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The Ego That Fed Fitness Fever

By Louis Bayard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MR. AMERICA

How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet

By Mark Adams

Harper. 304 pp. $25.99

He proposed to his third wife in the middle of a 20-mile hike, and when she accepted, he celebrated by standing on his head and asking his betrothed to time him. (Official tally: 1 minute, 4 seconds.) He then required her to swear off caffeine and doctors, and he threw away the pajamas she gave him on their wedding night because they would keep him from propagating "a new race of human beings."

Welcome to the fine and not-so-fine madness of Bernarr Macfadden: bodybuilder, health evangelist, tabloid king, smut merchant, redbaiter, millionaire, aspiring president. And, for all his contradictions, a figure so intensely American that the title of Mark Adams's hilarious biography seems almost like underkill.

If Macfadden hadn't existed, we would have had to invent him, yes . . . but who could have? A guy who ate sand by the handfuls, plugged his fedora with holes to let his brain breathe and insisted on naming his third daughter "Brawnda" (emphasis on the "brawn")? A guy who created a "Peniscope" to "reinvigorate the hidden vitality centers of tired executives," who believed so profoundly in colonic irrigations that he called himself "B.M.," who filed papers to start his own religion and celebrated his 84th birthday by parachuting into the Seine? Theodore Dreiser throws up his hands. Sinclair Lewis runs screaming from the scene.

Born in 1868 to a drunk father and a tubercular mother, Macfadden came into maturity with a densely packed frame and a denser self-confidence. Working first as a professional wrestler, then as a personal trainer, he gradually honed the philosophy that would define his career: Americans were fat, lazy and weak, and their only hope of salvation was "physcultopathy," a word I am no closer to pronouncing than when I first read it but which embraced everything from walking to chewing to lots and lots of fasting. "In Macfadden's world," writes Adams, "one not only starved a fever, but also a cold, a cough, hiccups, psoriasis, cancer, and just about everything else."

When he wasn't fasting, Macfadden ate only two meals a day, and nothing on Mondays. He gulped down gallons of raw milk. He blamed the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic on unclean alimentary canals. He opposed prudishness, corsets, vaccines, alcohol, the American Medical Association and white flour ("dead food," he called it), and he didn't have much use for Santa, either: too fat, plus he had the nose of a drinker.

The impact of Macfadden's new "science" was most deeply felt in publishing. Beginning with a cheaply produced periodical called Physical Culture, Macfadden assembled one of America's great media empires, the combined magazine and newspaper circulation of which reached upward of 220 million. Trotsky, Mencken and Shaw wrote for him. So did Eleanor Roosevelt (editor of a doomed publication titled Babies, Just Babies) and another well-known political figure whose treatise on celibacy was billed: "My Sex Life -- by Mahatma Gandhi."

Of the periodicals Macfadden launched, only True Story survives, but the man has outlived his product. The New York Evening Graphic may well have been "the worst newspaper in U.S. history" -- detractors dubbed it the Porno-Graphic -- but it made the careers of Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell and paved the way for generations of celebrity gossipers. Macfadden was the first to single out a Brooklyn bodybuilder named Charles Atlas, soon to be the life raft for 98-pound weaklings everywhere, and the Macfadden health gospel helped to inspire a new generation of exercise gurus, among them Jack LaLanne and Joe Weider, who, by way of homage, nurtured another pec-heavy political wannabe by the name of Schwarzenegger.

The name of Macfadden, by contrast, is now almost entirely forgotten, but his influence persists in Muscle Beach and Canyon Ranch, in holistic medicine and farmers markets, in detox diets and raw diets and Mediterranean diets. Wherever food and exercise are being celebrated or debated or demonized, Macfadden is in the mix. "For better or for worse," says Adams, "we are all his children."

Delightful as it is, "Mr. America" may actually be the rare biography -- very well, the only biography within the past two decades -- that runs too short. I found myself wanting a deeper exploration of the homoeroticism that inflects so many issues of Physical Culture, as well as a richer take on our hero's politics. It's no accident, surely, that Macfadden so admired the fitness cults of Japan and Germany or that he trained Italian cadets as a personal favor to Mussolini. One could even argue that fascism is physcultopathy's natural endpoint. As Macfadden was fond of thundering, "Weakness Is a Crime!"

But weakness is merely a human condition, and the quest for a perfect body, as often as not, can make us hate other bodies or, at the very least, our own. (From fasting to anorexia is a short step.) If Macfadden really had created a new race of beings -- his own children, not surprisingly, were disappointments to him -- he would have made a race of islands, proud and solitary and uninhabited.

Bayard's most recent novel is "The Black Tower."

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