Charles Atlas often started interviews by stripping off his shirt and sitting at his desk half-nude. His physique was his stock in trade, and he knew that people wanted a look. They got an eyeful: chest forty-seven inches; waist thirty-two; biceps seventeen.
Whether such splendor really sprang from the frame of a ninety-seven-pound weakling, as the pulp magazine ads for his mail-order muscle business proclaimed, is a fair question. Judging from a photograph taken when he was a teen-ager in Brooklyn, he was a fairly slender youngster, but no more so than a lot of growing boys. As the years passed, the man and the myth became increasingly muddled. Atlas’ ads told the tale of the puny young man who had sand kicked in his face at the beach by a bully. Yes, Atlas sometimes said, a lifeguard had really done that to him at Coney Island, embarrassing him in front of his date, and it was this incident that had triggered his resolve to make himself so formidable no one would trifle with him again. But on other occasions he traced his determination to perfect his body to a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, where a huge statue of Hercules caught his eye. He credited a statue of Atlas—either at Coney Island or atop a local bank, depending on which day he was being interviewed—with inspiring his choice of a name when he became a professional muscleman.
He had been born Angela Siciliano in southern Italy in 1892 and was brought to the United States by his parents at the age of eleven. Having developed his physique by diligent workouts at a YMCA gymnasium, he entered a competition sponsored by Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine in 1922. He won and was awarded a thousand dollars and the title of “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man. ” Capitalizing on the publicity, he dreamed up the Charles Atlas muscle-building course. The program consisted of thirteen lessons, brief pamphlets mailed out weekly, and it cost thirty dollars. In time, with the aid of an astute business manager named Charles P. Roman, he built a business that enrolled more than seventy thousand students a year, mainly young men. It continues to flourish today, even though Atlas died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of eighty.
Atlas published the course in seven languages, and the ads featuring him wearing a loincloth and flexing his muscles drew disciples from all over the world. His organization still maintains an office in London besides its Manhattan headquarters, and at one time it had an office in Buenos Aires as well. In a 1942 interview with The New Yorker writer Robert Lewis Taylor, he claimed to have received a letter from India reading: “I’ve heard of the wonderful work you are doing and wonder if there is some way you can build me up. M. K. Gandhi. “Atlas said he had sent along suggestions for diet—figs and prunes were among his favorite foods—and gentle exercises. “I didn’t charge him a dime. I felt mighty sorry for him. The poor little chap, he’s nothing but a bag of bones.”
Atlas counseled clean living—no liquor or “secret habits”—but the heart of his muscle-building system was Dynamic Tension. This entails pitting one muscle against another—pushing the fist of one hand against the palm of the other, for example, or locking the hands behind the neck and pulling down while resisting with the neck muscles. There were skeptics who doubted that Atlas got the way he was from Dynamic Tension; “dynamic hooey, “one rival muscle builder called it. Atlas himself acknowledged that he worked with bar bells, wall weights, and other apparatus before he discovered the secret of Dynamic Tension, and he continued to visit the Brooklyn YMCA for many years afterward. But there is something to Dynamic Tension. It is closely akin to the isometric exercises some athletes now use to increase muscular strength.
Atlas was not a big man—five feet ten inches and 180 pounds. But he was strong. To publicize a new rotter bearing, he once harnessed himself to a 145,000-pound railroad car and pulled it 122 feet. He could bend railroad spikes double with his bare hands. On a visit to Sing Sing he bent iron bars as inmates watched intently. A number later wrote asking to sign up for the course. “I turned them down, “Atlas said. “It might have resulted in a major break.”
Atlas wasn’t knotted and corded like a weightlifting body builder. Sculptors found him irresistible, and the landscape in New York and elsewhere is dotted with likenesses of Atlas’form—or portions of it—as the Dawn of Glory, Civic Virtue, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Archer, Patriotism, Energy in Repose, and the forward part of a number of centaurs. Even when he was an old man, his once black hair gray, he turned heads at the beach.
For all his public flaunting of his body, Atlas led a sedate private life centering on his family. The Atlases spent their winters in Brooklyn and their summers in a house in a Long Island beach community, where Atlas trimmed his hedge and drove nails through two-inch boards with his hands at charity affairs. He conformed to the folk wisdom, dear to the hearts of all the ninety-seven-pound weaklings of the world, that the truly stro-ng are gentle. Men he encountered would sometimes feel compelled to goad him to fight, but Atlas would turn away.
Not always, however. One day on the subway he suggested to a big bruiser who was sprawled over a couple of seats that he make room for a woman. As Atlas related it, the man demurred, saying “If you don’t keep your face out of my business, I’m going to get up and knock all your teeth out. “Atlas grabbed the man, lifted him well into the air, and gave him a good shaking. Thereupon the culprit recognized him—it would be nice to think it was the fellow who had kicked sand in his face many years before—and apologized. “I gave him a long talk about the value of physical exercise, “Atlas recalled, “and as we waited to reach our stations he decided to buy the course.”