After his parents died young from ill health when he was 11, he spent his life fighting early death and overcoming physical challenges. Macfadden thrived on hard work and outdoor living. Inspired by the Police Gazette , he took up boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics to harden his body and rejected alcohol, tobacco, and meat to preserve his health. Always energetic, the irrepressible Macfadden often worked several jobs and frequently wrestled professionally in circuses.
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He slept on the floor so his blood would be able to flow according to its natural magnetic rhythm. He exercised his hair follicles by rhythmically yanking his mop, producing a disheveled appearance to match his threadbare suits. Guards at a Manhattan office building once barred him from entering until they realized that he owned the place. Macfadden made millions selling Americans on his eccentric theories about health.
He founded Physical Culture City, a New Jersey town that banned phenomena its proprietor deemed unhealthy—alcohol and tobacco, doctors and medicines. In his monthly, Macfadden emphasized the scarcely clad human form, usually but not always female. Above, at 80 on the day he wed Johnnie Lee in April Born Bernard Adolphus McFadden on a Missouri farm in , he was orphaned at 11, then apprenticed to a farmer who worked him mercilessly but made him strong. After two years, he ran away, hopping freights to work on farms and construction sites.
He pumped iron, wrestled, and boxed. At 18, he opened a gym in St. Hungry for fame and riches, he moved to New York. But first he changed his name. Reborn, he opened a Manhattan gym decorated with photos of him posing as Hercules, and taught wrestling and physical fitness. In , he debuted Physical Culture, featuring articles by him illustrated with photos of his ripped form, nearly nude.
He crusaded against drinking, smoking, coffee, corsets, high-heeled shoes, vaccinations, medicines, and doctors, who he mocked as quacks. His timing was perfect. America had entered one of its periodic fads for fitness. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Men exercised with Indian clubs and medicine balls; women marched to ban booze. He penned a novel whose weakling protagonist, thanks to the Macfadden method, becomes A Strenuous Lover. Anthony Comstock, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, seized the posters and arrested Macfadden for obscenity.
The court convicted him without penalty. The hoopla drew 20, customers. Police again arrested Macfadden in , when a New Jersey postmaster charged that a Physical Culture article about venereal disease was obscene. The jury convicted Macfadden; the judge sentenced him to two years in prison. He filed an appeal, meanwhile traveling the country denouncing prudes and censors. But the appeals court upheld his conviction. Macfadden loved sex. He married four women, cheating on all of them.
His exercise regimen included a vacuum device designed to enlarge the penis. Swimmer Mary Williamson, 19, won; soon Macfadden, 45, had made her wife number three.
She climbed onto a high table and jumped feet first onto his rock-hard abs. Mary bore seven children. The family followed the Macfadden fitness regimen—plenty of fruits, vegetables, and exercise, no doctors, no medicines. When their infant son Byron went into convulsions, Mary begged Bernarr to call a doctor. He refused, plunging the baby into a hot sitz bath. Macfadden tried to quash the story, lest readers lose faith in his wisdom.
Many readers valued that wisdom. Hundreds wrote him long letters, telling sad stories of romantic folly and seeking advice. A sampling published in Physical Culture proved so popular that Macfadden solicited reader stories for a magazine he introduced in —True Story, which sold so well he ginned up True Romances, True Experiences, and True Detective.
Nobody seemed to mind, least of all Macfadden. In the s, he ran twice for governor of Florida. But he kept his foundation, and continued his proselytizing.
In , he started a religion he called Cosmotarianism, preaching that people who took care of their bodies would go to heaven. Few disciples signed on. In , at 80, he married Johnnie Lee, a year-old fitness buff. Two years later she caught him in bed with another woman. He sweet-talked her into forgiving him.
But when Johnnie again caught Bernarr en flagrante, she filed for divorce. The fitness pioneer and genius publisher and promoter, found himself alone, broke, and—worst of all—ignored.
Living in a seedy Jersey City, New Jersey, hotel, he was jailed twice for missing alimony payments. In October , stomach pain drove him to fast for three days. He lost consciousness; the hotel manager called an ambulance. Within days, Bernarr Macfadden was dead of a urinary tract infection.
Putting the “Fad” in Macfadden
In his biography, Mr. As a teenager, he discovered bodybuilding, which led to an early career as a barnstorming professional wrestler. Partly as a means of promoting his device, in he launched a modest periodical called Physical Culture. The magazine was an immediate success, no doubt due in large part to the photographs of health-looking men and women wearing as little as the publisher could get away with.
Bernarr Macfadden born Bernard Adolphus McFadden , August 16, — October 12, was an American proponent of physical culture ,  a combination of bodybuilding with nutritional and health theories. He founded the long-running magazine publishing company Macfadden Publications. He was the predecessor of Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne , and has been credited with beginning the culture of health and fitness in the United States. Born in Mill Spring, Missouri , Macfadden changed his first and last names to give them a greater appearance of strength.
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And virtually all that is known about his life before , when he arrived in New York City, comes either directly from him or from one of his worshipful authorized biographers. Still, this record is worth examining. His mother was a consumptive, his father a drunkard who died of delirium tremens when Bernard was four, and the farm a money-loser. Within a few months the proprietor told him that Mrs. McFadden had died. Consumption runs in the family. At the age of twelve, beefed up by hard labor and country air, he hit the road and landed in St.