The fifteenth 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 how actress Grace Moore tried to steal Sylvia away from Gloria Swanson.
THE MOORE, THE MERRIER!
IN ALL Sylvia’s experience, Grace Moore is the only client who has ever managed to undress in a massage parlor without shedding her dignity. The general atmosphere of Sylvia’s bungalow being what it was, and the quarters being cramped, our paying guests were usually about as mannerly as dogs in a pound. During business hours, the premises usually looked like the bank of the ol’ swimmin’ hole on a hot Saturday afternoon. People’s clothes dropped wherever they stepped out of them, and every so often Sylvia was asked to start a movement whereby everybody traded shirts and stockings until all had their own back again.
But Moore carried her manners with her, as she did everything else expect a grand piano—and she would have had the piano brought along if she’d thought of it. The two handmaidens screened Grace into a corner of our two-by-four dressing room and put her through an act like a queen getting ready for bed.
Well, you can put on all the front in the world, but sooner or later you’ve got to turn around. Five minutes later Sylvia was looking Grace anywhere but in the eye and asking her if opera singers sit a lot between shows.
Grace took it high and mighty at first.
“You must be mistaken,” she came back, as loftily as she could. “That sort of thing would show up in a camera test, wouldn’t it?”
“You bet it does,” assured Sylvia.
“Well, my tests at M.-G.-M. were pronounced perfect,” asserted Grace. “And I did one whole scene in profile.”
Sylvia didn’t argue. But what Grace had said didn’t jibe with the confidential call Sylvia had had from the M.-G.-M. lot that morning—an appeal from headquarters to do something about—quarters elsewhere.
Sylvia didn’t say anything, but maybe she looked a lot. Anyway, the prima donna went away from the first treatment in a mood of silence that tipped Sylvia off that she might as well expect trouble.
When the trouble came—a “misunderstanding”—the boss made short work of it, and then called M.-G.-M. to cancel dates for their singing star’s further treatments.
And when Grace herself got on the phone a little while later, and apologized for the misunderstanding and said everything was lovely, Sylvia froze up like a fjord. Grace’s olive branch took the form of an invite to attend a Sunday party up in her hilltop house, and she promised Sylvia some fun.
“I’m going to have M.-G.-M. send over the trade-mark lion, and Bee Lillie will be there—” she ballyhooed.
“And I’m supposed to be part of the menagerie?” shouted Sylvia, and hung up the receiver.
But after a while the boss remembered that dough is dough, and the Moore the merrier. Grace came back into the fold. But she continued to act cool and distant. Except, of course, when the boss was beating her lobster red; everybody is near and hot then.
Grace was getting hot in more places than Sylvia was responsible for. The reason for a steadily mounting temperature in her case was that Gene Markey, whom she had lured away from Gloria Swanson, was showing signs of a relapse.
From its executives down to “MGM,” its trade-mark lion, every male on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot was ready and eager to turn handsprings to keep Grace in good humor and maker her feel that her charm was working on all sixteen. But, being a woman, Grace had go and look out the window poutingly and long for something she didn’t get from Santa Claus! Nothing the M.-G.-M. people could think of could cheer Grace up. On the Metro lot, her director even got Lawrence Tibbett, who was playing opposite Grace in her picture, to give Grace the profile position in all the duet shots. That got a little smile out of the disconsolate belle, but it didn’t last long. In a few minutes, down went the corners of her mouth again and she began standing around in corners and moping.
What she really wanted, no doubt, was news that Gloria had broken an ankle—preferably in three places; and though the M.-G.-M. executives can get almost anything they want in Hollywood, they couldn’t get that for her.
And then Grace got what she thought a novel idea, not knowing that Mae Murray, Mary Duncan, Connie Bennett, and Ina Claire had all toyed with it before her. In her turn Grace believed the stories that Sylvia solely responsible for Gloria’s hold on beauty. Apparently these girls are all as credulous as beauties in the Middle Ages, who used to believe that any looks but their own were got by a pact with Satan, and would fade if you burned a powder made from peacock feathers and said:
“Hocus-pocus, pints and quarts,
Give her bunions, give her warts.”
They thought that if you could take Sylvia away from Gloria for one week, Gloria’s looks would deflate.
As Grace began thinking it over, she began to perk up. She planned more astutely than Bennett had, and went about swiping Sylvia in the only way that might work.
Sylvia wasn’t even asked; she was just told. And Joe Kennedy did the telling. He had Sylvia up on the carpet in the Pathé front office.
He had just had a telephone call from a Metro-Goldwyn executive, who had said:
“We want to buy up Sylvia’s contract, and you may as well sell, because our star, Grace Moore, has practically clinched the matter in private talks with Sylvia, and if you hold Sylvia against her will, what kind of service would you expect to get out of her?”
Later Kennedy pounded the desk and raged, “You’re always trying to jump your contract, mama. Gloria Swanson put you where you are. Where’s your gratitude?”
Well, when she could get a word in, Sylvia told him that her gratitude was right where it always had been, and told him the facts. When Kennedy got convinced, he began to grin and asked Sylvia:
“Do you suppose Moore talked them into it?”
“Your guess is as good as an affadavit,” opined Sylvia, and they agreed to lie back for a few days and see what would happen.
NOTHING happened. It looked as if Grace had given it up as a bad job. But Grace has a mustard plaster beaten for stick-to-it-iveness. She was just waiting for a new opening, and the new opening came.
The opening was Gloria Swanson’s throat—and did Grace jump down it?
Gloria was getting ready for her production, in which she had to sing songs. Well, Gloria’s singing voice isn’t her biggest asset, and she was a little nervous.
In Grace Moore’s baggage there was a singing teacher, Signor Marafioti from Italty, who was supposed to be a regular Svengali who could make a coloratura out of a trained seal. Gloria heard about the signor and the more she tried out her high C in private, the more convinced she became that she had to have Marafioti or die.
So this time it was Joe Kennedy calling up Metro and asking for something they controlled.
The Metro executive chuckled in the phone. “And you’re the guy who wouldn’t sell us that masseuse!”
“Have a heart,” begged Kennedy. “You don’t know what it is to manage a star with temperament.”
“Oh, don’t we!” sort of sighed the Metro man who was managing Grace Moore.
“You and I ought to understand each other,” sighed Kennedy in return.
The Metro man said he’d call back that afternoon. In the meantime he had seen Grace Moore. And his proposition, when he phoned, was this:
“You give Grace Moore that rubber, and Grace says she’ll give Gloria the signor.”
The issue was considered important enough for Pathé to call an executive meeting and discuss the matter, pro and con. They argued all the points and weighed each one, and preferred the masseuse to the music master. They turned Grace Moore and Metro down.
That suits us. Because if anyone high-hats Sylvia now and inquires what standing a masseuse has, she and her art, the boss has her answer ready:
“It’s in the records: my racket ranks high—between music and the stars.”