LOOK at ME
BY: JOSEPH F. WILKINSON
AS FAR AS BERNARD MACFADDEN WAS CONCERNED, THE MAIN AIM IN LIFE WAS TO BE NOTICED
ON A GRAY AUGUST AFTERNOON in 1952, a small plane hovered over the river Seine at the western side of Paris. The plane’s door opened and out stepped a man wearing red flannel long johns, a bright yellow life-jacket and shoes with three -inch foam soles. He pulled the rip cord of his parachute and waved to the crowd below as he drifted down to his landing spot.
That was Bernarr Macfadden celebrating his 84th birthday. (In case you don’t recognize the name,---- Macfadden was a physical-fitness
guru and publishing genius of the early part of this century, but his main aim in
life was to be noticed.)
He resembled the heroes of the rags-to-riches novels that were popular at the turn of the century.. When he came to New York in 1893, he was a farm boy from the Ozarks equipped with superb musculature, three years of education and monumental self-confidence. By 1935, he had become the head of a giant magazine empire and owner of sanitariums, hotels, health food restaurants and private planes. He was written up in TIME and Newsweek, pictured in newsreels and denounced in pulpits. At the sight of a press camera he would strip to his underwear to show off his physique. He ate more carrots in public than Bugs Bunny. He called the medical profession an organized fraud. At a time when sex was rarely mentioned publicly, he wrote and lectured that it was natural, healthy and enjoyable. He said people who followed his rules could live to 120. He predicted he would make 150. Some people thought he was a prophet and others a buffoon, but everyone then knew of Bernarr Macfadden.
HE BELIEVED THAT ANY PUBLICITY WAS BETTER
THAN BEING IGNORED.
He walked the streets of Manhattan barefoot to draw magnetic power from the earth. He gave press interviews while standing on his head. He even founded a religion called Cosmotarianism. What he wanted more than anything else was to become President of the United States, and according to the folk-lore of the day, his humble origins qualified him as Presidential material.
He was born Bernard Adolphus McFadden on a run-down farm near Mill Spring, Missouri. His father was an alcoholic who died in a fit of delirium tremens. His mother was a consumptive. Unable to care for her sickly son, she sent him to relatives who ran a small, unprofitable hotel in Mount Sterling, Illinois, about 100 miles north of St. Louis. On his arrival, the wife of the proprietor looked Bernard over and said: “He ain’t so much to look at, but there’s likely work in him.” Her husband agreed, vowing: “If there’s work in him, we’ll get it out.”
Bernard did hotel chores around the clock, growing even scrawnier on long hours and little food. After about a year had gone by, the proprietor said to him: “Boy, I’ve got news for you. Your mother’s dead.” To this the wife added: “And if you ask me, this one’s going the same way soon. Consumption runs in the family.”
Seeking to avoid the cost of a funeral, the couple sold Bernard as a hound boy, a sort of apprentice, to a nearby farmer. Farm life was the making of him. He sure worked hard and ate heartily. The food was better than he’d known earlier and included whole wheat bread. Within two years, he had gained weight and muscle.
He slipped away one night, sneaking rides on trains to St. Louis, where he subsisted on a series of odd jobs, but his health declined. Doctors and patent medicines gave him no relief As he later wrote in one of the early issues of his first magazine, Physical Culture: “ At the age of 16 I was a complete physical wreck. I had the hacking cough of a consumptive, my muscular system had so wasted that I surely resembled a skeleton; my digestive organs were in a deplorable condition.
He cured himself and developed large muscles through a vegetarian diet and very strenuous daily workouts. This was probably the beginning of his lifelong disdain for the medical community and his feeling of omniscience. He decided what worked for him would work for others, and at the age of 18 he set up in business in St. Louis as a “kinistherapist,” a teacher of what he called “higher physical culture.”
Eventually he decided that New York was the place to make his fortune . With a stake of $50, he rented a two-room apartment at 24 East 20th Street and established himself as an exercise professor.
This big move involved another. He changed the spelling and accentuation of his first name, thinking it would sound stronger, like a lion’s roar. He thought maybe Macfadden, without the big F in the middle, was more muscular. The middle name, Adolphus, was easily discarded.
MANY BIG PUBLISHING COMPANIES ALSO HAVE THEIR ORIGINS IN SMALL JOB PRESSES. Macfadden’s began with an exercise machine. In between workout sessions, he invented and patented a muscle developer, a real combination of rope, rubber and pulleys. In the promotional pamphlets he wrote for his exerciser, he described how to use the apparatus and included advice on physical fitness and health. Many readers thought the pamphlets were periodicals and asked to subscribe.
Macfadden rented desk space in a real-estate office and established the Physical Culture Publishing Company. The first issue of Physical Culture came out in March 1899 and sold for five cents. The fledgling publisher wrote the entire magazine under a variety of pen names. He advised readers how to develop themselves physically, how to maintain their health and how to cope with illness. He illustrated it with photographs of himself lightly clad, and muscles bulging. His first editorial was entitled: “Weakness is a Crime.” The covers of later issues carried two sentences in capital letters, almost like logos: “WEAKNESS - - A CRIME” and “DON’T BE A CRIMINAL” Physical Culture was a big success. By the end of World War I, circulation had reached 500,000.
Each issue carried articles about sickly men and women who became healthy, and strong and beautiful through proper diet and exercise. There were pictures of men in strongman poses and, as times grew more liberal, pictures of lightly clad young women. More than a few of the features bordered on the ludicrous. One contribution of a Spanish writer entitled “Why I Adopted Grass as a Diet” featured a photograph of the tuxedo-clad author gazing hungrily at a lush pasture. All the big ads were for Macfadden exercise products and books (he eventually wrote 79). The many small ads were for such merchandise as goiter remedies, trusses, cut-rate shoes, sex-advice manuals and electrical healing devices.
MACFADDEN WAS, IT TURNED OUT, A MAN VERY MUCH AHEAD OF HIS TIME. He was for vigorous exercise, fresh air, very firm mattresses, restrained eating, milk, vegetables and fruit, and whole wheat bread. He was against tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, corsets, prudery, overeating and white bread, which he called the “stall of death.”
Throughout his life, Macfadden was his own best example of his teachings. He worked out regularly and had an exercise for every muscle, including his eyelids. When he was in his 6os, his features were so pronounced that his head looked like a textbook illustration of facial muscles. He even exercised his hair, pulling at it periodically throughout the day. He had a full head of hair, except for a round spot on top perhaps caused by standing on his head, and he wore it in the style of Albert Einstein.
Among his admirers was novelist Upton Sinclair, who became interested in food- related issues after attending a Macfadden health camp. Sinclair later wrote his muckraking novel The Jungle, which set off a federal investigation and led to the regulation of the meat-packing industry.
Another follower was Angelo Siciliano, who two years running won Macfadden’s “America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” contest. With the winnings, he went on to establish his own muscle-building business under the name of Charles Atlas, whose advertising line “I was a 97-pound weakling” became a long- running national joke.
Readers who took Macfadden’s advice about things he really knew improved their life and health. Unfortunately, Macfadden also offered advice on a subject he knew very little about coping with illness. He maintained that any disease could be cured by exercise and diet. He also emphasized fasting. He reasoned that much of the body’s energy went into digesting food: if there were no food to digest, then that energy could apply itself to recovering health. Macfadden claimed that fasting from three days to three weeks could alleviate and generally cure just about any disease, including asthma, bladder disease, diabetes, prostate disease, epilepsy, impotence, paralysis, liver and kidney disease, and eye trouble. (To name a few)
No matter what the sickness, Macfadden had a cure. An all-milk diet, he said, could cure syphilis and other blood diseases as well as Bright’s disease, cancer, epilepsy and goiter. His remedy for heart disease was hot and cold compresses, vegetables and cold water. The only treatment he accepted from conventional healthcare professionals was dentistry.
The American Medical Association (AMA) didn’t react publicly to his advice or his jibes. “The morons that take Machidden seriously would not be convinced by anything we might publish,” said Dr. Arthur J. Cramp, an AMA spokesman. Macfadden thought the silence ominous and for years harbored fears that the AMA was poisoning the wells on his Englewood, New Jersey, estate.
Campaigning against prudery was another Macfadden crusade. He believed that a well-developed body should be appreciated and admired. Late in 1905, he staged an exhibition of beauty and brawn at Madison Square Garden to publicize his magazine. To advertise the show he distributed posters of young women wearing two layers of union suit, the nearest thing to tights then permitted. The posters got the attention of Anthony Comstock, the founder and head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a private establishment, who had Macfadden arrested. Macfadden was found guilty of violating New York state law and given a suspended sentence.
As a result of the case, he found a friend and ally in George Bernard Shaw, who was being harassed by Comstock for the staging of his play Mrs. Warren ‘s Profession. The two men visited each other frequently over the years. According to one of Macfadden’s wives, they “sat up all night trading stories, comparing muscles and congratulating each other on having found the secret of eternal youth.”
Readers of Physical Culture also wrote to Macfadden for help with their personal problems: “I made this one mistake and now my wife wants to leave me. He promised to divorce his wife and marry me and now I’m going to have a baby.” Physical Culture began printing those letters, and they got good readership. Macfiidden concluded if that was what people liked to read, then they should get to read it in bulk.
In 1919, he launched True Story, the firs t confession magazine. Its stories were about men and women tempted into wrongdoing who eventually gained redemption. The wrongdoing was usually sex, hut mostly by implication. There was nothing like True Story, and it found a market among a large group of people who normally did not buy magazines. It had been widely believed by editors of popular magazines and romance novels that secretaries and shop girls wanted to read about the love lives of duchesses and heiresses. Macfadden discovered (or he already knew) that secretaries and shop girls were more interested in reading about the romances of secretaries and shop girls. True Story made him a wealthy man. The success of True Story led to imitations from competing publishers. So------ Macfadden’s answer was his own imitations, True Romance, True Experiences and Dream World. After them came True Detective Mysteries and Master Detective. Subsequently he began Model Airplane News, Your Home, Ghost Stories, Movie Weekly and Movie Mirror and bought Photoplay and Shadow play. However, his biggest magazine coup was acquiring Liberty, a weekly general-interest magazine that ranked behind the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. By 1935 his magazines had combined circulation surpassing the total of the other giants of magazine publishing, Hearst, Luce and Curtis.
Wealth made little change in Macfadden. He now looked like a bum. Disdaining fashion, he wore the same suit every day until it fell apart. Because of his gross appearance he was often refused admittance to his own office buildings. He had no talent for small talk . If the subject wasn’t physical fitness, business or his great brilliance, he wasn’t interested . Except for Dickens, he read uothing for entertainment. Taken to an opera, he said: “Nobody can like this sort of thing. Anyone who says so is posing.” He was enthusiastic, though, about the upper-body exercise the conductor was getting.
His only nonbusiness interest was women, and he pursued them throughout his life. When Macfadden was 66, a man sued him for alienating the affections of his wife. After the wife testified that she had an affair with Macfadden because she liked him better, the jury cleared him. At the offices of Macfadden Publications, a running joke was: “What time is it? It’s always sex o’clock around here.”
Although Macfadden was a strong advocate of marriage and family, he didn’t handle these institutions very well himself. He married for the first time at 30 and the second time at 35, but neither union lasted two years. Then, while on another lecture tour in England, he met and married Mary Williamson, a 19-year-old swimming champion. He was then 45. He made her part of his show, posing her in flesh-colored tights. The high point of each evening was when 142-pound Mary jumped from a platform to land feet first on the abdomen of Macfadden, who was lying on the stage seven feet below.
Bernarr and Mary produced seven children, and he inflicted his medical theories on all of them. When a son, 11-month-old Byron, went into convulsions, Mary Macfadden pleaded for a doctor. Bernarr refused and insisted on putting the child into a hot bath. The boy died an hour later.
With the surge in income from True Story, Macfadden fbunded the infamous New York Evening Graphic in 1924 . According to his close associates, he started the Graphic so that it could give him the publicity he couldn’t get from the other newspapers . “[It] was to be his magic carpet . to the White House,” said Fulton Oursler, Macfadden’s longtime chief editor.
There were two sensational tabloid dailies in New York in 1924, the Daily News and the Mirror. Macfadden decided to out-tabloid them. His Graphic specialized in covering sex, scandal and violence. It was heavy on photographs. When it couldn’t get a photograph of some sensational event, such as a sex scandal or a hanging, Harry Grogin, the art director, made a “coinposograph,” a picture made up of other photographs, often of scenes created with members of the Graphic staff
The Graphic, referred to by many as the “pornographic,” was a hit with the readers, but its content was too racy for many big advertisers. It lost money steadily and went into bankruptcy in 1932.
The Graphic supported Jimmy Walker in his successful 1925 campaign to become the mayor of New York. Macfadden hoped he could enter politics by being now appointed the city’s commissioner of health. Walker didn’t offer him the job. “Everybody knows you can live to be a hundred by following Macfadden’s ideas,” said Walker, who became known as the playboy mayor. “But New York wants to live the way I do. That’s why I was elected. We won’t last as long, but we’ll have more fun.”
In 1928, Macfadden sent one of his executives to Tammany Hall, the central force of the New York Democratic Party, to ask how much he needed to donate to be nominated for the governorship of New York. Judge George W. Olvaney, the boss of Tammany Hall, rejected the idea. “When you imagine Bernarr Macfadden as a candidate, you immediately think of the fun he’d stop you from having if he got elected,” said Olvaney.
That year Macfadden pursued both Republican Presidential nominee Herbert Hoover and Democratic Presidential nominee Al Smith to create a federal Department of Health, with him as Secretary. When Hoover was finally elected, Macfadden and his publications supported him. When Roosevelt defeated Hoover in 1932, Macfadden promptly supported Roosevelt.
Macfadden’s powers of persuasion were as formidable as his physique. Somehow he was able to convince Eleanor Roosevelt to become the editor of a new magazine, Babies—Just Babies! Apparently he reasoned that if he could insinuate himself into Mrs. Roosevelt’s favor, he could then maneuver his way to becoming the first Secretary of Health. He thought that President Roosevelt’s health would fail soon, and who would make a better replacement than a conspicuously vigorous member of the Cabinet like himself? Although she was probably not aware of those machinations, the First Lady had the good sense to withdraw from Babies— Just Babies soon after her appointment.
By 1935, the Macfadden press had turned anti-Roosevelt. Later that year, while attending a luncheon of the Republican Club of St. Louis, Macfadden declared that if the Republicans offered him their nomination for the Presidency, he would not refuse it. His announcement triggered a surge of apathy among Republican leaders and giggles throughout the country. Subsequently he tried and failed miserably to get himself elected governor of Florida and mayor of New York.
Macfadden’s political ambition contained the seeds of his financial ruin.
In 1924, he incorporated his privately held Physical Culture Publishing Company as Macfadden Publications, Inc., and sold its stock publicly. As president of the corporation and majority owner of its stock, he felt entitled to use corporate funds for political donations, publicity agents, airplanes and private expenses. In 1940, stockholders filed suit in federal court, accusing Macfadden of spend-ing about $900,000 of the corporation’s money for his own personal and political expenses. In a settlement, Macfadden resigned as president, sold his stock to the new management and paid $300,000 to the corporation.
He was left with something called the Bernar r Macfadden Foundation, which he had formed years earlier to spread his teachings. Through it he published a magazine called Health Review, a tepid reincarnation of Physical Culture. He wasn’t poor, but he was running out of money. He tried to stay in the public eye with Cosmotarianism, the religion he founded in 1947 . It was based on the idea that those who took good care of their bodies would go to heaven.
At the age of 8o, Macfadden married for the fourth time. (He and Mary were divorced in 1946 after years of separation.) His bride was 42-year-old Johnnie Lee McKinney, a professional health lecturer. Macfadden insisted that they maintain separate apartments and not intrude on each other without calling first. The idea, he explained, was to keep the marriage fresh, the dew always on the rose. When Johnnie Lee violated that rule one day, she found her 82-year-old husband in bed with another woman. After accumulating further evidence of Macfadden’s unfaithfulness, she divorced him.
The final years witnessed a reversal of Macfadden’s rags-to-riches trajectory. He was twice jailed for nonpayment of alimony to Johnnie Lee.
In the fall of 1955, he suffered intestinal problems and began fasting to cure them. The manager of the seedy New Jersey hotel he lived in found him unconscious and called an ambulance. Luckily for his peace of mind, Macfadden was probably not aware of what he would have considered the ultimate humiliation . He was taken to the Jersey City Medical Center, where he was x-rayed, fed intravenously and treated by a team of doctors. His problem was diagnosed as jaundice aggravated by fasting. When he died not long after being admitted, the onetime multimillionaire’s estate amounted to less than $5,000 . He was 87—a ripe old age, to be sure, but still more than 6o years short of his lofty goal.
As a child, Brooklyn-based writer
Joe Wilkinson peddled Macfadden’s
Liberty magazine from door to door
for 5 cents a copy.
Volume 28, Number 9
December 1997. (Pgs. 136-151)
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