Inside the Italian Villa

by Victoria Sainte-Claire

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.

Solarium view, c. 2000, Italian Villa.A 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 century.

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 Italian Renaissance.


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.

The Talmadge girls and the Keaton boys.Buster 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 "make good".

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.

The "electric" house, c. 1923.The 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 Talmadge Schenck at the front door of one her residences, c. 1923.
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.

Constance Talmadge's living room, c. 1923.Everybody 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 type design.

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 bathrooms.

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...

Robert, Natalie, Buster and James Keaton, c. 1924.



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