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Bernarr MacFadden, American Physical Culture Mogul

Does the name Bernarr MacFadden mean anything to you? I knew that he was an old-time health guy, but that’s about it. Then Terry Todd, keeper (with wife Jan) of the physical culture collection at the University of Texas, mentioned to me in passing that they had just received “a very good book about Bernarr MacFadden…called Mr. America written by Mark Adams.” Todd termed MacFadden an “eccentric whirlwind of a man during his long run as a major figure in commerce and popular culture.”  I began to think I should know more about ole Bernarr (love that name). A short time later, Bill Lawton called my attention to a review of Adam’s new biography of MacFadden (HarperCollins, 2009). Finally, my friend Laszlo asked if I’d seen the full-page article about MacFadden in The Wall Street Journal (3/20/09). Dan Sawyer also sent me the WSJ piece. Obviously, something big was afoot. I went to Amazon and ordered the book.

In the Prologue, Adams tells about MacFadden’s 1951 appearance, at 83, on the TV show What’s My Line? I remember the show; celebrity panelists attempted to identify a widely known public figure from a group of people, all claiming to be the one. Bernarr MacFadden was undeniably one of the most famous men in America, according to Adams. A few years later, however, he “vanished into history.”

Mark Adams didn’t know about the TV show or MacFadden until he was named health editor of GQ magazine about ten years ago and began researching the history of the physical culture movement in America. (He spent a good bit of time with the Todd’s physical culture collection at UT.)

MacFadden was prominent in many fields, including magazine, book, and newspaper publishing. He even ventured into politics; ran for a US Senate seat and eyed the White House. He was a genius at promoting himself and his ideas. An early example, to get noticed in New York City—with $50 in his pocket and nothing going for him but unshakable confidence in himself—he changed his name from the rather ordinary Bernard McFadden to the head-turning Bernarr MacFadden.

Adams surmises that the unflagging confidence was born of a childhood marked by the loss of his parents, and periods of near-starvation, illness, and back-breaking work—what amounted to involuntary servitude. Overcoming, at times thriving, under these conditions gave him a sense of omnipotence. His health philosophy also began to take shape during this time. Among other things, Adams writes, he experienced “the rapid physical changes that could be achieved with pure food and rigorous exercise.” For better or worse, this period also gave birth to what Adams calls “perhaps his dearest belief…that almost any disease would disappear if the patient just stopped eating.”

Fueled by his beliefs, he began his publishing career in 1899—from a single desk in a New York City real estate office—with a magazine called Physical Culture, a name he apparently “borrowed” from a similar periodical begun by Eugen Sandow in England about ten years earlier. Sandow was more than a match for MacFadden physically—MacFadden was built like a three-quarter scale model of the Prussian, Adams observes—but as an energetic salesman and promoter Sandow apparently fell short. As MacFadden’s journal grew and prospered, Sandow’s declined and eventually went out of business.

Just getting his publishing legs under him, MacFadden’s Physical Culture was little more than a catalogue for an exercise device (sold in four types), with an amateurish pitch for his health philosophy. The first issue was 25 pages, written entirely by MacFadden “under various noms de plume, both masculine and feminine.” Adams sums up the message: “If you are sick or feel weak, don’t just sit there and wait for someone to cure you—get off your butt and do something about it.”  

The effort may have been unpolished, even clumsy, but it was sincere—and powerful. MacFadden wanted to make money, but even more he wanted to save bodies. For MacFadden, “the salvation of America’s corpus was a mission,” Adams reports. To my mind, MacFadden wrote in an early issue, [it is] of far more importance that any religion. It is a religion.

Bernarr believed the message. What’s more, he knew how to sell it.

Physical Culture gained mass appeal by adding three elements: “He freely used celebrities, he sought women readers as well as men, and he seasoned every issue with a healthy dose of sex.” After a year or so, he dropped the exercise device and concentrated on improving editorial content. Sales surged. He rented more space, hired professional editors, and solicited articles from notables such as Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, boxing champion John L. Sullivan, and temperance advocate Carrie Nation.

“About the only health subjects not explored were anything by medical doctors,” Adams writes. For reasons explained in the book, MacFadden distrusted—passionately—the medical establishment.

It worked amazingly well. “After less than two years as a publisher,” Adams writes, “MacFadden had a hit.” Circulation soon grew to 110,000 copies a month, with combined profits for 1902 and 1903 of about a million dollars in today’s money. “Bernarr MacFadden had catapulted himself from a loudmouth nobody to one of America’s leading health experts.”

The next decade (1903-12), however, began and ended in disappointment.

Good Times and Bad

Not content to simply write about healthy living, MacFadden (preferred nickname BM) decided to create a dream town where people could live the life. He named it (what else?) Physical Culture City. He sold building lots cheap, and believers came. But there were problems. For one thing, the men—and the women—worked and exercised shirtless and bare-legged, respectively. They also attended sex education classes, virtually unknown at the time. Orgies were also rumored. Finally, BM (a strong believer in family) divorced his wife and fathered a child by his secretary. To make a long story short, the neighbors (and postal authorities) complained.

“His utopia began to crumble,” Adams writes.

BM was forced to move his publishing operation back to New York City. “Physical Culture City was [soon] a ghost town.”

This disappointment was balanced with two successes, one which Adams characterizes as “a modest success” and the other major.

He opened the Bernarr MacFadden Sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, and “put out a call to all the wretched souls whose aliments had baffled their physicians.” The call was answered. Patients came from near and far.

Offering mainly “fasting, hydropathy and exercise,” his satisfied customers included notables such as novelist Upton Sinclair, who gushed that MacFadden taught him “more about the principles of keeping well and fit for my work, than all the orthodox and ordained physicians who charged me many thousands of dollars.” (BM saw the famous man gratis.)

His major accomplishment, however, was MacFadden’s Encyclopedia of Physical Fitness, a five-volume set of reference books, which Adams hails as “an astoundingly forward-thinking work.” Clearly impressed, Adams spends five full pages describing the 2,966-page work volume by volume.

In spite of these successes (and more), his financial condition was still shaky, due to legal fees, a bitter divorce, and problems with postal authorities. For this and other reasons, BM turned over control of Physical Culture magazine (still quite successful) to his associate editor and left the country.

“In the autumn of 1912,” Adams writes, “the forty-four-year-old Bernarr MacFadden…sailed for Britain, a land he’d always felt appreciated him better than his own.”

True Story

Returning to the U.S. in 1916, MacFadden took back the helm of Physical Culture—and hit the ball out of the park with a new idea. Where the idea came from is a matter of dispute, but the October 1916 issue of Physical Culture offered a cash prize for “letters setting forth personal experiences in detail.”

The resulting letters gave rise to a new—and very lucrative—genre of magazine. True Story magazine was first, and spun-off True Romances and many others, most of which were produced by MacFadden Publications (a new name to reflect a widening scope beyond physical culture).

“The effect that this lightening bolt of a magazine had on American publishing—and American culture—was immense,” Adams writes. “It would be the making of MacFadden’s fortune and his final triumph over prudery.”

BM’s editors were soon offering amateur writers $1,000 for good stories from their personal experiences. Most of the stories “oozed with sex but also contained a moral lesson,” Adams notes. For obvious reasons, BM’s editors didn’t ask many questions. “If the writer said it was true, it was true.”

We understand why they were willing to pay so much ($1,000 was a fortune at that time) when Adams explains that the magazines sold mainly through impulse purchases at newsstands, “rather than via discounted subscriptions.” The lion’s share of the bulging revenues went “straight into MacFadden’s pocket.”

By 1923, MacFadden Publications profits were soaring—“largely behind the phenomenal growth of True Story.” (Now over 90-years-old, True Story magazine can still be found on newsstands.) 

Health magazines also continued to do well. By 1933, in the middle of the great depression, Physical Culture was still selling an average of 340,000 copies a month, “an astonishing number for a magazine devoted to alternative health,” Adams writes. “MacFadden could lay uncontested claim to being the most important alternative health figure in America.”

What’s more, a new generation was coming around to MacFadden’s way of thinking, including Jack LaLanne, Charles Atlas, and Bob Hoffman, the “charismatic editor” of a “new magazine published out of York, Pennsylvania, called Strength & Health.”

In 1939, MacFadden “summoned” Joe Weider to lunch with him at the New York Athletic Club, and predicted Weider’s future success as a publisher. “I felt like God had anointed me,” Joe recalled in his autobiography, Brothers of Iron http://www.cbass.com/Weider.htm .

*  *  *

I’ve focused mainly on the physical culture high points of MacFadden’s life. There’s more to the story, a lot more—and it’s fascinating. To entice you to read Mark Adams’ excellent book, I have jotted down some teaser questions that came to me while reading the rest of the book.

1) Was BM, who preached vegetarianism, a secret beef eater?

2) What “treatments” did BM order administered to his underweight 4-day-old daughter—and to his nursing wife who had come down with pneumonia?

3) What did critics say about BM’s tabloid newspaper, the New York Evening Graphic? (It wasn’t all bad.)

4) How did the American Medical Association lash back at BM? Did it work?

5) What was the connection between BM and Walter Winchell? Ed Sullivan?

6) How many wives did MacFadden have? Children?

7) Under what circumstances did BM tell Mussolini that his soldiers eat too much? What came of it?

8) What was MacFadden’s financial condition at the time of his death?

One last word about MacFadden and his legacy.

Father of Physical Culture

That’s how Bernarr MacFadden wished to be remembered. The only words engraved on his tombstone beyond his name are: Father of Physical Culture

When I began digging into BM’s truly amazing story, I was inclined to sign on and remember him as the father of physical culture. As I dug deeper, however, I began to have second thoughts. My judgment became colored by his domineering treatment of those under his control, especially his wife Mary and their children. (I won’t give the details, which are well covered in the book.)

I picked up the book expecting to like, or at least admire, BM. But I found a much different, multifarious man than I anticipated. I came away with more of a love/hate feeling for Bernarr. Without question, he was an extremely energetic and determined genius (health and business), who accomplished many things, against odds that would have stopped a lesser man cold.

Unfortunately, he “believed” so strongly that he was at times an arrogant and unbending bully, a tyrant—all in the cause of stronger, healthier, and more perfect bodies. I’ve hinted at some areas where he went off the tracks, so to speak. You’ll learn more by reading the book.

Despite that, does he still deserve the honored title? I’ve decided that he should have the benefit of the doubt, until we come upon a more worthy—and consequential—recipient of the title. Frankly, I believe that’s most unlikely.

I am apparently in good company. Geoffrey Norman wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “Perhaps more than any other individual, MacFadden bears responsibility for pioneering what has become the American obsession with diet, health and fitness…Without Bernarr MacFadden, there would likely be no Gold’s Gym, and no South Beach Diet, for that matter.”

The Weider brothers in their autobiography, Brothers of Iron, appear to grant MacFadden the title he most coveted.

Ben Weider recalls that Edmond Desbonnet, a national icon in France, was known as the Father of Physical Culture—“much like Bernarr MacFadden in the U.S.” Joe Weider—who is “most proud” of being referred to as “the father of fitness” by the Boy Scouts of America—calls Bernarr MacFadden “the father of the American fitness and health movements.” *

Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Please read Mark Adams’ marvelous book before you chime in, however.  

Don’t overlook the Epilogue, where Adams reviews the modern-day trends—and famous people—influenced, directly or indirectly, by Bernarr MacFadden’s ideas. There’s good and there’s bad. But the good influences far outweigh the bad.  

The big winner is exercise. As Adams opines, exercise “has triumphed to a degree that the man himself couldn’t have imagined in 1955. Even the majority of Americans who don’t exercise regularly are expected to feel guilty about not doing so.” That’s a good thing, most will surely agree.

Finally: Thank you, Mark Adams, for giving the new guys on the block a window into the life and times of Bernarr MacFadden, Father of Physical Culture in America.

* I believe there is an important difference between fitness and physical culture. As I see it, fitness is more limited. Physical culture, however, is a more dated term. Physical culture is usually thought of in connection with the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century, more likely to bring to mind Sandow, Desbonnet and MacFadden than, say, Joe Weider or Arnold. Be that as it may, physical culture is a broader term. In my mind, physical culture is more than mere fitness; it connotes a belief system, a lifestyle. For more discussion of this topic, visit http://johnsifferman.com/blog/physical-culture-its-more-than-just-bodybuilding-muscles-and-old-time-strongmen-training-culture/  

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