From Chapter 14


By the mid-1930s, Physical Culture had evolved once again, this time from the shrill, antidoctor soapbox of the late 1920s into a sophisticated consumer product focusing on pure food, preventive medicine, and other topics appealing to women as well as men. (The November 1931 issue contained a long story on the mysterious Eastern discipline of yoga, including illustrations of a flexible female demonstrating how to execute a perfect sarvangasana, or shoulderstand.) A deft editorial hand was visible in the cover art, which tended toward buxom pinup lasses merrily vaulting pommel horses or drawing back archery bows—often dropping a shoulder strap or flashing a bit of cleavage—and in irresistible feature stories such as “Can a Wrestler Beat a Boxer?” and “I Bought a Baby for Christmas.” Ample room remained for the usual panoply of Macfadden’s trademark oddities, such as “America, Too, Goes Nudist” and “Physical Culture Banished My Goiter!”

Physical Culture sold an average of 340,000 copies per month in 1933, an astonishing number for a magazine devoted to alternative health ideas. By comparison, Hygeia, a consumer publication with the might of the American Medical Association behind it, never topped 90,000. A New Yorker cartoon from July of that year reflects Physical Culture’s place in popular culture: As two muscular fellows square off for a fistfight, a newsboy sensing an easy sale approaches with magazines in each hand. “Physical Culture, gentlemen?” he asks. After John Harvey Kellogg’s famed Battle Creek Sanitarium went into receivership in February 1933, Macfadden could lay uncontested claim to being the most important alternative health figure in America.

His influence extended well beyond the pages of his magazine. The Physical Culture Institute, a state-of-the-art culinary laboratory in a Manhattan high-rise (dressed up as the sort of suburban kitchen in which the cupboards held blackstrap molasses and wheat germ), was answering thousands of queries about healthy foods, tinkering with meatless recipes, and testing products. More than one hundred Physical Culture Clubs organized through the magazine met regularly in the United States. The Bernarr Macfadden Foundation sponsored a program in which almost twenty thousand Alabama boys exercised regularly on unused airfields. Macfadden operated physical-culture camps near New York City each summer and later opened elementary schools, named after himself and modeled on Castle Heights, in Tarrytown and Briarcliff Manor, north of the city.

In many ways, the world finally seemed to be coming around to Macfadden’s way of thinking. Arthur Kallett and Frederick Schlink’s book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, a warning about the impurities in pharmaceuticals and processed foods, was one of the best-selling books of 1933 and 1934. Physcultopathy had endured long enough to trickle down to a new generation. In a replay of Macfadden’s experience at the Missouri Gymnasium, a skinny sugarholic teenager named Jack LaLanne attended an Oakland lecture on nutrition and exercise given by one of Macfadden’s most loyal disciples, Physical Culture staffer Paul Bragg, and exited with a new sense of purpose. Within a few years he exercised himself into a physique champion, on his way to revolutionizing the fitness industry. Charles Atlas graduated from midsize advertisements in the back of Physical Culture to large ones near the front; the strongman auditioned several humiliating cartoon scenarios before selecting his immortal come-on, “THE INSULT THAT MADE A MAN OUT OF MAC.” In a 1935 Chicago Tribune story about the retirement of Chicago Bears guard Joe Kopcha, the 220-pound All-Pro lineman told the paper how Macfadden’s regimen had helped him to become a star prep athlete. “He went without meat for three years,” the Tribune reporter wrote, “and when the high school coach objected, Joe curtly told him that if it was good enough for Macfadden it was good enough for him.”