Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Six

The sixth 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), includes anecdotes of such star clients as Ramon Novarro, Ernest Torrence, Jack Holt, Neil Hamilton and Lawrence Tibbett.


Ramon NavarroRAMON NOVARRO was a little stiff.
Why shouldn’t he be? He sleeps in a coffin.
That’s a fact. Ramon’s bedroom in the immense house he occupies with an old grandee of a Spanish father, his mother, and ten—count ’em—ten brothers—Ramon’s bedroom is a replica of the burial crypt of some saint in the Vatican City in Rome. The bed itself, high, narrow, and set on a pedestal, is a sarcophagus, under a purple canopy crowned with a wreath of thorns. A funny idea, this. All I can say is that Ramon seems to want to hurry his Cecil B. De Millennium.
Sylvia says that the daily massage she gave Ramon at 7 A.M.—waking him out of his embalmed slumbers with the laying on of her hands—always felt spooky. It was too uncomfortably like a miracle.
The boss promoted the job with Novarro herself, one day when she had finished touching up Elsie Janis and gone down into the Janis back yard to see what was going on in the swimming pool. Quite a bunch of actors were splashing about, showing off; and as Sylvia came along Ramon Novarro dived in and came up floating on his back. Right away the boss’s eagle eye noted something that promised a new customer and she thought up a salemanship scheme.
“Can you float like that indefinitely” she asked Novarro.
“As long as I want,” he modestly asserted.
“While you smoke a cigarette?”
He lit up and puffed away, and was good for ten minutes, stomach up, under a broiling California sun. Sure enough, when he puffed the last puff and called Sylvia to witness that he had accomplished the feat, the nice round central part of him was dried by the sun, making a cute little dry island in the middle of his bathing suit where it had been raised above water level by an undeniable protuberance.
Neat, what? All Sylvia had to do was kid him about the watermark and he had to say the expected thing and invite her to undertake the removal of the island.
“How could I help it?” he alibied. “I’m just back from a trip to Germany—and who can resist Münchener beer?”
ERNEST TORRENCE is a contrast to the soft and delicate Ramon Novarro, but not such a tremendous one as you’d think. What I mean is, all the boys get girlish and skittish when they have to take a professional interest in their looks, and Big Ernest is no exception.
Like all those oversize fellows, Ernest has a small, firm-minded wife who bosses him around as if he were a young St. Bernard. Elsie Torrence had been taking treatments from Sylvia, and she reported that her husband was threatened with nervous breakdown and ought to let Sylvia treat him.
“But he’s so shy,” Mrs. Torrence said, “and he just has fits when I suggest that he call in a female masseuse.” She set her jaw and added: “I’ll bring him round, though.”

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Four

The fourth 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) includes more tales of Sylvia’s tumultuous tour with actress Mae Murray and a humorous account of actress Alice White‘s role in the ensuing court proceedings after Murray sued Sylvia.


Mae MurrayACCORDING to Sylvia, when the company got to Buffalo Statler, everybody went to their rooms and crawled into the hay and hung out the Don’t Disturb sign. Sylvia was just dozing off when—wham!—there went the phone bell: Mae, calling for a treatment.
Murmuring fond benedictions on the head of her employer, Sylvia crawled into clothes, dipped her face in cold water, and went upstairs. She found the prince alone, and the cordial relations existing between Caucasian knight and the Scandinavian pawn led to an enjoyable interval of about a half-hour during which no conversation was exchanged. After a long while the prince did address to Sylvia one of the rare sentences that he left fall in her direction.
“Are all American women crazy?” he demanded.
When Mae came in a few minutes later, she was the spark to the powder. Right away the boss could tell there was something up. Mae had been out gallivanting around in the zero weather, dressed in a skirt and sweater.
“You’ll have pneumonia!” said Sylvia.
“I hope I get it double,” said Mae and began to sniffle. Sylvia went to comfort her.
“Take your hands off my wife!” roared the prince. “And what’s more, Sylvia, you’re fired! Understand?”
Mae stuck out her chin under the prince’s nose and said:
“Sylvia isn’t fired. She stays!”
The prince glared at Sylvia, and she got on the other side of the bed. He looked as if he were going to take the obstacle in one jump, but contented himself with giving the mattress a big kick and yelling:
“You get out or—or—“
Well, Mae got him quieted down and he consented to leave the room. The minute he was out, she bolted the door.
“What’s it all about?” Sylvia inquired.
“Don’t ask me!” groaned Mae. “It’s still that fuss about his boy’s Christmas present.”
Well, if it was just a Russian version of the Yuletide spirit, Sylvia thought she could risk sticking around; so she began treating Mae, hoping to head off pneumonia. For the next hour the prince kept trying the locked door and growling through the keyhole every few minutes.
After a while Mae dozed off. There was no noise outside, and Sylvia, being all in and starved, phoned down for a meal. When the waiter brought up the order the prince was lying in wait in the hall, and Sylvia no sooner drew the bolt than he popped in.
By this time Sylvia was hardened, so she sat and hate her lunch and looked on at the domestic scene in comfort from a neutral corner. Mae woke up, and they went at it hot and heavy, until Mae said she’d go over to the prince’s room, where they could have it out without witnesses.
But she was back in ten minutes, and made Sylvia promise she wouldn’t leave her, day or night.
It went on like that during the rest of the afternoon and evening, and along about bedtime it got a good deal worse.
In the end, Sylvia was too far out of patience to remember what she owed to an employer and a member of the old Tartar nobility, so she gave his Highness her candid opinion of him.
The hotel’s house manager was on the noisy scene by that time. He was scandalized and, being a good American, couldn’t get over how Sylvia had talked to a blue-blood.
“Remember,” he almost wept, “after all, you’re addressing Prince M’Divani!”
With the manager as mediator, Mae and the prince worked out a compromise that restored order. The prince was to let his wife go to another hotel for the night, but as security he was to hold on to her theatrical trunks until she came back!
The arrangement deprived Mae of most of her private wardrobe as well, as the prince locked himself in and she couldn’t get to her luggage. However, she and Sylvia slipped out of the Statler. They ducked, half frozen, in to the first hotel they came to—the Tower.
The next day Mae and her prince got together again, the M’Divani boy got the Christmas present, and Sylvia got merryell from two directions. Mae and the prince decided Sylvia was responsible for the whole thing.
But the boss managed to stick it out for the next few weeks. The troupe got to Chicago, where it was to play one week and then break up. After that Mae and Sylvia were to return to Hollywood.
The last performance of the tour came around. There’s a time-honored stage custom that the star of a show throws a dinner for the supporting cast after the last performance. For a week Mae had been worrying about that dinner. There were ten girls to feed.
Sylvia got to the theater in Chicago early on the night of the last show, and ran into Jean Pittsman, captain of the chorus. Jean buttonholed the boss and asked:
“Where is Miss Murray taking us to supper? The girls are pestering me to know.”
The other girls swarmed out of their dressing rooms, all excited, and pumped Sylvia, too.
Mae swept in from the stage door about that time and heard the girls chattering about their supper. She gave them a big, radiant Madame Happiness smile and called out:
“Girls, I have a surprise for you. Wait around after the show!”
The girls almost gave her a cheer. Mae motioned to Sylvia to follow her into her dressing room. Once inside, she closed the door and said:
“Sylvia, I need your help.”
“To order the supper?” said Sylvia, bright and eager.
“Well, sort of,” said Mae. “I just had a grand idea about that supper on my way down in the taxi. I do so want to do something nice for those darling girls, and I know just what will do them the most good. They absolutely ruin their systems, eating the stuff they do.”
“They haven’t much to spend on eats,” put in Sylvia.
“Exactly,” approved Mae. “That’s why I’ve thought up this idea for them. It’ll teach them to eat well and yet economically.”
Even then Sylvia didn’t suspect what was coming, and was left gaping and speechless when Mae opened her bag, handed Sylvia her trunk keys, and said:
“What I want you to do is go and get together all those cans of health food!”
“Health food!” was all that Sylvia could say.
“Wasn’t I foolish not to think of it before?” Mae went on happily. “You remember how to prepare it, don’t you? Get some olive oil and about three cans of the food and—oh, wait a minute.”
She went over to the dressing table and undid a big brown-paper package. Inside was a large salad bowl.
I borrowed it from the hotel. Mix the food in it.”
As Sylvia turned to go, Mae cautioned:
“Don’t say a word to the girls. I want it to be a surprise.”
WELL, Sylvia didn’t say anything. She carried out Mae’s instructions to the letter and mixed up plenty of the oil and health food in the bowl.
The act ended. Mae took her bows and came into the dressing room. She gave the mess in the bowl an extra stir and sniffed it.
“Delicious!” she murmured. “And now, Sylvia, call the girls in.”
Sylvia started off to obey, but Mae stopped her.
“No, I’ll go to them with it.”
She picked up the bowl and went over to the chorus dressing room, Sylvia tagging along. Mae threw open the door of the girls’ room.
“Girls,” she said, like a lecturer, “I want to give you a little talk. It’s about eating. I’ve given the subject a good deal of thought. Madame Sylvia, here, has been teaching me a lot—“
Sylvia got behind the speaker and sent the girls a wink meaning: “Leave me out of this.”
Mae went right on: “After investigating every kind of diet I’ve found the grandest health food in the world. Now—” And she presented the bowl with a flourish. “Now I want you girls to try this food and tell me what you think of it.”
The girls sort of drifted up to look and sniff at the bowl. They were more amazed than anything else.
“It’s something you eat?” inquired Jean Pittsman in a dazed way.
“As much as you want!” cried Mae. “If this isn’t enough, there’s more where it came from. And I’m going to give each girl a can of it to take with her.”
There was what you might aptly call a stage wait as the girls stared at each other, and then Mae said:
“Don’t mind me. Go ahead and eat.”
Jeannie had the presence of mind to speak up. “Thank you, Miss Murray,” she said gratefully.
A little girl, the youngest of the troupe, came up and took a spoonful of the mess and put it in her mouth. A second later she spat it out.
Mae looked at her, maybe a little sternly, and the kid got frightened and apologized:
“I’m sorry. It slipped.”
Mae left, with dignity. Sylvia went with her.
The girls took one more look and grabbed their raincoats to beat it over to the doughnut-and-coffee stand, as usual. Soon they could be heard trooping back from their quick lunch. They were all laughing uproariously. Mae listened with a pleased look.
“They loved it!” she breathed. Presently she rose and said: “Let’s see what they’re up to.”
Sylvia opened the door and popped out first—
And took one step and fell over the salad bowl full of oiled health food, as she mad a desperate pirouette to avoid putting her foot right into it. The girls were disappointed. They had meant the trap for somebody else—they didn’t say whom.

THE rest of Sylvia’s tour with Mae was a succession of squabbles over moneys due and unpaid. Everybody got home alive enough to go to law. This account as well end up as the trial did—with the sensational appearance in court of ###Alice White.
When Alice had first come to Sylvia, she had been as nearly disgusting-looking as so cute a kid can get on a cream-puff-and-chocolate-candy diet. Sylvia had taken her in hand and whacked her into such shape that the first thing a director asked, when an Alice White picture script was submitted, was: “Where is the undressing scene?”
Alice was determined to be Sylvia’s witness. “I’ll be there,” she insisted, “and I’ll bet that judge invites me to testify.”
In the concluding minutes of the trial there was a sudden commotion at the door. Alice had dressed in a costume which showed about as much of her as the law would allow. And she had a corsage of sweet peas on what there was of a shoulder piece to her gown.
Well, those court attachés had never seen anything like it. They opened up an aisle and Alice came down front. Sievers, Sylvia’s lawyer, rose to address the court.
“I don’t know whether this is material and ethical or not,” he said, waving at Alice, “but there has been insinuating testimony to the effect that Madame Sylvia is not expert in her profession, and we have an exhibit here in court in the person of Miss Alice White.”
“Let’s have a look at the exhibit,” piped up Mr. Gilbert, the opposition lawyer.
The judge took a look at Alice and said:
“File the exhibit.”
Well,the legal boys had a lot of their idea of fun. Mr. Sievers asked Alice:
“What is your business?”
“Motion-picture actress.”
Q. How long have you been so engaged?
A. Over two years.
Q. Throughout that time, have you taken massage treatments?
Judge Burnell. What’s the purpose of this?
Lawyer Sievers. It is intimated, your Honor, that Mae Murray claims Madame Sylvia was no good at her job.
Lawyer Gilbert. Well, I object that Miss White’s testimony can’t be anything but indefinite, because we all appreciate that she looks like someone’s good job, but how are we to discriminate between that part of the result which would be attributable to God and those parts attributable to the father, the mother, and the masseuse?
Judge Burnell. Those parties you mention have not been made parties to this action. Even if they were, I doubt whether they would have had you as their lawyer.
Loud laughter in the court.
Judge Burnell went on: “Do you wish the exhibit marked for identification?”
Well, everybody was willing to do the marking, and Alice sort of hitched around in her chair as if to inquire what part of her they wanted to put the seal on.
The judge got gallant. He gave a bend toward Alice, who gave him the eye, and he said:
“Please call this witness back sometime when we have an action that is going to last longer.”
And Alice got up and left, and everybody that wasn’t nailed down got up and tagged after her—so there were only the lawyers and Sylvia around to hear the judgment in Sylvia’s favor.

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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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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter One

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.


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.
Jean HarlowIf 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!

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