Obituary: Eleanor Norris Keaton

WHEN ELEANOR Norris, in 1940 a contract dancer at MGM, married the great film comedian Buster Keaton, who was over twice her age, few predicted that the union would last, but it was to be a consistently happy marriage that was to survive Keaton's alcoholism and career vicissitudes and last until his death 26 years later.

It is hard now to imagine how low Keaton's reputation and self-esteem were when he wed Norris. After a decade of talkies, silent films were screened only for a few enthusiasts. Many of Keaton's earlier masterpieces were unavailable at the time (indeed the comic was wrongly informed that most of them had been destroyed) and, unlike Charlie Chaplin, he was not yet the legend he was destined to become. He was working at MGM as a gag man, supplying comic routines for the Marx Brothers and other performers, when he met Norris.

A native of Hollywood and the daughter of an electrician at Warner Brothers studios, she was born in a house on Hollywood Boulevard in 1919. When her father was killed in a freak accident in 1929, his widow was left to bring up Eleanor and her sister Jane on a small studio pension. Norris later stated that she grew up fast when her father died and became "a pretty direct and straightforward young lady".

She took dancing lessons as a child, and at 15 left school to become part of a night-club dancing troupe, Six Blondes from Hollywood, which toured the world. At 17, she was working in Harry Richman's New York night- club, and the same year she signed a contract with MGM, appearing in the chorus of such musicals as Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937). "We were making musicals one after the other at that time," she later recalled.

Her first meeting with Keaton, in 1938, was due to her desire to become a good bridge player. She had confessed to a boyfriend, an acquaintance of Keaton's brother Harry, that she wanted to improve her game, and, since Keaton was known to be one of the best bridge players in Hollywood, the boyfriend asked Harry to take Norris to one of Keaton's bridge evenings.

She quickly realised that Keaton, who had been divorced by his second wife in 1936, needed not only a wife but "a combination valet, cook, housekeeper, bill payer, and constant reminder". Against the advice of both her own friends and Buster's, she married Keaton in May 1940, when Norris was just 21 and Keaton 44. "His friends said he'd had enough trouble in his life without adding me," said Norris later, "and that I should go away and leave him alone. He'd had two bad marriages and didn't need a third."

The wedding, performed in courthouse chambers, was later described as something like a Keaton two-reeler. Norris was accompanied by her mother, and the judge assumed that Keaton wanted to marry Mrs Norris, who was closer in age to the comedian. Ignoring Eleanor, the judge tried to marry her mother to Keaton. After the situation was clarified, he was so flustered that he referred to the bride throughout the ceremony as Morris. The sound of fire-engine sirens speeding past the building drowned most of the latter part of the ceremony and the couple were finally pronounced man and wife by a screaming judge.

Keaton was living with his mother, but his new wife got along with her and continued her dancing job as well as running the household. In one of the films for which her husband supplied gags, Bathing Beauty (1944), Norris swam alongside Esther Williams. At the end of the Second World War, when Keaton's sister, brother and brother's family of four moved in with them, Norris cooked and kept house for all of them.

With the wartime boom in movie-going ending, MGM drastically reduced their payroll and fired many of their small-part players and chorus members, including Norris, but the end of the war in Europe opened a new career for her husband. Buster Keaton's reputation had survived in France more than his own country, and when the famed Cirque Medrano in Paris asked him to appear with them he devised an act which would include Norris in one of Keaton's most famous conceptions.

First performed in Spite Marriage (1929), the "putting a drunk woman to bed" routine involved Keaton trying to get his intoxicated wife into bed without waking her up. Her totally inert body refuses to respond to his wishes, constantly sliding into grotesque positions. When he finally gets her into a chair she slides off it, and when he puts her on the bed and tries to roll her over, she rolls off on to the floor again. After several minutes of hilarious pantomime, he finally gets the girl into bed and the bed collapses to the floor. The routine was reworked by Keaton when MGM remade the film as I Dood It (1943), with Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell performing the scene, and at the Cirque Medrano Keaton performed it with his wife.

The show (the comic's first major vaudeville appearance in 30 years) was a hit, and Keaton and Norris then appeared on variety bills in Italy, Scotland and in England, where they appeared in a nostalgic show featuring such former headliners as George Robey, Hetty King and Wee Georgie Wood. They also returned several times to Paris and the Cirque Medrano, and toured Europe for several months a year into the early Fifties.

Keaton still had bouts with alcoholism, but the strong-willed Norris coped with this. She also learned to play basketball, the comic's favourite game, went camping with him, played bridge, and accompanied him on tours. "We had 28 years together," she said after his death, "and I think only twice was he on the road alone."

In 1957, with Keaton's genius now acknowledged and a new generation discovering his silent classics, Paramount decide to film his life story. Though The Buster Keaton Story was a poor film ("When we saw it, my stomach turned over, it was so awful," said Norris), the $60,000 paid to Keaton for the rights to his life-story enabled the couple to at last have a home of their own, a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, where they happily resided until Keaton's death in 1966.

As his widow, Norris continued to support her husband's memory, travelling to film festivals around the world, and happily co-operating with biographers and historians eager to share her insights into the man and his work. She raised champion St Bernard dogs, descendants of Keaton's dog Junior, several of which appeared in the Beethoven films, and also volunteered time at the Los Angeles Zoo. She also worked as a gag consultant for such comics as Mel Brooks.

Eleanor Ruth Norris, actress: born Hollywood, California 1919; married 1940 Buster Keaton (died 1966); died Woodland Hills, California 20 October 1998.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project