For reference and background on Wampas and the full listing of Babies, see my original post in this series.
Year that she was crowned: 1923
Baby who?: Kathleen Key was born Kathleen Lanahan in Buffalo, NY on April Fool’s Day 1903. She claimed to be the granddaughter of Francis Scott Key, but was called out by a newspaper when the dates didn’t match up. At another point, she claimed to be of the same family as Francis Scott Key, but not a direct descendent. The connection is still up for debate. Kathleen, known as Kitty, was of (self-described) Jewish-Irish heritage, her mother having been born in Ireland.
Restless, fun-loving Kitty skipped school often as a teen. She was often described as lively and vivacious.
She began her film career in 1920 after winning a part in a Thomas Ince film. One story goes that producer Ince was seeking to cast a girl as the daughter of a sheik and Key submitted a picture of only her big, brown eyes in lieu of a full photograph. The lucky girl was summoned to Hollywood and began her career. This story seems pretty outlandish and it probably is. A more likely version is that Kitty’s family moved to California where a friend of a friend who worked in movies got her a work as an extra. She made more connections and an actor-turned-director friend who always thought she would translate nicely to the screen got her her first real part.
She was sent to Australia where she made several films before returning to the United States in 1921. She had a handful of films under her belt before being named a Wampas Baby Star in 1923.
Why could she have been picked by Wampas?: Kitty was young and vital, full of fun and vivacity. Her personality may have been a driving factor.
Life after Babydom: Her career was slowly plugging along during and after the time she received the Wampas award. She would hit the high point in her career in 1925 when she won the role of Tirzah, the title character’s sister in Ben-Hur. Her career went into a decline after that, with newspapers asking as early as 1926 why she wasn’t getting more parts. At that point, the contract with her studio, MGM, had ended and she was freelancing. Publicists and journalists seemed to be in her corner, but filmmakers didn’t seem to see what they did. “Other girls who started with her are now big box-office names, while ‘Kittie’ has applauded from the sidelines and wondered,” went one 1926 news article by Katherine Lipke. During her career, which continued until 1930 (she would make a very brief comeback in 1935), she starred mostly in Westerns or as the vampy “other woman” in dramas.
Fun-loving Kitty was a frequent party host and guest. She was likable, flirtatious and had no trouble finding boyfriends. Enamored with Italy, she styled her home after an Italian villa and collected a handful of suitors when she was on location in Rome making Ben-Hur. While there, she also picked up an Italian fiancee, Ottavio Prochet, a doctor from a titled Italian family, who she apparently never ended up marrying.
Physically, she was known for her raven hair, slender neck, graceful shoulders and hands, and invariably elegant or handsome good looks. Her weight “issues” were often publicized. She possessed a ridiculously slim figure according to one paper and a muscular 140 ib frame in another. In fact, weight played into a scandal that would gain her some notoriety.
In 1931 she was jailed for attacking Buster Keaton in his dressing room. Though she refused to comment on the incident (aside from telling reporters to ask Keaton what he had to say about it), Keaton claimed that he told her that if she lost weight, she would have a better chance getting film roles. They made a bet that if she lost 20 ibs in 10 days he would give her $500. Keaton claimed that she came back having only lost a fraction of this, but he gave her the money anyway. He went on to say that she used this against him and began threatening him for more money, threats that got back to the studio. On the day of the assault, she met him in his dressing room to pick up the $5,000 hush money that he was prepared to give her to shut up and disappear overseas for a while, but Keaton claims she then demanded upwards of $20,000 instead. He ripped up the $5,000 check and she beat and clawed at him in a rage, according to Keaton. Though the newspapers took Keaton at his word, this story rings false to me. Considering the persistent rumors of an affair between the married Keaton and his “old friend” Key, it seems pretty clear that what happened was less a weight loss bet gone wrong and more a relationship gone awry. Whether Key blackmailed Keaton or not is unclear, but Keaton, by his own admission, attempted to get Key out of town by paying her off…for whatever reason. In the end, this hurt her reputation and her standing in the film industry. She only made 2 more films after the incident and they were a good 4 years later.
By 1941 she was broke and living off loans from friends, a fact she admitted when she was arrested for drunk driving and did not have enough cash to pay the fine. At the time of her arrest, she was living with her mother and was mostly unemployed, with the occasional odd job here and there. She passed away in 1954, at age 51, from a lengthy, undisclosed illness.
Best known for: Her performance as Tirzah in Ben Hur.
How accurate was Wampas?: 1/5. Though it seemed that Kitty had a lot of friends in her corner, that ultimately was not enough to afford her a terribly successful career. She had about 30 screen credits to her name by the time she made her last film in 1936 (in an uncredited role).
The Lipke article alleged that Kitty was her own worst enemy. Considering the Keaton incident, this probably was true in a way. Apparently, she loved to shock people (the article hinted that wisecracks and foul language or phrases were commonplace for her). Some articles mentioned her desire for more serious roles, but at heart, Kitty seemed to relish the good life over her career. “She is too busy talking and laughing and having a hilarious time,” Lipke wrote. This was a common theme in articles about Kitty. However, I don’t believe that it was Kitty alone who was responsible for her barely gleaming star. She was written off as a supporting or bit player almost immediately, for whatever reason. In a way, the studios may have been grateful for the Keaton scandal as it gave them a reason to be rid of her entirely.
Zoe’s take: Though the later part of her life appeared bleak and a little sad, she seemed to really enjoy the earlier part. She had love affairs, she traveled, she partied, she lived. It could have been worse!
Liebman, Roy. The Wampas Baby Stars: a Biographical Dictionary, 1922-1934. McFarland, 2009.
“Kathleen Key Says She’s Irish.” The Pittsburgh Press, 19 Feb. 1925, p. 7.
“News Notes from Movieland.” The Dayton Herald, 9 July 1924, p. 5.
Lipke, Katherine. “‘Kittie’ Contradictory.” The Los Angeles Times, 23 May 1926.
“Actress Jailed after Beating Buster Keaton.” The St. Louis Star and Times, 5 Feb. 1931.