Sylvia of Hollywood

Sylvia of Hollywood
Born Symnove Johanne Waaler
(1881-04-06)6 April 1881
Oslo, Norway
Died 2 March 1975(1975-03-02) (aged 93)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Occupation Fitness guru
Years active 19161931
Spouse(s) Andrew Ulback (married 1903–1932)
Edward Leiter (married 1932–1975)

Sylvia Ulback (6 April 1881 2 March 1975), known as Sylvia of Hollywood, was an early Hollywood fitness guru.[1] Between 1926 and 1932, "Madame Sylvia", as she was also known, specialized in keeping movie stars camera-ready[2][3][4] through stringent massage, diet and exercise.

Early life

Sylvia was born Symnove Johanne Waaler[5] (or Wilhelmsen)[6] in Oslo (then Kristiania) to Amelia Wilhelmsen, an opera singer [7] and artist Oscar Waaler[8][9] Forbidden to be a doctor by her parents, Sylvia went into nursing at 16. Having studied massage, she opened an office in Bremen, Germany when she was 18 years old. Sylvia and her first husband Andrew Ulback, a lumber dealer came to America - first New York then to Chicago - in 1921/22 after her husband lost his business in the war.

In 1926, Sylvia, her husband and two sons relocated to Hollywood, ostensibly for Andrew's health.[10][11] (N.B. Sylvia eschewed the use of her surname Ulback, hence its various spelling in contemporary references as Ulbeck,[12][13] Ullback[14] and Ulvert [15])


Sylvia stated that in 1921 she weighed in at 157 lbs at 5 feet tall and looked like a dutiful Norwegian wife. Seeing her husband, Andrew, flirting with his slender stenographer caused Sylvia to study reducing methods. Getting her own weight down to 95 lbs,[16][17] Sylvia meshed dieting knowledge with her massage training.[18] She applied those skills to a growing list of clientele, which included socialites and others in the public eye.

Promoting a three-pronged approach of massage, exercise and diet, Sylvia's stringent, often painful yet apparently effective techniques - said to ‘squeeze off fat’ - were infamous within the ranks of Hollywood.[19] Her name became popularly associated [20][21] with Hollywood slenderising, particularly in regard to massage[22] which was then seen as a way to lose weight. Her overall methods are risible to modern readers[23][24][25] yet her suggestions to stay active, be disciplined and eat wisely are still valid.[26][27]

Sylvia's first client in Chicago was Julius Rosenwald (or in fact Rosenwald's grandmother)[28] who introduced her to other wealthy clients.

Her first Hollywood client was Marie Dressler in 1925.[29] By 1930, Sylvia was working at Pathe studio[30] at $750 a week.[31]

In that same year, she was hired by Joseph Kennedy for his mistress Gloria Swanson, who enthused over the miracles Sylvia worked on her body.[32][33]

Hollywood Undressed

In 1932, Sylvia exposed the foibles of the Hollywood system and her illustrious clientele in the book Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary (1931) Brentano's.[34][35] Although said to be penned by Sylvia's secretary, the playful book, full of gossip and contemporary vernacular, was ghostwritten by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker,[36] the first husband of Ina Claire.[37][38][39]

Hollywood Undressed revealed intimate details of Sylvia's famous Hollywood clientele which included Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler,[40] Mae Murray, Alice White, Bebe Daniels, Mary Duncan, Ramón Novarro, Ruth Chatterton, Ann Harding, Norma Talmadge, Grace Moore, Constance Bennett, Gloria Swanson, Nella Webb, F.W. Murnau, Elsie Janis, Ernest Torrence, Lawrence Tibbett, Laura Hope Crews, Ronald Colman, Constance Cummings, Ina Claire, John Gilbert, Carmel Myers, Helen Twelvetrees, Carole Lombard, Ilka Chase, Dorothy Mackaill, Pepi Lederer, Marion Davies, Neil Hamilton, Alan Hale Sr and Vivienne Segal.[41]

Of Hollywood Undressed, Louella Parsons wrote, "Perhaps no one has ever played Hollywood quite as mean a trick as the woman who came here and made her money taking care of the stars and then turned around and wrote the cruelest articles about them that have ever been written.[42] (The book has since been republished by Kessinger Publishing, LLC with a softcover version on 1 March 2007 and a hardback edition published 13 June 2008.[43])

Despite the repercussions of Hollywood Undressed,[44][45] Sylvia continued to give her opinion on Hollywood and its denizens,[46] with the confidence [47] that her clients needed her more than she needed them:[48]

"I love them and I’m sorry for them. I’m never going back. There's too much clamor. You shrink up and get a false view of life. The only brainy people out there hide in their shells. Gloria Swanson—she's very childish. She has all the earmarks of a naughty little girl—and all the charm that goes with it. When I gave her treatments she’d yell and scream like a maniac. One time she crawled under the bed and wouldn’t come out. She made nasty faces at me and I chased her around the house... Ann Harding is one of Hollywood's most intelligent. She has a brain like a man and works like man. Of course, she's a little careless about her appearance, like the great Maude Adams, but I love her. Norma Shearer and Marie Dressler are my favorites. Neither ever talks dirt. They’re the squarest shooters of all. I never heard either criticize anyone."

On 23 May 1931, Sylvia headed east to New York[49] with writer Ursula Parrott.[50] By 1933, she had quit Hollywood entirely to concentrate on New York and a wider audience.[51] From New York, where she pursued her publishing career, she was able to reach a wide audience that spanned from the east to the west coast and everywhere in between. Her articles as well as news about her reached local papers across the country.

Further books

Sylvia authored three books[52] on health, appearance and beauty: No More Alibis (1934) Photoplay Publishing, Chicago, Pull Yourself Together Baby with cartoons by Paki (1936) Macfadden, New York.[53][54] and Streamline Your Figure (1939), Macfadden, New York.[55]

Priced at $1, No More Alibis was sixth on the non-fiction list[56] of bestsellers from August 19 to September 17, 1936.[57]

Newsreel and radio

Broadcast between 1933 and 1936, Sylvia's radio show, Mme. Sylvia was a 15-minute beauty and celebrity broadcast sponsored by Ry-Krisp. Syndicated across America, her show was aired at 7:30pm on station KGO and KFI.[58] On 3 October 1932, Sylvia's guest was Glenda Farrell,[59] and on 17 October the guest was Grace Moore.[60]

Advertisement for Madame Sylvia of Hollywood,The Hartford Courant, 22 October 1933, photographer uncredited. (used with permission from the Courant).[61]

By 16 January 1934, Madame Sylvia of Hollywood broadcast over Boston's WEEI at 10:30am.[62] By 1935, Sylvia was broadcast Wednesday nights at 10:15pm EST on stations WJZ, WBAL, WMAL, WBZ, WBZA, WSYR, WHAM, LDLA, WGAR, WENR, KWCR, KSO, KWK, KOIL, WREN, WTMJ, WIBA, WJR, KSTP, WEBC, KOA, KDYL, KPO, KFI, KGW, KOMO, KHQ and WCKY.[63] She was also part of her sponsor Ry-Krisp's advertising campaigns.[64]

According to Martin Lewis in Radio Guide (1935),[65] Sylvia was on the air less than one minute for each of her shows: she knitted while she waited. A reference to her ‘reducing talks’ over the airwaves was published in the G-E Circle Bulletin, 7 June 1932.[66] By 1933, her show contained dramatic sketches centering on movie stars, e.g. Dolores Del Rio and Irene Dunne,[67][68] one of which landed her with a lawsuit from Ginger Rogers in 1934 (see #Lawsuits below).

In 1948, Sylvia was named, "Radio phenomenon of the Thirties" in Radio & TV Life which stated she had, "...made the nation figure-conscious through her radio programs."[69]

No recordings of Sylvia's shows are known to survive.

Fox Movietone newsreel footage featuring Sylvia, entitled Sylvia the Hollywood Masseur (sic), dated 6 April 1932, is not known to survive although it is listed as archived.[70] Pathe Newsreel footage of Sylvia titled, ? Keeps Movie Stars In Shape, dated 16 January 1932, seems to have been lost or destroyed, although it, too, is catalogued and described.[71]

Photoplay column

Sylvia had a column in Photoplay magazine, covering beauty tips, celebrity beauty issues and eventually reader's problems. The column began in February 1932 and went through various editorial changes for the next four years.


Silent screen and vaudeville actress Mae Murray lost a suit to Sylvia for $2,125.00[72] for six months of massage and care while the performer was on a 1927 vaudeville tour. A more intimate take on Murray's interchanges with Sylvia are outlined in Hollywood Undressed[73]

In 1934, Sylvia denied knowledge of events which caused a $100K suit against her by Ginger Rogers, who claimed that she was not on Sylvia's show when an interviewee on the show was purported to be her.[74][75][76]

Rogers won the lawsuit, settling out of court.[77]

Sylvia Ulbeck marries Edward Leiter.(Los Angeles Times 11 July 1932 (A. P. Photo))[78]

Marriages and children

In 1903, Sylvia married Andrew Ulback (born Denmark 29 November 1880). The couple had two sons: Edward (aka Eyolf) Ulback (2 December 1903 - 22 February 1997) and Finn Ulback (24 August 1908 - 29 December 1969). Sylvia, Andrew and their sons immigrated to the US in 1921.[79] By 1930, Andrew had a career as a beauty-cream manufacturer.

According to the 1930 census, both sons, who were 6 feet tall, worked at film studios: Edward as a utility worker and Finn as a film cutter and later as a sound effects editor for TV, including the popular Combat! series.[80][81] Both sons enlisted (as single men) in World War II, and had the rank of Private. Finn enlisted on 6 February 1943.[82] Edward Ulback became a biblical/classical historian, listed as an author in various journal articles 1932-46.[83] Although Finn married,[84][85] neither of Sylvia's sons had children.

On 27 June 1932, Sylvia and Andrew divorced in Mexico.[86] Andrew died on September 26, 1948, in Los Angeles.

On 1 July 1932, Sylvia married Edward Leiter (born 7 September 1903 in San Francisco), during a thunderstorm in Egremont, Massachusetts, USA.[87][88][89][90][91] Edward Leiter was the son of Mrs Ella Leiter of Los Angeles and a nephew of Joseph Leiter, Chicago financier.[92] A graduate of the University of Southern California, he had performed in various stage productions[93][94] and had studied in Budapest and Vienna.

Later years and death

After 1939, Sylvia withdrew from the media. Sylvia and her husband Edward died within a month of each other in Santa Monica, California, with Edward dying in February 1975 and Sylvia following him in March 1975.

Sylvia was cremated at Odd Fellows Cemetery & Crematory in Los Angeles, California, USA. Her ashes were ‘neptuned,’ or scattered at sea. At the time of her death, her profession was listed as "housewife" for 60 years.[95]


A radio documentary entitled Svelte Sylvia & The Hollywood Trimsters,[96] was broadcast 26 August 2010 on BBC Radio 4[97]

A digital history project exploring Sylvia and physical culture in the 1920s and 1930s [98] was completed in 2012.


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sylvia of Hollywood.
  1. Addison, Heather. Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture (2003) Routledge, New York & London, p 41.
  2. Yeaman, Elizabeth, "Sylvia's Clever Hands Aid Stars To Keep Slender", Hollywood Daily Citizen, 17 September 1930.
  3. "With Movie Stars In Hollywood", Spartanburg Herald-Journal, 20 September 1930, p.5
  4. e.g. Shaffer, Rosalind. "Pola Negri Is Back With New Personality", Chicago Daily Tribune, 8 November 1931, p F12.
  5. "MME. WAALER A BRIDE.; Radio Broadcaster Wed In Berkshires to Edward Leiter, Actor." New York Times 6 July 1932.
  6. "Sylvia, Beauty Advisor, Weds", Los Angeles Times, 6 July 1932.
  7. "Madame Sylvia of Hollywood Brings Spirit of Movieland to Manhattan", Bismarck Tribune, 2 February 1933.
  8. "Sylvia, Beauty Advisor, Weds", Los Angeles Times, 6 July 1932.
  9. Certificate of Death, State of California-Department of Public Health.
  10. Ober Peak, Mayme. "Famous Hollywood Masseuse Reveals Secrets of the Stars", The Hartford Courant, 7 June 1931, p D2.
  11. "Sylvia, Beauty Advisor, Weds", Los Angeles Times, 6 July 1932.
  12. "Famous Masseuse Denies She Has Offended Stars", Photoplay, June 1932.
  13. Bird, Carol "Are American Women Becoming Gaunt Gazelles? Dieting Ruining Women's Health Declares Sylvia", Lodi News-Sentinel, 12 August 1936.
  14. "Sylvia Gossips About Filmdom", Los Angeles Times, 1 November 1931, p B16.
  15. "Sylvia Weds Stage Actor", Reno Evening Gazette, 5 July 1932.
  16. "Sylvia of Hollywood Gives Intimate Glimpse at Stars", The Poughkeepsie Eagle-News, 3 February 1932.
  17. "Sylvia Sizes Up Stars She Has Reduced", The Hartford Courant, 2 February 1932, p. 6.
  18. Stage and Screen: "No Worry Over Fat", The Lewiston Daily Sun, 15 July 1930, p 4.
  19. "Social Butterfly of Screen A Different Person at Home", The Hartford Courant, 10 January 1932, p D31.
  20. "Beauty Is More Than Skin Deep", The Argus, Melbourne, Victoria, 18 June 1935, p 12.
  21. Shaffer, George. "Movie Gossip From Hollywood", Chicago Daily Tribune, 24 September 1931, p 18.
  22. Professional Classified Ads, Massage Section, The Miami News, 23 August 1938, p. 13.
  23. Bernard, Jami, "Stopped Cold and Hot Tempered",Daily News (New York), 7 November 2004, p 38.
  24. Sugarman, Carole "The History of Thinking Thin", The Washington Post, 16 June 1987, p Z15/cover story.
  26. Donnelly, Antoinette. "Here's The Way Hollywood Beauties Keep Their Slimness", Chicago Daily Tribune, 23 December 1931, p 16.
  27. "Sylvia Ulbeck's methods of food preparation are as pertinent today as they were controversial at the time: vegetables lightly steamed with their cooking broth preserved; potato skins; plenty of fresh fruit; lean meat. Her one rule about frying: "DON’T! This is a rule not only of dietary, but of all sane cooking. Fried foods are certainly the origin of the chronic digestive troubles which identify the American (by his belch!) to doctors all over the world. There is nothing that should be fried." Rivera, Rebecca A. Syracuse Herald-Journal, 3 June 1984.
  28. Yeaman, Elizabeth, Sylvia's Clever Hands Aid Stars To Keep Slender, Hollywood Daily Citizen, 17 September 1930.
  29. Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary (1931) Brentano's, p 12.
  30. Parsons, Louella. "Movie Activities Proving Numerous", The Palm Beach Post, 31 May 1930 page 18.
  31. Whitaker, Alma. "Sugar and Spice" Los Angeles Times 29 November 1931, p B15.
  32. Beauchamp, Cari (2009) Joseph Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years p 263-5, Knopf, New York. ISBN 978-1-4000-4000-1
  33. "Over the course of a year, Gloria was billed $6190.80 for massages." Beauchamp, Cari (2009) Joseph Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, note to page 265. This is approximately equivalent to $79800.00 in 2008 value according to
  34. "Hollywood writers are surely getting their names on the literary map. "Hollywood Undressed" is the provocative title of a book by Sylvia Ullback which shortly will go to press. Sylvia is the masseuse who is responsible for the exquisite figures of many of our most beautiful film stars, and she probably knows them more intimately than any person in the cinema capital. In this book she tells how the different stars preserve their beauty, giving not only their routines of exercise but of diet. And if you know Sylvia, you know that the book is dotted with that gay brand of humor which is so characteristically hers. Perhaps the volume will satisfy the thousands of women who flood her with correspondence, asking for beauty secrets. She tells them everything they want to know with a sound common sense born of authority." Yeaman, Elizabeth, Hollywood Daily Citizen columnist, 4 November 1930.
  35. Keavy, H. "Screen Life in Hollywood: A ‘Sock’ In Time", San Antonio Express, July 19, 1931.
  36. Yeaman, Elizabeth, Hollywood Daily Citizen", 5 March 1931.
  37. Shaffer, George. "Movie Gossip from Hollywood", Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 June 1931, p 19.
  38. "Short Shavings", Waterloo Sunday Courier, 17 April 1932.
  39. "Screen Life In Hollywood", The Hartford Courant, 19 July 1931, p D3.
  40. Coons, R. "Marathons Common To Movies", The Olean Herald, 2 September 1931.
  41. Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary (1931) Brentano's.
  42. Parsons, Louella. "Chatter in Hollywood", The San Antonio Light, 5 July 1932.
  44. Yeaman, Elizabeth, Hollywood Daily Citizen 31 July 1931.
  45. "She is a curious psychological study. The dreadful urge to make herself noticed has egged her on to extremes." Whitaker, Alma. "Sugar and Spice" Los Angeles Times 29 November 1931, p B15.
  46. "Sylvia of Hollywood Gives Intimate Glimpse at Stars", The Poughkeepsie Eagle-News, 3 February 1932.
  47. Merrick, Mollie, "Stars and Talkies of Hollywood", The Spokesman Review, 10 October 1931, p.10.
  48. '"Screen Life In Hollywood", The Hartford Courant, 19 July 1931, p D3.
  49. Yeaman, Elizabeth, Hollywood Daily Citizen 19 May 1931.
  50. Ursula Parrott at the Internet Movie Database
  51. San Francisco Chronicle Radio, 26 September 1933.
  53. "How to Develop Your Personality Is Subject of Sylvia's New Book", The Charleston Gazette, 25 October 1936.
  54. Kincaid Brockman, Z. "Unguarded Moments", The Gastonia Daily Gazette, 10 September 1937.
  55. "Sylvia Tells Women How to Attain Allure in Breezy New Book", The Charleston Gazette, 5 February 1939.
  56. "...[T]he earliest version of what would become its weekly best-seller list didn't appear in this newspaper until almost 40 years later, on Oct. 6, 1935...What was on that first Times best-seller list?...On the nonfiction side, there was a diet book -- in the middle of the Depression -- called No More Alibis! (McFadden, $1), by someone named Sylvia of Hollywood." Garner, Dwight "TBR: Inside The List", New York Times, 3 October 2004, p 32.
  57. "Monthly List of Best-Selling Books", New York Times, 6 October 1935.
  58. "Ginger Rogers Alleges Slander In $100,000 Suit", The Modesto Bee, 25 March 1934.
  59. "Radio News And Programs", Oakland Tribune, 3 October 1933.
  60. "Radio News And Programs", Oakland Tribune, 17 October 1933.
  61. The Hartford Courant, 22 October 1933.
  62. "Today's Radio Programs", The Lowell Sun, 16 January 1934.
  63. Biddle, M. "Keep Young and Beautiful", Radio Stars, 19 March 1935.
  64. The New Yorker, p. 52, 30 September 1936.
  65. "Inside Stuff", Lewis, M. Radio Guide, 27 April 1935.
  66. Lawton, S.P. Radio Continuity Types (1938), Expression Company, Boston, Massachusetts p 216-8.
  67. Palmer, Zuma, Hollywood Citizen-NewsRadio, 10 October 1933.
  68. Palmer, Zuma, Hollywood Citizen-News Radio, 24 October 1933
  69. Radio and TV Life, 15 August 1948.
  71. "Pathe Newsreels, Negative 3409, Release Date 01-16-32, Issue P.S.N. 49, Footage 124, Cameraman Sullivan Allison. Description: Sylvia The Hollywood Masseur (sic) Keeps Movie Stars In Shape, on New York City. "Sylvia of Hollywood, on whom film favorites rely for their trim figures, shows you simple exercise she makes them do to reduce swelling waistline. Close-up of Sylvia. Long shot and semi-close-up of her demonstrating exercise. Microphone to right."
  72. "Mae Murray Loses Suit", Los Angeles Times, 23 March 1929, p A16.
  73. Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary (1931) Brentano's, pp 25–51.
  74. "Interview Suit Begun By Actress: Screen Player Asks Damages", Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1934.
  75. "Ginger Rogers Alleges Slander In $100,000 Suit", The Modesto Bee, 25 March 1934.
  76. "Ginger Rogers Sues for $100,000", The Lowell Sun, 24 March 1934.
  77. "Ginger Rogers Wins Suit For Actresses", The Daily Messenger, Canandaigua, New York, 29 October 1934.
  78. Mme. Sylvia Weds Actor, Los Angeles Times, 11 July 1932.
  79. Census 1930.
  80. Finn Ulback at the Internet Movie Database
  81. "A Volcano Erupts", Los Angeles Times, 18 July 1963, p 14.
  82. United States Census, 1930.
  86. Parsons, Louella, "Chatter In Hollywood", The San Antonio Light, 5 July 1932.
  87. "Madame Sylvia Wed Again at 50", The Lowell Sun, 6 July 1932.
  88. "Sylvia, Beauty Advisor, Weds", Los Angeles Times, 6 July 1932.
  89. "Mme. Sylvia Weds Actor", Los Angeles Times, 11 July 1932.
  90. "Sylvia Weds Stage Actor", Reno Evening Gazette, 5 July 1932.
  91. "The Movie Capital's Masseuse Takes Off 903712 Pounds of ‘Star Dust’", The Port Arthur News, 16 December 1934.
  92. "Sylvia Weds Stage Actor", Reno Evening Gazette, 5 July 1932.
  93. Edward Leiter at the Internet Broadway Database
  94. Edward Leiter at the Internet Movie Database
  95. Certificate of Death, State of California-Department of Public Health, 4 March 1975.
  96. Archived radio documentary, Karen Krizanovich, Svelte Sylvia & The Hollywood Trimsters
  97. BBC Programme Schedule, 26/08/2010
  98. Amanda Regan, California State University San Marcos, Hollywood and Physical Culture Hollywood and Physical Culture
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