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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
True Story was the originator and exemplar of the confession magazine. Under the credo “Truth Is Stranger than Fiction,” the cover of the first issue featured such titles as “A Wife Who Awoke in Time,” “My Battle With John Barleycorn,” “An Ex-Convict’s Climb to Millions,” and “How I Learned to Hate My Parents.” Basically, the True Story formula consisted of first-person accounts, written in an untutored but clear style, of sin and redemption. The sin, usually carnal, was described in some detail; but the actual consummation nearly always seemed to take place between paragraphs, and it was invariably dressed up in a moral lesson. One typical narrator warned, “Let nobody be stirred up by the glamor of a certain part of my experience to attempt a similar adventure. What I went through of mental anguish can be neither described nor imagined. ”
Moreover, none of the protagonists were really evil; they were usually lower-class girls who were bewitched by some socialite’s irresistible charms. Most of them could say, as one did, “In reviewing my life I cannot detect a single instance in which my misfortune was the result of my own misdoing.” The confession magazines offered no-fault thrills; their pathos was sentimental in the sense of being wholly unearned.
Macfadden manipulated the formula masterfully. He knew the illusion of authenticity was essential, so instead of hiring what he called “art artists” to illustrate the stories, he used staged photographs—featuring such models as the then-unknown Fredric March, Jean Arthur, and Norma Shearer—and he made every contributor sign an affidavit stating that his or her story was indeed true. In 1927, however, after a piece called “The Revealing Kiss” used the names of eight actual residents of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who sued Macfadden for half a million dollars, he found himself somewhat sheepishly contending that maybe every story wasn’t all that true.
Macfadden turned out to be a crackerjack businessman. His initial inspiration was to charge twenty cents for the magazine—a dime more than the going rate. The first issue sold out. Unfazed by the New York Transit Authority’s refusal to consider his idea for a double-decker subway car, he divided his offices horizontally and saved considerably on rent.
True Story being such a natural, Macfadden realized there were bound to be imitators, so he took the initiative himself, issuing the highly successful True Romances and True Experiences . (There were soon many competitors nonetheless; their titles consisted of every possible combination of the words true, story, romance, confessions , and love .) Macfadden believed in volume: he started magazine after magazine and quashed the unsuccessful ones as quickly as possible. A flag flew on the Macfadden Building for each Macfadden publication, and employees would go up to the roof first thing each morning to see if they still had a job. Among the short-lived flags were ones that bore the legend Beautiful Womanhood , whose undoing was an ill-conceived, scathing attack on spinsters, and Brain Power , whose title apparently suggested to readers that they were somehow lacking in that department. But the mainstays—the confession group, True Detective Mysteries and an inevitable spin-off called Master Detective , and the dependable Physical Culture —had, by the late twenties, built Macfadden a fortune of $30,000,000.
Macfadden was undone by ambition. Always obsessed with spreading the message of physical culture, he looked around to see who had the widest audience in America. It was the President. His wife reported that he had his eye on that office as early as 1914, when he wrote, “political contests that derive their support through advocating physical culture reforms will, I believe, become a reality in the not far distant future. ” But nothing happened. Eventually he concluded that the only way to be taken seriously as a candidate was to be talked up in the press. And since the newspapers never mentioned his name without the trace of a smirk, he decided to start his own: the New York Graphic .
The Graphic represented one of the low points in the history of American journalism. It started out, in 1924, as a sort of daily, feature-laden Physical Culture , with silly contests, lots of photos, columns by the young Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan, and the usual abundance of wisdom from Macfadden. Before long, though, it had turned into a tawdry, sensationalist tabloid, with headlines like “Aged Romeo Wooed Stage Love with a Used Ring” (Mrs. Macfadden’s wedding ring, by the way, was purchased in a pawnshop), “Weed Parties in Soldiers’ Love Nest,” and “Two Women in Fight, One Stripped, Other Eats Bad Check.”