Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mount TBR #38

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Weakness is a Crime: The Life of Bernarr Macfadden – Robert Ernst

Bernarr Macfadden is a forgotten figure nowadays despite his great influence on our culture. In the Twenties and Thirties millions and millions of readers devoured his daily newspaper The New York Graphic  and his weekly magazines Liberty, True Detective, True Story, True Romances, Dream World, Ghost Stories, and the movie mag Photoplay. He got his start at the turn of the 20th century with Physical Culture, a weekly that promoted health, fitness, wellness, and diet. It is arguable that as a mass market publisher, his only rival was Henry “Time-Life” Luce, who would still come in a weak second.

Macfadden was a child born weak and sickly in hard-scrabble Missouri. He was unloved and shuffled among grudging relatives as poor as church mice. By his older teenage years he was on his own. He has very little education and little taste – he changed Bernard to Benarr because it sounded like the roar of a lion. However, at the turn of the century, he had native genius enough to see that body building and physical fitness activities – along with pro sports – were the coming thing. By the 1920s he had built a fortune with his publishing ventures. He was arrested for obscenity a couple times for lewd pix in the mags but will still able to catch the ear of important people like Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Alf Landon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas Dewey.

The rich media titan had political ambitions to be President of the United States. In the Thirties, he peddled the usual claptrap about shipping all the immigrants back to their homelands (funny how the message never ever changes: lower taxes, less government regs, anti-other, etc.). He was a narcissist and egomaniac, not caring what people said about him as long as he was talked about. He was bombastic yet inarticulate. He had an insatiable yen for sex, cheating on all his wives.

Yes, he reminds us all of Somebody Else We Know. But Macfadden didn’t hold grudges and because of his poor childhood had a feeling for people in hard times.

Macfadden is largely forgotten now because he was hard to admire and easy to ridicule. A showman of the 19th century style, he indulged in shameless bragging that thinking people thought was obnoxious. His sensationalist publications flaunted sexuality and semi-nudity.  In scarcely literate language supported by nutsy thinking, he rejected modern medical science by advocating weird diets and strange exercise regimens. The AMA and its member doctors frequently criticized Macfadden for boosting health fads like the raw milk diet and dynamic tension calisthenics a la Charles Atlas. He was an often kooky figure in his own time though he did support practices we accept as given in our day: tolerant views about sexuality, daily moderate exercise, restrained eating with little meat and lots of fruits and vegetables, fasting, no smoking or drinking and good posture (click here to listen to his awful earnest prose).

This biographer did a great job by interviewing the surviving participants (or their progeny), digging out the primary documents, and explaining what it means to us today. His style is easy to read and he keeps his sense of humor despite Macfadden’s terrible provocations (i.e., how he treated his children is harrowing). I strongly recommend this book to readers who are interested in media history, the Twenties and Thirties, magazines in pop culture, tabloids and the social idea and value of fitness.

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