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.”

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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: Fannie Brice

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Fannie Brice, comedienne, singer, and theatre and film actress.
 

SAY IT WITH SONGS

FANNIE BRICE. She was born at the stroke of midnight on October 29, 1892. Her square moniker is Fannie Borach.
She enjoys a good cry.
Hasn’t a long list of friends. But those she has she can tap for anything.
She took the tag of Brice from John Brice, a next-door neighbor. He is now a watchman on the Ninth Avenue elevated. She told him that some day he’d see his name in lights.
Is a good judge of diamonds, furs and the value of real estate.
There is one thing in the world she can’t stand. That is cream in her coffee. It makes her sick.
She is the proud mother of two children. A girl of nine and a boy of seven. Has one brother, Lew, in the theatrical business. Also has one sister, Caroline, who believes that she would be a great actress if she didn’t suffer from asthma.
Her hobby is taking photographs of bedrooms. She has a picture of every bedroom she ever lived in.
Made her stage début at Keeney’s Theater in Brooklyn on amateur night. She won first prize singing, “When You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget.”
The only instrument she can play is the piano. That is, if hunting for notes with two fingers can be called playing.
Her father owned a string of saloons. He was known as “French Charlie.” Her mother really ran the saloons, for “French Charlie” was always playing pinochle.
When traveling she takes an electric stove with her. She’ll cook for anybody who wants to eat.
She once worked in a movie house on Eighty-third Street and Third Avenue. Here she sang songs, sold tickets and painted signs. Her salary was $8 a week.
The biggest surprises she ever got, good or bad, were from herself.
Is one of the best dressed women in the theater. Has her dresses designed especially for her by Kiviette. While in Hollywood she made dresses for Dolores Costello and Norma Talmadge. She has thirty dresses she hasn’t gotten to yet.
The moon makes her serious.
When watching Fannie perform her mother always says to the people sitting about her: “That’s my daughter. She’s good, isn’t she?”
She dislikes people who are perfect and have everything. Believes that such people miss something in life.
After she sang “My Man” for the first time her salary was raised from $1,000 to $3,000 weekly.
Her present husband is Billy Rose, who also writes her songs for her. Her nickname for him is “Putsy.”
She’d walk ten miles if she could window shop on the way. Otherwise she wouldn’t walk two blocks.
Her first comedy song was “Sadie Salome.” She sang it merely to help Irving Berlin, then a newcomer, along. It started her on the road to fame and fortune.
She is a card shark.

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In Your Hat, pt. 8

Here’s Chapter 8 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she shares tales of by the many celebrities she encountered while working at Sardi’s, among them George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Norma Talmadge, George Raft, Wallace Reid, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, and many more.

     A STOOGE, in Broadway parlance, is the assist in the act. If you do an accordion routine and a heckler is paid by you to annoy your act from the box, then you’re probably Phil Baker and your stooge eventually becomes as famous as you are. Witness Sid Silvers of Take a Chance fame.
     Broadway is full of stooges, both in real life and on the stage. It may sound strange to you but the jester in the king’s court from the time of The Erl King (I don’t know why they insist on spelling Oil as Erl) has been brought down the years until now he is labeled “stooge.” His job is to take he hard knocks, furnish the opportunity for the gag to be sprung, and appear the perfect fool.
     When Phil Baker, who pumps a mean accordion, opened in a show in New York and had a stooge in the box doing the regular routine, Al Boasberg, the gagman who writes funny lines for a dozen or more comedians, wired Baker:

  LIKED YOUR ACT STOP THE OLD
GENT WITH THE ACCORDION WAS
GOOD TOO.


     Gracie Allen, of the famous team of Burns and Allen, is the stooge of the act, even though it is she who pulls all the funny lines. Recently she gave George Burns cause to laugh when she came to him with an idea.
     “Georgie, dear,” Gracie said. “I have an idea.”
     “Well, let’s forget it,” George answered characteristically, knowing it would bring on the usual headache.
     “I’ve thought of a line for our act,” she continued.
     “All right,” gave in George. “What is it?”
     “I can’t tell you until I’ve gotten a prop.”
     “What sort of a prop?”
     “A muff.”
     “What’s a muff?” George wanted to know.
     “It’s one of those things women used to carry around so that they could hold hands with themselves.”
     “All right, Gracie, get yourself a muff and let’s have the gag.”
     She went to the best furrier on the Avenue and ordered a muff made. It has to be matched sables, four skins, exquisitely sewn. The muff cost $250 and she charged it to Geroge Burns, her husband. She brought it to him one day.
     “Here’s the muff, George.”
     He examined it carefully. He approved.
     “I got it at a bargain, George.”
     George immediately became suspicious.
     “How much, Gracie? How much?” he pleaded.
     “Well—er—two hundred and—er—fifty dollars.”
     George felt around for support.
     “Two hundred and fifty smackers for that thing? Gracie, you’ll ruin me!”
     “But it’s a bargain, George, and the furrier let me have it at that price because there are two holes in it!”
     And she held up the muff to show him the holes in which one is supposed to insert one’s hands. Burns was nonplused.
     “But what about the gag?” he wanted to know. “Is the gag worth $250?”
     “Why, George,” giggled the she-stooge, “I just did it. You see, I come on with this muff and you ask me how much I paid for it and I say: ‘I got it at a bargain because it had two holes in it.”
     With which Mr. Burns fainted dead away. And that’s how jokes are born in case you’re interested.
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