December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
LIFE and LOVES of the FATHER of the CONFESSION MAGAZINE
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.