The True Story Of Bernard Macfadden

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Macfadden’s other passion was for his ideas. They had to do with the titanic benefits of exercise, the right foods, and periodic fasts, and the extreme perils of, among other things, corsets, white bread, doctors, vaccination, overeating, and prudery. His public activities usually served to promote these ideas. He founded in 1899 a magazine called Physical Culture , published the five-volume, 2,969-page Encyclopedia of Physical Culture (first issued in 1911 and periodically revised), and issued a vast array of books and pamphlets. (His wife explained that “every time he cured himself of something by his natural methods”—and it was often—“he wrote a book about it.”) He opened a chain of one-cent Physical Culture restaurants—with menus strikingly similar to those of today’s bean-sprout emporiums. He devised inventions—the Washed Air Company, double-decker subway cars, a breakfast food called “Strenthro”—and produced equally unsuccessful films, which starred members of his family.

And he established a succession of spas he called “healthatoriums”: in upstate New York, on Long Island, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens (this one he fought in vain to have incorporated as Physical Culture City), in Chicago, and in Battle Creek, Michigan, where, while trying out his milk cure for cancer, he became involved in a sanitarium war with the cereal kings Charles W. Post and the Kellogg brothers. A frequent guest at Physical Culture City recalled that “everybody [there] enjoyed a fad of his or her own. There was a little brown woman like the shrivelled inside of an old walnut, who believed you should imbibe no fluid other than that found in the eating of fruits. … There was a man from Philadelphia who ate nothing but raw meat. He had eruptions all over his body from the diet, but still persisted in it. There were several young Italian nature-folk who ate nothing but vegetables and fruit, raw. … The townspeople … used to come from miles about, Sundays, to watch us swim and exercise.”

Partly because of his tireless enthusiasm, partly because of the health mania that periodically swept America, and partly because certain of his ideas made sense—exercise is, after all, good for you, while corsets are not—Macfadden made some inroads. At one time or another his programs were endorsed by Henry Ford, George Bernard Shaw, and Upton Sinclair. Sinclair took the milk and fasting cure at Battle Creek and came away saying Macfadden had taught him, “free, gratis, and for nothing, more about the true principles of keeping well and fit for my work, than all the orthodox and ordained physicians, who charged thousands of dollars for it.”

But there were problems along the way. For one thing, Macfadden’s campaign against prudery regularly ran into trouble with the authorities. In 1905, when he presented a “Mammoth Physical Culture Show,” a “Carnival of Beauty and Brawn,” at Madison Square Garden, Anthony Comstock, New York’s notorious anti-vice zealot, arrested him for having circulated photographs of his bathing beauties; he got off with a suspended sentence. But a couple of years later when he ran a serial in Physical Culture that dealt, rather explicitly, with the dangers of syphilis, he was fined two thousand dollars, and only a pardon from President Taft saved him from a two-year prison term.

But a greater obstacle than such episodes was Macfadden’s own personality. He took things too far. He was not content, for example, to point out the drawbacks of medical science; he had to develop the conviction that the American Medical Association was trying to poison the wells on his country estate.

The personal impression he made was just as peculiar. He spoke in a flat Missouri twang that struck one employee as “a combination of Old Scotch and Choctaw.” Following the Macf adden theory of voice development he would periodically, and without warning, break into loud mooing or braying; when merely speaking he had a penchant for malapropisms, referring to fleas in the ointment and comparing himself to Huckleberry Flynn. To promote his cure for baldness, which involved yanking vigorously on one’s hair, he affected a thick, springy pompadour. He believed in the energizing benefits of “earth-to-body magnetic currents” and therefore walked barefoot as much as possible, slept on the floor, and spent a good deal of time standing on his head. He did not believe in the fashion industry and so kept the same clothes for decades, wearing them until they were literally in tatters. This led to maintenance men in the Macfadden Building mistaking the boss for a derelict. Occasionally he would challenge them to a boxing match on the spot.

Like many with a mission, Macfadden was oblivious to basic psychology, and he didn’t seem to realize that hearing about his peculiarities would make people take his philosophy any less seriously. And there was little chance that they would not hear about them, for Macfadden believed, according to his wife, “that any kind of publicity was better than being ignored.” He consequently became, at least to nonbelievers, a figure of fun. But Macfadden’s egotism and obsessiveness were not all that amusing to his own family. After two early and short-lived marriages, both excised from the official history, he had apparently resigned himself to living the solitary life of so many crusaders.