The fourteenth 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 how actress Grace Moore, upon her arrival in Hollywood, tried to knock Gloria Swanson off her Tinseltown pedestal.
THE PLOT THICKENS—AND SOME MIDRIFFS!
IT SEEMS that the first thing for a high-power beauty to do when she gets into the movies and comes to Hollywood si to go up and give Gloria Swanson a big shove and say: “Yah!”
I don’t know why this is, but they all do it. They don’t pick on Garbo, or Chatterton, or Shearer. No; they all come into town and go up to the hotel and wash their faces, and beat it out to Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Drive, where Gloria’s front lawn comes down to the sidewalk, and get out and walk up and down and sneer and yell: “Come out and fight! I can lick you!”
Why, even Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the London actress who is so veteran that she used to play for one of the Edwards—the VII, I think—even this old-timer had to get a rush of rivalry to her venerable head and take a fall out of Gloria. It was a rather nasty fall, too.
Mrs. Pat saw one of Gloria’s films and was all excited about it and went around Hollywood begging to meet “that perfectly charming gel.” And Gloria’s friends began to set up the drinks and celebrate, because Mrs. Pat knows Bernard Shaw and that makes her opinion worth its weight in salt. They threw a reception for the woman who has been the toast of London so long, and were tickled to death—until Mrs. Pat, who had been waiting for this spot, added to her honeyed flattery of Gloria the little bit of wormwood which she had been waiting to spill all the while.
“Yes, a dee-lightful creature, this Swanson girl; really a pippin, as you Americans say. You know, I’ve been wondering what it was that struck me most about that gel and her most striking smile, and I’ve just hit on what it is. Really, my dears, she ought to be told to file down her teeth!”
I GUESS the reason for all the resentment is Gloria’s pull with men. Other movie queens in Hollywood can give Gloria their arguments on picture grosses and the size of their fan mail, but Gloria’s front porch is the place where all the boys go on the night off. And Hollywood hostesses have learned not to give parties in competition with Gloria, because if they do, they only men they’ll get are local movie critics and assistants in the Hays office.
So the newcomers hear about this and decide that it’s about time to make a change. And they set out the drinks and the sandwiches, and put on the low-back gowns, and light up the front parlor and leave the shades up, and turn on the radio, and say to themselves: “This’ll fetch the boys.” And give a sigh for poor old Gloria and think that she’s going to be pretty lonesome up in that big old house when the sports get wise to the new attraction—but it serves her right for hogging the trade.
But the same thing happens every time. Along about midnight the newcomer puts the sandwiches in the ice box and crawls into bed and lies there wide awake for the next few hours, gnawing her knuckles and listening to the male chorus doing Sweet and Low in twelve verses on Gloria’s veranda.
Usually the newcomers calm down after a while and leave Gloria alone, figuring, who wants to take her bunch of amateur tenors away from her, anyway? But every once in a while a born scrapper comes to town who picks herself up after the first knockdown, shakes her head, and squares off to make a finish fight of it. Then Gloria, according to the rules of the game, has to put up her Most Popular Girl championship and accept the challenge.
You saw what happened to Bennett! Well, Grace Moore, having grabbed off honors in musical comedy and grand opera, came to Hollywood with an M.-G.-M. contract in her bag and a spot of red in each eye. Bennett and all the other unsuccessful challengers had used the wrong holds on Gloria. This was going to be different. And the citizenry were advised to watch Grace’s smoke and make no bets until they’d seen her in a workout.
There was no secret made about Grace’s arrival. She rolled into Pasadena in a pair of special cars so full of secretaries, cats, maids, dogs, and bandboxes and singing teachers that M.-G.-M. met the party with busses. The whole outfit concealed itself modestly in a cottage with twenty-five baths.
Right away there were signs of trouble ahead. Gene Markey passed up an evening of charades at Gloria Swanson’s manse and went out to the end of the car line to carry a bouquet to the new singer from the East. Previous to this incident, Gloria’s crowd had been making some slighting remarks about the newcomer. They kidded Grace’s habit of appearing everywhere in dense formation—to wit, surrounded by secretaries and handmaids. Grace went everywhere like President Hoover riding up Pennsylvania Avenue; and Swanson partisans snickered in corners and got jokes about how long it took Grace Moore to pass a given point.
But Gene Markey’s switch to the rival camp took the snap out of all the jokes, and Gloria saw that once again she would have to go out to war.
When Grace’s secretary called Sylvia on the Pathé lot and made a date for his employer to come down from M.-G.-M. and get treated, Sylvia hadn’t yet been tipped off to the fact that Gloria and Grace had already exchanged a few snarls. She thought it was just a new job.
Grace Moore’s hour was 5 P.M. the next day. Vivienne Segal, a veteran of musical comedy who naturally had her own opinion of Grace Moore and her “operatic airs,” was on the slab from four-thirty on, and it so happened that Vivienne was slow about getting into her clothes when five o’clock came. Which produced a situation, right off the bat.
It seems that Vivienne had had a manager who didn’t please her, and she had fired him, and he had come back by filing a suit for damages. And Grace Moore had hired him.
Promptly at five, Sylvia’s front office was invaded by a parade. First came a cute-looking chappie in a cutaway and striped pants, a cut-out from the back pages of Vanity Fair, who came as advance scout. He signaled the mob behind him that all was well, and two maids came in and deposited themselves and a lot of Miss Moore’s coats on the chairs. Then everybody blew a few trumpets and Grace herself entered slowly and looked around in a pained way, as much as to say:
“What! Am I to be kept waiting?”
The secretary caught the look of annoyance, and spoke up in one of those Eton accents:
“Miss Moore is ready for her treatment.”
In the rear room Vivienne Segal suddenly stiffened on the slab and let out a yell:
“Sylvia! Don’t you hear that voice? That’s the man who’s suing me!” She jumped to the floor and flung a towel around her. “And you can just tell him for me,” she went on, “that if he doesn’t get out of here—“
She started for the door to the front room, and Sylvia threw herself into the doorway to cut her off and prevent carnage. There was a sound like a quail rising and, where that secretary had been, stood an empty chair and the hat he left behind.
Grace Moore spoke up.
“Isn’t that woman back there taking up some of my hour? Please have her leave at once.” And Grace waved her hand as if a gesture would dispel a whole flock of Segals.
With that, Vivienne, who had begun to calm down, flew into a new rage.
“‘That woman’!” she imitated Grace Moore. “Does she mean me? Let me go, Sylvia! I’m going to tell her just what I think of her. I’d have her know that Vivienne Segal doesn’t dress fast for anybody!”
And she didn’t. To show that a woman has her pride, after all, she put both her stockings on wrong side out, and pulled them off and put them on right, all in slow motion, and gave a demonstration of how long a lady can take to powder her nose when she’s been riled into a sweat, and finally flounced triumphantly with her nose in the air.
That was an auspicious beginning, but there’s one thing you can count on when you get caught in the center of a Hollywood cat fight: there’s always worse to come.