- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009




By Mark Adams

HarperCollins, $25.99, 292 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Priscilla S. Taylor

It makes no difference whether you start at the beginning of this book, with author Mark Adams' lively story of the bizarre life of America's original health guru, or with the appendix, where Mr. Adams reports on how he himself fared when he put some of Bernarr Macfadden's advice into practice (the author had no trouble with extreme exercise, raw foods chewed forever and even quite a bit of fasting, but he drew the line at the all-milk diet). It's a delightful read.

Mr. Macfadden was born into a poverty-stricken family in the Ozarks in 1868 and died penniless in New Jersey in 1955. But between times he embraced “physical culture,” married four times, fathered lots of offspring, established a publishing empire built on America's seemingly insatiable appetite for self-improvement, and hobnobbed with the rich and famous. Mr. Adams tells the story briskly, as in this summary of his hero's early years: “Having endured savage beatings from his drunken father as a toddler, near-starvation (both physical and emotional) at an orphans' home, two episodes of domestic serfdom and the death of both parents, Bernard [he jazzed up his name later], perhaps not surprisingly, had by the age of 12 developed an unshakeable confidence.”

His epiphany came at age 15, when he chanced by a well-equipped St. Louis gymnasium filled with fit, Apollo-like German immigrants. He, the veritable 97-pound weakling, picked up a free pamphlet of dumbbell exercises, bought some used dumbbells for 50 cents and began to work out around the edges of his bookkeeping job. By age 18, he had the strength and brawn for wrestling. Because this sport is organized by weight categories, he began to experiment with reducing his food intake to two meals a day, a practice he would preach for the rest of his life (he didn't eat at all on Mondays).

He read up on diet and exercise at the gym's reading room, began organizing wrestling tournaments and hung out his shingle as a “kinisitherapist,” a term he intended to mean, says the author, “the use of movement in the cure of disease.” He visited the Chicago World's Fair, where he picked up some bodybuilding pointers from a Prussian strongman, Eugen Sandow.

At age 24, this “adequately educated, supremely self-assured, and incredibly ambitious” young man had outgrown St. Louis and fetched up in New York City, where he circulated photographs of himself shirtless “in classical poses” advertising a free “Physical Culture Matinee with Professor Bernarr Macfadden.” He soon moved on to England, where he marketed exercise equipment and published an exercise brochure that he subsequently expanded into “Macfadden's magazine.” On his return to America, he married - and promptly shed - his first wife and launched a health magazine for Americans with the same name as Sandow's publication in England, Physical Culture.

There would be more wives, travels, competitions and publications. His second wife bore him one daughter and then decamped when he set up housekeeping with his secretary, who also bore him a daughter. The wife of longest service, Mary, a swimming champion who won Macfadden's contest in 1913 to find Great Britain's Perfect Woman, bore him half a dozen children and claimed credit for many of his better ideas.

Macfadden's magazines, says Mr. Adams, had mass appeal because Macfadden “freely used celebrities, he sought women readers as well as men, and he seasoned every issue with a healthy dose of sex.” He particularly liked photos of topless women exercising, which got him in trouble with the law. Early contributors ranged from Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, to heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan and temperance advocate Carrie Nation. Physical Culture also published the story of Charles Atlas, an Italian immigrant who won Macfadden's World's Most Handsome Man contest.

Macfadden railed against prudishness, corsets, muscular inactivity, gluttony, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. He called white bread and candy “poison.” He recommended cutting food intake in half; eating raw, fibrous and bland; walking miles and miles; and exercising to build strength. If you think you're sick, he said, quit eating.

Upton Sinclair was a satisfied customer of the Macfadden Sanitorium, where adherents practiced “physcultopathy,” summed up, says the author, in the title of Macfadden's book, “Fasting, Hydropathy and Exercise: Nature's Wonderful Remedies for the Cure of All Chronic and Acute Diseases.” Mr. Sinclair began his stay with a fast of 10 to 12 days, followed by an all-milk regimen, described as “absorbing a glass of fresh milk every half hour, and sometimes every 20 minutes, until we got up to eight quarts a day.”

After World War I, Macfadden began a new confessional publication titled True Story (”If the writer said the story was true, it was true”). Many other publications, some of general interest (e.g., Liberty), followed. One newspaper, called Graphic (nicknamed “Porno-Graphic” by its critics), published Walter Winchell's gossip column. At their peak in 1929, Macfadden's publications had annual circulations totaling 200 million, the family fortune was estimated at $30 million, and three biographies of Macfadden appeared. Then the Depression took its toll; Macfadden's tell-all magazines faced competition, and Macfadden turned over most of his wealth to a foundation to “perpetuate physical culture and health building.” His third wife abandoned him, followed soon after by the advent and departure of his fourth.

Macfadden floated his name for president in 1936, for senator from Florida in 1940 and for mayor of New York in 1954. He parachuted into the Hudson River at age 83 and into the Seine at 84. He died at age 87, but True Story lives on.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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