Bernarr Macfadden, millionaire, publishing tycoon, bodybuilder and kook, once had an empire in Englewood Jim Beckerman, Staff Writer, @jimbeckerman1
Three cheers for tabloid TV, "alternate facts," fad diets, anti-vaccination hysteria, Chris Hemsworth’s abs — all the great 21st-century breakthroughs.
And three cheers for the man who anticipated all of it. A man who was once world-famous. A man you may never have heard of, even though he long had an Englewood address. A man named Bernarr Macfadden.
He was born Bernard. But he changed it to Bernarr because — he said — it sounded like the roaring of a lion. Bernarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
"He was a character," said Tom Meyers, historian for Fort Lee, who grew up in the town’s Coytesville section, which abuts the property formerly owned by Macfadden.
"He was very famous. Infamous, some would say," Meyers said.
Bernarr Macfadden (Photo: Library of Congress)
Macfadden, who died in 1955, was one of the world’s first superstar bodybuilders.
He was also a millionaire tabloid publisher, self-help writer, novelist, proponent of "alternative medicine," presidential hopeful, and proprietor of "health" restaurants and spas.
"He was this sort of eccentric, colorful guy," said writer Ben Yagoda ("Will Rogers: A Biography," "The Art of Fact") who wrote about Macfadden for American Heritage magazine.
"I feel like we don’t have people like that anymore," Yagoda said.
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In terms of his own footprint, Macfadden left few traces.
One is "True Detective," the acclaimed HBO crime drama series that takes its title from Macfadden’s most famous magazine. True Detective was one of a number of Macfadden publications with names like True Romances and True Story. "Confession magazines," they used to be called.
"True Detective": Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson. (Photo: Michele K. Short)
The other is Macfadden’s Pond — also known as Macfadden’s Wetland — a picturesque, weed-choked lagoon in what is now Flat Rock Brook Nature Center, a 150-acre preserve in Englewood made up partly of property that was, between 1927 and 1969, the Macfadden estate.
"We don’t call it a pond any more because it’s not acting like a pond," said Steve Wiessner, executive director of the Flat Rock Brook Nature Association. "It’s more transitioning into a wetlands zone. You’d have to dredge the pond to keep it a pond."
Tom Meyers fished in McFadden Pond in Englewood, as a child. Meyers and his friends rode bikes in the area now designated the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center where the pond is located. The pond is named after Bernarr MacFadden, a once famous bodybuilder. Monday, May 6, 2019.
Not much of a legacy, perhaps. But indirectly, Macfadden has cast a long — and perfectly proportioned — shadow.
Call him kook or genius, trash-monger or visionary, fanatic or prophet. Macfadden was a man ahead of his time, who forged — for good or ill — much of what dominates our culture in 2019.
"It’s a little scary to think of him being let loose today, what with the Internet," Yagoda said.
Dreams and schemes
Macfadden was a man of many enthusiasms.
He was an advocate of virility, vegetarianism, "sex hygiene," fasting, barefoot walking, "hydropathy" (that is, hydrotherapy), "brain power," double-decker subways and milk.
Bernarr Macfadden (Photo: Flat Rock Brook Nature Association)
His over 100 books purported to help cure everything from hair loss to vision loss to diabetes to headaches to toothaches to sexual problems to asthma to weight loss to weight gain to constipation. Among his titles: "Virile Powers of Superb Manhood," "Woman’s Sex Life," "Vaccination Superstition," "The Truth About Tobacco" and "The Miracle of Milk."
He was also a man of a thousand schemes.
He created hotels, spas, restaurants, sanatoriums. He founded boarding schools in Westchester N.Y. (Scarborough and Tarrytown). He created "Physical Culture City" — a village of fitness enthusiasts, in Middlesex County, whose residents sometimes scandalized the neighbors by walking around in the nude.
Anticipating L. Ron Hubbard, he tried to establish his own religion, "Cosmotarianism."
Anticipating the Kardashians, he gave his children names that began with "B": Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Braunda, Byron, Berwyn and Bruce.
Anticipating Donald Trump, he tried to parlay his tabloid fame into a presidential run, by seeking the Republican nomination in 1935. For good measure, he also planned to run for mayor of New York, and senator from Florida.
Anticipating the course of Western civilization, he helped create a new media culture. One in which facts were as elastic as the waistband on his posing trunks.
"The rest of the publishing industry was kind of more respectable, trying to go for objectivity," Yagoda said. "He was going the other way."
There had been yellow journalism before. There had been reporters telling "stretchers." But True Detective, True Story and True Romances used the word "true" in the Orwellian sense. True, as in, "not true."
"It was so ironic that when he used the word ‘true,’ it wasn’t," Yagoda said. "You see that today: ‘fake true,’ as a marketing ploy. He might have been the first. He certainly perfected it."
His "confession" magazines, and his newspaper The New York Evening Graphic, launched in 1924 and often called the city’s first tabloid, purported to print fact and mostly printed fiction. Pictures were typically composites."He’d take somebody’s head, and put it on somebody’s body," Yagoda said.
For many years, Macfadden got away with it. Then in 1927 he printed a piece called "The Revealing Kiss," using the names of eight actual residents of Scranton Pennsylvania, who had neither kissed nor revealed. They sued — and won $500,000.
"He went for broke with his tabloid stuff," Yagoda said.
His other magazines included Physical Culture, Liberty, Photoplay — once America’s leading movie magazine. Combined, their circulation peaked at over 7 million.
But the peaks everyone talked about, back in the day, were Macfadden’s biceps.
"He thought health in everything was the most important thing," said Irmari Nacht, co-president of the Englewood Historical Society. "To the detriment of everything else."
Bernarr Macfadden (Photo: Flat Rock Brook Nature Association)
Bodybuilders, in the early 1900s, were a new and exotic sort of creature. And MacFadden, a modest 5 feet 6 inches, was the first home-grown specimen most Americans had seen.
Born in Missouri in 1868, "Body Love Macfadden" —Time Magazine’s nickname — was a sickly child who turned his life around through weightlifting. He wasn’t quite the first celebrity bodybuilder (Germany’s Eugen Sandow beat him by a couple of years). But to early-20th century Americans, he was a living Greek god, the man who inspired Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne, and so, by extension, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and every actor who’s worn a Spandex suit in a Marvel movie.
“Weakness is a crime," he proclaimed. "Don’t be a criminal.”
His daunting exercise program, laid out in numerous books and his "Macfadden’s Encyclopedia of Physical Culture," was the stuff of wisecracks. "Boy! What Bernarr Macfadden would give for these beds!" says a character in the popular 1941 Broadway comedy "My Sister Eileen" as she plumps down on a rock-hard mattress.
People also made fun of his publications: around New York, the Graphic was referred to as "The PornoGraphic" (Macfadden was in fact arrested several times for obscenity.)
Still, everyone knew the name. Macfadden was a celebrity who hung out with other celebrities: Clark Gable, FDR, Shirley Temple were his pals. He appeared to have it all: fame, money, a publishing empire, and the world’s most wonderful body.
And then he met Mrs. Bernarr Macfadden.
Trouble in paradise
Mary Williamson Macfadden was actually the third Mrs. Macfadden. They met in 1913, when he judged a contest for the "most perfect specimen of English womanhood."
"They toured England giving gymnastics exhibitions," Nacht said. "And as a highlight of the show, the 142-pound Mary jumped from a 7-foot platform onto Bernarr’s taut stomach, to demonstrate graphically his fitness and strength."
Clearly, the girl for him.
"He needed to marry her because she was so perfect, and so they could raise all these perfect children with the initial ‘B,’ " Nacht said.
In 1927, the couple moved to an ornate, Italianate villa on Linden Avenue in Englewood, complete with tennis court, miniature golf course, gymnasium, swimming pool and an artificial pond, dug in the midst of Flat Rock Brook — today’s Macfadden’s Wetland — where they could crunch, curl, and bench press happily ever after.
This sign at Flat Rock Brook Nature Center, pointing to Macfadden’s Wetland — formerly Macfadden’s Pond — is one of the few remaining traces of Macfadden in Englewood
"He and his wife frequently bemused the neighbors in Englewood … by exercising naked on the lawn," wrote Bill Bryson in his book "One Summer: America, 1927."
Possibly the neighbors took it in stride; there were, Meyers says, lots of bohemian types living in Englewood in those days. "It must have been very idyllic," said Meyers, who used to bicycle to the pond with his friends when they were kids.
But something was wrong. By 1932, husband and wife were living apart. In 1946, they divorced.
What happened? One can only speculate.
Perhaps they had a spell of sexual dysfunction — for which the cure, according to Macfadden’s 1923 book "How to Keep Fit," is abstinence. "A rest of two or three years may be necessary," he wrote.
More likely, the problem was that Macfadden was, by most accounts, a bit of a domestic tyrant.