The eleventh 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 of a close call experienced in treating actress Norma Shearer.
GLORIA runs quite an establishment—butlers, footmen, and the rest. Down on the Pathé lot she rolled up her sleeves and did her day labor like an old trouper. But at home she was La Marquise de la Falaise et de la Coudraye, and had the big soft rugs, uniformed servants, and all the dog to prove it.
The house staff gave Sylvia the works, which is to say that she passed through about ten pairs of hands, to land finally in an upstairs den. There time passed in great chunks without any sign of Gloria Swanson. The boss was dead tired and had to pinch herself to keep awake. Whereupon a footman ambled in with a clinking tray, and she tried just one for luck and was sunk.
She had no idea what time it was when, presently, someone shook her out of a sound sleep and said: “Here I am—all ready for you.”
It was Gloria in her nightie. A clear case of overwrought nerves, with the inevitable results of facial lines and general puffiness. The treatment for that is delicate. If you start in pounding and pummeling at the start, the subject’s nerves get worse and worse, and the result you’re likely to get is the kind of weight reduction that is ruin—a stringy, jumpy body and a cavernous, drawn look about the face.
In the first few minutes Gloria admitted that the new sound-movie racket had her half-crazy. It took the boss two hours of gentle, soothing rubbing to get the overexcited star to sleep. Meanwhile she was that the job would take time; that, for a start, she’d have to reconcile herself to getting maybe a little fatter than she was; that the real work on her hips, chin and arms would have to wait. Gloria saw the point and said:
“Then I’ll have to have you all the time. You’ve got to give up your other people and work for me alone.”
Right away the boss remembered how that hook-up had worked out with Mae Murray—and even with Mary Duncan. It meant having to build up her clientele all over again when the contract died.
The offer from Gloria was flattering enough. But the boss had got past the point where the name of a movie star, whispered, was enough to jerk her out of a sound sleep. She was able to keep her head when Swanson made her offer, because, for one thing, the savings account was doing nicely, and, for another, she had just taken on Norma Shearer, whom she had been angling to get for months.
Hedda Hopper steered Norma Shearer into Sylvia’s hands. At that, the boss nearly lost the M.-G.-M. star after the first treatment, which was given in Shearer’s home. Norma had been playing a lot of tennis, and had got stringy and muscular and jumpy, the way women always do when they go crazy about any sport. The first thing to do was to calm her down and get her to sleeping regularly as a preliminary to softening her. So the boss rubbed her for nearly two hours and left her sleeping like a child. The next morning we got a phone call from Hedda Hopper, who said:
“I don’t know what you did to Norma Shearer, Sylvia, but my name is mud in the movies if you’ve ruined her.”
“Why, what’s the matter?” asked Sylvia.
“She’s half-crazy,” wept Hedda. “I’m with her now. She’s in the next room and Irving’s with her” (Irving being Norma’s husband and the big guy on the M.-G.-M. lot) “and they’re sorry I ever brought you to her.”
“But tell me what’s wrong!” cried Sylvia.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Hedda. “Norma has funny marks—sort of red ruffles—in her skin, all down one side and on her arm and leg on that side.”
Well, with a few more hysterical words Hedda conveyed the idea that Mr. Thalberg and Norma crossed and Hedda herself were convinced that Sylvia had crossed up a nerve or something and that Norma was getting paralysis. Because they read somewhere that paralysis attacks one side of the body, and these marks were on the same side.
The boss got frightened herself and hopped over to the Thalberg house in her pyjamas. She found them hanging over Norma in bed. Norma was keeping her nerve—suspecting the worst, but heroic withal—and was consoling Irving with the idea that maybe it was all for the best; that she had had all the principal thrills of a movie career anyway, and maybe now that it was the hand of Providence pointing out that she should give it up and be a wife and mother. It was an affecting and tragic scene.
They didn’t shriek at Sylvia, but Hedda, with a simple dramatic gesture full of noble dignity, merely led the boss to the sufferer’s bedside and pulled back the sheet. Sylvia took one look and let out a laugh. Then she slid her hand under the incipient paralytic’s body and yanked out a coarse linen ribbed bath towel. Norma had slept all night on the towel which had been used the evening before as a massage mat, and naturally the side which had pressed on the ribbed towel all those hours was marked like a waffle. She has a delicate skin, anyway, that takes a mark like a chamois kid.
In spite of being relieved of her fear, Norma wasn’t sure she would continue Sylvia’s treatments, and needed to be nursed and patted back into client humor. If the boss took Gloria Swanson’s offer and told Shearer that she would have to wait three months for her next massage, it was certain to mean a famous customer offended and lost.
Besides Norma Shearer, the boss, right then, was regularly handling Mary Duncan, Alice White, Carmelita Geraghty, Hedda Hopper, Laura Hope Crews, Ina Claire, Norma Talmadge, Elsie Janis, Ramon Novarro, Ruth Chatterton, Ronald Colman, Ernest Torrance, Jack Holt, Douglas MacLean, Sue Carol, Nick Stuart, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Charles Farrell, Virginia Valli, Zasu Pitts, Marion Davies, and a bunch of others. A fat chance they’d all stay put and wait for Sylvia three months while she handled one star exclusively.
The boss put all this up to Gloria. Gloria didn’t say anything—just nodded. And a few minutes later she mysteriously asked: “Will you be at home tomorrow?”
Looking at the clock, which showed 3 A. M., Sylvia opined she’d spend what was left of tomorrow in bed.
The next day, a Sunday, the boss was dragged out of bed to talk to a man on the phone who would give his name only to her. He said: “This is Joe Kennedy—Miss Swanson’s producer. What would you think of a contract with Pathé? Figure out what you make and we’ll beat the figure.”
Fair enough. If they beat Sylvia’s figure, she’d beat Swanson’s.
And, moreover, this wasn’t burying herself. The proposition was for the boss to hang out her shingle on the Pathé lot. Primarily, she was to treat Gloria at any and all hours of the day, within reason. Secondarily, she was to give additional time to Pathé employees, as designated by the management. Then, if there was any time left over, she could give it to a chosen number of her old clients not Pathé employees. For this, $750 weekly. Not bad—not bad!
BEFORE Kennedy went through with signing the contract Monday morning, he wanted to test out Sylvia. A hard-headed business man, Kennedy. What if this was all a lot of hokum? What if Pathé was going to spend a lot of its good money on a faker with a good line? Kennedy proposed to test out Sylvia in person. Would she report at once to his office and give him a treatment?
“For what?” promptly asked Sylvia.
“That’s for you to find out,” came back Kennedy. If Sylvia was so good, she was supposed to spot what his trouble was.
That was the proposition. The boss accepted. She wondered what kind of an old fatty with a watch chain and sideburns she was going to encounter. Her idea of a production manager was something like a cartoon banker.
The man who received her gave her a shock. Kennedy turned out to size up as a youngish Irishman with an athletic build—though that might be his tailor. The boss said so. She added: “Let’s see what’s under the tailoring. Take your clothes off.”
Kennedy got fussed. A deadlock. But the boss wasn’t going to give a treatment through five thickness of tweed and underwear. It got to be a dare, and he stripped—stripped down to something in which it was going to be hard to find the trouble he had talked about.It turned out he had been a football star and was used to keeping in pretty good athletic condition. Outside of a little excess weight, there was nothing to pick on. Suddenly the boss had a hunch and told Kennedy to walk around the room. The minute he moved, she spotted the trouble—flat feet, the universal complaint of athletes. She named it.
“You win,” acknowledged Kennedy. There was no more argument about the contract, except a weak one put up later by the Pathé money man, Bill Sistrom. He tried to argue that she ought to take a smaller salary.
“Let’s argue about whether it’s seven hundred and fifty or a thousand,” suggested the boss—and Sistrom almost put out her eye with the fountain pen.
In the first week at Pathé a comical situation arose, due to nothing but the terrific vanity, ten times as intense as was ever any woman’s, of the male. Sylvia was signed to handle Gloria and the second-string Pathé beauties—meaning female beauties,, not handsome executives.
Well, believe it or not, the swell lookers in pants in the executive department interpreted the clause about “and others” in the contract to apply to themselves and began taking up the new beauty specialist’s time to such an extent that Helen Twelvetrees, Carole Lombard, Ilka Chase, and some of the other Pathé girls often lost out, or had to wait until late in the evening. There were even times when Gloria herself sat around twiddling her thumbs while Sylvia was bringing out the perfect oval of some supervisor’s mug.
And—was it health these gentlemen wanted? No so’s you could notice it. What they wanted was beauty—melting, luscious beauty.
The boss claims she’s never handled a man yet who didn’t hem and haw and eventually get around to hinting that what he really needed was a good facial. The boys have an invariable artifice for getting around to it.
“What a day!” they begin, meaning that the tremendous executive responsibilities have worn them down to wrecks. Then they glance in a mirror. “It shows on a fellow, doesn’t it?”
Sylvia just waits, knowing what’s coming next. Some of them are brisk and offhand; some stammer; but they all say about the same thing: “If you just went over my face and neck, mama, I think it would get my nerves in shape for the day’s work.”
Five minutes later, if Sylvia gives them the facial they’ve been plotting to get, they’re talking about blackheads and wrinkles and their chin lines like any woman turning forty and scared of losing her profile.
Before Sylvia had been on the Pathé lot a month, handling Gloria and whacking and paddling her through “The Trespasser” shooting, she was up against something much tougher to handle than the smirking vanities of the front-office executives. It was the resentment kindled in the breasts of the other feminine stars on the lot by the fact that they all had to defer to Gloria in the matter of securing treatment appointments.
Ina Claire revolted openly—steered clear of the bungalow assigned to Sylvia for her labors—and got her own private pummeler.
Others grumbled. Nobody, however, challenged Gloria’s right to first call until, one day, following a string of advance reports, a new comet landed with a whiz on the old Culver City lot and promptly gave out sparks and fizzes promising trouble.
But the story of Constance Bennett belongs to a new chapter.