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The Talented Mr. Macfadden

Okay, last time I said that we had gone to Placitas several years back, visited an estate sale, and I had been amazed to discover that the (deceased) individual whose house it had been in had in his possession papers from the fabulous, the eccentric, and the slightly crazy Bernarr Macfadden.

Okay, maybe more than slightly. But, still...

So who was Bernarr? Well, he was born Bernard Adolphus McFadden in 1868, and he died as Bernarr in 1955.  Between those dates, he was...well...sort of a combination of Charles Atlas, Arnold Schwarzenegger (but without Arnold’s capacity for common sense), William Randolf Hearst, Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, the Energizer Battery Bunny, and the Looney Toon of your choice.

His story: he was born a sickly child and orphaned young.(1) His caretakers sent him to live on a farm, where (he said later) a combination of hard work, natural food, and fresh air brought him to the peak of health. He then went back to the city...and got sick again. He decided that from then on that he would practice only healthy living and, more, he would bring the gospel of exercise, pure living, and what would today be called “organic food” to America as a whole. Somewhere along the line he changed his name to Bernarr. Apparently he thought it sounded more vigorous than Bernard.

And...surprise, surprise!...”Bernarr” was a success. He gave classes in bodybuilding, wrote pamphlets on popular health, started magazines...and, whoa, pretty soon he was Mr. Physical Culture , and the ruler of a publishing empire that included periodicals (Physical Culture, Liberty, SPORT), true confession magazines (a genre which he seemed to help invent), book publishers, and a newspaper, the New York Graphic, which in the 1920s was said to be the wildest paper in the known universe. Lester Cohen, who worked there, called it “The World’s Zaniest Newspaper.”(2)

About the photos: Several today. First, here’s a photo of Bernarr Macfadden as he was in 1910. The source on this is Wikipedia: It is in the public domain. Second, an example of the cosmographs that graced the Graphic’s pages. This one illustrated the “Daddy and Peaches” scandal. This is also from Wikipedia and is believed to be in the public domain.

I ran across Bernarr and company because of the New York Graphic. I went through a stage of being fascinated by the 1920s in general, and ‘20s journalism in particular. The Graphic intrigued me for two reasons. First, it employed some of the most important names in American journalism -- many of them getting their start there. Walter Winchell, the (in)famous gossip columnist, was there in the early 1920s. In fact, you could say the Graphic gave him his start. He’d written before, but it was at the Graphic that he became a household name.(3)

And none other than Ed Sullivan (remember him? He of the “Really Big Shoe” and who introduced the Beatles to a reluctant America?) was also at the Graphic. (4) He took over as Winchell’s replacement when that man left for greener pastures.

But, most of all, the Graphic did scandal like no one else. There wasn’t a society outrage, murder, affair, or sexual contretemps that didn’t make it onto the front page--usually with graphic illustrations, real photos or “recreated” as “cosmographs.” (5)  There was the “Daddy and Peaches” scandal.(6)  There was the “Rhinelander” divorce. (7) There was Earl Carroll nude-girl-in-a-bathtub (full of champagne) affair. (8) There much else.

And, of course, there was Bernarr, behind it all.

I was extremely interested in both the man and his newspaper, and seriously planned on including them in my Ph.D. dissertation. But then I and Clark University had a parting of the ways, so that put paid to that. Still, maybe, one of these days, I’ll get to doing something more about him. (9) is difficult to write entirely sympathetically about good ole Bernarr, particularly in this day of Covid, fake news, anti-intellectualism, and so on. You see, he regarded doctors, medical science, and vaccines as fraudulent, and encouraged his readers (and his family) to avoid all three. These attitudes resulted in the deaths of at least two of his children, and heaven knows how many of his true believers suffered similarly.(10)

 Still, I would have liked to have known more about him, and as I stood there in the house in Placitas, I also regretted not being able to meet the man who had been its owner, and who (it seemed) had known Bernarr...even if only a little.

But, there was to be a consolation, for, a few minutes later, Martha and I gathered up our purchases (arms full of books) and headed upstairs to pay.

And there, standing next to the register, was the woman we’d encountered in the room full of exercise equipment, and who’d directed us to the basement

We didn’t know it at the time. But...we were just about to make a new friend.

More to come.

Third, and finally, as a bit of relief from all this weirdness, a picture of Martha at one our favorite local diners. As usual, nothing to do with the story. I just like the photo.


1. I have a variety of sources for Benarr Macfadden, but it is easiest for me to simply cite his Wikipedia entry, which is here:

2. The New York Graphic, The World’s Zaniest Newspaper, by Lester Cohen, Chilton Books, Philadelphia, 1964.

5. A “cosmograph” was an early form of faked photograph. The Graphic’s photo editors would use actors to “recreate” a scene. Then they would take photos of the actual people involved, cut their heads and faces from the image, and then paste them onto the new photo. It sounds incredibly crude, and it was incredibly crude, but it was magical for the audiences of the 1920s. See

6. The disastrous marriage of actress Peaches Browning and millionaire real estate developer Edward West "Daddy" Browning was the stuff of legend. She was 15 and he was 51 when they married in 1926. “Daddy” supposedly had some fairly weird behaviors, including several in the bedroom, and the couple’s divorce was covered with gleeful abandon by the press, particularly the Graphic. See:

7. This was the divorce of Kip Rhinelander and Alice Jones. Rhienlander was a member of a wealthy white family in New York. He met Alice Jones, fell in love, and married her. The problem was that she was bi-racial. When Rhinelander’s parents found out, they pressured him to divorce her. He stood by his wife for a time, but finally yielded. Again, the divorce was covered closely in the press as it fit in terribly well with the racial anxieties of the age. See

8. Earl Carroll was an American theater producer. His revues were famed as “The Earl Carroll Vanities.” In 1926, he hosted a party for Harry Kendall Thaw, who was himself infamous for the murder of architect Stanford White. At the party, a young actress, Joyce Hawley, entered a bathtub of what was said to be champagne. Unfortunately for Carroll, this was during Prohibition, and he went to jail for six months. The incident hurt his pride, but it didn’t seem to hurt his career, and he soon resumed operations at his Earl Carroll Theatre in New York. Later still, he would move to California and become a fixture in Hollywood. See:

9. Note to Clark University. No hard feelings. Really. We’re fine. Water under the bridge. And that “composograph” I’m doing entitled “The Day Cthulhu The Demon God Visited 950 Main St, Worcester, MA, And Stomped It Flat” is purely a bit of harmless fun.

Copyright©2024 Michael Jay Tucker

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