Here are 10 things you should know about Alice White, born 116 years ago today. Her time in the spotlight was brief, but her legacy as cinematic flapper royalty endures.
The eleventh 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 of a close call experienced in treating actress Norma Shearer.
GLORIA runs quite an establishment—butlers, footmen, and the rest. Down on the Pathé lot she rolled up her sleeves and did her day labor like an old trouper. But at home she was La Marquise de la Falaise et de la Coudraye, and had the big soft rugs, uniformed servants, and all the dog to prove it.
The house staff gave Sylvia the works, which is to say that she passed through about ten pairs of hands, to land finally in an upstairs den. There time passed in great chunks without any sign of Gloria Swanson. The boss was dead tired and had to pinch herself to keep awake. Whereupon a footman ambled in with a clinking tray, and she tried just one for luck and was sunk.
She had no idea what time it was when, presently, someone shook her out of a sound sleep and said: “Here I am—all ready for you.”
It was Gloria in her nightie. A clear case of overwrought nerves, with the inevitable results of facial lines and general puffiness. The treatment for that is delicate. If you start in pounding and pummeling at the start, the subject’s nerves get worse and worse, and the result you’re likely to get is the kind of weight reduction that is ruin—a stringy, jumpy body and a cavernous, drawn look about the face.
In the first few minutes Gloria admitted that the new sound-movie racket had her half-crazy. It took the boss two hours of gentle, soothing rubbing to get the overexcited star to sleep. Meanwhile she was that the job would take time; that, for a start, she’d have to reconcile herself to getting maybe a little fatter than she was; that the real work on her hips, chin and arms would have to wait. Gloria saw the point and said:
“Then I’ll have to have you all the time. You’ve got to give up your other people and work for me alone.”
Right away the boss remembered how that hook-up had worked out with Mae Murray—and even with Mary Duncan. It meant having to build up her clientele all over again when the contract died.
The offer from Gloria was flattering enough. But the boss had got past the point where the name of a movie star, whispered, was enough to jerk her out of a sound sleep. She was able to keep her head when Swanson made her offer, because, for one thing, the savings account was doing nicely, and, for another, she had just taken on Norma Shearer, whom she had been angling to get for months.
Hedda Hopper steered Norma Shearer into Sylvia’s hands. At that, the boss nearly lost the M.-G.-M. star after the first treatment, which was given in Shearer’s home. Norma had been playing a lot of tennis, and had got stringy and muscular and jumpy, the way women always do when they go crazy about any sport. The first thing to do was to calm her down and get her to sleeping regularly as a preliminary to softening her. So the boss rubbed her for nearly two hours and left her sleeping like a child. The next morning we got a phone call from Hedda Hopper, who said:
“I don’t know what you did to Norma Shearer, Sylvia, but my name is mud in the movies if you’ve ruined her.”
The eighth 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 a run-in over Sylvia’s services between actresses Ina Claire and Alice White.
PHILOSOPHICAL observation: There comes a time in most lives when you begin to step on the gas; you make speed; also, you bounce!
Sylvia began bouncing the minute she went under contract to Pathé and began working on the sacred cows that were grazing on that lot. Dough, dough! But also trouble, trouble! Ooh, lots of trouble. In fact, Sylvia got hooked up professionally with all four of the following at once: Gloria Swanson, Ina Claire, Grace Moore, and Constance Bennett.
There’s a quartet for you! Maybe there’d be a fight if it was said flatly that those four were at the top of the Hollywood heap. There’s room for argument, with Greta Garbo left out—and Marlene Dietrich, and—oh well, write your own ticket. But nobody is going to dispute the statement that, in their own estimations, they are.
There was a queen of antiquity who used to protect her standing as the most beautiful woman in the world by a simple device. If any of the other lookers inside her borders got possession of some beauty secret, she would call out the head executioner and pay the rival a little call having for object a funeral and confiscation of the beauty preparation.
Since Cleopatra’s day thing have changed. Less cutting off of heads, but more beauty preparations. It has the career of the professional beauty much tougher. It was a lot simpler, maintaining supremacy by killing off the competition. It’s got so tough nowadays that a Queen of Beauty actually has to be beautiful. Not only that, but she has to stay that way. When you figure that, if left to her own devices, a woman stays at the top of her form only about three or four years (and those usually the years when nobody but her school-teachers and the neighbors’ boys are giving her a tumble), you can see what she’s up against. By the time her photographs are beginning to appear in the silver frames in jewelers’ windows, she doesn’t look like them any more.
The professional beauty has to watch two angles: building up her rep, and living up to it when she’s got it. I’ll say one thing for the girls that claw their way to the top. They they have their press agents to pull them and their beauty experts to push them, they do most of the work themselves. Being on the inside, where they are pulling all the strings and going through all the contortions of their beauty jobs—that’s excitement! To be behind the scenes and watch them feint, grab, and foul when the referee isn’t looking—that’s high comedy!
The opening scene of a sample of it is the Pasadena station of the Santa Fe Railroad, with the Chicago-New York train due in any minute. Choo-choo. Toot-toot. A general rush of press agents, cameramen, Path´ executives, porters, dogs, and dust. Who is this stranger who trips as lightly as may be from the drawing-room car?
It is Ina Claire. Look out, Hollywood!
THE famous Broadway actress came to Hollywood with a chip on her shoulder. They usually do. When they’ve been here a while—they get another chip and wear them symmetrically, one on each shoulder.
The boss had her first glimpse of the Eastern invader a short while later, after Ina had reported to the Path´ lot for work in her first sound movie, “The Awful Truth.” A three-alarm went out for Sylvia after the first test shots. Avoirdupois.
Hedda Hopper, our old reliable booster, was the messenger. She was on the phone with the S O S: “Ina Claire has to be taken down ten pounds in three days. Come and do it!”
The fourth 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 more tales of Sylvia’s tumultuous tour with actress Mae Murray and a humorous account of actress Alice White‘s role in the ensuing court proceedings after Murray sued Sylvia.
XMAS! “X” MARKS THE SPOT
ACCORDING to Sylvia, when the company got to Buffalo Statler, everybody went to their rooms and crawled into the hay and hung out the Don’t Disturb sign. Sylvia was just dozing off when—wham!—there went the phone bell: Mae, calling for a treatment.
Murmuring fond benedictions on the head of her employer, Sylvia crawled into clothes, dipped her face in cold water, and went upstairs. She found the prince alone, and the cordial relations existing between Caucasian knight and the Scandinavian pawn led to an enjoyable interval of about a half-hour during which no conversation was exchanged. After a long while the prince did address to Sylvia one of the rare sentences that he left fall in her direction.
“Are all American women crazy?” he demanded.
When Mae came in a few minutes later, she was the spark to the powder. Right away the boss could tell there was something up. Mae had been out gallivanting around in the zero weather, dressed in a skirt and sweater.
“You’ll have pneumonia!” said Sylvia.
“I hope I get it double,” said Mae and began to sniffle. Sylvia went to comfort her.
“Take your hands off my wife!” roared the prince. “And what’s more, Sylvia, you’re fired! Understand?”
Mae stuck out her chin under the prince’s nose and said:
“Sylvia isn’t fired. She stays!”
The prince glared at Sylvia, and she got on the other side of the bed. He looked as if he were going to take the obstacle in one jump, but contented himself with giving the mattress a big kick and yelling:
“You get out or—or—“
Well, Mae got him quieted down and he consented to leave the room. The minute he was out, she bolted the door.
“What’s it all about?” Sylvia inquired.
“Don’t ask me!” groaned Mae. “It’s still that fuss about his boy’s Christmas present.”
Well, if it was just a Russian version of the Yuletide spirit, Sylvia thought she could risk sticking around; so she began treating Mae, hoping to head off pneumonia. For the next hour the prince kept trying the locked door and growling through the keyhole every few minutes.
After a while Mae dozed off. There was no noise outside, and Sylvia, being all in and starved, phoned down for a meal. When the waiter brought up the order the prince was lying in wait in the hall, and Sylvia no sooner drew the bolt than he popped in.
By this time Sylvia was hardened, so she sat and hate her lunch and looked on at the domestic scene in comfort from a neutral corner. Mae woke up, and they went at it hot and heavy, until Mae said she’d go over to the prince’s room, where they could have it out without witnesses.
But she was back in ten minutes, and made Sylvia promise she wouldn’t leave her, day or night.
It went on like that during the rest of the afternoon and evening, and along about bedtime it got a good deal worse.
In the end, Sylvia was too far out of patience to remember what she owed to an employer and a member of the old Tartar nobility, so she gave his Highness her candid opinion of him.
The hotel’s house manager was on the noisy scene by that time. He was scandalized and, being a good American, couldn’t get over how Sylvia had talked to a blue-blood.
“Remember,” he almost wept, “after all, you’re addressing Prince M’Divani!”
With the manager as mediator, Mae and the prince worked out a compromise that restored order. The prince was to let his wife go to another hotel for the night, but as security he was to hold on to her theatrical trunks until she came back!
The arrangement deprived Mae of most of her private wardrobe as well, as the prince locked himself in and she couldn’t get to her luggage. However, she and Sylvia slipped out of the Statler. They ducked, half frozen, in to the first hotel they came to—the Tower.
The next day Mae and her prince got together again, the M’Divani boy got the Christmas present, and Sylvia got merryell from two directions. Mae and the prince decided Sylvia was responsible for the whole thing.
But the boss managed to stick it out for the next few weeks. The troupe got to Chicago, where it was to play one week and then break up. After that Mae and Sylvia were to return to Hollywood.
The last performance of the tour came around. There’s a time-honored stage custom that the star of a show throws a dinner for the supporting cast after the last performance. For a week Mae had been worrying about that dinner. There were ten girls to feed.
Sylvia got to the theater in Chicago early on the night of the last show, and ran into Jean Pittsman, captain of the chorus. Jean buttonholed the boss and asked:
“Where is Miss Murray taking us to supper? The girls are pestering me to know.”
The other girls swarmed out of their dressing rooms, all excited, and pumped Sylvia, too.
Mae swept in from the stage door about that time and heard the girls chattering about their supper. She gave them a big, radiant Madame Happiness smile and called out:
“Girls, I have a surprise for you. Wait around after the show!”
The girls almost gave her a cheer. Mae motioned to Sylvia to follow her into her dressing room. Once inside, she closed the door and said:
“Sylvia, I need your help.”
“To order the supper?” said Sylvia, bright and eager.
“Well, sort of,” said Mae. “I just had a grand idea about that supper on my way down in the taxi. I do so want to do something nice for those darling girls, and I know just what will do them the most good. They absolutely ruin their systems, eating the stuff they do.”
“They haven’t much to spend on eats,” put in Sylvia.
“Exactly,” approved Mae. “That’s why I’ve thought up this idea for them. It’ll teach them to eat well and yet economically.”
Even then Sylvia didn’t suspect what was coming, and was left gaping and speechless when Mae opened her bag, handed Sylvia her trunk keys, and said:
“What I want you to do is go and get together all those cans of health food!”
“Health food!” was all that Sylvia could say.
“Wasn’t I foolish not to think of it before?” Mae went on happily. “You remember how to prepare it, don’t you? Get some olive oil and about three cans of the food and—oh, wait a minute.”
She went over to the dressing table and undid a big brown-paper package. Inside was a large salad bowl.
I borrowed it from the hotel. Mix the food in it.”
As Sylvia turned to go, Mae cautioned:
“Don’t say a word to the girls. I want it to be a surprise.”
WELL, Sylvia didn’t say anything. She carried out Mae’s instructions to the letter and mixed up plenty of the oil and health food in the bowl.
The act ended. Mae took her bows and came into the dressing room. She gave the mess in the bowl an extra stir and sniffed it.
“Delicious!” she murmured. “And now, Sylvia, call the girls in.”
Sylvia started off to obey, but Mae stopped her.
“No, I’ll go to them with it.”
She picked up the bowl and went over to the chorus dressing room, Sylvia tagging along. Mae threw open the door of the girls’ room.
“Girls,” she said, like a lecturer, “I want to give you a little talk. It’s about eating. I’ve given the subject a good deal of thought. Madame Sylvia, here, has been teaching me a lot—“
Sylvia got behind the speaker and sent the girls a wink meaning: “Leave me out of this.”
Mae went right on: “After investigating every kind of diet I’ve found the grandest health food in the world. Now—” And she presented the bowl with a flourish. “Now I want you girls to try this food and tell me what you think of it.”
The girls sort of drifted up to look and sniff at the bowl. They were more amazed than anything else.
“It’s something you eat?” inquired Jean Pittsman in a dazed way.
“As much as you want!” cried Mae. “If this isn’t enough, there’s more where it came from. And I’m going to give each girl a can of it to take with her.”
There was what you might aptly call a stage wait as the girls stared at each other, and then Mae said:
“Don’t mind me. Go ahead and eat.”
Jeannie had the presence of mind to speak up. “Thank you, Miss Murray,” she said gratefully.
A little girl, the youngest of the troupe, came up and took a spoonful of the mess and put it in her mouth. A second later she spat it out.
Mae looked at her, maybe a little sternly, and the kid got frightened and apologized:
“I’m sorry. It slipped.”
Mae left, with dignity. Sylvia went with her.
The girls took one more look and grabbed their raincoats to beat it over to the doughnut-and-coffee stand, as usual. Soon they could be heard trooping back from their quick lunch. They were all laughing uproariously. Mae listened with a pleased look.
“They loved it!” she breathed. Presently she rose and said: “Let’s see what they’re up to.”
Sylvia opened the door and popped out first—
And took one step and fell over the salad bowl full of oiled health food, as she mad a desperate pirouette to avoid putting her foot right into it. The girls were disappointed. They had meant the trap for somebody else—they didn’t say whom.
THE rest of Sylvia’s tour with Mae was a succession of squabbles over moneys due and unpaid. Everybody got home alive enough to go to law. This account as well end up as the trial did—with the sensational appearance in court of ###Alice White.
When Alice had first come to Sylvia, she had been as nearly disgusting-looking as so cute a kid can get on a cream-puff-and-chocolate-candy diet. Sylvia had taken her in hand and whacked her into such shape that the first thing a director asked, when an Alice White picture script was submitted, was: “Where is the undressing scene?”
Alice was determined to be Sylvia’s witness. “I’ll be there,” she insisted, “and I’ll bet that judge invites me to testify.”
In the concluding minutes of the trial there was a sudden commotion at the door. Alice had dressed in a costume which showed about as much of her as the law would allow. And she had a corsage of sweet peas on what there was of a shoulder piece to her gown.
Well, those court attachés had never seen anything like it. They opened up an aisle and Alice came down front. Sievers, Sylvia’s lawyer, rose to address the court.
“I don’t know whether this is material and ethical or not,” he said, waving at Alice, “but there has been insinuating testimony to the effect that Madame Sylvia is not expert in her profession, and we have an exhibit here in court in the person of Miss Alice White.”
“Let’s have a look at the exhibit,” piped up Mr. Gilbert, the opposition lawyer.
The judge took a look at Alice and said:
“File the exhibit.”
Well,the legal boys had a lot of their idea of fun. Mr. Sievers asked Alice:
“What is your business?”
Q. How long have you been so engaged?
A. Over two years.
Q. Throughout that time, have you taken massage treatments?
Judge Burnell. What’s the purpose of this?
Lawyer Sievers. It is intimated, your Honor, that Mae Murray claims Madame Sylvia was no good at her job.
Lawyer Gilbert. Well, I object that Miss White’s testimony can’t be anything but indefinite, because we all appreciate that she looks like someone’s good job, but how are we to discriminate between that part of the result which would be attributable to God and those parts attributable to the father, the mother, and the masseuse?
Judge Burnell. Those parties you mention have not been made parties to this action. Even if they were, I doubt whether they would have had you as their lawyer.
Loud laughter in the court.
Judge Burnell went on: “Do you wish the exhibit marked for identification?”
Well, everybody was willing to do the marking, and Alice sort of hitched around in her chair as if to inquire what part of her they wanted to put the seal on.
The judge got gallant. He gave a bend toward Alice, who gave him the eye, and he said:
“Please call this witness back sometime when we have an action that is going to last longer.”
And Alice got up and left, and everybody that wasn’t nailed down got up and tagged after her—so there were only the lawyers and Sylvia around to hear the judgment in Sylvia’s favor.
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.