Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Twelve

The twelfth 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 the special challenge she faced in treating actress Constance Bennett, who needed to gain weight, not lose it.

THE TORTURE CHAMBER

Constance BennettTHE boss’s bungalow on the Pathé lot got to be a hangout. Rumors got around about what went on in there. The little stucco shack got christened the Torture Chamber.
Ann Harding and her husband, Harry Bannister, were a bit responsible for the reputation of the inner chamber where the boss did her pounding. At the time, Ann was pretty unfit, meaning somewhat overweight, and she was pretty vocal about letting the world know it when Sylvia was pinching pleats out of her.
Moreover, Ann refused to see that a movie career and all the money were worth the bother and would intimate that, any time she got fed up, she would leave the movies flat and go back East.
So the Pathé executives would sneak over and implore Sylvia to do two things: take flesh off Ann but not hurt her. Which two things don’t go together. So Sylvia would compromise by taking the flesh off Ann and hurting her, same as with anyone else. Bannister would hang around outside the shack while Ann was getting her treatment, smoking cigarettes nervously, like a man waiting to hear if it’s a boy, and when Ann let out a yell, he would bust in with his hair bristling and his jaw set and stop the horrible proceedings.
As a matter of fact, a vigorous massage, when the client’s trouble is fat, does hurt a bit. But the reason for the howls that arose in Sylvia’s operating room was more that pampered sensitiveness of the patients than any agony connected with the method.
The real reason for the phenomenal success of massage in the film colony is that’s a short-cut to physical conditioning, without which beauty turns into so much lard, and it’s a method where the responsibility is shifted to other shoulders. The victims on Sylvia’s slab in the back room of the Pathé bungalow took punishment—plenty! But not without howls and shrieks of agony that drew the attention of the executive department. On a hot, quiet day the outcries from the bungalow would reach the street outside the lot.
It wasn’t the public scandal the Pathé executives minded. What worried them was the possible effect on morale on the lot. It was getting so that the frightened actors made up all sorts of excuses to get out of taking their turns on the slab. So the Pathé people went into conference and decided to put a radio set with an oversize loud-speaker in Sylvia’s bungalow. The plug for switching on the music was put handy to the slab. When Sylvia was ready to go to work on a pair of bulging hips or an inflated tummy, she just gave the radio switch a slip and the loud-speaker started a squawk that drowned out the cries of the victim.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Eight

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.

HIGH HAT

Ina ClairePHILOSOPHICAL 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!”

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Two

The second chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood, tells the story of how actress Marie Dressler became Sylvia’s first client from the motion picture industry. The book was actually ghost-written for Sylvia herself by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker.

OUR FIRST LADY STRIPS FOR ACTION

Marie DresslerMARIE DRESSLER is the one woman whose name is in the date book as far back as 1925, who doesn’t give me a pain. I guess everyone likes her. Even these cats that come in here with gastritis every time somebody else makes a hit in a picture can stand the idea that Marie Dressler is knocking them dead with every release. Maybe it’s because Marie is nobody’s rival for a beauty prize. What really burns them up is having new cutie breeze into town hunting for a lap to climb on. Nobody got alarmed when Miss Dressler began squeezing through the doors of casting offices. And now it’s too late to do anything about it.
The nightly prayer of the Hollywood female is: “Please, Lord, don’t send us any more lookers.” Heaven heard them once, and sent Marie Dressler.
Sylvia was giving Dressler her daily tumble before Hollywood ever did. Back in 1925, in “The Callahans and the Murphys,” Dressler was just one of the supporting crowd—an aunt or something. Nevertheless, she was Sylvia’s first movie client and her entering wedge into the film colony.
Yes, if Marie Dressler hadn’t been loaded up with fourteen quarts of near-beer a day back in 1925, Sylvia might have gone back to Chicago. And me? I suppose I’d still be holding the towel for that dentist who couldn’t pay my wages. But for Marie Dressler, Sylvia might never have hung on in Hollywood.
The boss told me about that first call to Marie Dressler’s suite in the Ambassador Hotel. You see, in those days, being just a squareheaded immigrant, Sylvia knew no more about the Hollywood film world than you can find out walking down Vine Street at lunch hour, and reading the press blurbs. And what you see from that angle is all front—the big Hollywood front. It took her a couple of years to work around to the other side of Hollywood.
The call to attend Marie Dressler came quite unexpectedly. I don’t need to say I wasn’t yet on the scene. An unknown masseuse doesn’t need a secretary to handle the appointment book and the collections. One of her patients was a Chicago woman visiting Los Angeles and staying in the Hotel Ambassador. This same woman was getting treatment by the hotel doctor, who was an A-No.1 M. D. and was on the level. So when Marie Dressler called the doc to her suite in the same hotel and showed him the symptoms of gastritis, the doc recommended Sylvia.
And so Mae Murray and Alice White and Bebe Daniels and Mary Duncan and Ramon Novarro and Ronald Colman and Norma Shearer and Ruth Chatterton and Ann Harding and Norma Talmadge and Grace Moore and Connie Bennett and Gloria Swanson followed in rapid succession, and today Sylvia stands at the top of her profession and has an electric refrigerator and a hired girl in the kitchen.
Well, meanwhile, before going up to the Dressler suite, Sylvia stopped in to thank the hotel doctor for the boost. And she got to telling him how this was like a dream coming true—
“Because I worked a year in Chicago to save up enough money to come out to Hollywood,” she told him. “I doped it out, doctor, that the one thing they want out here is to hang on to their good looks, which they can’t do without some professional help. Now, this Marie Dressler—tell me confidentially, doctor. She isn’t so sick, as she’s afraid she’s lost her shape or her complexion. Isn’t that it?”
You see, Dressler was just a name to the boss, who hadn’t been spending much money or time on the movies. The doctor got wise that Sylvia thought she was to go to work on the alabaster surface of a piece of living Hollywood statuary. He let it ride.
“The poor girl’s a little overweight,” is all he said—with a poker face.
“Any bets I can’t take it off? said Sylvia.
“I’m not a betting man,” he replied.
So Sylvia went on up to suite A3 to get her first peek at Hollywood beauty languishing luxuriously in its lair.

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Formerly Famous: Sylvia Ulback

The late Jack LaLanne may have been the most famous and longest-tenured of celebrity fitness experts, but he wasn’t the first. Syvia Ulback, known in her heyday as both Madame Sylvia and Sylvia of Hollywood, preceded him by at least a decade.

Sylvia’s beat was more beauty than fitness, but she knew full well that you can’t have the former without the latter, and she made certain her famous clients knew it, too. A masseuse by trade, Sylvia also advised her clients on proper diet and the importance of exercise.

Her client list amounted to a virtual Who’s Who of 1920s and early ’30s Hollywood, including Bebe Daniels, Ramon Navarro, Ronald Colman, Norma Shearer, Ruth Chatterton, Ann Harding, Norma Talmadge, Charles Farrell, Zasu Pitts, Constance Bennett, and Marion Davies.

Born in Norway in 1881 to artistic parents—her mother was an opera singer; her father an artist—Sylvia entered the field of nursing as a young woman. Having undergone massage training as well, she opened a studio in Bremen, Germany, when she was 18. In the early 1900s, she was wed to lumber dealer Andrew Ulback; the pair emigrated to the United States in 1921 when Andrew’s lumber business failed, settling first in New York City and Chicago before finally relocating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s.

Standing no taller than five feet, Sylvia once told The Hartford Courant that she had been inspired to pursue the reducing arts when she caught her husband eyeing a stenographer much slimmer than she. She adopted a painfully strenuous form of massage that she insisted would, when combined with proper diet and exercise, rid her clients of unwanted fat; though the claim may strike modern readers as dubious at best, the results she achieved were sufficient to ensure a quick rise for the ambitious masseuse.

Actress Marie Dressler was Sylvia’s first celebrity client, and her initial entree into that market depended entirely on garnering the approval of Dressler’s astrologer. Fortunately for Sylvia, she was given the okay.

Various stars came to so depend on Sylvia that they tried to monopolize her services. Mae Murray paid Sylvia to accompany her on a lengthy vaudeville tour (though Sylvia had to sue the actress for non-payment of salary upon their return to Hollywood—a suit she won), and Gloria Swanson was so impressed by Sylvia’s achievements that she arranged to have her hired by the Pathé Studio as the house masseuse at a weekly salary of $750, the rough equivalent of nearly $10,000 today. Joseph Kennedy, later patriarch of the famed Massachusetts political dynasty and then one of the studio heads at Pathé, hesitated to hire Sylvia at first, until she was able to diagnose his flat feet merely by watching him walk across a room.

In 1931, Brentano published a best-selling volume entitled Hollywood Undressed: Observations Of Sylvia As Noted By Her Secretary. It was thought by some that the masseuse herself penned the memoir, which is filled with juicy tales of the Hollywood figures who made up Sylvia’s clientele, along with diet tips and exercise recommendations. In fact, the book was ghostwritten by screenwriter/reporter James Whittaker, first husband to actress Ina Clare.

Though—or, perhaps, because—the book broke the rules by telling tales out of school, it sold very well, but at a price. Sylvia had bitten the hand that fed her, and it hurt her standing in Hollywood. But she managed to limit the damage by adopting additional avenues of influence and income.

Sylvia was soon writing syndicated columns on health and beauty for newspapers across the country and for Photoplay magazine; she also hosted her own nationally syndicated radio show, Madame Sylvia of Hollywood.

The radio show inspired a bit of a scandal when, in 1934, Sylvia, having aired an interview she said was with Ginger Rogers, was sued by the popular actress, who insisted that she had not taken part in any way in the broadcast. The case was settled out of court.

Sylvia also wrote three more bestselling books advising women on topics of health and beauty, this time with full author credit: No More Alibis (1934), Pull Yourself Together, Baby (1936), and Streamline Your Figure (1939).

On June 27, 1932, Sylvia, at the age of fifty, divorced Andrew Ulback. Just four days later, she married stage actor Edward Leider, eleven years her junior.

Sylvia abruptly retreated from the spotlight in 1939, enjoying a long life with Edward in relative obscurity. When she died, at age 94 in March 1975, just a month after Edward passed away, she was living in a small bungalow in Santa Monica. On her death certificate, her occupation was listed as “housewife.” Few, if any, publications noted her passing. Her influential career had been all but forgotten.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Zelda, the Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau. Watch this space next week for the first chapter from Sylvia Ulback’s Hollywood Undressed.

Times Square Tintypes: Richard Bennett

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles stage actor Richard Bennett.
 

! ! ! * * * @ @ @ ! ! ! * * * *

SOME day someone will write another Royal Family. It will be a tale of the mad, mad Bennetts. For that author, here’s some data about the head of the clan: RICHARD BENNETT.
Caricature of Richard BennettHe is always positive.
Has two favorite dishes. One is plain lamb chops. The other is a bowl of wilted lettuce.
Has three daughters. Joan, Constance and Barbara. All began their careers by performing in the movies.
When he rehearsed in Jarnegan he wore only a pink nightgown.
Drinks a quart of Apollinaris water every day on rising. Gets the water free by mentioning it in the play he happens to be in.
He calls the box office from his dressing room before every performance to ask how the house is. Doesn’t give instructions to raise the curtain until satisfied.
Likes to encourage extras. Tells them that he rose from the ranks himself. He never was an extra in his life.
Claims a man’s best friend is his press agent and his worst enemy an ex-wife. He has two of each.
Always does rewriting in which he appears. What Every Woman Knows he believes to be the best play he ever appeared in. Because he didn’t have to do any rewriting with that, he considers Sir James Barrie the greatest writer in the world.
He can talk a great fight. His right hook, however, is a think to duck.
After What Every Woman Knows closed and he parted with Maude Adams, he took advantage of the fact that she was opening in Chanticleer to send her this wire: “I congratulate you on the realization of your fondest ambition—at last you are your own leading man.”
He retires at four every morning. Rises promptly at twelve. Eats only one meal a day. That at six o’clock. However, he loves to act in plays that give him a chance to eat on stage.
Hates interviewers who don’t come armed with complete information about his career. Tells them to consult Who’s Who—which contains only a fragmentary account.
Makes a curtain speech every time he has something to get off his chest. The stage is his soap box.
His luck charm is a white elephant.
If an actor stands in the wings talking while he is acting he invents some excuse to leave the stage. Then tells the actor to stop talking or have his head knocked off.
If the front door of the theater is opened by some peerer-in he stops acting until the glare from the outside has passed. If particularly annoyed he steps to the front of the stage and yells at the person.
His favorite literature is “The Songs of Solomon.”
Wants to be cremated when he dies so he’ll be used to it when he gets there.
Holds a kind of soirée in his dressing room every night after the second act. Has hundreds of visitors. Mostly broken down actors, rich acquaintances and young feminine admirers.
He likes to frighten Boy Scouts.
He counts that day lost when he doesn’t add a new line to the play he happens to be in.
Spends so much time in adjusting the makeup that he never leaves the theater after a matinée. Thus avoids removing and replacing the grease-paint. Passes the time between performances by either sleeping or entertaining.
He plays the piano, banjo and guitar. Believes that he could make a living as a tap dancer.
His wife is his attention caller. She plays solitaire in his dressing room every evening.
He never wore a wig. Dyes his hair to suit the rô. His hair has been blond, black, brown, red and gray.
He insists upon owning the road rights of any show he is in. Quarreled with the Theatre Guild over Playing at Love, later titled Caprice, because of this and quit the show.
No woman with a double chin is beautiful to him.
When traveling he carries with him a necktie board that irons them while you sleep.
He is a man of much talent. Shaves himself. Manicures his own nails. Cuts his own hair.
Once at Texas Guinan‘s night club he drew a Bible from his hip pocket and read it to the assemblage. Everybody kept quiet and listened. He panicked them.
He wears only a green smock when sleeping.
Considers himself one of the ten greatest actors in the world. Has a difficult time naming the other nine. Generally being unable to get past Forbes-Robertson.
No matter what play he is appearing in he never promises to go on for more than one act.
He has one hair growing on each shoulder.