Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Three

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.


Mae MurrayThe 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?
A. No.
Q. Well, she did what you asked?
A. No.
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.

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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.


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.

The slow rise of color

We sometimes scratch our heads over how long it takes new technology to come into wide use.

For instance, did you know that a working fax machine was introduced to the general public at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and that the earliest efforts in transmitting images date back to the 19th century? We can see why it took so long to perfect, but one can’t but wonder what took so long for it to be widely adopted, once it had been.

Similarly, the vast majority of pre-1950 movies were in black and white, so who would have guessed that experiments in using color dated all the way back to the early twentieth century?

Here’s a reel of tests of Kodachrome color motion picture film from 1922. from 1922, featuring actresses Mae Murray, Hope Hampton, and Mary Eaton, among others. Color film tehnology was two-color, then—reds and greens—so it’s not the full, vivid color that would come later, but it’s got charms of its own.

Oh, and that inexplicable delay I mentioned above? It occurred in this case, too: It would be 13 years after this footage was shot before the first full-length color feature, Becky Sharp, was released.