Sylvia Ullback and Physical Culture in Depression Era America

Sylvia Ullback, or as she was better known Mme. Sylvia of Hollywood, was Hollywood's beauty authority in the 1920s and 1930s. She began working in Hollywood around 1926 and as her career progressed she rose to fame through newspapers and fan magazines. As the 1930s progressed, Ullback's rhetoric represented a new standard for physical culture. Her version of physical culture and the ideas she preached about the body were based on her three-pronged approach to an ideal body: diet, exercise, and massage. In 1932 she began writing monthly articles for Photoplay magazine and offered advice to women on how to become “as lovely as the stars.” Throughout the 1930s she wrote for Photoplay, Modern Screen, and Physical Culture magazine in addition to several books.[1] Her discussion of beauty and the body represented a shift from the 1920s radical “reducing craze.”

Sylvia Ullback in New York with
Opera star Mary Lewis.

In July 1935 Sylvia left Photoplay magazine for Modern Screen and the content of her articles shifted dramatically. When she returned to Photoplay in 1937 her discussion of beauty had clearly changed. Rather than discussing exercise, diet, and massage she began to talk more about personality and allure. This change in her rhetoric was representative of the beginning of a larger shift in ideas about physical culture. In September 1937 Sylvia abruptly left Photoplay magazine without explanation and struggled to find a new venue for her rhetoric. She published one last book, which was a compilation of her articles for Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine, and then disappeared. The reasons for her disappearance are unknown and she never reemerged in the spotlight. In 1975 she died in Santa Monica California. She was listed as a housewife with no mention of her previous career as the beauty expert to the stars and to many Americans in the depression era.

In 1921, Ullback immigrated to the United States from Oslo, Norway with her husband Andrew and two sons. She was thirty-six years old when she arrived and had already worked as a nurse and masseuse for several years in Eastern Europe.[2] Bringing her techniques with her, sylvianewyorkshe moved to Chicago with her family and began working as a masseuse. Her first wealthy client was Julius Rosenwald, a businessman and partner in the Sears and Roebuck department store company. The Rosenwald family introduced her to other wealthy clients, including film star Marie Dressler.[3] Sometime around 1925, Ullback made the move to Hollywood, California where she began working with movie stars out of her home. Her Eastern European treatments combining diet, exercise, and massage and her work with the stars soon made her a well-known figure. Alma Whittaker reported that when she finished treating the stars Sylvia had "them as fit as fiddles. They always grouch for the first few days, and then begin to feel so good they are at peace with the world. By making them healthy and better-looking, she has improved their morale all 'round . . . They no longer fight with their wives, sauce their mothers, grouch at their work, or neglect their children." She was the frequent subject of newspaper columns across the country; the discourse that surrounded her focused both on her methods and her life. In 1929, Ullback got a job at Pathé studios, which made her even more famous[3]. However, she left in 1930 to open her own shop where she could treat stars from all the studios.[5] Ullback became the most sought after beauty consultant in Hollywood, which would give her authority in her columns and books when she began writing in the 1930s.

By making them healthy and better-looking, she has improved their morale all 'round . . . They no longer fight with their wives, sauce their mothers, grouch at their work, or neglect their children.

~Alma Whittaker

In 1931, Ullback published her first book, Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia as Noted by Her Secretary, which discussed her experiences working with the stars. The book revealed intimate details of her famous Hollywood clients and ultimately angered many with what they viewed as unkind portrayals. For example, Constance Bennett was described as “plainly a product of the metropolis, one of those high-bred, high-strung girls. As restless and jumpy as a flea, the new star seemed to have a horror of being alone.”[6] Hollywood Undressed was written from the point of view of Sylvia’s secretary and detailed her experiences with the stars throughout her career at Pathé. The book was ghost written by James Whittaker, actress Ina Claire’s ex-husband, which may explain some of the harsh characterizations in the book. It was reported that Whittaker had “a big case of ‘sour grapes’ on the movies and movies people.”[7] sylvia massaging carole lombardRegardless, the fallout from the book had severe consequences for Ullback. Not only did she experience a backlash from the Hollywood studios and the stars, but it is likely that she was also blacklisted from working directly within the industry as a result. However, after the book was released there was discussion over whether or not Sylvia, whose English was imperfect was to blame for the portrayal of the stars. As one columnist argued, it was:

Not that Sylvia shouldn’t have authorized the yarns in the first place, but the fact is that the masseuse is NOT completely cognizant of the meaning of many of the phrases, and innuendoes made by Whittaker.[8]

The fallout, however, did not keep Ullback away for long. It is possible that because many felt she was not completely to blame for the content of Hollywood Undressed, she was able to secure a job writing monthly editorials for Photoplay in 1932. She would eventually also write for Modern Screen and the fitness magazine Physical Culture magazine. She became a celebrity herself and was a well-known beauty expert for women in the depression era. Over the course of her career she published a total of four books, wrote columns for several magazines, had her own radio show, performed in some vaudeville, produced cold crèmes, and lectured across the country. Ullback’s career developed alongside and exemplified several distinct shifts in ideas about the body and beauty from 1920 to 1939. Ullback continued to publish until 1939, when she withdrew from Hollywood and the public sphere.

Previous scholars have argued that the focus on physical culture declined during the depression. However, Ullback’s articles and the response to her techniques is evidence that the discussion about physical culture was still very much present during the depression, but in a different form. Ullback’s arrival in Hollywood and her growing popularity coincided with several historical developments which culminated with the “reducing craze.” In 1925, the American Medical Association openly condemned the craze and over the next few years Ullback rose to fame within the context of this rejection and represented the new ideals of beauty and reducing which relied on diet and exercise instead of gimmicks. As the depression set in, ideas about women’s physical culture shifted, from the radical methods of the 1920s “reducing craze” to a health driven and regulated form of reducing which focused heavily on diet and exercise with the goal of achieving better overall health. Beginning in the late 1920s magazines began to move away from the reducing advertisements, which featured dangerous drugs and gimmicks. These advertisements had promised to help women lose weight and look beautiful overnight without any effort. As the discussion changed so did the mode of dissemination. By the 1930s the editorial became the primary venue for these new ideas about women’s bodies in depression era fan magazines. Ullback’s articles provide not only the ideas about physical and beauty standards but are also evidence of larger trends in women’s history during the depression. By understanding the physical and beauty standards of this era we can better understand women’s roles and their experiences. However, this “common sense” approach was only discussed in print for a short period and the discussion began to change again in the late 1930s. With the fear of another world war and the decline in popularity of the strong woman in the late depression years, the discussion of physical culture would begin to disappear from fan magazines all together and as a result, Ullback struggled to adapt and withdrew from Hollywood altogether in 1939.

Portrait of Sylvia from her first Photoplay
article entitled "Any Woman can be Beautiful".

This portrait of Sylvia appeared in her first article for Photoplay Magazine. The caption underneath the image read “You can do it yourself! You can if you will! But you’ve got to stir up your lazy bones and your lazy mind.” The image reinforced her message that readers must use courage and effort to change their bodies.Furthermore, Ullback’s roots and training in Europe significantly affected her beliefs about the body. She was trained in a tradition of body building that linked the perfect body, the “body beautiful” to nationalism. This discussion of the body was prevalent throughout Europe and is typically associated with Fascism; however, some scholars have argued that it was not necessarily tied to fascism and that the link between the body and nationalism was present in other European countries in the early twentieth century.[9] Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska argues in her article “Building a British Superman: Physical Culture in Interwar Britain” that the physical culture movement existed in interwar Britain. She states, “physical culturalists represented the cultivation of a fit male body as an obligation of citizenship and a patriotic response to the needs of the British Empire.”[10] As the author points out, Britain experienced a renewed focus on physical culture after World War I as many began to push to increase the level of fitness in Britain. This line of thought varied slightly throughout Europe, but the idea that physical culture was linked to patriotism, social harmony, and economic success remained a fundamental tenet. Physical culture, in Europe, was a masculine concept and much of the focus was on a productive and healthy male body. Ullback trained in Europe as these ideas about physical culture were flourishing and as World War I was influencing thought about the body. Her writing reflects her European roots and training; however, she takes these concepts and applies them to the female body. Zweiniger-Bargielowska discusses the “endeavor to build a ‘superman’” in Britain.[11] It could be said that Ullback used these concepts and applied them to American life in an endeavor to build an American “superwoman.”

Ullback’s publications, which functioned as guides to building the perfect woman were influenced by a variety of factors. First, her European roots and her training in the medical field impacted her writing. She brought with her a European approach to beauty and health, which was reflected in her methods and ideas. Her European techniques, in combination with her attitude toward beauty, made her writing unique. Secondly, her writing reflected the culture of the period. She consistently stressed that beauty, fitness, and health could not be achieved without hard work, determination, and self-control, all of which were depression era values. Lastly, her articles speak to the history and the position of women in this period. She developed and advocated for an ideal of beauty, which made the pursuit of this standard visible, respectable, possible, and empowering for women. Women’s status in the first three decades of the twentieth century changed rapidly. During this period the new culture of consumption gave women more authority in the home, suffrage gave them the opportunity to participate as citizens, and women began to have a career outside the home. Subsequently, the depression and the sectors in which job loss was the heaviest, often male dominated industries, caused a tension over the role of women. Consequently, gender roles were muddled and many women gained some more independence. The number of women with jobs rose steadily in the depression and the discussion over the body and beauty in Ullback’s articles contained an undertone of empowerment for these women.[12] The beauty culture, which Ullback advocated, contributed to both the rituals and female institutions that were created through the changing ideas about beauty.


1. Over the course of her career Ullback authored a total of four books. Her first, Hollywood Undressed (1931) was an expose on Hollywood. As a result she was blacklisted by many of the studios and instead began to write for Photoplay. Her second book, No More Alibis (1934) was a New York Times best seller for three years. In 1936 she published Pull Yourself Together, Baby! which discussed personality, allure, and youth. It was a departure from her previous books. Her final book was published in 1938 and was entitled Streamline Your Figure. Drawn from her articles for Physical Culture Magazine the book was clearly written in a different tone and was an attempt to return to a discussion about physical culture. Her discussion, however, focused on the democratic reasons for proper physical culture and one chapter was entitled “A Call to Arms.” The book was far from successful and she abruptly disappeared at the same time it was published.
2. Sylvia Ullback, No More Alibis (Photoplay Publishing, 1934), 5–11; Sylvia Yahanne Elise Leiter formerly Ullback, “United States of America Petition for Citizenship, No. 202623” (Southern District of New York, NY, October 25, 1932).
3. Elizabeth Yeaman, “Sylvia’s Clever Hands Aid Stars to Keep Slender,” Hollywood Citizen News, September 17, 1930; Sylvia Ullback, Hollywood Undressed, Observations of Sylvia as Noted by Her Secretary. (New York, Brentano’s, 1931), 13–16
4. Ullback, Hollywood Undressed, Observations of Sylvia as Noted by Her Secretary., 121–126; “Big Business,” Los Angeles Herald, December 11, 1929; Yeaman, “Sylvia’s Clever Hands Aid Stars to Keep Slender.”
5. “There Is Consternation Among the Feminine Stars of Hollywood…,” Hollywood Citizen, January 15, 1931.
6. Ullback, Hollywood Undressed, Observations of Sylvia as Noted by Her Secretary., 137.
7. Hollywood Reporter, July 28, 1931.
8. Ibid.
9. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, “Building a British Superman: Physical Culture in Interwar Britain,” Journal of Contemporary History 41, no. 4 (October 2006): 565–610.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid, 595.
12. David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, Kindle Edition (Oxford University Press, USA, 1999).