The first chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant to masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood, discusses the services Sylvia provided to the stars who made up her client list. The book was actually ghost-written for Sylvia herself by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker.
THE WHAM WHAT AM!
JEAN HARLOW is in the back room, where Sylvia is giving her a spanking she’ll remember—to judge from the howls. Three more of them are sitting around in the front room waiting their turns. The one who goes in next has already stripped and is sitting with a towel in her lap. Modesty? Modesty my eye! She’s trying to hide her misplaced tonnage.
If we could save and market what the actor bunch of Hollywood comes into this massage parlor to have slapped off, we’d put Armour out of business. … Well, I’ve got to turn on the radio—loud. Those are my standing orders. Whenever they begin to howl in the back room, cover up with music. I hunt over the dial until I get something with lots of music. … This tenor up in Oregon will do fine. There’s jazz for you!
Wham! And listen to that baby howl! Sometimes—even though I’ve been Sylvia a long time and I know they never die on the slab—sometimes I get scared and go in to see fi the boss isn’t getting too enthusiastic….
I looked into the back room just now. I might have saved myself the trip. It’s just the usual. Another talkie star (a moon, if you ask me!) is in there now, laid out face down on the slab, and Sylvia is going to take a pound of ham off her in the next fifteen minutes or know the reason why. Sylvia can do it, too. I’ve got to hand it to her. She’s only four feet eight inches high and there isn’t much meat on her—but what there is, it’s all power.
She stands off about three feet from the target and winds up like a baseball pitcher. No need to take any special aim. This home plate is as big around as a balloon tire. When Sylvia lands it sounds like a pistol shot. That’s because of the trick swat, reserved for the tough cases—the cases where the studio executives have gone into conference because the lady is bursting the seams in the gown for the ballroom scene.
That swat is something special. Sylvia cups her hand so that it shapes like a rubber suction pad, and when it lands it sticks for an instant and pulls away like a cork leaving a bottle. That’s what fits them to their parts. The fat comes out through the pores like mashed potatoes through a colander.
Sylvia is working to the music … One and two and one and two … The victim goes oof! at each sock and cries like a baby in between. When she is through and limps away, she’ll stop in the front room and hand over fifteen dollars for having been beaten silly.
I wish Sylvia would let me pinch-hit for her sometimes. On some of these motion-picture stars I’d do the job for nothing.
You gather that I’m not exactly sold on these world-famous beauties of Hollywood who have been hanging their Paris underwear on our parlor lamp for the past four years at an average rate of sixteen a day. When you see sixteen motion-picture stars a day troop in and strip down to sixteen different kinds of physical results of overeating and other forms of self=indulgence, you get sour on the whole lot of them. You wonder how they get that way.
As I figure it, most of them never ate regular until they landed their first Hollywood contracts and now a menu just goes to their heads—their heads and their elsewheres. Eat, drink and be stuffed, for tomorrow we may be fired.
The universal ailment is prosperity. In her date book, Sylvia has over a hundred film people catalogued according to the places on their physiques where their earnings show. They fall into one or more of five classes, one class for each place. There is such a thing as a film star who falls into all five. That’s Marie Dressler. No wonder … fourteen quarts of near-beer a day!