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Macfadden, Bernarr (1868-1954)

Macfadden, Bernarr (1868-1954)

Publisher, aspiring politician, and professional eccentric: all of these labels might describe Bernarr Macfadden, one of the characters who populated the American cultural scene of the twentieth century. However, although Macfadden made his fortune publishing the phenomenally successful True Story, he requested that his tombstone would read simply, if not modestly, "the father of physical culture." He was in fact very proud of his publishing successes; however, he always hoped that he would be remembered primarily for his advocacy of modern principles for good health (pro-vegetarianism, pro-exercise, anti-smoking). Ironically, in light of the fact that some of his physical health principles do now appear to have been prophetic, Macfadden was always viewed as a quack. His preference for spectacularly ill-conceived cures (ranging from dunking ailing infants in ice cold water, fasting for days, and refusing all conventional medical care), in tandem with his penchant for publicity stunts of dubious taste (such as publishing photographs of himself and his family half-nude), made him a laughing stock in the first half of the century. His anti-prudery, pro-sexual liberalization stance merely added to his contemporary disrepute. Thus, ultimately, Bernarr Macfadden has not been remembered for his work as the self-proclaimed guru of "physical culture," but remains famous for the role he played as an enormously successful publisher, and infamous as one of the most peculiar popular icons ever to grace the American scene.

During the 1920s, Macfadden made a huge name for himself as the publisher, first of True Story, then of the whole stable of "True" magazines (True Romance, True Experience, True Detective), and finally, of the doomed daily New York newspaper, The Graphic. Riding on the waves of these successes, he attempted to further his career in the fields of physical culture and of politics. Unfortunately, in these, his favored public arenas, Macfadden's failures proved as grand as his successes. By the 1940s, the publisher had not only failed in every one of his various bids for public office, but had also lost his publishing empire, his wife and family, and even the support of the many working-class Americans who had once admired him—al-though they wouldn't vote for him. The finale to Macfadden's story was not a happy one, but the man himself remained undaunted. In 1949, on his 81st birthday, he made a parachute jump in front of his new, 42-year-old wife. In that same year, as in the years that preceded it and those that followed, millions of Americans continued to buy True Story. And, after a fashion that would have very much pleased Macfadden, today we see the realization of his most cherished and personal dream in the cult of the quest for perfect bodies and perfect health that has overtaken late twentieth-century America. The name Bernarr Macfadden may conjure up a comical image, but some of his ideas have endured.

Born in 1868 in the Ozarks, Macfadden was a child of poverty. He spent his early years working at odd jobs and moving from the home of one relative to another. His father died when he was very young, and his mother, who was too ill to care for her child most of the time, died when the boy was 11. A skinny, sickly child, he almost succumbed to tuberculosis in his youth, but after his recovery, he determined that he would never again be weak or ill and thereafter devoted his life to the pursuit of good health. The young Macfadden started working out at gymnasiums, a hobby which eventually led to jobs as director of athletics at a small college in Missouri, manager of a gym in St. Louis, and eventually to the establishment of his own gym in New York City. In 1898, he began publication of the magazine, Physical Culture. In that magazine, Macfadden frequently railed against traditional medicine, a move that would pit him in a permanent battle with the American Medical Association. However, the magazine was modestly successful and enabled him to pursue other dreams.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the publisher established a series of cheap vegetarian restaurants in New York City, offering the poor nourishment at a price they could afford, and in 1905, he established an alternative community, a physical culture "city" at Spotswood, New Jersey. The community was a failure. Where Macfadden had envisaged 30,000 healthy Americans, there were merely 200 devotees who lived at subsistence level while working night and day trying to build their "city." Meanwhile, Macfadden, who rarely lived at the site (leaving his wife and his secretary/mistress to run the venture), continued with his physical culture crusades. He mounted a "physical culture" exhibition at Madison Square Garden, resulting in his first run-in with Anthony Comstock's Society for the Suppression of Vice. Although Macfadden was released after it became clear that his "obscene" models were actually wearing flesh-colored tights, he was never again free of the anti-vice society's keen attention. Soon after, Macfadden was arrested when he published a serialized story in Physical Culture about the dangers of venereal disease (a tragic but entertaining tale of a young man's downfall). This time Macfadden was found guilty on obscenity charges and sentenced to two years of hard labor. In 1911, after years of appeals, he was pardoned, though not exonerated, by President Taft. All his life he would declare that his publishing, and other work, was dedicated to the eradication of dangerous prudery. In his time, that stance was increasingly viewed as little more than a cover for the propagation and support of pornography and debauchery. Whatever the case, Macfadden came to be most famous for his exposure of the sexual realities and secrets of American society.

In 1919, he achieved his first really great success with the publication of True Story. The magazine, which presented first-hand confessions of sex and other sins, was enormously popular with its young working-class audience, and Macfadden began to make his first millions as his magazine achieved its first million readers. Characteristically, he used the money from True Story to pursue a series of other strange ventures. In 1924, he launched his first newspaper, The Graphic, which he imagined as a crusading tell-all newspaper "for the people, by the people, and of the people." Walter Winchell got his start as a gossip columnist at the Graphic. At first the newspaper, humorously dubbed "the pornographic" was a great success, but financial mismanagement led to its demise in the 1930s. However, during the 1920s, it seemed as if Macfadden had the Midas touch. Believing his own publicity, he began to imagine himself a great American leader, and attempted to enter politics, hoping eventually to run for president. He failed in bids to become the mayor of New York, governor of Florida, and "secretary for health" (a position he hoped Roosevelt might establish with him in mind). As part of his political image, he trained 30 of Mussolini's soldiers in the principles of physical culture, almost at the same time that he began publication of a magazine edited by Eleanor Roosevelt entitled Babies, Babies, Babies. The Roosevelts, however, dumped Macfadden as they became increasingly aware of his embarrassingly peculiar and eclectic interests.

Ultimately, all of Macfadden's efforts to enter politics were spectacularly unsuccessful, not to mention personally damaging. Having invested so much money and time in promoting his public ambitions, he lost control of his personal affairs, and allowed minority stockholders to gain increasing control of True Story. When, in 1941, they accused him of using the magazine's money to fund his campaigns, and of fudging circulation figures, he was forced to relinquish his control of the company. At home, things were even worse. Macfadden had been a strong patriarch, forcing his family (including the many children named in his image, such as Byrnice, Braunda, and Byron) to live by strict physical culture principles. Eventually, his wife Mary revolted. Although Macfadden claimed that he wished to divorce Mary because she had become too fat for his healthy taste, she cited his refusal to allow her a normal life and his determination that she should continue to bear children even when her pregnancies were considered life-threatening, as reasons for their divorce. In 1954, Mary Macfadden wrote what should be considered one of the first celebrity exposes, in which she claimed Macfadden was a bad father, a fraud, a semi-fascist, and a generally all-round bad guy. Devastated by his former wife's betrayal, he died the following year of an attack of jaundice precipitated, ironically, by a three-day fast.

Bernarr Macfadden died a penniless failure. Yet, in spite of his several reversals of fortune, he managed to place himself permanently on the historical map of American culture. Many of the cultural values he tried to sell have found a market. True Story endures today, while the growth of talk shows suggests an ongoing American penchant for the public confessional. The sexual liberalization of American society, if only in the conservative terms that Macfadden imagined it, is a fait accompli. Many of his key health principles now enjoy widespread support, and there has even been a revival of scholarly interest in Macfadden's work as a publisher, physical health proponent, and spokesperson for the voiceless. Scholars do debate the value of Macfadden's contributions, and where one sees the championing of causes and the merits of certain aspects of his particular philosophy of "physical culture," another sees vicious demagoguery or the exploitation of the ignorant and innocent. Pornographer or sexual liberal, champion of the poor or purveyor of the worst in popular taste—unsurprisingly, there is little room for agreement over the contradictions inherent in the story of Bernarr Macfadden, and the fact that the debate continues would give Macfadden heart. For, as he once said when questioned about the negative publicity he received, "They're laughing Henry Ford into a greater success the same way." In his heyday, Macfadden saw no need for critical approval. All the affirmation he needed was to watch the circulation figures of True Story magazine grow. The popular vote of his readers was Macfadden's confirmation of his own success.

—Jackie Hatton

Further Reading:

Cohen, Lester. The World's Zaniest Newspaper: The New York Graphic. Philadelphia, Chilton, 1964.

Ernst, Robert. Weakness Is a Crime: The Life of Bernarr Macfadden. New York, Syracuse University, 1991.

Gavreau, Emile, and Mary Macfadden. Dumbbells and Carrot Sticks. New York, Henry Holt, 1953.

Hatton, Jacqueline Anne. True Stories:Working-Class Mythology, American Confessional Culture, and True Story Magazine, 1919-1929. Unpublished Dissertation, Cornell University, 1997.

Hunt, William. Body Love: The Amazing Career of Bernarr Macfadden. Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

Oursler, Fulton. The True Story of Bernarr Macfadden. New York, Lewis Copeland, 1929.

Wood, Clement. Bernarr Macfadden: A Study in Success. New York, Lewis Copeland, 1929.

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