The tenth 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), relates how silent vamp Carmel Myers came to be thought “high-hat” by the rest of Hollywood and how Sylvia came to sign an exclusive service contract with Gloria Swanson.
THE TOLL OF A BELLE
TO GIVE an idea of the semiroyal atmosphere that surrounded Gloria Swanson when the boss went to work on her in the summer of 1929, an adventure that happened to Carmel Myers, an old patient of Sylvia’s, is a good illustration.
Carmel once had a rep around Hollywood of being high-hat. Now, being “superior” is the one unforgivable sin in Hollywood. You’ve got to qualify that, of course. You can high-hat some, and you can’t high-hat others. It’s very complicated, like irregular verbs in French. On the lot you can high-hat writers, dialogue directors, the man who takes orders for custom-made shirts, people who act in Westerns, and Spaniards. Just now you can also high-hat musicians; but that isn’t safe, because nobody knows when musical comedy will come back on us like the seven-year itch. Outside of these few, you can’t high-hat anybody. As for all the free territory that is not a studio lot—even the novice knows that there you can’t high-hat a soul. Because everybody outside the profession is Public, and King.
Well, Carmel must have forgotten to say please to a taxi chauffeur once, or something terrible like that, and it got said around that she thought high of herself. The rumor started small, you understand—just a few whispers among the insiders. And Carmel could have stopped it at once. But, as luck would have it, poor Carmel was laid up at the time.
In fact, she had to get out of bed a few days later to answer a summons to the Pathé lot to talk over a rôle with a director. She had the chauffeur drive her down to the old Culver City lot, with its colonial portico, lawn and carriage drive, and guarded gate in the fence. At the gate Carmel’s driver came to a stop, and it looked as if Carmel would have to walk the length of the private drive.
At this time Gloria Swanson was making her United Artists pictures on the Pathé lot, as what you might call a paying-guest artist. In other words, Joseph Kennedy, her production manager, paid the Pathé people for the privilege of using the Pathé stages. So Gloria was in the position of star boarder in the old colonial homestead—and never was star boarder treated better than was Gloria by everybody, from highest executive to humblest doorman, on the Pathé lot.
As has been mentioned, the entrance to the lot is a curved driveway leading up to the executive offices in a building of colonial design. There was a tacit understanding, which the old gateman administered like a commandment carved in stone, that Gloria was the only hired hand whose car had the privilege of passing the grilled gates and depositing its passenger in the pillared portico.
On the day and the minute of Carmel Myers’ arrival before the Pathé doors, Gloria’s car happened to shoot out of a side street and dash through the quickly opened gates. Carmel, who was about to get out of her car and start up the driveway on foot, saw the gates swing open and, breathing a sigh of relief, sank bank in her seat and ordered her chauffeur to follow the other car in.
The old gateman almost fainted when the strange car dashed past and up the drive. He gesticulated and howled. But by this time Carmel was out of her car and across the porch into the Pathé building. Poor Carmel never knew, until some time afterward, that she had been guilty of a crime of desecration. Who did she think she was—Will Hays or somebody? That was what the scandalized people on the Pathé said.
A few weeks later, Carmel was lying on the slab in our back room resting up from a treatment. It’s the moment for confidences in a massage parlor. Lying there with all the bones loosened up, the patient’s jaw gets likewise and begins to chew over the secret troubles.
“Sylvia,” says Carmel all of a sudden, “have you ever heard them say that I’m high-hat?”