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Brothers of Iron
How the Weider Brothers Created the Fitness Movement and Built a Business Empire
“Don’t be so surprised that I just brought Jesus into my story. I understand more about Christianity than most Christians. All my life I have studied the lives and philosophy of men with powerful new ideas that changed the world. A revolutionary must learn from other revolutionaries.” Joe Weider (Brothers of Iron, Sports Publishing L.L.C., 2006)
“[Bob] Hoffman [publisher of Strength & Health magazine and founder of the York Barbell Company] was an egomaniac, a faker, a hypocrite—this is not to mention an anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-foreign bigot.” Joe Weider (Brothers of Iron)
“The Olympic quest, the focus of my professional life, will also be the focus of my portion of this book. My signal contribution to our work was to take Joe’s great ideas and visions to the world, promoting our sport and organizing IFBB affiliates, country by country, region by region, continent by continent.” Ben Weider (Brothers of Iron)
“Joe and I decided to have it both ways. He’d move to the U.S., taking Weider Publications with him and running all our businesses in America. I would stay put and operate the Weider business in Canada and the rest of the world.” Ben Weider (Brothers of Iron)
“We bodybuilders used to live in a little world all unto itself, shunned by the rest of the world, but now bodybuilding was getting its due. The whole world was Weider’s world.” Joe Weider (Brothers of Iron)
“You can’t wait for opportunity to come to you, because it won’t. You’ve got to go get it. If you don’t make things happen, they won’t happen.” Ben Weider (Brothers of Iron)
I want to begin by saying that I am deeply indebted to Joe Weider. If he had not encouraged and published my Ripped column in Muscle & Fitness, the most widely read bodybuilding magazine in the world, for 16 years, you very likely would have never heard of me and would not be reading this now. Joe opened the door for me, as he did for many others. I ran through it—and never stopped. With that said, I’m going to say some very nice things about Joe--and some not so good.
Let’s start with the not so nice. In my opinion, the Weider brothers marred their otherwise terrific book (and their legacy) by not finding it in their hearts to see Bob Hoffman in a better light. The feud begins with a bone-headed move Hoffman made against them back in 1946. (See below) Terrible as it was, it worked to their advantage in the long run--but they cannot forgive, much less forget. They, especially Joe, will apparently go to their graves hating Bob Hoffman.
“We beat him on every front, but we never had peace” Joe writes. “For years and years, he did everything in his power to smear my name and tear down my reputation and discredit all that Ben and I did for the sake of bodybuilding.” Yes, but the Weiders prevailed in marvelous fashion.
Joe can’t help himself. He lets Hoffman have it with both barrels, over and over. Forgive me Joe, but I wish you could see that he was a lot like you. That’s why you were both so successful. You both did a tremendous amount of good. Most fair observers, I believe, will understand (and forgive) the excesses—and conclude that Hoffman had a valid claim to the title Father of World Weightlifting, just as you, Joe, have to the title Father of Bodybuilding.
For example, Terry Todd, a fervent admirer of the Weiders, has said: "We would not be where we are had we not been carried forward in the arms of giants, the tallest of whom was Bob Hoffman.” (See my commentary on Muscletown USA, article 32 in our Personalities category)
In my view, Hoffman didn’t dislike bodybuilding; he just thought it detracted from his primary mission in life, which was to make America number one in Olympic weightlifting—and he succeeded for many years. As Joe says and historian John Fair documents in Muscletown USA, Hoffman was an egomaniac prone to exaggeration and falsification. But he was also responsible for popularizing weight training in athletics. At a time when the muscle-bound myth was prevailing wisdom among doctors, coaches and physical educators, Hoffman (like Joe) preached that a stronger athlete is a better athlete. Practically everyone now agrees.
Like Joe, Hoffman was willing to move mountains to achieve his goal. Both devoted their lives to the cause they believed in with all their heart. In the process, they presented themselves as bigger than life. Go to the York Barbell museum in York, PA, and you’ll find a huge statue of Bob Hoffman showing far more muscle than he had on his best day on earth. (As related in Muscletown USA, he also was known to give lifting exhibitions with a doctored barbell.) You’ll find the same superman images of Joe in the Weider publications and at Weider headquarters; look carefully and you’ll find one or two in Brothers of Iron. As Joe writes, “Bodybuilding is about getting bigger, so I had to be a little bit bigger than life.”
That’s fine with me. Those enlarged images of Bob and Joe inspired young lifters/bodybuilders to make their lives better--and sold magazines. In the final analysis, everyone came out ahead. Let’s also be clear: Joe knows the difference between himself and the image. My guess is that Hoffman did as well.
Both of them played a very positive role in my life. My interest in weight lifting and health was kindled by my dad, but it was Hoffman and Strength & Health that helped it grow into a lifelong passion. I’m proud to say that I’m a Bob Hoffman boy grown up. As I’ve already acknowledged, Joe later recognized my abilities and gave me the opportunity to show my body to best advantage--and develop my writing skills. (I’ll never forget him telling me I had narrow shoulders. I said, “Yes Joe, I know.” We never discussed it again; that’s just the way it is.)
I imagine that Hoffman went to his grave hating the Weiders, especially Joe. Nevertheless, the Weider brothers would have been better served had they cut him some slack. After all, if Uncle Bob was the big dog in his heyday, Joe and Ben were/are bigger by a factor of one hundred, maybe a thousand. They could afford to show a little generosity of spirit at this stage in the game.
Hoffman bashing aside, Joe and Ben have a wonderful, inspiring story to tell—and they tell it very well. (Professional free-lance writer Mike Steere was a collaborator, but his exact role is unclear. All we are told is that he recorded many hours of interviews with Joe. My sense is that Joe and Ben did much of the writing themselves. Joe says he did all of his work on the book outside at his home in California.) The book reinforces my belief that the Weider brothers are sincere, good-hearted guys, and very smart, both brilliant in their own way. They are also hard-nosed business men who worked their butts off to get where they are today.
For those that don’t know--I doubt that many know the whole story, I didn’t--here’s a brief overview. Inspired by John Grimek (like many others), Joe Weider took up weight training, and found that he was good at it. Unlike the others, however, he decided to tell the world about the many life-enhancing benefits of bodybuilding. Working out of his parent’s small Montreal home--with a seventh grade education and $7 in his pocket--he started a magazine called Your Physique. Joined by his younger brother Ben (also a seventh grade drop-out) after World War II, he carved out a new industry based on bodybuilding and fitness. Operating on parallel paths, Joe created a publishing, equipment and food supplement empire, while Ben, based in Canada, traveled the world building the International Federation of Bodybuilders (their brain-child) into a worldwide sports organization with 173 national affiliates spanning every continent and region. As the cover jacket says, “They changed the world and Brothers of Iron tells their fascinating story.”
Joe, of course, brought Arnold to this country from Austria and showed him the ropes; he tells all about it in the book—what a wonderful, uplifting (often amusing) story. Joe also created the Mr. Olympia contest and made it possible for professional bodybuilders to make a decent living. (You’ll be surprised who came up with the idea of a top pro contest that can be won year after year, like in other professional sports, such as golf or tennis. Joe reveals a number of things that will surprise many readers; I was surprised, and often impressed.)
To convince you that Brothers of Iron is must reading (which it is), I’m going to tell you shortened versions of a few of my favorite stories from the book.
Ma Weider’s Conversion
Anna Weider was adamant that young Joe give up the pipedream of publishing a bodybuilding magazine--especially out of her front room--and get a real job. Her conversion was a bolt out of the blue, almost divine inspiration. That’s the Weider family story, and they're sticking to it. And a charming story it is.
She was out shopping with several lady friends, and they came upon a fortune teller’s parlor. After putting up some resistance to such “nonsense,” she gave in to the urging of her companions and agreed to give it a try, just for fun.
As Joe tells it, the gypsy’s opening words to his mother were, “You have three living sons.” That got her attention right away, because she’s had another son that died in infancy. After that, it only got better, more “inexplicable.”
The fortune teller continued, “One son, the middle son, is tall and pale. He’s very serious and ambitious and hard-working, but you do everything in your power to thwart him.
“Why do you fight him and make his life miserable?” she asked. “You must stop and give him your support. He will be very famous and do great things and change the world.”
Because of a hearing problem, Joe’s mother had not learned much English, but this profound and mysterious message from a complete stranger she understood.
“Then and there Ma ended her war against me and Your Physique," Joe writes. "She still didn’t like what I was doing, but she kept quiet about it.”
IFBB is Born
I’ve heard parts of this story before, but the rich details tell a lot about the Weider brothers, especially Ben. It’s also the opening salvo in the Weider’s decades-long feud with Bob Hoffman. The year is 1946, shortly after Joe and Ben joined forces. (Joe writes some chapters and Ben others. This is Ben talking.)
They decided to put on their own contest, Mr. Montreal, “to showcase Canadian bodybuilding talent and…do bodybuilding justice.” Joe had his hands full, so Ben assumed responsibility for the event.
His first task was to find an appropriate venue. “The easy solution was a neighborhood arena or school auditorium, the sort of place Hoffman used for his events. But I fixed my sights on the Monument National Theater, [an] elegant hall built in 1898 for French Canadian plays and culture events.” No sporting event, much less a physique contest, had ever been held in this highbrow theater. Moreover, Ben had no experience and practically no funds. About all he had going for him was the ability to speak fluent French. (Joe never learned.) He also had an unusual, apparently inborn, way with people, especially for a man only 23 years old.
“Had I spoken English, I’m sure the manager would have turned me down the instant I told him why I wished to rent his theater. But he appreciated the fact that I did business in French. Still, Monsieur LaPointe ridiculed the notion of bringing something as bizarre as a physique contest into his august cultural landmark. The very idea!”
“You’ll never sell enough tickets to pay the rent,” the manager said. “It’s going to cost you $200. Have you got that much money?”
“No,” was the answer.
“How much do you have now, to put down on deposit?
“None,” Ben replied.
“You’re wasting my time!” LaPointe snapped.
But Ben wouldn’t take no for an answer. As the manager stood (he was only 5 foot 2) to show him the door, Ben writes that he “very gently took his arm and asked him to reconsider.”
“After a moment of shock, he softened and smiled and said [in French], You’ve got guts.”
To shorten the story a bit, it was agreed that the theater would be held for two weeks while Ben tried to come up with a deposit of $50. The manager, of course, assumed there was no way he could raise the money, and that would be that.
Ben fooled him, however. He spent what little money he had on getting tickets printed—and sold enough to pay the deposit in one week. What happens next is even more amazing, and of far more long-term significance.
The next big hurdle was to get a sanction from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which then controlled amateur bodybuilding in Canada. “Because of Bob Hoffman, that organization treated our sport as a stepchild of weightlifting. The men to talk to were the AAU representatives in Montreal in charge of weightlifting.” Fortunately, they were also old friends of Joe, so they got the sanction with a minimum of difficulty.
Ben made his own flyers and amazingly (for the times) talked the local newspapers into giving some pretty good coverage. As icing on the cake, Alan Stephan, the newly crowned Mr. America, was booked as guest poser. Ben was ready.
“The turnout amazed even Joe and me. Upwards of 80 bodybuilders stretched, paced, or simply waited back stage as the time approached.” And all 1500 seats out front were filled. “If we had more seating we could have brought in another $400 or $500 or even more.” And then the bottom dropped out.
Minutes before the show was to start, their friends from the AAU marched backstage and motioned for the contestants to gather around. “This is not an officially sanctioned contest,” one of them told the bodybuilders. “If you participate, you’ll lose your amateur status. We strongly urge you to leave now.”
The Weider brother’s handling of the crisis shows their determination—and a remarkable ability to think on their feet.
The AAU guys told Joe and Ben, “This is from Dietrich Wortmann. We’re supposed to inform the bodybuilders.”
“Dietrich Wortmann headed the AAU weightlifting committee in the U.S.” Ben explains, “which meant it came from the highest level.” Bob Hoffman was apparently pulling out all the stops to retain control of bodybuilding in Canada.
“Joe asked the bodybuilders not to leave until he and I had a chance to speak privately,” Ben writes.
“Those jerks are not going to shut us down,” Joe fumed.
“To hell with the AAU and Bob Hoffman,” Ben replied. “We don’t need them.”
Right there, in a flash, a momentous decision was made. “As if with a single mind, we came to a decision to form our own sports federation that would be of, for, and about bodybuilding.”
Joe turned and spoke to the contestants, who were getting understandably antsy. He said, “We’re putting on this competition, and you don’t have to worry about sanctioning. As of this moment we have our own governing body. We’re calling it the International Federation of Bodybuilders.” He then added, “If you want to withdraw from the competition, we will not hold it against you.”
“Not one man left,” Ben writes.
Looking back on the occasion, Ben demonstrates the vision and wisdom that allowed him to persuade the International Olympic Committee to recognize the IFBB 42-years later.
“A wiser man than Hoffman would have put on a friendly face. Precisely because he saw us as dangerous rivals, Hoffman should have said, Welcome to the club boys, and kept us in the AAU fold where he could watch us closely and exercise some control. At that early date, we would have stayed in the fold, and it would not have occurred to us to form our own bodybuilding federation.”
Ben says there’s a lesson to be learned from Mr. Hoffman: “If you’re going to be rotten, be smart about it.”
A Diplomate Emerges
We’ll end with Ben’s first international trip on behalf of the IFBB and the Weider enterprises. It’s a window on what was to come. You’d never know it, however, from what Ben had going for him at the time: “I was 23 years old, strapped for cash, still sleeping with my brother in our bedroom, with no formal schooling, and no experience in sports governance or international commerce.”
They may have been working out of Ma and Pa Weider’s little house in Montreal, but they were already getting mail from faraway places. “Shortly after the Mr. Montreal contest I received a letter postmarked “Cape Town” from a fellow named Jack Lunz who loved our magazines and wanted to become our South African distributor,” Ben writes. “He also wanted to organize an affiliated federation in his country and open an office of the IFBB in Cape Town.” Lunz even offered to pay Ben’s air fare to Cape Town. “I said yes to the invitation, but turned down the offer to pay for my plane ticket.”
Lunz was very likely impressed, assuming that the Weider’s were well financed. Ben, however, had put himself in an awkward position, having accepted without pricing the cost of the air fare.
“What a shock that was, discovering that round-trip flights cost more than $1,000, the equivalent of almost $10,000 today!” You can read the book to see how Ben solved that ticklish problem. Far more important is how he set about getting maximum bang out of what at the time was a quite extravagant expenditure. “As a business proposition, the trip was beyond crazy. We couldn’t hope to recoup the costs for years, if ever.” That’s the point. Even as a complete neophyte, Ben (Joe as well) was thinking years into the future.
“I laid plans to exploit all the possibilities of the trip. In those pre-jet days, such a long trip involved a good many stops for refueling and making connections. At some of the stops, like Paris and Cairo, were people I very much wanted to meet to advance the cause of bodybuilding and the IFBB. So I sent a flurry of letters and cables to set up face-too-face meetings and finalized an itinerary that gave me more time where I needed it.”
The intriguing details are in the book, but you get the idea. This was the first of many, many international trips where Ben laid the groundwork for amazing things to come.
I hope I’ve made you want to read Brothers of Iron. It’s a remarkable book for anyone interested in bodybuilding and fitness, especially if you’ve been observing the scene for a while. While you’re at it, you might want to read Muscletown USA as well. The two books together tell the story of weight training (sport and business) in twentieth-century America like nothing else. Both are historic treasures.
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