MM: I think most people would like to know what triggered your interest in Macfadden. How and when did you first get the idea that you would write a book about him?
MA: I was fascinated by Macfadden’s story from the first time I picked up a copy of ‘Physical Culture’ around 1997, but I didn’t start thinking seriously about a book until around 2002. I read Robert Ernst’s fine Macfadden biography, of course, so the idea that a fresh look at Macfadden was needed didn’t occur to me. Then coincidentally I was wasting time surfing the internet at work one day and found a copy of Mary Macfadden’s ‘Dumbbells and Carrot Strips’ for sale. I started reading it while flying to Indianapolis to write a story for the New
York Times Magazine, and somewhere over, let’s say Cincinnati, I realized that Macfadden’s life might make a good book for a modern audience.
MM: You've mentioned that you wrote the book in your spare time and it took much longer to complete than you had anticipated. How long did it actually take?
MA: Wow, did I underestimate how long it would take. I’d originally guessed that I could get it done in two years. I have a day job as a magazine editor, so I was basically limited to writing in the wee morning hours, at lunch, on weekends and over vacations. There are coffee shops all over midtown Manhattan where the staff probably remembers me as the weirdo with a laptop and a stack of old magazines filled with pictures of half-naked men. I signed to do the book in the spring of 2003 and finished it in January 2008. Harper Collins was
MM: Since you work in New York yourself, were you able to visit any of the places where Macfadden lived and worked? Any discoveries?
MA: It was a huge geographic advantage. I think it was the great historian Barbara Tuchman who said you need to walk the battlefields to understand a war, so to be able to stroll past the places where Macfadden once walked barefoot was a huge help in wrapping my head around him as a character. New York City is a small town in a lot of ways—the guy who designed my website just told me he’s working with a high-end chocolatier whose street address sounded familiar. It turned out to be located in the old New York Evening Graphic building. I don’t think BM would have approved. I was also able to drive up to Dansville, New York, where the shell of the old Physical Culture Hotel still overlooks the town. Getting inside the “Castle on the Hillside” was like stepping into a time machine.
MM:You wrote that talking with Brewster Macfadden caused a change in the mental image of Macfadden that you had previously formed while you were researching information for the book. I'm guessing that what changed was your understanding of the human side of Macfadden. Would that be correct? Care to try to describe his human side?
MA: Absolutely. Macfadden is such a huge and cartoonish character, and he left so few personal papers behind, that I found it hard to imagine him as a father or husband. I’d imagined him as the Shiva the Destroyer of natural health, laying waste to evil doctors and white- bread purveyors. But when Bruce and his wife Peg described having Thanksgiving dinner with him in New Jersey, I suddenly had insight into the man as a mortal, too. I think he was essentially a very well-intentioned individual who let his crusades blind him to some of the
needs of his family. That said, Bruce had almost nothing but nice things to say about his “Pop,” as he called him.
MM: When Macfadden started out early in his career giving lecture tours and forming Physical Culture clubs, it is my understanding that the public response to his message and to him personally was phenomenal. Can you comment on this?
MA: That was one of the more intriguing aspects of his story. Remember, he started ‘Physical Culture’ from scratch in 1899, working alone. Within a few years he was selling 100,000 copies per month. He was also selling out lecture tours and writing books by the armload. His first bodybuilding show at Madison Square Garden in 1903 was a sellout, and the fire marshals had to turn away would-be spectators at the second one in 1905. He obviously tapped into a deep vein of interest in health and fitness.
MM: Since very few if any of his ideas about health were original, what do you think were his major contributions?
MA: Macfadden was the Elvis Presley of American fitness and alternative health. He didn’t invent most of his ideas, but through his charisma and presentation he was able to make them palatable for a mass audience. I think he’s absolutely the father of weight training in the USA. His ideas on avoiding refined and processed foods are more popular than ever; he was the godfather of what came to be known as “health food.” He made exercise an American obsession. And he did more than anyone else, including other major figures such as John Harvey Kellogg and Charles Atlas, to popularize the idea of “wellness,” or maintaining your health through diet and exercise rather than visiting the doctor when something goes wrong.
MM: How historically significant do you do you think were Macfadden's battles against obscenity charges?
MA: That’s a hard one to answer. A lot of people were fighting that battle in different ways, such as Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist (whom BM was secretly sending money to). But because he had a platform in ‘Physical Culture’ he was able to help bring sex out of the bedroom and into the mainstream culture. I do think Americans in general have a sort of myopic view that sex began with ‘Playboy’ and the Kinsey Report, but that’s simply untrue.
MM: There were a lot of pictures of nude and semi-nude men on the covers and inside Physical Culture Magazine. One reviewer of your book said he wished you had explored in more depth the "homoeroticism that inflects so many issues of Physical Culture." My view is Macfadden simply idealized nudity and the perfection of the human physique in much the same way that the Ancient Greeks did. Would you care to comment on the subject?
MA: It would have mortified Macfadden to think that his favorite magazine had homoerotic appeal, but looked at today it’s a little hard to miss. (You may have noticed that if you search on Ebay for old issues, sellers often tag copies of ‘Physical Culture’ for their “Gay Appeal.”) But you’re right, he simply worshipped the sculpted human form. I laughed out loud when I read the ‘Physical Culture’ story in which the writer describes Macfadden caressing Rudolph Valentino’s beautiful thighs like an art historian might run his hands over Michelangelo’s David. One of the most enduring sections in ‘Physical Culture’ was ‘The Body Beautiful,’ comprised of photos that readers— male and female—sent in of themselves flaunting their impressive physiques.
MM: The AMA really campaigned hard against Macfadden. It appears that for a time at least they won the battle, but now people seem to be "rediscovering" Macafadden and responding very positively to what they are learning about his message. I know you can't speak for the medical profession, but in the process of writing the book did you see
evidence of the AMA's attitude toward Macfadden today?
MA: I don’t think the AMA has any opinion of Macfadden today, but over time the group has definitely accepted a lot of the ideas he championed against their strident opposition. For example, in the 1920s, the AMA mobilized forces to crush chiropractors and osteopaths, whom they lumped together with snake-oil quacks of all stripes. Nowadays your doctor is likely to refer you to a chiropractor or osteopath.
MM: In what areas do you think Macfadden's ideas about health were correct and in which areas do you feel that he went too far? In other words, what of value can we learn from him and is there anything we need to be cautious about?
MA: It’s easy to boil Macfadden’s core message down to its essence: if you eat less and exercise more, and let nature guide your health, you will feel better and live longer. I think that’s pretty unassailable advice, and has been proven time and again over the last 2500 years. At the same time, that complete faith in the healing powers of nature led him to refuse to believe in vaccination, surgery and pharmaceutical intervention of any kind. It may have cost the life of one of his children. So I think the lesson to take away is to think of Macfadden’s system of Physcultopathy as preventive medicine. And if an organic apple a day can’t keep the doctor away, make an appointment with your physician.