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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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.

Una Merkel slept here

It’s not hard, if you’re enough of a movie buff to want to get a peek at some stars’ homes when you’re sojourning in Southern California, to track down former addresses of some of the best-remembered names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. When we last traveled to Los Angeles, over Thanksgiving in 2006, we were, with some simple Googling, able to quickly track down a dozen or more former addresses for Judy Garland, Ms. Cladrite’s favorite.

But what if you aren’t satisfied with driving by the homes in which Bogie and Bacall, Jimmy Stewart, and Bette Davis resided? What if you’re more interested in viewing the former residences of the likes of Ted Healy, Una Merkel, or Gummo Marx—not Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo, but Gummo Marx?

Then you need only dial up The Movieland Directory, a very impressive online resource, indeed.

The Movieland Directory is downright hard to stump, and don’t think we didn’t try. It gave us addresses for Ned Sparks, for Jack Pickford (Mary’s prodigal brother, don’t you know), for Zasu Pitts, for Billy Gilbert—it even had addresses for El Brendel, for Pete’s sake.

The site also does reverse look-ups. You can enter an address, and if someone related to the movie industry ever lived there, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll turn up.

For instance, our friend Pat used to live on Alta Vista Boulevard, between Sunset and Fountain Avenues. By looking up her block (we’ve forgotten her exact address), we learned that Billy Wayne, who appeared in more than 250 pictures between 1931 and 1958 (but apparently starred in none of them—he’s listed as “uncredited” at IMDB.com in the overwhelming majority of them), used to live just a few doors south of Pat. That’s not terribly exciting, perhaps, but what if it had been Joan Crawford or Buster Keaton or Raymond Chandler? (Considering how often the peripatetic Chandler moved, it well could have been.)

John Ince, brother to motion picture pioneer Thomas Ince and a silent-movie actor and director in his own right, who would became a full-time character actor with the advent of talkies, also lived on what would later be Pat’s block.

And Peter Ostberg, a cabinet maker who was a Universal Studios employee in 1917 (and perhaps before and after that year, who knows?), lived right next to where Pat would live, though his residence has since been replaced by a contemporary apartment building that sits beside the similar one in which Pat resided.

Now, we don’t know Peter Ostberg from Adam, but it’s intriguing to have his name and these tidbits of info turn up in a search like this. (It is to us, anyway—perhaps we’re too easily fascinated.)

You’ll find former addresses of contemporary stars listed in the database, too, and it’s fun to see what those stars have in common with the stars of years gone by.

For instance, in the 1990s, Julia Roberts lived in the Colonial House Apartments at 1416 Havenhurst Drive. And so, at some point in their lives, did Fred Allen, Joan Blondell, Eddie Cantor, Marion Davies, Bette Davis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Norma Talmadge, not to mention a slew of more contemporary stars.

We managed to stump the Movieland Directory database only twice. It returned no addresses when we submitted the name of author Ursula Parrott, a once bestselling author of scandalous fiction that might be considered an arguably more sensational precursor to today’s chick lit—but then, though many of her novels were made into movies, we’re not sure Parrott ever resided in L.A., which would take the site off the hook. And the Movieland Directory has no info on Ed Wood, Jr., everyone’s favorite famously inept movie director, which came as something of a surprise to us.

But that’s nitpicking. Give the site a try, and you’ll no doubt find 95% or more of the names you’re looking for. And you might learn just a little bit of Hollywood history