The eighth chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood (but actually ghost-written for Sylvia by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker), tells the tale of a run-in over Sylvia’s services between actresses Ina Claire and Alice White.
PHILOSOPHICAL observation: There comes a time in most lives when you begin to step on the gas; you make speed; also, you bounce!
Sylvia began bouncing the minute she went under contract to Pathé and began working on the sacred cows that were grazing on that lot. Dough, dough! But also trouble, trouble! Ooh, lots of trouble. In fact, Sylvia got hooked up professionally with all four of the following at once: Gloria Swanson, Ina Claire, Grace Moore, and Constance Bennett.
There’s a quartet for you! Maybe there’d be a fight if it was said flatly that those four were at the top of the Hollywood heap. There’s room for argument, with Greta Garbo left out—and Marlene Dietrich, and—oh well, write your own ticket. But nobody is going to dispute the statement that, in their own estimations, they are.
There was a queen of antiquity who used to protect her standing as the most beautiful woman in the world by a simple device. If any of the other lookers inside her borders got possession of some beauty secret, she would call out the head executioner and pay the rival a little call having for object a funeral and confiscation of the beauty preparation.
Since Cleopatra’s day thing have changed. Less cutting off of heads, but more beauty preparations. It has the career of the professional beauty much tougher. It was a lot simpler, maintaining supremacy by killing off the competition. It’s got so tough nowadays that a Queen of Beauty actually has to be beautiful. Not only that, but she has to stay that way. When you figure that, if left to her own devices, a woman stays at the top of her form only about three or four years (and those usually the years when nobody but her school-teachers and the neighbors’ boys are giving her a tumble), you can see what she’s up against. By the time her photographs are beginning to appear in the silver frames in jewelers’ windows, she doesn’t look like them any more.
The professional beauty has to watch two angles: building up her rep, and living up to it when she’s got it. I’ll say one thing for the girls that claw their way to the top. They they have their press agents to pull them and their beauty experts to push them, they do most of the work themselves. Being on the inside, where they are pulling all the strings and going through all the contortions of their beauty jobs—that’s excitement! To be behind the scenes and watch them feint, grab, and foul when the referee isn’t looking—that’s high comedy!
The opening scene of a sample of it is the Pasadena station of the Santa Fe Railroad, with the Chicago-New York train due in any minute. Choo-choo. Toot-toot. A general rush of press agents, cameramen, Path´ executives, porters, dogs, and dust. Who is this stranger who trips as lightly as may be from the drawing-room car?
It is Ina Claire. Look out, Hollywood!
THE famous Broadway actress came to Hollywood with a chip on her shoulder. They usually do. When they’ve been here a while—they get another chip and wear them symmetrically, one on each shoulder.
The boss had her first glimpse of the Eastern invader a short while later, after Ina had reported to the Path´ lot for work in her first sound movie, “The Awful Truth.” A three-alarm went out for Sylvia after the first test shots. Avoirdupois.
Hedda Hopper, our old reliable booster, was the messenger. She was on the phone with the S O S: “Ina Claire has to be taken down ten pounds in three days. Come and do it!”
Sylvia had seen Ina some years before in “The Gold Diggers,” when, if anything, the girl was a little too slim. So when she reported at Ina’s suite in the Beverly-Wilshire and was inducted into the bedroom, she gasped in amazement. A voluptuous creature, very different from the slim Broadway star of yesterday, was taking her ease in a bed heaped up, ì la French boudoir, with about a dozen small comfort pillows. Swimming in linen and lace, the star was probably supposed to be a study of beauty at rest. She was all of that. In a word, she was visibly overweight.
Grouped about the massive royal bedstead were the various ministrants to the lady’s luxurious case—maids, more maids, a secretary. The idea seemed to be to spare Miss Claire the exertion of lifting an arm.
What Claire wanted (and at first they’re all the same in this respect) was for Sylvia to go to work, not too painfully, mind! and give her a ten-minute absolution for all past sins of overeating and insufficient exercise.
The boss sized her new patient up. Irish—which means a good-sized bump of competitiveness. The line to take with her was obvious. As Sylvia pounded and slapped, she casually named a few of other patients: Alice White, Norma Shearer, Ruth Chatterton, etc. Between grunts, Ina raised a face on the surface of which was faintly detectable an expression of awakened interest. What about them?
“Well,” said the boss, “they’re all out doing their morning conditioning work right now—“
At that moment a maid entered with a large frilly tray loaded with a huge breakfast. Sylvia glanced at the horrible display and significantly added:
“—after taking a breakfast of orange juice.”
For one so far gone in the ways of comfort, Ina was quick on the trigger. Hitherto she had been taking Sylvia’s line of nasty habits (hints that are about as subtle as a blackjack) pretty tartly—with a few cracks meant to convey the idea: “You get your pay for putting me in shape; go ahead, and don’t annoy me with any remarks.” But now, all of a sudden, she got the point—quicker than do a lot of newcomers—and she sent the maid away with the breakfast tray.
And she was forthright enough to admit, a week or so later:
“I guess I took the wrong track with you at first, didn’t I, Sylvia?”
That gave the boss an opening, and she came out with out a thing that was being said around town about the newcomer: “She’s high-hat.” Than which there can be no more final and dooming verdict by the Hollywood jury.
“Well,” said Ina in a confidential tone, “I’ll tell you: I was told to be high-hat when I left New York. People supposed to know came around with advice when they heard I had a picture contract. They said: ‘Spit on them out there. They like it.'”
From then on, Ina began to alter her manner toward the film colony. Not immediately, but by slow degrees. Before she got entirely over her first notion that Hollywood had to be handled like a night-club waiter, she had one famous run-in with one of her competitors.
She wanted Sylvia to report every morning at 6 A.M. and wake her up with a good pounding. But Sylvia was already booked for that hour, Alice White having had the same idea about a six-o’clock slapping before it struck Ina as a good one.
“Tell Alice White,” said Ina in all seriousness to Sylvia, “that if she’s give up the six-to-seven hour I’ll—“
And she paused dramatically.
With her practical mind, the boss said: “You mean, you’ll pay her?”
“Pay her!” Ina nodded and struck a pose. “I’ll pay her with something more valuable than money. Tell her I’ll give her stage lessons!“
Alice White’s reaction to the generous offer was not long in getting itself spoken: “You tell her that I don’t need drama lessons as badly as she needs lessons in how to move around in front of the camera without showing too many of her profiles!”
This little loving exchange between sisters-in-art would have remained a private conversation but for one thing. Alice Glaser, then the wife of Barney Glaser the scenarist, was a chum of both and, hearing of the incident, couldn’t resist telling a newspaper man about it.
Incidentally, the leak of the anecdote into public print caused a quarrel that flowed and ebbed for several months, until it resulted in a redistribution of mutual esteem. Ina took her intimates to task, one by one, seeking to find out which had betrayed her to the press. Alice blamed Sylvia and Sylvia blamed Alice, and it went on that way, back and forth, for a long while, until finally Mrs. Glaser, just to show Sylvia where she got off, quit taking massage treatments from the midget viking.