The third 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 story of the masseuse’s contentious relationship with actress Mae Murray.
THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA
The boss rubbed Marie Dressler and got a balance in the bank.
She rubbed others and got famous.
She rubbed still others and got wealthy.
She has rubbed some for charity, some on spec., lots for cash down—but, by and large, I guess she really rubs for the kick she gets out of her “art.”
But the kick she got out of rubbing Mae Murray was different, and more than she bargained for.
It happened in the boss’s earlier Hollywood days. Mae summoned Sylvia about Christmas time, 1927, and spake:
“You come along with me on a coast-to-coast tour, and let’s not talk dough. What you get by the week is—poof?—pin money. I’ve got plans for you. We’ll launch a breakfast food! Say, we’ll do a sanitarium right over in Westwood. There’s millions in it!” And she got sentimental and added: “Think of your darling sons. Do it for them. They’ll be rich!”
Now, I make a rule: When anybody says, “I know how to make a million,” I’m deaf. If somebody says, “Want to pick up ten bucks?” I’m listening. But Sylvia is made different. She came home from the Mae Murray interview raving with enthusiasm.
I said right then: “THis will end up in a lawsuit.” That is exactly the way it did end up, and I got credit for second-sight.
Sylvia came back from the big tour with Murray minus salary she couldn’t collect. So she sued.
Yes, they told it to the judge—but, your Honor, you don’t know the half of it, dearie! The trial lasted two days, and they had it out in court—all about Mae’s husband, Prince M’Divani, and his ways; about how Sylvia rubbed Mae so hard she got fallen arches (Sylvia did); about how Alice White was ready to show the judge just where Sylvia reduced her and there was a riot in court; and how one of Sylvia’s lawyers told Mae not to throw any inkstands—all this was chewed over by the lawyers.
The boss won and collected.
The contract the boss made with Mae was to travel with her for six months from coast to coast and keep her in daily trim. When you’ve been dancing for as many years as Mae the muscles of the legs begin to bunch up. All veteran dancerse have this trouble. Most of them let nature take its course. But Mae is wiser. She can round into shape to this day and show a leg like a débutante’s.
But Mae put it better than anybody else could in her testimony at the trial.
Sylvia’s lawyer was trying to prove that the boss had had a hard time of it on the job.
(File No. 250,490, Los Angeles Hall of Records: in the matter of Sylvia vs. Murray: Deposition of the defendant
Question (by Mr. C. M. Addison, for Sylvia). She neglected you, did she?
Answer (by Miss Murray). She was completely tired out many times, and went to her room without attending me.
Q. Probably true, because sometimes she gave you attention three or four hours at a stretch, didn’t she?
Q. Well, she did what you asked?
Q. What did you ask of her that she didn’t do?
A. Well, it was her complete attitude. The reason you have a masseuse is because you need it, just as a horse needs it when he’s in a race. I’m in a race four or five times a day. In dancing, your muscles become tired after twelve hours’ work.
But the way to get it all straight is to start from the beginning—the day when we loaded the boss and Mae and all Mae’s bundles on the train for San Francisco.
Outside a little fussing, all went like an Irish picnic until real trouble started to boil and bubble in the East.
Mae and Sylvia reached New York by this time. Every few days along the road, Prince M’Divani, Mae’s husband, turned up for a short visit. He is a tall, broad dragoon of a man who took a dislike to Sylvia. As near as Sylvia could make out, it was considered improper for a princess like Mae to get so intimate with the peasantry.
Meanwhile, there had been much discussion of the grand things Mae intended to do for Sylvia when the tour was over. The classy Westwood sanitarium for movie actors was more or less given up by this time. “It might not work so well, after all,” opined Mae.
But she had something much better in mind. It was a breakfast food. Mae was in correspondence with a Los Angeles food faddist who had got up a new kind of health food that was sure to be a rage. Just before Mae had left Los Angeles, the health expert had turned up on the railway-station platform with a crate of the stuff, and the cans of it had to be stowed away in Mae’s luggage.
Now, in New York, Mae decided to look into those cans and give the food a try. Sylvia pried the top off a can and peered dubiously at the contents. The food looked something like that “wood paste” that you use for stopping up knot holes in furniture.
“I’m not hungry,” announced Sylvia.
But Mae was made of sterner stuff. She smelled of the mess. “You’re my dietitian,” she argued. “You ought to test it.
“If I’m your dietitian and you’re going to take my orders,” said Sylvia, “then I decide, let’s dump it down the plumbing.”
But Mae wouldn’t agree to that. When she saw that nothing would induce Sylvia to take a mouthful, she did it herself. Well, she might just as well have taken Sylvia’s advice in the first place. She took it now fast enough.
About this time it got to be Christmas again and Mae was due to open in Christmas week in a Buffalo theater. She had a brand-new vaudeville act. Under stage lights she looked slim and gorgeous. But she wasn’t feeling as good as she looked. The reason was some disagreement with Prince M’Divani about what kind of Christmas present he should send his kid. The argument was still going on when the whole troupe got on the train for Buffalo. The prince decided at the last minute to come along.
Sylvia got shunted out of Mae’s stateroom to make room for the prince, and the couple locked themselves in to finish that Christmas-money argument.
On the subject of that hectic first day and night in Buffalo the testimony of the trial of Sylvia’s suit against Mae throws some little light:
(Sylvia vs. Murray: Deposition of the Defendant)
Q. Isn’t it a fact that you paid Sylvia $275 the first week in Buffalo? [This sum was $25 more than Sylvia’s salary.]
A. I don’t remember.
Q. Wasn’t it a fact that you paid her $275 at that time because you had got $25 in cash from her?
Q. You say Sylvia did not give you back $25 in New York shortly after Christmas?
A. Why on earth would I want to get $25 from anyone when I made thousands?
Q. Did you ask her for this money to give it to Prince M’Divani?
A. No, certainly not. Such a low-lifed thing!
At one point this kind of questioning got Mae so exercised that she cried: “I don’t think you are an attorney at all—don’t be funny!” And it was at just such another point that Sylvia’s lawyer, Addison, exclaimed:
“Don’t throw any ink bottles!”
“I might throw more than that!” cried Mae, but her lawyers got her calmed down and the questioning went on.
Of course, the lawyer traced the whole course of the rumpus with Prince M’Divani as far as it concerned Sylvia and her relations with Mae. He had her riled up again when he got to asking about the hectic night in Buffalo when she and Sylvia rushed out of the Statler Hotel and went to another hotel. Sylvia’s claim was that, if she had ever missed a day treating Mae, it was because Mae couldn’t stand rubbing; and that, other times, she had to pass up the visit to the Murray suite because Prince M’Divani was up there storming about his little boy’s Christmas present.
So the lawyer tried to get all this out of Mae.
Q. Now, Sylvia and the Prince, your husband, had some words in Buffalo, didn’t they? [Mae said, “No.”]
Q. And your husband wasn’t mad at Sylvia about anything?
A. Certainly not. She’s a masseuse and only that. What business had my husband with her?
Q. Did Sylvia make a remark about the prince—and didn’t you repeat the remark to Prince M’Divani, and didn’t he—
A. Oh, certainly not.
Q. And when you arrived at the Statler Hotel, didn’t he order her out of the room?
Q. Well, didn’t something take place that made it necessary to call the police because of difficulties between yourself, Prince M’Divani, and Sylvia?
A. Certainly not. The idea! [And Mae stood up and shouted.] The blackmail of this woman is all I’ve had since my arrival in Los Angeles—but that won’t stop me from suing her. That is the only reason she’s held me up to get this money.
Q. You have had some difficulty with her, then?
A. Only since I came back home. When I realized she was trying to get money without working for it—and she called up the newspapers with these horrible tales—then I realized what kind of woman she is! And I’ll fight this suit to a finish.
Q. You had no difficulties with her before all this? [Mae said she had had none.] Now, tell me, didn’t you leave the Statler that night and stop with Sylvia at another hotel, the Tower—under the names Mrs. and Miss Jennings?
Commenting upon which denial, Sylvia is apt to get apoplectic and cry: “I supposed I dreamed all that!”