Remembering Eleanor Keaton
Reprinted from October 19th, 1998
Damfinos everywhere will miss Eleanor Ruth Norris Keaton, who passed away peacefully today after a long and brave battle with cancer. Buster Keaton’s widow, stage partner and greatest leading lady gave generously of her time in support of her husband’s memory and films. She has traveled the world to film festivals representing Buster Keaton; she has shared her insights on Buster and his work without hesitation with biographers, reporters, film historians, and fans. She encouraged Keaton to participate in the rescue and showings of his early silents to the public again in the 1950s, thereby helping to keep his amazing comedy legacy from being lost forever. She has been equally giving to friends, family, and an adored ménagerie of animals (also volunteering time at Los Angeles Zoo). She was an Honorary Lifetime Member of The Damfinos: The International Buster Keaton Society and gave the club her wholehearted support from the very beginning. Last year she was awarded a special Lifetime Achievement Buster Award in gratitude for her considerable dedication and work. She will be remembered always by those who knew her as a completely remarkable woman, and a privilege to know.
In May of 1940, newspapers carried the headline “Buster Keaton to Wed Dancer.” At the time, Buster Keaton was no longer a big star and he had not yet been rediscovered. He was just a journeyman gag writer, earning not very much money back at MGM, the studio that had ruined his career a decade earlier.
The dancer was Eleanor Ruth Norris, age 21. Eleanor had grown up in Hollywood, and had grown up fast after her father died when she was only 10. “I was a pretty direct and straightforward young lady,” she said.
At a young age, she became a dancer in the movies, appearing in many of the popular musical films of the `30s. “We were making musicals, one after the other,” she recalled, “and MGM had signed me up with many other singers and dancers.”
But Eleanor Norris had a secret desire. She was determined to learn to play bridge. Although she knew nothing of his silent movie career, she had been told that Buster Keaton sure did know how to play bridge. So she went over to his house to learn the game. He never noticed her until one day when another bridge player started picking on her. She turned and yelled at the fellow. Buster later told her that this was the moment when he realized there was someone in the room worth paying attention to.
The two soon decided to marry, but his friends were concerned. “They said he’d had enough trouble in his life without adding me,” Eleanor said, “and that I should go away and leave him alone. He’d had two bad marriages and he didn’t need a third.” But Eleanor was a strong-willed young woman and they went ahead with their plans. “I looked so much younger than Buster,” she confided, “that the judge thought my mother was the bride!”
The two settled in with Buster’s family in the small house he had bought for his mother in more prosperous days. They would not have a home of their own for more than 15 years. During this time, Eleanor helped Buster support his mother, his father, his sister, his brother and his brother’s wife and child, none of whom worked very often. She continued dancing in the movies for many years and appeared in films often, even swimming on occasion with Esther Williams.
She learned to play baseball, his favorite game. They often went camping together. And of course, they played bridge.
Buster and Eleanor eventually became working partners. They performed together on stage in this country and in Europe, as well as on television. She went everywhere with him. “We had 28 years together,” she said, “and I think only twice was he on the road alone.”
In a recent interview, Eleanor admitted: “I was his babysitter, secretary, mother–whatever else was called for.”