Norma, Dutch, Nate, and Peg: The Talmadge Girls
Constance and Norma Talmadge. Orignally published in A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen.
At the height of the silent film era, there were two sisters who dominated both spectrums of film. Norma Talmadge, a "brunette of glowing beauty,”[i] and her sister Constance, “a delectably pretty clown,”[ii] cornered the market on drama and romantic comedy, respectively. Shoved into the limelight by their redoubtable mother Peg, and accompanied by their sister Natalie, the Talmadges were a force to be reckoned with. But their true talent was in living. For all four Talmadges never took themselves or their films seriously, liked making money and spending it lavishly, and enjoyed each others’ company more than that of any fellow stars.
Screenwriter Anita Loos worked almost
exclusively for the Talmadges from 1916-1925. In 1978, Loos published her
memories of those golden years: The
Talmadge Girls. To date, this is the only published biography of this
fascinating family. Her memoirs are deeply personal, for during the heyday of
their collaboration Loos spent most of her days in the company of one or all of
the Talmadge clan. Loos enjoyed the three lively girls and found a kindred
spirit in Peg, whose acerbic observations were later echoed by Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Loos opens her memoirs with a tale of one sad Christmas when the young Talmadge family was still living on Fenimore Street in Brooklyn. They had nothing to eat, and shiftless “Pop” Talmadge promised to “borry a dollar” from the corner tavern to buy the girls some hamburgers. Peg, knowing “the skunk had left for good,” rescued Christmas somewhat by concocting a faux turkey dressing out of soda crackers.[iii] Such was the Talmadge Christmas that year—but such was Peg’s resourcefulness.
In those lean years, Peg made ends meet by teaching painting on velvet, selling cosmetics, and taking in laundry. Meanwhile, Norma and Constance (always called “Dutch” by friends and family) grew into beauties. The first turning point in the family’s fortune came when Peg, hearing that one of Norma’s classmates was posing as a model, hustled Norma into a job as a model for illustrated song slides. From there, by dint of sheer obstinacy that included such tactics as sneaking into studios, Peg got Norma and Dutch into movies.
Norma Talmadge, early in her career. Orignally published in A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen.
Norma was the most in demand, toiling away for the Vitagraph Company. However, when the Talmadges followed the studios to California, Dutch had the luck of appearing in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as an onion-eating chariot girl. Loos met the Talmadges while they were all working for Griffith; Loos wrote The Matrimaniac for Dutch and Douglas Fairbanks, and The Social Secretary for Norma. Although they made a few pictures, Peg realized her girls weren’t the fragile, demure types Griffith favored for lead roles, so she packed the family back to New York City.
In New York, the Talmadges found their lucky charm, the man who would manage the careers of the two actresses and catapult them both to stardom. Joseph Schenk, whom Loos recalled as having “every male attraction except good looks,”[iv] was a powerful businessman who owned a chain of Marcus Loew Theaters with his brother, Nick. Upon meeting Norma, Schenk was “motivated by love [and] set out to back Norma’s career with all the wealth and influence at his command.”[v] The couple wed October 20, 1916. Although they divorced in 1934, they remained on good terms, as Loos recalled: “When Norma first married Joe, she had nicknamed him “daddy,” and after their parting Joe continued to be the same ideal father figure—not only to Norma, but also to Dutch and Nate.”[vi]
Constance Talmadge in a still from one of her films. Originally published in The Talmadge Girls.
Dutch married for the first time in 1920, after stringing along two Irvings—Berlin and Thalberg—in her wake. But the closeness of the Talmadge clan withstood and superceded all marriages. Joe Schenk was expected to make a star out of Dutch as well, and he did—turning her into a queen of light, sophisticated comedies while Norma ruled all romantic dramas. Natalie, called Nate, resigned herself to not having a career as a brilliant actress, but worked in the publicity department for both sisters. Nate married Buster Keaton in 1921, and Schenk took over Keaton’s career as well. In the meantime, Schenk also enticed Loos and her husband John Emerson from California to write exclusively for the girls. He ensconced everyone in a “ramshackle New York studio that was lively as a Keystone farce…Norma’s troop occupied with ground floor…Dutch’s troupe held forth with equal ribaldry on the second floor…The third floor of the studio was enlivened by Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, who were slapping out farces that abounded in pretty girl wearing corsets under form-fitting bathing suits, and sporting high-heeled beach sandals.”[vii]
Natalie and Buster Keaton's wedding, 1921. Loos can be seen at far left, peeking over Peg's shoulder. Originally published in The Talmadge Girls.
Loos’ memories of the Talmadge clan focus upon the girls’ lack of rivalry and pretension and desire for fun. For example, Nate often lost her suitors to Dutch, but there were no hard feelings: “I wouldn’t have a man who wouldn’t prefer Dutch! To hell with him!” she told Loos. Loos tells these stories in her inimitable way, and it’s easy to get carried away by her witty prose. However, there was a darker side to this story of “three Cinderellas from Brooklyn.” Norma’s marriage to Joe was violent and he often beat her, once injuring her so badly on a transatlantic voyage that she had to remain in her cabin for the duration of the trip. When sound came in, Norma made three films and quit forever, banking on Dutch’s advice that nothing could buck the trust funds Peg had set aside. Late in life, Norma was afflicted with severe arthritis and became hooked on drugs to numb the pain.
Dutch married several times and enjoyed being the queen of film comedies until sound came in, when she retired to the life of a London socialite. It seemed to be no great tragedy that either sister quit when she did; they had made hundreds of films and while they liked their careers, never pretended to be ‘serious artistes.’ Over the years Dutch developed a heavy drinking habit and Loos recalled: “[she] was left alone as only an ex-movie star can be. She withdrew into a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where only a chosen member of the hotel bar staff ever saw her.”[viii]
While Nate’s marriage to Keaton started off well—she starred in his 1923 film Our Hospitality and bore two sons—it quickly soured after the birth of their second son. Keaton took to the bottle but was saved by his marriage to Eleanor Norris. Meanwhile, Nate got her revenge by changing her name and her sons’ to Talmadge and spent the rest of her life—so Loos said—in being a ‘shrewish ex-wife.’
Peg and Natalie with Natalie's son, Joseph. Originally published in The Talmadge Girls.
And Peg, the founder of all that loveliness and driving force behind their success, spent many lonely days writing letters to Loos. One such letter ran: “These days the kids and I meet only for breakfast. A flock of popular brats leaves much to be enjoyed. But I ought not blame them. They might as well enjoy life before they put the bridgework in a glass of water by the bedside.”[ix] Peg died of cancer in 1934.
Norma, Dutch and Nate, happy in later years. Originally published in The Talmadge Girls.
Despite the darkness that hovered over their later years, the lives of the Talmadges as remembered by Loos are warm and vivid. It is that which stays with the reader and the fan, long after the book has been put back on the shelf. It feels appropriate to close with a summary of one of the most glowing chapters of Loos’ memoir, one that distills the essence of the Talmadges completely: a Christmas Loos spent with the Talmadges in New York, circa 1920.
Loos accompanied Peg, Nate and Dutch on the journey to New York from Los Angeles, where they would celebrate Christmas with Joe and Norma at their hotel. They arrived late on Christmas Eve, and Dutch impulsively bought a live Christmas tree as they made their way to the hotel. While Peg went to bed, the three girls went on a scavenger hunt for decorations. They wound up at an all-night drugstore where the eager young clerk named Lester, who happened to be a fan of Dutch’s, answered Dutch’s plea for “anything wrapped in foil that gives off glitter.” With some pretty shiny objects, some surgical cotton, and the strand of blinking lights from behind the counter, the girls headed back to the hotel with Lester, who stayed to assist with the tree decoration.
When they were finished, they called Peg in to surprise her. Peg hit the ceiling when she realized they had in fact decorated the tree with condoms and suppositories—the only shiny objects Lester could find. The tree was disposed of, Lester forgiven and invited to join the party, and Joe saved the day by commandeering the hotel lobby tree.
After the extravagant gift exchange, which included a Madame Frances ball gown and chauffeured town car for Peg, Loos recalled the girls gathering around Peg like Marmee in Little Women:
Peg, sitting there surrounded by masses of loot, presently began to chuckle.
“What’s funny, Peg?” asked Dutch.
“I was just thinking what a joke it would have been on me if I’d gotten rid of you before you were born!”
“Did you try, Peg?” asked Dutch.
“Oh sure! I went every day to Coney Island and rode that Bump-the-Bumps from dawn to midnight.”
“Which goes to show,” said Norma, giving Peg a hug, “that sometimes it’s a blessing for a girl to get knocked up!”[x]
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