveway ended in a circular forecourt and fountain in front of the estate’s grilled ironwork door. The sunken entrance gallery led up a few steps to a fountain, with large salon-like rooms opening off each side. Off to the right was the large screening room and drawing room, with small music room off to one side. A family room off the screening room functioned as card and billiard room. A dining room and salon opened off the other side of the gallery, and a glass enclosed patio occupied the rear of the house. Beautiful gardens lay just outside the windows.
Natalie’s personal bedroom suite occupied almost the entire west wing, while Buster made do with just a small bedroom.
As Marion Meade states in “Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase,” “On the knoll of a hill, overlooking a rolling lawn, the pale green stucco mansion rose like a fifteenth-century suburban house transplanted from the Venetian countryside. Against a backdrop of cypresses and palms a staircase of exactly sixty steps descended to a thirty-foot Romanesque swimming pool, flanked by classical nude statues and inlaid with mosaic tiles. The steep terraces had been landscaped by a gardener who once worked for Pope Pius X11.”
Meade also states that the grounds included a trout stream winding through the property could be “turned on and off at the push of a button.”
Buster was proud of his home, proudly showing it off in his film, “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” in 1931.
By the 1930s, the Keaton marriage was in serious trouble. In April 1932, Buster took his sons and their nurse flying to San Diego to visit an Encinitas Ranch. Natalie and her sister Constance Talmadge rushed to Dist. Atty. Buron Fitts’ office, asking him to have police meet the plane in San Diego and bring the children back. When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Buster claimed, “I only took the boys on the plane trip to show who wears the trousers in our house…I just wanted to see who’s boss.”
Natalie Keaton finally filed for divorce in July 1932, with the official end of the marriage in August.
She was awarded the home in the divorce settlement, but soon sold it. Various celebrities lived there over the years, including Barbara Hutton and Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich.
In 1949, owner John Reynolds Owens died, and the entire estate was auctioned off, furniture and all. Actor James Mason successfully negotiated down the price of the house from around $200,000 to under $100,000, but to help finance costs, some of the acreage was subdivided, including the lovely stairs cascading to the pool. They made alterations inside, as had former owners. In later years, Pamela Mason, who won the home in a divorce settlement with James, deferred maintenance, shutting the doors and not entering rooms which needed major work. She eventually sold it to buyers who restored old estates. After more than two years’ work, they sold to the current owners.
Much has been restored in the home, with a false ceiling removed in the dining room, revealing the beautiful painted ceiling beams. A room has been added off the screening room, matching the wooded paneling and beams almost exactly.
The Los Angeles Conservancy featured a tour of the home and grounds Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, as an elaborate fundraiser. Participants were allowed to tour the entire first floor of the home, projection room, grounds, and the exterior of the shed, where Mason found much of Keaton’s films. The grounds once again resemble those of an Italian villa, with paths leading to small nooks and private areas. Outdoor seating areas offer places of respite and beauty. Walking through the home, one could almost feel Buster making a sandwich in the kitchen and taking it with him to his large screening room, where he could watch rushes of his films or see a completed work. A lovely home and monument to an incredibly talented man.