The True Story Of Bernard Macfadden

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The Graphic pioneered the use of “composographs,” staged, composite photographs with the heads of newsmakers pasted onto models’ bodies. The Graphic invented this new art form to offer its readers a glimpse of the high point of Leonard Kip Rhinelander’s divorce trial. The young millionaire was suing his bride of a month on the grounds that she had concealed from him the fact that she was part Negro; one day in court she reportedly stripped to the waist to prove the falseness of the charge. When the Graphic ran its composograph of the scene, circulation jumped by one hundred thousand. The paper always had a lot of readers—as one observer eulogized, “The only value ever claimed for it was that it educated readers up to a point where they were able to understand the other tabloids”—but it was a flop with advertisers. By the time it folded, in 1932, it had lost Macfadden $11,000,000.

The paper had failed to help Macfadden get his political career off the ground. The three blatant campaign biographies he commissioned in 1929 (one inviting us to “study him as he governs a whole community of employees, that is like a little city”) were uniformly blasted by the reviewers. H. L. Mencken wrote: “The authors of these brochures do not spare the goosegrease; poor Macfadden chokes and gurgles in it on every one of their eight-hundred and twenty-five pages. I can recall no more passionate anointing of a living man. … He appears as a hero without a wart, spiritual or temporal, sworn only to save us from the Medical Trust and make us strong enough to lift a piano with our bare hands. …”

The Graphic helped make Jimmy Walker New York’s mayor, but he refused to appoint Macfadden Commissioner of Health, pointing out, “Everybody knows you can live to be a hundred by following Macfadden’s ideas. But New York wants to live the way I do.”

In hopes of gaining FDR’s ear, Macfadden persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to edit a magazine called Babies, Just Babies , but its flag came down before he could pay a call at the White House.

Macfadden refused to take the hint. In 1935 he announced that the Republican presidential nomination was “an honor no American can afford to refuse” and declared himself a candidate. But the twenties, when a barefoot publisher candidate might have seemed to fit right in, were over; now he was not merely laughed at but actively abused.

In 1941 minority stockholders in Macfadden Publications charged that Macfadden had used company funds to finance his campaigns and forced him to sell all his holdings and step down as president. After a few years he revived Physical Culture —which had been transformed into a conventional women’s magazine during his absence and run into the ground—and announced plans for a whole new magazine kingdom, but it never worked out.

Auden wrote of Edward Lear that he “became a land.” Bernarr Macfadden became a press release. In the last eighteen years of his life he was featured in Time (which dubbed him “Body Love”) or Newsweek eighteen times. He ran for the Senate in Florida. He conducted innumerable fasts and hikes. He offered a prize for the best biographical play about his life. In 1949, at the age of eighty-one, he took up parachuting and thereafter tried to make a jump each year on his birthday. Claiming that his third wife had “humiliated” him by losing her figure, he married a woman of forty-two; she later had the marriage annulled. In 1953 he declared “his acceptance of the nomination of the Honest party for mayor. He pledged a business administration that would make the sales tax unnecessary, eliminate traffic congestion, and obtain double-deck subway cars. … He promised also to purge the city of Communists.”

He died in 1955 from an attack of jaundice aggravated by a three-day fast. His estate was worth practically nothing, and he generally was regarded as a forlorn old joke. But a quarter of a century later, white bread is beginning to be crowded off the nation’s grocery shelves, and jogging physical culturists have taken over parks and roads. And his confession formula has proved remarkably durable. Today Macfadden Publications, which still puts out most of the confession magazines, sells 2,500,000 of them a year. Of course the situations described in their pages have changed with the times. One recent story concerns a one-armed Vietnam veteran who is seduced and victimized by a pair of lesbian con artists, and another is told by a fellow who discovers on his wedding night that he has married a transsexual. But the same upbeat endings are there, and readers continue to be invited to have their cake and eat it too. There are still no double-decker subway cars.