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Buster Keaton
Cut to the Chase
By Marion Meade

Chapter One: Cherokee Strip

Summer lingers like death on the prairie. It had not rained since spring, and by September the heat had burned cattle trails and dried creek beds. Underfoot the crust of the earth was cracking. A hot wind tumbled past skeletons of abandoned houses, their hulks framed by fences about to keel over. Off to the north, amid the tallgrass of Kansas, nature was syrup sweet and the voice of the turtledove swirled throughout the land, but in the north-central Oklahoma Territory there was no sign of people, not even tombstones.

The Cherokee Strip was a slice of land sixty miles wide and two hundred miles long just south of the Kansas border and west of the Arkansas River. In earlier years the country had been considered a wilderness fit only for prairie dogs and Cherokees, who along with the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles inhabited the region until they were shoved westward by the government to make room for homesteaders. Sections of the Oklahoma Territory, not a state for another fifteen years, had first been opened in 1889 under the Homestead Act. Four years later the Indians were paid to vacate, and their six and a half million acres was declared open for white settlement. Anyone hardy enough to stake a claim, pay the modest administration fees, and farm for five years would own a 160-acre tract.

All six and a half million acres were claimed on the day of the last great land run, Saturday, September 16, 1893. A hundred thousand pioneers enticed by the promise of a free farm or a lot in one of the four already platted town sites had been crowded into makeshift camps that week, suffering in the 100-degree heat as they prepared to race into the territory on covered wagons, buggies, buckboards, carts, and surreys, or on the backs of horses, ponies, and mules, even on bicycles or on foot. Masses of United States cavalry straddled the border at regular intervals, as if they feared a monstrous traffic jam.

At high noon the Strippers were stretched in a line across the prairie for as far as the eye could see. To the din of trumpeters and soldiers firing their guns into the air, with a gigantic yell, they stampeded across the border in search of the best land. By nightfall every acre, every lot, every blade of grass had been taken.

In the following days, on the heels of the Strippers, came droves of brew peddlers, powdered dancing girls in feather hats, amateur banjo players, thugs and con artists, faro and shell-game men, and gamblers galore. Among them was a troupe of Iowan actors and musicians who had spent the summer working the small towns south of the Cherokee Strip. The Cutler Comedy Company was a family Indian medicine show, composed of Frank Cutler, an imposing man of forty-three who enjoyed writing poetry, and his wife, Elizabeth, and two adolescent children, Burt and Myra. The versatile Cutlers provided a variety of entertainments - miniversions of Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Drunkard, banjo solos, magic tricks, and the staple offering of all medicine shows, blackface comedy featuring Sambo or Jake in slapshoes and oversized trousers held up by elastic suspenders.

The Cutlers arrived from Edmond, thirty-five miles to the south. Just as soon as their caravan appeared on the government square, a man stepped up to speak with Cutler. He was a young roughneck with very long legs, who stood with a slouch that one day would be associated with Gary Cooper and hordes of other movie cowboys. He told Cutler how he had staked a homestead claim on behalf of his father. Then he asked for a job. Cutler asked about his experience, and the young man said that he could sing and make clownish faces and he could also do "flip-flaps," backward somersaults, though he admitted he had never performed before a paying audience.

Cutler could see that Joe Keaton was a drifter. He claimed to have ridden boxcars all the way from California, determined to reach the Cherokee Strip in time for the land run, not for his own gain but to win a farm for his parents. Still, the young man seemed eager to learn the medicine-show business, and Cutler needed somebody to double as a stagehand and bit performer. He offered Keaton three dollars a week and

Joe Keaton lied about staking a claim. When his father arrived seven months later, he had to fend for himself

Joe accomplished as little for himself as he did for his father. He did, however, develop a repertory of Bunyanesque tales, such as his account of his trip from Truckee, California, on board a boxcar, from which the crew threw him into forty-foot drifts of snow, leaving him to die.

Tales of his exploits as a hobo, told with a raconteur's skill, captivated pate, dainty, dark-haired Myra. Frank Cutler's daughter weighed barely ninety pounds and looked like a china doll. Sixteen in March, she was a wisp of a thing who stood four feet eleven. Her face was unremarkable. The mouth was thin, she had a noticeable overbite, her chin was weak, her gaze remote. Onstage these shortcomings were overshadowed by a lively manner and her musical accomplishments. Myra could play the piano, cornet, bull fiddle, and saxophone. Moreover, her singing and acting were passable, and from a distance she looked cute as a button.

Joe Keaton's grandiosity impressed Myra, who was too young and naive to see that his stories were complete invention. Her father, however, eyed the newcomer with hostile vigilance.

The town of Perry, a collection of tents and clapboard shanties, shot up. It was a raw place. The streets were carpeted with floury black dust that sifted into everything, even the food. At dusk, after the wind died down, the tang of gin hung over the streets. Inside darkened tents, law-abiding citizens anxiously listened for gunfire, a nightly occurrence, and bedded on the ground to avoid stray bullets.

People had money to buy amusement, but they preferred drinking, gambling, and sex to the less participatory pleasures offered by the musical stage. The Cutler Comedy Company had to compete with a half-dozen saloons, as well as gambling establishments and dance halls offering around-the-clock refreshment along with fiddle and piano music.

In some respects, Cutler's business was a typical medicine show of the late 1800s, which exploited myths about Native Americans possessing special healing powers. There was nothing particularly "Indian" about Indian medicine shows. They were simply a means of combining entertainment with the selling of "patent medicines," which were not even medicines. Free singing and dancing pulled in the customers and warmed them up for "Doc" Cutler's sales pitch. Joe Keaton, the show's newest employee, practiced a blackface monologue and a couple of songs, then worked up a specialty dance number that featured fancy high kicks. But Cutler, along with the public, was not impressed. Keaton once even secretly brought in his own claque to applaud his performance. Ernest Jones, a lawyer who was present that night, remembered, "All the applause Joe got for his bum work came from a bunch of rounders who had been brought in by Joe as boosters." Cutler also saw through the move, and Keaton was demoted to lugging scenery around.

Keaton believed Cutler had an ulterior motive. "I was a useful all-around performer," he said, "but the manager didn't like the idea of me paying attention to his daughter, and tile result was I was notified to quit."

And that - not his atrocious performing - was basically the truth of the matter. The Cutlers wanted nothing to do with a loudmouth hustler who frequented saloons and whorehouses and consorted with the lowlifes found in such establishments.

Unlike many medicine shows, which were nothing more than motley rambling bands of troubadours, the Cutlers were well-fixed merchants, industrious, ferociously conventional, devoutly Republican, upstanding and civic-minded.

Frank Luke Cutler traced his ancestry to three English brothers who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s, then later moved north to Vermont. Generation after generation, Cutler men were strong, scrappy, independent, and known for their exceptional physiques - all developed into giants standing well over six feet and weighing more than two hundred pounds. Frank's grandfather and eight great-uncles joined up to fight with Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys during the Revolutionary War. In 1855 Frank's parents abandoned their tidy dry goods store in Eric, Pennsylvania, for the hardships of a farm and sod house in Cass County, in the new Nebraska Territory. Frank was four years old.

In his twenties Frank followed his brother Charles north to the tiny town of Modale in Harrison County, Iowa, about twenty-five miles north of Council Bluffs. Charles was operating a general store. The town's most successful businessman, he also served as mayor and postmaster. Young Frank clerked in the family store selling groceries, patent medicines, shoes, and clothing. Before long he married Sarah Faizabeth Shaffer.

Cutler's interests would always lean toward the artistic and intellectual. A lover of music and the stage like the rest of his family, he dovetailed his skills in merchandise with his interest in entertainment by organizing a traveling tent show. When summer came he took to the roads with his bottles of patent medicine. Medicine shows were often the only entertainment people in small towns got a chance to see, and if they were snared into buying products of dubious worth, who could blame them? For many the annual visit of families like the Cutlers was eagerly awaited, and the merchants became local celebrities.

There is no question that the cultural interests of Myra's family awed Joe Keaton, but Frank Cutler looked down on him, and that made him feel unworthy. Before long, he came to despise Myra's father and his patronizing attitudes.

By Frank Cutler's standards, Joe was a raw fellow who didn't look as if he'd ever amount to much. Sensing trouble ahead, Cutler gave him the boot. The Cutlers dismantled their tents and moved on. As soon as the weather turned cooler, they headed home for the winter.

In the months following the Oklahoma land run, Myra mourned her lost love. just to be on the safe side, her family sent her to relatives in Lincoln, Nebraska, a distance of some three hundred miles. But Frank Cutler had not seen the last of Joe Keaton.

Joseph Hallie Keaton was born in 1867, seventeen miles outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, in Prairie Creek Township, where his father owned a gristmill. The Keatons, like Plantagenet kings, believed in economy of Christian names, and for five generations each firstborn son had been named Joseph.

A few years later, Joe's father got tired of grinding grain and bought the Henderson House Hotel in downtown Terre Haute, where he moved his family from the country. When Joe was growing up in this busy little city in the 1870s, powerful dreams were stirring. On the banks of the Wabash River, flanked by rolling green hills containing rich deposits of coal and iron ore, Terre Haute stood poised to become the Pittsburgh of the Midwest. In the space of two decades its population ballooned by nearly 300 percent.

But by 1893 Terre Haute's boom had evaporated. Still, Joe Keaton's ambitions, like those of such other local boys of his generation as Eugene Debs and Theodore Dreiser, had been formed by the energy and optimism that had built Terre Haute.

Joe had a million plans, but succeeding in them was another matter. Still floundering at the age of twenty-six, he was handed $100 and a gun by his disgusted father, who sent him off with instructions to make something of himself. Joe headed for the frontier.

In writing letters and articles about events that shaped him, Joe presented his life as a series of mythic tableaus: Davy Crockett becomes a cocky Joe battling snowdrifts forty feet deep; Pecos Bill as Joe nabbing crooks in a Denver poker game. His mulligan stew of all-American-boy fantasies pointedly failed to mention sundry details like employment, as if he also imagined himself pampered and moneyed. This was hardly the case. In every respect, the Keatons were plain people.

Joe Keaton was the end product of seven generations of a gentle religious sect that embraces nonviolence as a way of life. The beginnings of the Keatons in America can be found in William Hinshaw's monumental Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, with its relentlessly detailed abstracts of births, deaths, and marriages, its minutes of meetings, separated by sex, its picture of independent, sober-minded men and women who had fled religious persecution.

Founded in midseventeenth-century England by George Fox, a preacher dissatisfied with the Church of England, the Religious Society of Friends were people who refused to take oaths, bear arms, or own slaves. They treated women and men as equals and believed church clergy had no special authority. For these beliefs - and because they rejected all ritual and sat silently in worship waiting for God to speak directly to each one - they were ridiculed, jailed, some even executed. Quakers began arriving in the colonies in 1656. The Keatons, if not among the very first wave, were close behind.

The first Keaton to appear in Quaker records was Henry Keaton (sometimes spelled Keton). The name, which means shepherd's hut, can be traced back to the eleventh century and the Leicestershire village of Ketton. By the 1690s Henry Keaton was an industrious small farmer, planting tobacco and corn on his two hundred acres in the northeast comer of North Carolina, at Newbegun Creek in swampy Pasquotank County (later called Symons Creek). By 1700, when the Society of Friends had become the most important religious group in the colony, Henry Keaton was a respected figure among the Quaker settlement. With two of his friends, he distinguished himself by building a meeting-house in 1706 at Symons Creek, now historic as the first church of any denomination in North Carolina.

For almost 150 years Henry Keaton's descendants continued to prosper and multiply, always marrying, as their religion required, within the Society to Scotts, Bundys, and Truebloods. After the Revolutionary War, a conflict the Quakers opposed on religious grounds, their influence began to decline, although Henry's great-grandson Joseph was elected to the North Carolina State Senate in 1788.

In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, a number of the Keatons and their kin joined the exodus to the new state of Indiana, whose constitution forbade slavery. By 1833, Joe Keaton's grandfather, Joseph Zachariah Keaton, had established himself as a farmer in Prairie Creek Township, Vigo County, Indiana, where he married his neighbor's fifteen-year-old daughter, Margaret Trueblood, and proceeded to sire ten children.

This Indiana Joseph Keaton, the first about whom there are significant personal details, was apparently an adventurous man, sometimes impulsive, a dreamer liable to be carried away by sudden fancies and extreme solutions. In his forties, he left his wife to tend the farm and raise their surviving nine children as best she could while he went to California to prospect for gold. He absented himself for seven years, forced home only after the Civil War broke out. His adventures in the West were to fuel the fantasies of this grandson Joseph Hallie, who did not believe that putting up guests at the Henderson House Hotel was his destiny.

With a temperament too volatile for regular work, Joe Keaton dreamed of getting away from Terre Haute. He earned a reputation as the town bad boy and proved a disgrace to his parents' household and the memory of his meek Quaker forebears. He received practically no schooling because his teachers couldn't control him.

"I had fought every kid that ever looked like a fight," Joe proudly recalled, "and had carried more black eyes than all of them put together, which gave me the nick name of "Dick Dead Eye," from Gilbert and Sullivan's villainous sailor in H.M.S. Pinafore. "I became the pride of Wabash Avenue," he skid, "and continued to play `hooky' and fight all comers." At home, around his younger sisters and brother - Rosa, Birdie, and Jessie Bert - he blustered and bragged about his plans to run away and join the circus. But although he was the kind of unmanageable kid whose parents might have felt secret relief if he had run away, he never carried out his threats. Instead, Dick Dead Eye hung around the pool halls shining shoes.

For all his aversion to school, Joe learned to read and write, and he also came across as articulate in conversation and seems to have been equally expressive in his literary composition. Actually, he had a gift for confessional journalism - a complement to his gift for self-promotion-and published a number of highly, diverting articles about himself and his family. Later on, he would peck out his prose on a Blickensderfer, the first portable typewriter, which he taught himself to operate and hauled along wherever he traveled.

By the spring of 1894, Joe Keaton, the bad boy of Terre Haute, was drifting about in Kansas or Nebraska, content to pick up menial jobs or drive a hack.

One day as he returned to his lodgings the desk clerk stopped him: "There's a lady in the parlor waiting to see you."

Nobody could have been more startled than Joe when he saw Frank Cutler's peanut-sized daughter in the sitting room. What she had to say was more shocking still: The little girl whom he had not laid eyes on for eight months had journeyed alone all the way from Lincoln just to find her true love. Myra reminded him of their promise never to forget each other. She had burned her bridges in order to become his wife.

Like a thief who finds himself about to be hauled off to jail for a crime he can't remember committing, Joe was flabbergasted. He had never intended to marry Myra. He couldn't even afford to buy himself a square meal. How could he support a wife? Instead of admitting this, he tried to persuade her to go home.

Myra was willful. "The little girl," as Joe thought of her, declared that "she was contented to be my wife and fight life's battles among strangers." They were married by a justice of the peace on the morning of May 31, 1894. When time came to pay two dollars, Joe fumbled in his pockets but could scrape together only $1.90, all the cash he had in the world. The justice of the peace reduced his fee to ninety-five cents and treated them to a wedding breakfast of fried eggs and ham.

Back in Perry, people doubted that Joe could really love Myra. There had to be another motive. "Joe afterward got even with Cutler by marrying his daughter," the lawyer Ernest Jones decided.

It is more likely that Joe calculated the newlyweds would be forgiven and welcomed into the medicine show. It didn't work out that way, though. Frank Cutler did not invite Joe and Myra to return to Iowa. In fact, he sent word that the bride would not be welcome in Modale, and that went doubly for the bum she had married.

Joe was stuck with Myra.

But Myra was also stuck with Joe.

That summer she was not long in learning that she had thrown in her lot with a man who seldom had a dollar in his pocket. Becoming a husband did not turn Joe into a good worker - in fact, he simply was not a worker at all.

He was a stranger to personal discipline, still a juvenile at almost twenty-seven. When Dick Dead Eye's raging temper flared, he would fight by kicking his opponent's head. With his long legs, he could easily kick straight up to a height of eight feet, even higher with a flying hitch kick that involved feinting with his left foot, then jumping into the air before attacking with his right foot. All of this took place so quickly that most people never saw his foot coming.

"He never laid a hand on a man," Myra would recall admiringly. He never had to, because "that hitch kick could break a jaw."

Soon after the wedding, Joe's ambitions to become an actor were rekindled by the affronts he had suffered from his father-in-law. He bought a pair of slapshoes and determined to succeed in show business, with or without the help of Frank Cutler. The only problem was that he lacked talent and experience.

Myra had to rescue them. It is ironic that she earned money from music and acting, using the very same skills she had turned her back on when leaving home.

Practically destitute, they found work, according to Joe, "as regular medicine show actors." And while Myra acted, sang, danced, and played a grueling schedule of three shows a night, Joe never set foot onstage. He did bone-wearying manual labor, setting up, tearing down, shoving on to the next stop. He also helped the "doctor" hawk compounds that promised to grow hair overnight, make short people taller, and cure epilepsy, Saint Vitus' dance, convulsions, hysteria, rheumatism, sciatica, insomnia, and disorders of the nervous system. The active ingredient of these exotic mixtures was 50 to 70 percent alcohol.

Despite the promise of regular wages, the money was by no means assured, and Myra and Joe lived hand-to-mouth. Joe recalled that "many a time I had to take a club along when I went to get my salary and many a time I missed it by waiting a day too long."

Just as the medicine-show wagons thumped up and down the rutted roads of eastern Kansas, winding across the prairie from village, so did the Keaton marriage limp along. By most people's standards, the marriage was a failure. Though Joe's macho posturing colors almost everything he ever wrote, his account of their first year together cannot conceal despair. His little-girl bride, who had been brought up in middle-class, middle-American comfort, already was learning to bite her tongue. Even her silence must have been a reproach to him. In the months after the elopement Joe could see that her determination to become his wife had little to do with nesting or maternal instincts. Unlike other girls her age, she had no domestic skills, no interest in housekeeping, and did not learn to cook until she was in her thirties. One habit she did pick up early was smoking cigarettes, rolling her own from Bull Durham tobacco.

Nor was her eagerness to marry based on physical passion. She seems to have been rather prudish. Joe, ten years older, was sexually experienced, but his early activity probably had been with prostitutes, and later in life he continued to feel most comfortable with this type of sexual partner.

Nevertheless, in February 1895, after the Keatons had been married eight months, Myra became pregnant.

Myra and Joe were homeless and dirt poor. Their few belongings were carted in sacks from town to town. The volatile Joe's delight in kick-fighting often got them fired. They were never able to save a nickel. Even after Myra's pregnancy could no longer be disguised, she was forced to keep on working, playing two or three shows a night, then riding a wagon over treacherous cow trails to the next town.

Myra's rift with her family had not healed by the forthcoming birth of Frank Cutler's first grandchild. The pregnant daughter was not invited to come home for her confinement, with or without spouse, as was the custom. The Cutlers had virtually disowned her.

That summer they visited Joe's family in Perry. His father, who suffered from chronic Bright's disease, had sold the Henderson House. Although Joe's sisters Rosa and Birdie were married, his brother, Jessie Bert, continued to live at home. On that visit, the couple went for a buggy ride that ended with the horse running away and throwing Myra into the road. This was not the only accident she suffered during her pregnancy. In Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, while employed by the Mohawk Indian Medicine Show, a tent fell on her. In her ninth month, she stepped off the stage onto a rickety chair, which collapsed under her. These accidents can be accounted for, in part, as simply the routine hazards of touring. But they also suggest her anxiety about motherhood; perhaps she would have been relieved to be free of it. If one looks at Myra's life as a whole, there can be no doubt that she lacked mothering instincts.

Later on, for practical reasons, she would feel obliged to preserve appearances and stick up for Joe. It was lightning, not his reckless driving, that caused the horse to bolt in Perry. Other mishaps were conveniently attributed to acts of God. Across the years these unfortunate incidents would be stitched together into a quilt of lies and half-truths that made the Keatons sound pretty much like a normal couple, when they were anything but. With hindsight, those prenatal accidents seem due less to chance than to pure and simple carelessness, a weather vane of the couple's competence to care for children.

© 1996 By Marion Meade

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