Hollywood Undressed, Part Two

This is our final offering 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).
The second part of the book comprises Sylvia’s dietary and nutritional theories, and we weren’t going to share those here (they’re a little on the dry side), but we decided to say goodbye to Sylvia with the first chapter of that section of the book, which shares daily menus from the diets Sylvia assigned her various and sundry celebrity clients. “Who wouldn’t want to eat like Gloria Swanson or Constance Bennett for a day?” we asked ourselves.



BELIEVE it or not, the object of a first-class masseuse’s business is to get rid of patients. If she’s on the level, the masseuse aims to send the patient away in good condition and hopes never to see her again. In this respect, massage is like the medical profession. The doctors too (the decent ones) do their level best to ruin their own racket and nothing is so satisfactory as a patient cured—which is a patient lost.
In Hollywood, Sylvia is reaching the point where her hob, for having been done too well, shows diminishing returns. Which is as it should be. And Sylvia, far from moaning over the fact, is as pleased as the kid who broke up the game by slamming the only ball into the river for a home run. Bit by bit, one by one, the respectable and representative percentage of Hollywood film people who are listed on the boss’s books have been made over and educated to the point where they are the caretakers of their own waistlines and do not need professional supervision at thirty dollars an hour.
If the boss can take it that way, far be it from me to show a meaner spirit. So—
Hurrah! I got fired.
It isn’t the massage that makes these people their own conditioners. The pounding can, and does, effect a speedy correction of overweight, underweight and some of the other deviations from the beautiful normal. But we can’t give any mileage guarantees in our business. A waistline bought on the massaging slab won’t last from now until next Sunday unless the buyer coöperates in the upkeep. With every treatment given in our back room goes a lecture on diet. The boss spiels it out while she’s working, something like this:
“No more fried food—“
“Cut out sea-food.”
“Turn over. And listen: lay off the liquor.”
Our customers all go through the same phases. At first they pay no attention to the diet instructions, figuring that the treatments will be absolution for their sins of the table. Sylvia’s invariable procedure, after a week or so of this kind of dishonesty, is to lock the patient out. It makes no difference who the patient is. Some of our most famous patients have been through the disciplining experience of being refused treatment. They eat, drink, live and, to a certain extent, dress as Sylvia prescribes, or they are locked out until they come back in penitent mood—which they all do. Thereafter, there are frequent backslidings. But Sylvia screams and threatens, periodically refuses treatment, and the backslidings become fewer and farther between. The great time to complete the dietary education of a Hollywood movie girl is during one of those interludes (they all pass through them) when the last picture contract is dead and the new one hasn’t been offered. Then, living on credit, running up bills, frightened, chastened, ready to listen to reason, the over-size babies can be taught something. In the long run, invariably, the knowledge is finally appreciated. Good dieting is good eating. When they find that out, the boss has done all she can do for a patient. Good-by patient.
The proposition, here, is to sum up Sylvia’s diet knowledge as it was brought to bear on the people of Part One, taking them in order of their appearance in these pages. As will become apparent as we go along, the boss handles diet problems with a dual point of view: the elements of the diet, and their preparation. Of the two, the latter is much the more important. A pork chop, properly cooking, would be a much better diet dish than a chicken wing fried in fat and ignorance. The place where the chemistry, quality and suitability of your food is decided is not in a scientific tract setting forth the calorie, protein, vitamin contents of this and that raw product; it is not in the package from the patent food manufacturer; it is not in test-tubes, treatises and tabulated statistics; it is over the burner of your kitchen range. There you may negotiate the miracle of your physical regeneration. There also, you may concoct an assortment of deadly poisons from the evil effects of which not even Sylvia’s fists, pounding at their merriest, can deliver you.
MARIE DRESSLER, as has been told, went through a period in Hollywood when, for business reasons, she put up a million-dollar front. By way of awing the financial executives of a company which was trying desperately to circumscribe her salary demands, she set up a semi-royal establishment in a turreted castle of the Hollywood hills. An unexpected result of this purely political maneuver was that idleness, plus a Filipino cook with an oriental imagination, began to tell on her midsection. Sylvia had to put her foot down.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Fifteen

The fifteenth 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 how actress Grace Moore tried to steal Sylvia away from Gloria Swanson.


Grace Moore and Gloria SwansonIN ALL Sylvia’s experience, Grace Moore is the only client who has ever managed to undress in a massage parlor without shedding her dignity. The general atmosphere of Sylvia’s bungalow being what it was, and the quarters being cramped, our paying guests were usually about as mannerly as dogs in a pound. During business hours, the premises usually looked like the bank of the ol’ swimmin’ hole on a hot Saturday afternoon. People’s clothes dropped wherever they stepped out of them, and every so often Sylvia was asked to start a movement whereby everybody traded shirts and stockings until all had their own back again.
But Moore carried her manners with her, as she did everything else expect a grand piano—and she would have had the piano brought along if she’d thought of it. The two handmaidens screened Grace into a corner of our two-by-four dressing room and put her through an act like a queen getting ready for bed.
Well, you can put on all the front in the world, but sooner or later you’ve got to turn around. Five minutes later Sylvia was looking Grace anywhere but in the eye and asking her if opera singers sit a lot between shows.
Grace took it high and mighty at first.
“You must be mistaken,” she came back, as loftily as she could. “That sort of thing would show up in a camera test, wouldn’t it?”
“You bet it does,” assured Sylvia.
“Well, my tests at M.-G.-M. were pronounced perfect,” asserted Grace. “And I did one whole scene in profile.”
Sylvia didn’t argue. But what Grace had said didn’t jibe with the confidential call Sylvia had had from the M.-G.-M. lot that morning—an appeal from headquarters to do something about—quarters elsewhere.
Sylvia didn’t say anything, but maybe she looked a lot. Anyway, the prima donna went away from the first treatment in a mood of silence that tipped Sylvia off that she might as well expect trouble.
When the trouble came—a “misunderstanding”—the boss made short work of it, and then called M.-G.-M. to cancel dates for their singing star’s further treatments.
And when Grace herself got on the phone a little while later, and apologized for the misunderstanding and said everything was lovely, Sylvia froze up like a fjord. Grace’s olive branch took the form of an invite to attend a Sunday party up in her hilltop house, and she promised Sylvia some fun.
“I’m going to have M.-G.-M. send over the trade-mark lion, and Bee Lillie will be there—” she ballyhooed.
“And I’m supposed to be part of the menagerie?” shouted Sylvia, and hung up the receiver.
But after a while the boss remembered that dough is dough, and the Moore the merrier. Grace came back into the fold. But she continued to act cool and distant. Except, of course, when the boss was beating her lobster red; everybody is near and hot then.
Grace was getting hot in more places than Sylvia was responsible for. The reason for a steadily mounting temperature in her case was that Gene Markey, whom she had lured away from Gloria Swanson, was showing signs of a relapse.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Eleven

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.


Norma ShearerGLORIA 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.”

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Five

The fifth 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 what happens when Sylvia signs an exclusive contract with actress Mary Duncan and gets on the wrong side of director F. W. Murnau.


Mary DuncanWhen Mary Duncan came along in 1928 and wanted to sign up for Sylvia’s exclusive services for a half-year, we were all against it—except Sylvia herself. A contract to massage anyone morning, noon, and night is worse than getting married. After all, a woman’s husband can get away from her some of the time. But a woman’s personal masseuse dresses her, undresses her, soothes her to sleep, spanks her awake, and (if the contract includes dietary work, as with Mary Duncan it did) watches every bite of food that goes down her throat three times a day.
I always figured that the real trouble between Mae Murray and the boss was that everlasting intimacy. They were bound to get sick of the sight of each other. It’s bad enough, in this massage business, to have to see the world without shirt and without manners. The only thing that makes it bearable is the variety when the practice is general and consists of a dozen different patients a day.
All of which I said to Sylvia, and much more—but you can’t do anything with a Norwegian.
The opposition, which was giving Sylvia the arguments why she should take up Mary Duncan’s offer, was represented by Sophie Wachner, the dress designer at Fox Studios, where Miss Duncan was starring. Miss Wachner had her own reasons for wanting Sylvia to go to work on Duncan.
“I can’t fit dresses to Mary any more on account of her hips,” was the way Miss Wachner put it up to Sylvia. “So, do a fellow a favor, Sylvia, and fit Mary to the gowns.”
It was a rush job. They were starting to shoot the silent picture called “Our Daily Bread.” The great German director Murnau was in charge, and Mary Duncan was doing the rôle of a city girl who marries a farmer and gets all messed up in some labor troubles about farm hands having nothing to look at but miles and miles of Oregon wheatfields—and you can’t blame them, not after you’ve been on location in those same wheatfields for over a month. You never saw the picture? Sure you didn’t. It was one of the last silents and it was finished just in time to get tossed into the wastebasket on account of the sound screen coming in.
Sylvia had a small part of the blame for the trouble Fox had with that picture. But that’s part of the story.
Well, Sylvia went over to the Fox Studios and though she promised not to commit herself before she left, we all knew that she was crazy to go on location with Mary Duncan and we weren’t surprised when she came home looking sheepish and with an ink stain on her finger, where she had held the pen that signed the contract.
It seems that Sophie Wachner did a job on Sylvia as soon as she get on the Fox lot. Took her into the wardrobe department and showed her the dresses Mary Duncan was wearing in the opening shots, which they had been doing in the studio. Well, Mary Duncan had been putting on an inch a day around the middle, and those dresses had been let out until the waistlines were as full of V’s as a backgammon board. Sophie Wachner was at her wits’ ends, and was tearing her hair.
In her dressing room, Mary Duncan was another picture of woe—and a reasonably attractive one. From any average point of view, there was nothing at all the matter with the girl. But the camera’s is not the average point of view. Somehow, a lens always adds ten or twenty pounds to the truth. The result is that the movie girls have to be actually underweight—considerably so. On the other hand, they mustn’t show bones. So the type that is most readily selected for film work is the small-boned girl, short of stature, on whose underlying skeleton even a small amount of meat looks like a nice job of padding. And the small-boned short girl is the very type most prone to develop along the lines called buxom. Mary Miles Minter, whose misfortunes caused her to let go and become what nature willed, has turned out now a plump and roundish little person—typically the figure that the majority of Hollywood girls would be but for strenuous battling against the tendencies of nature.
So Mary Duncan was in nothing worse than blooming health—and yet the Fox people were frantic.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Four

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.


Mae MurrayACCORDING 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?”
“Motion-picture actress.”
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.

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