The True Story Of Bernard Macfadden

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In 1950 a biographer of the elderly Bernarr Macfadden—who by then was known primarily as an octogenarian health fanatic who took a parachute jump each year on his birthday—remarked that his subject’s boyhood adventures bore “a stunning resemblance to the pulp fiction of the period.” That is true but not surprising. Macfadden’s imagination always contained a healthy admixture of pulp; otherwise he could not have invented the confession magazine—“the first new idea in the publishing field in the last fifty years,” according to one contemporary authority—or have made so much money from it. And virtually all that is known about his life before 1893, when he arrived in New York City, comes either directly from him or from one of his worshipful authorized biographers. Unlike George Washington, who was posthumously served by Parson Weems, Macfadden mythicized himself.

Still, this record is worth examining. What a man chooses to tell about himself can reveal more than the most complete objective account; in Macfadden’s case, it presents a life conceived in terms of struggle, food, and conventional fiction.

The father of physical culture was born Bernard McFadden, on a farm in Mill Spring, Missouri, in 1868. His mother was a consumptive, his father a drunkard who died of delirium tremens when Bernard was four, and the farm a money-loser. The boy was sent to a boarding school whose students, he recalled as an adult, would have made Oliver Twist look “dangerously overstuffed.” He went next to relatives who ran a hotel near Chicago. Within a few months the proprietor told him that Mrs. McFadden had died. “And if you ask me,” Macfadden remembered overhearing the man’s wife saying about him, “this one’s going the same way. He’s got all the symptoms. Consumption runs in the family.” Bernard thereupon decided that he would live in order to spite his relatives.

He was helped toward that goal by a two-year stint as a “bound boy” with a northern Illinois farmer. At the age of twelve, beefed up by hard labor and country air, he hit the road and landed in St. Louis. One day, just as he was beginning to feel the dreaded onset of consumption, he happened on a gymnasium. Entranced by the activities offered inside, yet unable to produce the fifteen-dollar membership fee, Bernard set up a gym of his own, complete with dumbbells, horizontal bar, two swinging trapezes, and a tenpound lead bar that he carried inside his shirt on daily six-mile walks.

 

When he felt sufficiently regenerated to set out again, he became a hobo of sorts, riding the rails, descending on more of his numerous relations, and working—as a water boy for a construction gang, a dentist’s assistant, a wood chopper, and, in the tradition of Franklin and Twain, a printer’s devil. Toward the end of this period, while toiling in a coal mine, Bernard had one of those moments of revelation that dot his recollections. He suddenly saw that his mission in life was to preach the gospel of health. He got busy: returning to St. Louis, he saved enough money to join the real gymnasium, got acquainted with books like William Blaikie’s How to Get Strong , and eventually rented a studio and hung out a sign that read, “Bernarr Macfadden—Kinistherapist—Teacher of Higher Physical Culture.” As to his change of name, he later explained, “The picturesque appealed to me. I wanted something out of the ordinary.” As to the origin of the word “kinistherapist,” he admitted having no idea.

Whatever it meant, kinistherapy did a booming business. Macfadden claimed to have achieved some glory as a wrestler as well, successively defeating “the lightweight champion of the West,” “the welterweight champion of Chicago,” and—Macfadden was five foot six—"the heavyweight champion of Chicago. ” But he was unsatisfied, for somewhere along the way he had developed literary ambitions, and the publisher to whom he had sent his novel, The Athlete’s Conquest , had replied, “Contribution is the worst piece of junk I ever read. Rejected.”

Deciding that his prose would benefit from formal schooling, Macfadden signed on as professor of kinistherapy and all-purpose coach at a St. Louis military school and liberally partook of its curriculum for a year or so. Then, armed with new-found literacy, he set out for Boston, which at the time seemed the logical place for any young American to commence a life in letters. But he was struck by yet another moment of revelation. New York, he realized, was the city of his future. There were all those skyscrapers, pulsing with power; better yet, there were all those flabby men sitting on park benches in desperate need of his services. At the age of twenty-five, Macfadden had ended his travels at last.

The remaining sixty-two years of his life are not lacking in documentation: it is possible that the single most important force in that life was a restless desire for publicity. Almost immediately after leasing an apartment in New York, Macfadden presented a “Physical Culture Matinee” and invited the press. The SMW accepted and reported that “the ‘Professor’ [as Macfadden was now calling himself] chatted and posed in an interesting way for over an hour.”