by Joe Blitman


Sylvia of Hollywood, giving a whack.

She stood 5' tall, weighed 97 pounds and terrorized the leading female stars of Hollywood from 1925-1931, for which they paid her - very generously.  She was a masseuse who called herself Madame Sylvia of Hollywood.  

Her basic tenet of "weight reduction through massage" was that pummeling, pinching and whacking flesh could squeeze body fat out of the pores.  She used her hand and paddle on some of the most famous "bottoms" of Hollywood - including those of Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer and Carole Lombard.  Sylvia didn't autograph (or whack) the hat, but so many of her clients did that I feel she's an honorary signatory.

Sylvia also believed salt was fattening and that hair shouldn't be washed more often than every two weeks.  She promoted the notion that breast size could be reduced by going on a twice monthly, three-day liquid diet, drinking 6 ounces of liquid - any liquid, from water to buttermilk - every two hours.  But, not everything she preached was cockamamie.  She taught that good health (and good bodies) also came from diet and exercise.  For Sylvia, fried foods were verboten and steamed lightly vegetables were heavenly.   And whatever her methods, the clients saw results and kept coming back for more of Sylvia's brand of torture.

Sylvia Ulback was born in Oslo, Norway in 1881.  She wanted to be a doctor, but thwarted by her parents, she studied nursing instead, and began giving massages at 18.  Married with two children, Sylvia's lumber dealer husband lost his business during WW1, and they all emigrated to America in 1921 with stops in New York and Chicago before arriving in Hollywood in 1925.  

Her first celebrity client was Marie Dressler, and from there the client list grew like topsy until she was hired in 1929 by Joseph P. Kennedy to be the masseuse for Gloria Swanson (Kennedy's mistress) and others in his Pathe Studio galaxy of stars.  Sylvia was paid a startling $750 a week (the equivalent in today's dollars of  $10,000).  Her studio bungalow was nicknamed "the torture chamber" and she used to play music to drown out the screams.

But making pots of money wasn't enough for Sylvia.  She wanted to be as famous as those who lay writhing on her massage table.  In 1931, she published "Hollywood Undressed," a tattle-tale book that spilled the secrets of the stars - about their bodies, their marital troubles and their rivalries - and which effectively burned all her bridges in tinseltown.  She headed back to NYC and used her new-found notoriety to get a weekly radio program, a newspaper column, monthly "beauty" articles in Photoplay magazine and a new, much-younger actor husband.  Sylvia was a 1930's media phenomenon, but when that decade ended, so did her career, and she and her husband retired to Santa Monica, CA, living in obscurity until their deaths in 1975.  She may have been the first celebrated personal trainer in Hollywood, but she certainly wasn't the last.

2012 Joe Blitman