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Review: In 'Mr. America,' Mark Adams explains how eccentric Bernarr Macfadden built a fitness empire

What do Rupert Murdoch, Dr. Andrew Weil, Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, Barbara Walters, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner, Hulk Hogan, Jack LaLanne, the creators of America's Most Wanted and the authors of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books all have in common? They can trace the origin of their livelihoods directly back to one man: Bernarr Macfadden.

Bernarr?

In the slick but well-researched biography Mr. America, Mark Adams, a New York magazine columnist, tries his hardest to tell the story of the eccentric media mogul, health and fitness guru, bodybuilder, senatorial candidate and religious prophet Bernarr Macfadden — no small task considering the scope of the subject matter.

Born in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri in 1868, Bernard Macfadden was a tubercular orphan by age 8. In the early 1880s, physical fitness, called "physical culture," was just getting started in America. Osteopathy had recently been invented in nearby Kirkville, Mo., and chiropractic medicine originated right across the border in Iowa.

It was after reading a copy of How to Get Strong by William Blaikie and the teachings of vegetarian guru Sylvester Graham (inventor of the Graham cracker) that scrawny little Bernard found his calling. In no time at all he was ripped, doing one-armed pull- ups, and challenging and beating the country's best wrestlers.

But Macfadden was no ordinary musclehead: He had a genius for marketing and an eye for what grabbed people's attention. By 18 he knew full well that there was gold in them thar pectorals.

By the turn of the century Bernarr had dropped the "d" from and added an "r" to his name and started a new form of health therapy he termed "Physcultopathy: The New Science of Healing."

In a nutshell, physcultopathy espoused fasting, eating of raw foods, plenty of sex, rigorous exercise and the avoidance of meat and vaccinations. He founded a utopian community in New Jersey based on this regimen, but the commune failed when his disciples became disillusioned by his extramarital exploits and constant harassment from the Post Office (for publishing ostensibly obscene material in his magazines).

Not one to be discouraged, Macfadden moved his remaining adherents to Battle Creek, Mich., across the street from C.W. Post and John Harvey Kellogg, and began ministering to the country's unwell at his Healthatorium and writing and publishing his magazine Physical Culture. It would go on to become the most influential health and fitness magazine of all time.

Over the subsequent decades, Macfadden crusaded across the globe, promoting health and fitness; sponsoring contests ("The Perfect Man," "The Perfect Woman"); and giving lectures on the miracles of fasting, raw food diets and exercise.

He was consulted by the world's leaders: some good, like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and some not so good, e.g., Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. In 1940, he ran in the primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, where he had a winter home.

The proliferation of his myriad publications (Physical Culture, True Story, Graphic, Beautiful Womanhood, Liberty — think screaming headlines and eye-popping centerfolds) established Macfadden as the father of the tabloid. Macfadden Publications would eventually expand into a $30 million media empire. Among his employees were Charles Atlas, Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan.

Hounded by the American Medical Association for his antivaccination stance, and by antipornographers throughout most of his career, Macfadden went from rags to riches to rags, dying alone and penniless at 87 in a Jersey City, N.J., hotel.

Perhaps one of the more endearing qualities of Macfadden (fanatics don't have many) was his aptitude for nomenclature. For example: Strengtho (his specially designed breakfast cereal), Peniscope (a device consisting of a glass tube and a vacuum pump . . . well, you can figure out the rest), Cosmotarian Science (a religion he founded based on the tenets of physical culture) and his signature piece, Physcultopathy.

In the appendix, author Adams writes that he was so inspired by his subject that he felt obliged to be a test subject for Macfadden's regimen. He describes his experience fasting, dieting and walking, calling the results humbling and even transforming, albeit temporary.

Mr. America is a must read for those interested in health and fitness. Alas, even with the impressive list of names dropped and the accomplishments sedulously quantified, Mr. America fails to shed even a glimmer of light on its subject's interior landscape.

As if admitting to himself and his reader his book's shortcomings, Adams cites a quote from Macfadden's longtime editor, Fulton Oursler (the renowned author of The Greatest Story Ever Told), who wrote of his boss: "Nothing that I have ever read of Macfadden, including that which I have written myself, has ever captured him."

Perhaps it's enough just to know that the man who invented bodybuilding, alternative medicine and tabloids ate handfuls of sand to help his digestion, dunked his newborns in cold water to toughen them up and walked 25 miles to and from work in his bare feet. They sure don't make publishers like that anymore.

Richard Horan is the author of two novels, "Life in the Rainbow" and "Goose Music." He lives, teaches and writes in Central New York.

Mr. America

By Mark Adams

Harper Collins, 309 pages, $25.99

Review: In 'Mr. America,' Mark Adams explains how eccentric Bernarr Macfadden built a fitness empire 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:30am]

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