The long life and strange times of the forgotten Father of Physical Culture.
New York magazine columnist Adams spins a lively yarn in this biography of pioneering health-and-fitness guru Bernarr Macfadden. In the first half of the 20th century, he was one of the most famous men in America, a confidant of Rudolph Valentino and Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated and scorned in equal measure for his radical theories—which earned him the undying enmity of the American Medical Association—and his tabloid publishing empire. In brisk prose, Adams charts the remarkable trajectory of sickly orphan Bernard McFadden (he changed his name to make it sound more distinctive), a singularly dynamic and driven character devoted to the idea that a healthy mind, body and spirit are moral imperatives and attainable only through severe calorie restriction and grueling, regular physical exercise. With the passion of a true zealot, Macfadden promulgated his theories through his vastly influential magazine, Physical Culture, and an ever-expanding empire of health farms and sanitariums. His efforts profoundly influenced the national psyche, birthing the multibillion-dollar fitness industry that flourishes to this day. Equally fascinating is Macfadden’s publishing legacy, which included the ahead-of-their-time salacious tabloids The New York Evening Graphic (Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan were on the writing staff) and True Story (the source of most of Macfadden’s fortune). He also discovered and promoted legendary bodybuilder Charles Atlas. Adams paints Macfadden as a bizarre, outsized figure: Married four times, he philandered well into old age; a multimillionaire, he dressed like a hobo and regularly walked dozens of miles per day through the streets of New York…barefoot; he practiced his theories of eugenics on his children; and, after repeatedly failing to attain high political office, he founded his own religion, “Cosmotarianism.”
A funny, informative history of a true American eccentric and the national preoccupation with health and fitness.