Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Thirteen

The thirteenth 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), reveals how a feud between the queen of the Pathé lot, Gloria Swanson, and young upstart Constance Bennett began.

BATTLE ROYAL

Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, Constance Bennett, Jean HarlowAND then, one day, Bennett had to wait because Sylvia was busy on Swanson. That was the match that touched off the fireworks.
They were waiting to be touched off, according to the rumors of a private difference between the two. Anyway, it was plain on the lot, from the first, that Connie and Gloria weren’t going to get along. It’s dangerous putting two such high-powered belles in the same county, let alone on the same movie lot, where all everybody ever does in idle hours is try to steal one another’s water coolers, jobs, mascara, and boy friends.
One thing you’ve got to say for Bennett: she doesn’t avoid a fight when she sees it coming. On the contrary, she sticks to the good old principle—applied equally by school kids, prize fighters, Napoleon, and professional belles—that the first sock is likely to win.
From week to week Bennett was getting more and more restless about the one thing on the Pathé lot that no one had ever yet dared to contest—the admitted fact that the sun was a big Klieg light created for the purpose of making a camera halo around Gloria Swanson’s hair, and that any of its light that happened to fall on anyone else was graciously permitted to do so by Swanson Productions, Inc.
It’s about time to take a side glance at one of the elements of this general situation which has been neglected—the snatching and grabbing of boy friends that went on under the surface. If you go back to the moment when all these ladies were in different parts of the earth, satisfied with their respective lots and loves, you find that, in the way of pairings, all were contented.
Ina Claire had her Gene Markey. Gloria Swanson had her Marquis Henri. Greta Garbo had her Jack Gilbert. Connie Bennett had her health.
Ina started the war when she busted up the combination by grabbing of Jack Gilbert. That left Gene Markey a lone wolf, and the long moonshiny nights in the Beverly foothills were filled with baleful bachelor bayings.
 
ANOTHER thing Ina did when she swooped out of the East and rustled herself a branded bull out of the contented herd was to set up a sort of self-conscious stir among the other females. Example is contagious.
And the wisest ones saw at a glance what was the trouble, the chronic Hollywood trouble, cause of most of the ructions that set the news wires periodically to humming.
Out here there aren’t enough Class A-1 boy friends to go around. What I mean is blue-ribbon boy friends with stars in their foreheads, the kind that throw sod over into the next pasture when they start snorting and pawing the ground.
At the time of Connie Bennett’s arrival there were only two real pedigreed prancing papas on the prairie—Jack Gilbert and the Marquis Henri de la Falaise. Others? Oh sure, there are others. But I don’t mean others. I mean sirloin. I mean the kind that can flip a hoof and shoot sand right over the Rockies into the Eastern public eye.

Right now it looks as if the town at last has got one more boy friend to fight over. Gene Markey has been coming right along ever since his arrival here, just after he hit front pages as Ina Claire’s discardboard lover. Maybe that wasn’t such a good start; but a front page is a front page, whether you hit it in a graceful pose or on your ear. Right away Gene made himself felt, so to speak.
Anyhow, when Gloria Swanson found herself without an escort, it was a civic scandal. Gene saw what was wrong and, public-spirited citizen that he is, walked up and set it right. The neighbors went back to watering their lawns, and the consensus was that Markey had been sent by heaven to fill an aching void.
There was a momentary calm—only a breathing spell between rounds of the battle royal, as will be seen; but for a while everybody settled down in a neutral corner and caught a deep breath.
In fact, deceived by appearances, Gloria Swanson took a chance and went away. She finished “The Trespasser,” saw the film released, assured herself that it was a hit, and breezed for Paris and a little vacation from the toil and heartache of Hollywood.
On the way East, she stopped off in Chicago and gave Sylvia the biggest break she ever had. The Chicago reporters interviewed Gloria and told her she was looking like a million dollars, and Gloria shoved the boss into the news by telling the boys that her face and form had been tailored for “The Trespasser” rôle by a masseuse out in Hollywood who asked you what you wanted to be—Venus or Diana—and then slapped you into a ringer for either one, take your choice.
 
OUT in Hollywood, things were quiet on the Pathé lot. Swanson was headed for Paris. Joe Kennedy had gone to New York. With the big boss away, all the little people were happy. And with Swanson absent, Bennett reined supreme and was happy too. But Bennett was smart enough to know that she would have to step down into second place again when Gloria came home. Unless—
Well, Bennett apparently decided that the best time to attack the enemy’s positions is when they are undefended.
Sylvia was working on Bennett one day when the Chicago interview given by Gloria was printed in a local paper. Bennett had been reading the blurb. She looked up from the page and asked Sylvia: “Do you think it’s true that you got Swanson in shape for ‘The Trespasser’?”
“Figure it out for yourself,” said the boss, always the shrinking violet. “Do you remember what you looked like before I took hold of you?”
Bennett didn’t say anything, just looked as if there was a bit of strategy on her mind. She kept her thoughts to herself until the rubdown was well under way, and then she came back to what was bothering her. She took a new angle.
“Working on Gloria was a great break for you, wasn’t it?” she said to Sylvia. “It’s making you famous.”
She was lying face down, but she twisted around to look at Sylvia as she continued.
If you want to be famous all over the world, I could set you in places where Swanson wouldn’t even get invited. Look here”—and she turned completely around and sat up. “Do you want to massage the King of Spain?”
Sylvia didn’t have the answer for that and let Bennett rave on.
“I could take you frist to Paris and fix you up there so that every celebrity in the world would patronize you. Not just movie actors, either—but real people. And then I’d take you down to Spain. I know everybody in Spain. You know—people of the royal court. What do you say?”
Sylvia said it with a whack that laid the temptress out on the slab in position for finishing the treatment.
In the next few days Bennett returned incessantly to the subject. What she proposed was that Sylvia accompany her abroad, leaving the Pathé people to like it or take whatever other course they saw fit. Plainly, only one interpretation was to be put on Bennett’s move. She had it firmly in her head that Sylvia was the secret of Swanson’s beauty. The brains of these professional beauties act like that.
It’s their private thoughts that give them those dimples we all adore.
 
THE amazing development that came next was that, way off in Paris, Gloria got wind of what was going on. Call it female telepathy, or assume that some dear friend of both girls spent five dollars on a week-end cablegram just as an investment in fun—the fact was that Joe Kennedy, sitting in the Pathé offices in New York with nothing but booking and release dates on his mind, was suddenly jerked out of his seat by a radiogram from Gloria, who had set sail for home.
The message was full of anger and hurt, and informed Kennedy that Connie Bennett, the so-and-so, was kidnaping Gloria’s Sylvia from the home lot, and would Joe please call out the militia and start action at once against Bennett for mayhem and points south.
Sylvia was over in Bennett’s suite late that night, giving the lady her go-to-sleep patting, when the phone bell rang. Sylvia heard one side of the ensuing conversation, but pricked up her ears when she realized that the call was from New York and that herself was the subject thereof.
“I only asked her to accompany me on my trip to Europe,” Bennett was telling Kennedy at the other end of the wire. Judging by Bennett’s frequent pauses and the way she winced and explained, she was getting a bawling out.
“I don’t see what Swanson misjudges me that way,” she complained into the phone. “Why, I—I—“
Again she was silenced by an outburst from Kennedy, who raised his voice so high that his words could be heard by Sylvia.
“Is that double-crossing little bum Sylvia with you now?” he yelled.
Connie Bennett started to deny, but Sylvia was at her elbow, grabbing for the phone. She passed it over and Sylvia called into the mouthpiece: “Here I am.”
Then she blinked and spluttered and tried to cut in for about two minutes while Joe Kennedy called her names. According to Joe’s information, Sylvia was a traitor and a renegade and a few other things. And Bennett was—oh, well, a movie actress. And the two of you, boil your hides, are conspiring to do Gloria dirt. And after all Gloria has done for the boss! Joe Kennedy almost cried.
Which anyway gave Sylvia a chance to say the first word she had got in.
“But I’m not accepting Miss Bennett’s offer!” she shrieked. “And you can go to—!” And she hung up.
She turned around to go for Bennett as cause of all her woe, maybe cause of her losing out with Pathé and being put out of a swell job. But all that Bennett listened to was the part about Sylvia’s Pathé connection being in danger. Bennett pounced on that.
“Certainly,” she agreed. “Now the Pathé people will look for a chance to kick you out. Don’t wait for that to happen. Come to Europe with me.”
She was feverishly excited about putting it over. You’d think that she wanted this one thing more than anything else in the world. At the moment, no doubt she did. It was a matter of who wins? Gloria or Connie? And Connie wasn’t stopping at anything to make the answer suit her self-esteem.
Sylvia was packing up to get away. She had had enough for one night and she wanted to get home and cry on family shoulders. She turned to say good night to Bennett.
And there was Bennett, sitting up in bed, with her hand stretched out so that it was under the spotlight from the bed-table lamp. She had a star-sapphire ring on one finger that Sylvia had once admired, and she was making the sapphire flash in the light and looking at Sylvia with a coy expression.
Suddenly she stuck her head to one side and pulled the ring off her finger.
“Do you like my ring?” she cooed. “It’s yours if you’ll come.”
And she stretched an arm out over the footboard and tried to put the ring on Sylvia’s hand.
Oh, well, the boss got out of there still unpersuaded. She is superstitious. And a few weeks later she was struck all of a heap one day when she happened to notice how “sapphire” is spelled and that you split it up and it just about spells “Sap Hire.”
Well, the excitement died down, and Sylvia wasn’t fired, and she didn’t go over and massage the King of Spain, and Gloria Swanson came back to Hollywood and laughed about the whole thing (the winner’s laugh!), and Joe Kennedy came back and had his treatments as before.
And—and what do you know?— Connie and Gloria met up after Gloria got back from Paris, and the two girls kissed and hugged as if one was a blotter and the other the ink and they loved each other so much that it was all you could do to—oh, rats, pass me the bicarbonate!
Mind, I’m not saying there isn’t a great kick in watching a set-to like this between rival screen beauties. Maybe you’d get the same kick out of being a second to a heavyweight prize fighter of championship caliber. But the fight for screen supremacy is much subtler than what takes place around and about the prize ring. For one thing, the girls aren’t supposed to sock. For another, they’re supposed to lie back, look their best, and just wait for the championship to happen to them!
Bennett took the trip to Paris without Sylvia and, somewhere along the road, she adopted a baby. That girl certainly must crave company!
At that, a baby can build up a woman’s weight better than a masseuse can. But Connie, the little innocent darling, should be told that it isn’t done by adopting a baby.

< Read Chapter 12 | Read Chapter 14 >

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