Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Six

The sixth 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), includes anecdotes of such star clients as Ramon Novarro, Ernest Torrence, Jack Holt, Neil Hamilton and Lawrence Tibbett.

NARSISSIES

Ramon NavarroRAMON NOVARRO was a little stiff.
Why shouldn’t he be? He sleeps in a coffin.
That’s a fact. Ramon’s bedroom in the immense house he occupies with an old grandee of a Spanish father, his mother, and ten—count ’em—ten brothers—Ramon’s bedroom is a replica of the burial crypt of some saint in the Vatican City in Rome. The bed itself, high, narrow, and set on a pedestal, is a sarcophagus, under a purple canopy crowned with a wreath of thorns. A funny idea, this. All I can say is that Ramon seems to want to hurry his Cecil B. De Millennium.
Sylvia says that the daily massage she gave Ramon at 7 A.M.—waking him out of his embalmed slumbers with the laying on of her hands—always felt spooky. It was too uncomfortably like a miracle.
The boss promoted the job with Novarro herself, one day when she had finished touching up Elsie Janis and gone down into the Janis back yard to see what was going on in the swimming pool. Quite a bunch of actors were splashing about, showing off; and as Sylvia came along Ramon Novarro dived in and came up floating on his back. Right away the boss’s eagle eye noted something that promised a new customer and she thought up a salemanship scheme.
“Can you float like that indefinitely” she asked Novarro.
“As long as I want,” he modestly asserted.
“While you smoke a cigarette?”
He lit up and puffed away, and was good for ten minutes, stomach up, under a broiling California sun. Sure enough, when he puffed the last puff and called Sylvia to witness that he had accomplished the feat, the nice round central part of him was dried by the sun, making a cute little dry island in the middle of his bathing suit where it had been raised above water level by an undeniable protuberance.
Neat, what? All Sylvia had to do was kid him about the watermark and he had to say the expected thing and invite her to undertake the removal of the island.
“How could I help it?” he alibied. “I’m just back from a trip to Germany—and who can resist Münchener beer?”
 
ERNEST TORRENCE is a contrast to the soft and delicate Ramon Novarro, but not such a tremendous one as you’d think. What I mean is, all the boys get girlish and skittish when they have to take a professional interest in their looks, and Big Ernest is no exception.
Like all those oversize fellows, Ernest has a small, firm-minded wife who bosses him around as if he were a young St. Bernard. Elsie Torrence had been taking treatments from Sylvia, and she reported that her husband was threatened with nervous breakdown and ought to let Sylvia treat him.
“But he’s so shy,” Mrs. Torrence said, “and he just has fits when I suggest that he call in a female masseuse.” She set her jaw and added: “I’ll bring him round, though.”

So Sylvia wasn’t surprised a few days later when she got a phone call from Mrs. Torrence, who whispered hoarsely: “Come right over. He’s taking a bath and doesn’t know what he’s in for, but we’ll handle him.”
When Sylvia got over to the Torrences’ cheerful and attractive English house in Hollywood, the big he-boss was still splashing around in the bath and Mrs. Torrence was waiting with her finger on her lips.
“You get all ready,” she cautioned Sylvia, “and I’ll go in and tell him his time has come.”
Sylvia rolled up her sleeves and fixed up the bed for the operation. Meanwhile, whines of protest in a guttural masculine voice came from the other side of the bathroom door, and Sylvia heard the missus lecturing the big fellow until finally he ceased his objections, and the little woman came out and nodded to Sylvia that it was okay and maybe she had better be gentle the first time.
In a little while, red as a beet and so flustered he giggled between words, Torrence lurched into the room and enveloped in a bath robe which he had tied about his coy person with a sailor’s knot.
“Take it off,” ordered Sylvia in the casual, business-like manner that usually puts the patients with an excessively shy-violet complex at their ease. But Ernest wanted Sylvia to handle him with his robe on.
“It’s just a light robe,” he urged. “It won’t interfere.”
“Take—it—off,” repeated Sylvia, beginning to figure on having to use cave-woman methods.
Well, the trick knot in the rope cord gained Torrence some time and his bashful dodgings gained him some more, but in the end he had to the unveiling. The robe fell to the floor and he stood forth in all the noble and stalwart dignity of a strong, statuesque male—securely done up around the middle with three bath towels held together with about a dozen safety pins.
Well, Mrs. Torrence and Sylvia just fell over and howled. But Ernest couldn’t see that it was funny, and he almost revolted when, for the next five minutes, the two women, after laying him out on the bed, kept busy picking the pins out of the extemporized girdle. He wanted to wriggle away and make a dive for the chaste security of the bathroom; but the little wife said a few firm words, and he turned over and lay quiet.
The matter with him was pure nerves. He had been worrying about his career and some trouble about his next rôle, and had lashed himself into a state bordering on complete breakdown. There’s a legend that men are tougher than women, and lots of men are ashamed to admit, even to themselves, that they sometimes get out of their depths in this tough business of living. The plain truth is that men are, if anything, more nervously fragile than women.
Some of the Hollywood actors have no false masculine modesty, but frankly admit that they are professional beauties the same as any Norma Shearer, Clara Bow, or Greta Garbo. There was nothing coy about Jack Holt’s summons to Sylvia to come and give him facials. His face was his fortune, madame, he said, and he was ready to invest in conserving that asset—or maybe I should say facet. Jack gave the boss a thrill by receiving her, for the facials, mind you, clad in bright purple silk underdrawers.
While she was treating patients in the Malibu Colony, Sylvia threw a jolt into Neil Hamilton one day that was not part of any treatment. Neil was living down in Actors’ Row on Malibu Beach, where half the movie colony lives through the summers in a row of dinky shacks built on piling in the beach sands. Sylvia had quite a few patients in the beach colony, and she tried to save time by calling on all of them whenever she went down there. She just went along the row like an iceman on his rounds, knocking on every door and inquiring,” Treatment today?”
One night she stayed late at Anna Q. Nilsson‘s shack, and was going to call it a day when she noticed a light at Hamilton’s place, a few yards down, and thought it good business to turn her roadster into Neil’s back yard.
She heard several men calling excitedly to one another inside the house and then all the lights went out. She got a panicky notion that there was something wrong and crashed into the shack without knocking. Inside all was darkness, and Sylvia got scared and let out a yell. She heard somebody stumble in from the kitchen and she caught Neil’s voice calling:
“It’s a dame. Come on out.”
Then the lights went on, and Neil and several of his friends gathered around Sylvia and enjoyed some private joke they wouldn’t let her in on. Nor would Neil ever explain, except to say mysteriously:
“Whatinell do you want to drive around that kind of a roadster for?”
Sylvia could only guess at what frightened the party, but that night she did notice an item in her newspaper:
“A raiding squad of the Federal Prohibition unit has been equipped with four Chrysler roadsters to facilitate work in the outlying areas around Los Angeles. A drive to dry up suburban areas hitherto immune will be conducted by the automobile squad.”
 
Can’t kid Lawrence Tibbett, another of Sylvia’s male patients, who he does it so well himself.
Tibbett heard the general report, spread about the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot shortly after Grace Moore‘s arrival to play in a musical opposite him, that Sylvia had taken several inches off Grace’s contours. He decided to get Sylvia to give him one of her great big hands. And the first thing he said was:
“I hear you spanked Grace into shape. Well, I need the same treatment, only at the other end of my spine.”
And he pointed at his face—that odd round short face, the shape of which the directors disguise by giving him rôles as wild Tartars and other wearers of plenty of crazy hair—which the make-up men arrange around his face.
The name of Tibbett’s forthcoming picture at the time was “New Moon.” He kidded himself: “I don’t want the wise-crackers saying, ‘It isn’t a new moon—it’s the full one.'”
Tibbett fits right into the traditional picture of a musical virtuoso—a troubadour born out of his century. Give him his way and he’d be going around the landscape with a guitar on his back, singing in everybody’s back yard.
A much-repeated anecdote around Hollywood is that Lawrence had such an irresistible yen to express himself one night that he just had to go out and find somebody to serenade. He picked on Laura Hope Crews, which makes this so respectable that it almost isn’t an anecdote. Lawrence wheeled himself over to Laura’s house, and ran his car up on her lawn so as to throw the headlight on her bedroom window. And then he did a solo, accompanying himself on the car’s French horn.
Well, when Laura and the neighbors got over their first fright, they saw who the singer was and decided to enjoy it. Even the cop on the beat had enough æsthetic sense to lay off. No harm done, and a swell time had by all.
But Grace Tibbett, his wife, couldn’t see it that way. She expressed her opinion in no uncertain terms. And what she resented and disapproved was not that Lawrence should desert the connubial roof at the witching hour of midnight to go and sing into some other woman’s shell-like ear. No, it wasn’t that. What Lawrence was guilty of was putting on a show without collecting a cent at the gate.
In Sylvia’s contact with Tibbett she ran up against Mrs. Tibbett’s attitude only once. That was during the first treatment. The boss was sort of counting on getting an eyeful of the famous Tibbett physique. After all, when a manly chest and Greek torso have been as much publicized as in the case of Tibbett, even a masseuse can figure on getting some kick out of a close-up. So Sylvia was all set to go over Lawrence from toe to scalp. But the wife popped in at the psychological moment:
“Just a facial, please.” And just facials it was.

< Read Chapter 5 | Read Chapter 7 >

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