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The True Story Of Bernard Macfadden
LIFE and LOVES of the FATHER of the CONFESSION MAGAZINE
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Then he met a champion swimmer named Mary Williamson. He was in England at the time, organizing a competition to find the country’s “most perfectly formed female"; her prize, he later allowed, was he. During their marriage, which lasted from 1912 to 1946, when long and bitter divorce proceedings finally brought it to a close, she had to bear a great deal, including seven children—Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Braunda, Byron, Berwyn, and Bruce. The Physical Culture Family (as the brood invariably was referred to in Macfadden’s publications) not only had to suffer the embarrassment of their picturesque names, they had to bellow for an hour each day and exercise ad nauseum.
Mrs. Macfadden was pregnant so often, and in such discomfort, that she dedicated her autobiography ”… particularly to those merciful doctors ever ready to reduce the pain of childbirth.” She believed, moreover, that her husband caused both the miscarriage of yet another child, by forcing her into strenuous exercise while pregnant, and the death of Byron. Macfadden had reacted to a convulsion, she charged, by plunging the one-year-old into a hot bath; naturally, calling a doctor would have been out of the question.
Whatever the real cause of the tragedy, Macfadden’s reaction was typical. He first had his wife join him on a two-week, midwinter hike from northern Massachusetts to southern Connecticut, then wrote an editorial for Physical Culture called “The Death of Little Billy.” This ugly spate of self-justification ran for three black-bordered pages and blamed the child’s death on a fall (fictitious, according to Mrs. Macfadden), on the inadvertent neglect of his exercises, and on overfeeding caused by “mother love”—”a mad devotion of the mother for the object of her affection.”
But if Macfadden was sometimes ruthless and frequently absurd, he was far from ineffectual. In 1935 the combined circulation of his magazines was 7,355,000—more than those of Hearst, Luce, or Curtis. Whatever his peculiarities, he was a brilliant magazine publisher.
He started Physical Culture mainly as an advertising vehicle for an exercising contraption he was peddling, but even in the first volume his personal editorial touch is pervasive. The cover of the April, 1899, issue, for example, is a photograph of “the editor as he appears in one of his classical poses. ” And the entire contents come from his pen—including an installment of his “piece of junk,” The Athlete’s Conquest . “Ah, if he could see you now,” the heroine is told by a confidante in one tangy passage, “with that mass of dark brown hair flowing around you; with those dark, passionate eyes; those superbly formed limbs, plainly outlined in that clinging garment—and those arms!”
Physical Culture grew from five thousand readers to one hundred thousand in the first two years, and up to half a million by Armistice Day. As the magazine prospered, it became more general, running articles on how to skate and how celebrities keep in shape and fiction by the likes of Faith Baldwin and Adela Rogers St. John. But its essential character remained the same, and Macfadden continued to provide a substantial proportion of the material—either as himself or under one of a collection of pen names. There were several advice columns, with Macfadden’s solution for virtually every problem—psychological, social, or physical—being some combination of fasting, hiking, and dietary reform. There was also “The Physical Culture Correspondence Club,” some of whose entries were just as racy as anything to be found in the back pages of The New York Review of Books: “American bachelor, 48, book lover owning large collection, lover of nature, devoted to open-window sleeping, open-air life and hatless existence; solicits correspondence with young men of athletic build and habit, found [sic] of literature and wholesome life.”
Although both Macfadden and his wife claimed to have come up with the idea for his next magazine, its genesis is clearly visible in an item like the one above, and in the first-person narratives such as “I Taught My Wife to Drink,” which began to make regular appearances in Physical Culture during the late teens. In any case, Macfadden launched True Story in 1919, and it made his fortune.