So I lied about no more cemeteries. I had to see one more grave, the place where Buster Keaton was buried. Because Buster and I, we go way back.
Back in my wild Hollywood days…well, okay, they weren’t that wild. Mostly cruising down Sunset Boulevard and eating late night sandwiches at Canter’s Deli, but just go with me here. It’s my reminiscence and, in my mind, they were wild.
Anyway, Mike, Leah and I used to go to a lot of plays. They wanted to be actors. I just liked the excitement of hanging out in Hollywood all night long. During the course of these adventures, we met a wonderful lady named Jane who was a stage manager at the Las Palmas Theater. She’d been in the theater for years and had all sorts of fascinating stories about actors and acting.
Sometimes when some old movie that she thought we should see was on, we’d go over to her place, a duplex in North Hollywood, drink cream sodas and watch TV with her. (I never really cared for the cream sodas, but the only other choice was chocolate soda which seemed wrong on many levels.) She lived in the back house of the duplex, the smaller of the two. And on the wall up above the TV set was a huge oil painting of Buster Keaton, three or four feet high, with an expensive looking frame and a little key light at the bottom that threw light up onto his face. A small brass plaque on the frame had his name in fancy letters. Buster Keaton.
Just in case you couldn’t tell.
The painting was something of a mystery to us. I mean, anyone can have an obsession, but the Buster Keaton shrine seemed a little much. Beautiful, but totally overpowering. So one evening, Mike got up the guts to ask Jane why she had a huge expensive oil painting of Buster Keaton in her living room. She looked up at it a moment and shrugged.
“He was married to my sister.”
Now we had met Eleanor in passing once or twice. I don’t think she quite trusted us. I don’t know that we looked all that dangerous, but she would usually disappear into the front house soon after our arrival. But she didn’t look anywhere near old enough to have been married to Buster Keaton.
So Mike repeated it, just to be sure. “Your sister was married to Buster Keaton?”
Jane nodded. “Yes. That painting is from the Brown Derby. They gave it to her before they tore it down.”
We all look up at the painting as if it was a lost Da Vinci. So not only was Eleanor married to Buster Keaton, but the mystery painting came from the Brown Derby?
“THE Brown Derby?” Leah says, just to be sure.
“Oh, yes.” Jane gets out of her chair and goes to a bookcase over on the far wall. She pulls out a rectangular wooden case and sets it down on the dining room table. “These are his poker chips.” She opens the case and there are the most beautiful poker chips I’d ever seen. Mother of pearl maybe, dyed various colors. She took out a blue one and passed it around. “Buster loved poker.”
I just kept running the poker chip over my fingers, marveling at the color and the smoothness and the historicalness of it. Buster Keaton’s poker chip. I wanted to keep it, but, reluctantly, I handed it back.
Now we come to the most tragic part of the story. Because there we were, in that house full of Buster Keaton’s things, not ten steps from Buster Keaton’s widow, and not one of us had ever actually seen a Buster Keaton movie. At that point in time, they just weren’t available anywhere. So there I was, aching to ask questions, but having no idea what to ask.
Jane told us a few stories about what Buster was like and how he loved trains, but we were friends with Jane. I didn’t dare approach Eleanor without some concrete questions in mind.
Fast forward a few years. While I was out of state at college, I finally got to see “The General.” I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t wait to get back to California and see Jane and talk to Eleanor, finally full of all the Buster questions that I hadn’t had before. We made a quick visit while I was home for the summer, but Jane had been ill and we couldn’t stay long. She was happy that I’d loved “The General” and said Eleanor would love to hear my comments about it, but she was off at a silent film convention so I’d have to come back another time.
But that other time never came. We never saw Jane again.
But I’ve never forgotten sitting in Jane’s living room, watching TV under Buster’s mournful gaze. I’ve always felt very close to him, almost as if I’d known him for real.
So one last cemetery trip, to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, beside the wall near the Washington statue, to an elegant little tombstone etched with oak leaves. Someone had left him a huge bouquet of red flowers. And there was a little worn spot in the grass where people had stood to take a picture of his headstone. I leaned down and touched the edge of his monument.
So near and yet so far.