Happy 114th Birthday, Dorothy Mackaill!

Actress Dorothy Mackaill was born 114 years ago today in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, England. Here are 10 DM Did-You-Knows:

  • Mackaill’s parents separated when she was eleven, after which she lived with her father.
  • As a teen, she left home for London in pursuit of a career acting on the stage. After a short sting in Paris, she met a Broadway choreographer who convinced her to move to New York City.
  • That move paid off, as she was soon made a Follies Girl in the The Ziegfeld Follies and met actresses Marion Davies and Nita Naldi.
  • In 1920, Mackaill made her motion picture debut in a movie mystery, The Face at the Window, and also appeared in a number of comedies opposite actor Johnny Hines.
  • In 1921, Mackaill’s career received another boost when she was cast in Bits of Life, along with Anna May Wong, Noah Beery and Lon Chaney.
  • Mackaill’s star-making role came in 1924, when she appeared in The Man Who Came Back opposite leading man George O’Brien. She was also named, along with Clara Bow and eleven other starlets, a WAMPAS Baby Star.
  • The arrival of talking pictures didn’t appear to present a problem for Mackaill—she worked steadily in the early years of the sound era—but she was signed with First National Pictures, which merged with Warner Brothers in 1928, and when her contract ended in 1931, Warners declined to renew it.
  • Mackaill continued to work as a free agent, but the roles came less frequently—she made just eight pictures in the next six years before retiring in 1937 to care for her ailing mother.
  • In 1955, Mackaill moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, a locale she’d very much enjoyed while filming His Captive Woman there in 1929. She resided at the deluxe Royal Hawaiian Hotel on the beach at Waikiki, swimming in the ocean on a near-daily basis.
  • Mackaill acted just three times after 1937, making a single appearance on the anthology television series Studio One in Hollywood in 1953 and two guest spots (in 1976 and 1980) on Hawaii Five-O, which certainly made for an easy commute to work. When she passed away in 1990, her ashes were scattered off her beloved Waikiki beach.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Mackaill, wherever you may be!

Dorothy Mackaill

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.

Read More »

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.

FAT CHANCE

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.”

Read More »

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.