Charles Atlas: Muscle Man

How the original 97-pound-weakling transformed himself and brought physical fitness to the masses

Charles Atlas playing tug of war with the Rockettes atop Radio City Music Hall (Charles Atlas LTD)
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Terry Todd, an author and expert in sports and exercise history, who with his wife, Jan, has collected a major archive of physical culture memorabilia at the University of Texas, is also skeptical. "Dynamic-Tension can build muscle only to a limited degree," Todd says. "To build up muscle you need weights. But back then it was hard to make money in weights. You needed something cheap to make and cheap to ship. Atlas wasn't the only one who saw the value of mail order."

In fact, a fellow bodybuilder says he saw Atlas lift weights when they worked out at a Brooklyn YMCA in the early 1940s. "I never saw Angie lift heavy," says Terry Robinson, referring to Atlas by another nickname. "He just did a lot of repetitions." Robinson did not hold it against him. Atlas "was always smiling," he says. "He never showed off. He was a humble guy."

Atlas may have sneaked a few weight curls into his workouts, but as far as anyone knows he otherwise lived the virtuous life. He was an active promoter of the Boy Scouts. Asked for advice, he would say, "Live clean, think clean and don't go to burlesque shows." On the rare occasion when he dropped by a nightclub, usually in the company of Roman, he tried to talk the other patrons into switching to orange juice. And unlike Roman, who spent his growing fortune on luxury cars, yachts and private planes, Atlas had few known indulgences beyond a taste for white double-breasted suits. He lived in a four-room, fifth-floor Brooklyn apartment with his wife, Margaret, to whom he was singularly devoted, and his two children, Diana and Charles Jr. (Charles Jr. died last year of respiratory failure at age 89; Diana, now 89, declined to be interviewed for this article.) The family retreat was a modest home at Point Lookout on Long Island.

But he seemed to love the limelight. There are innumerable photos of Atlas hoisting bathing beauties or horsing around with boxers Max Baer and Joe Louis and golfer Gene Sarazen. He seemed to delight in publicity stunts, most of them engineered by Roman. He leashed himself to a 145,000-pound locomotive in a Queens railroad yard and towed it 112 feet. He entertained inmates at Sing-Sing (prompting the headline "Man Breaks Bar at Sing-Sing—Thousands Cheer, None Escape"). To protest an office dress code, he encouraged all the women on his staff to wear shorts to work in the summer. Then he appointed his private secretary president of the Long Live Shorts Club.

Atlas may have been more canny than he seemed. He never missed the chance to promote his business, whether posing with fans or lamenting the slovenly state of American manhood. A guest "appearance" with former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey on a radio show in 1936, following a trip to England to open a London branch of the company, gives a flavor of Atlas' promotional skills:

Dempsey: Well, Charlie, I am certainly glad to see you safely back in the United States, but thought you might surprise us all by coming back on the German zeppelin.

Atlas: No, but if they ever reach the stage where they have flying gymnasiums I might do that, Jack.

Dempsey: How did you find the English people, Charlie? Did they seem to be in as good physical condition as our boys over here?

Atlas: On the contrary, they appeared in much better physical condition than our boys. The Englishman ... doesn't allow that chest of his to slip down below his belt, where you find most of the American chests. If some of the boys over here don't begin taking daily exercises, they'll be carrying their paunches around in baskets."


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