sordid details


MARK ADAMS is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in many of America’s leading magazines, including GQ, Outside, the New York Times Magazine, Fortune and National Geographic Adventure, where he is a contributing editor. Adams wrote New York magazine’s popular column “It Happened Last Week” and once ran 26 miles alone through the streets of Manhattan for an assignment. Originally from Oak Park, Illinois, he now lives near New York City with his wife and their three sons. This is his first book.


  • Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Bernarr Macfadden?

    A: About ten years ago my boss at GQ magazine, where I was a staff writer, called me into his office and announced that he had some good news: I was being promoted to the position of health editor. I didn’t actually know anything about diet or exercise, and I suddenly had ten pages to fill each month. So I did what most magazine editors do when they’re desperate—I looked around for old magazines from which I could “borrow” ideas. One publication I came across again and again was Macfadden’s Physical Culture.

  • Q: What was interesting about it?

    A: Partly it was the fact that starting more than a century ago, someone had published a magazine—a hugely successful one, selling in the millions—that covered topics that I think most Americans assume didn’t exist before the Baby Boomers took them up: vegetarianism, alternative medicine, bodybuilding, contraception, detox regimens. But even more it was the megaphone voice of the magazine’s editor, Macfadden, which taunted and cajoled readers to pursue better health practices on every page, that sucked me in.

  • Q: Was Physical Culture Macfadden’s great success?

    A: No, in many ways it was his great disappointment. He couldn’t understand why Americans didn’t rush to adopt the healthy habits that he’d spent his life preaching about. His fortune came primarily from True Story magazine, a brilliant innovation that printed somewhat scandalous first-person tales and launched what might be called the confessions industry. If you’ve ever watched a talk show during daylight hours, you’ve witnessed its influence.

  • Q: You tried out some of Macfadden’s regimens on yourself. Did they work?

    A: Some of them worked fantastically well. His raw-food diet essentially changed my body’s chemistry. My skin cleared up, my hair became silkier and I even smelled better. You sort of get used to your own scent over the years, so when it changes suddenly it’s a little disconcerting. Even my dog was confused.

  • Q: Macfadden was a great proponent of fasting. What did you learn on your fasts?

    A: Well, he was certainly right that fasting is an underutilized form of therapy. In the book I write about some of the chronic health problems I suffered that fasting seemed to cure. At the same time, I can think of a lot more pleasurable ways to spend five days than giving up food. Fasting does give some insight into the mind of an anorexic though. Denying yourself food provides a great sense of control.

  • Q: Did you lose weight?

    A: It’s amazing how quickly the pounds melt off when you stop eating.

  • Q: Were there any ideas you came across that you wouldn’t recommend?

    A: Oh, plenty. Macfadden didn’t exactly believe in the germ theory of disease and thought vaccination was one of the scourges of civilized society. He also thought an all-grape diet could cure cancer.

  • Q: Did Macfadden ever win the Mr. America title?

    A: No, the Mr. America contest was started long after his prime as a muscleman. But he did hold America’s first bodybuilding competition, at Madison Square Garden in 1903. And a couple decades later his “Perfect Man” contest discovered another great strongman, Charles Atlas. After Atlas won for two consecutive years Macfadden retired the title, on the assumption that Atlas could never lose.

  • Q: What was Macfadden’s newspaper, the New York Evening Graphic, like?

    A: Sort of like the National Enquirer crossed with Muscle and Fitness, with a little True Detective thrown in. Plus comics. It was printed on shocking pink paper, and for a little while it was one of the best-selling dailies in the country. Then again, any paper that carried the bylines of Ed Sullivan, Walter Winchell, Fiorello LaGuardia and Aimee Semple Macpherson was bound to find a niche.

  • Q: If Macfadden was so influential how come almost no one under the age of eighty has ever heard of him?

    A: Because his ideas—daily exercise, health food, frank talk about sex—were cherry-picked throughout the 50s and 60s, right after he died. And speaking of octogenarians, there are a surprising number of people still around, including Jack LaLanne and Joe Weider, who began reading Physical Culture back in the 1930s and 40s. I doubt that’s a coincidence.

  • Q: Do you think Macfadden would like Mr. America if he were alive today?

    A: I honestly don’t know. He seems to have written more books during his lifetime than he read. But I bet he’d love the pictures.