Look at Me

As far as Bernarr Macfadden was concerned, the main aim in life was to be noticed

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A physical fitness guru and publishing genius of the early part of this century, Bernarr Macfadden was a man ahead of his time. Some people also thought he was a nut. Having developed a superb physique through a vegetarian diet and daily workouts, in 1899 he founded a magazine called Physical Culture. It sold for 5 cents and was an instant success. In it, Macfadden preached the virtues of healthy living, warning readers against tobacco, alcohol and coffee. And at a time when sex was rarely mentioned publicly, Macfadden wrote that it was natural, healthy and enjoyable. With this regimen, he vowed, he himself would live to 150.

In 1919 he launched True Story, the first confession magazine, followed by True Romance and others. In his biggest coup, he bought Liberty, a popular general-interest magazine. He was written up in Time and Newsweek, and at the sight of a press camera he would strip to his underwear to show off his muscles. He gave interviews standing on his head. To preach his doctrine of fitness, he founded a religion he called Cosmotarianism (those with good bodies would go to heaven) and tried to buy his way into political office.

As author Joseph F. Wilkinson reports, therein lay the seeds of Macfadden's financial ruin. The story of Macfadden's rise and fall makes for fascinating reading. But perhaps it was New York's playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker, who summed it up best: "Everybody knows you can live to be a hundred by following Macfaddden's ideas. But New York wants to live the way I do.... We won't live as long, but we'll have more fun."

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