The Freaky Father of Fitness

He parachuted over the Seine on his 84th birthday; he nearly won a Senate seat in Florida in 1940; he had an obscenity conviction commuted by President Taft; and had the Federal Trade Commission order him to stop selling his book promoting hair growth through hair pulling. He was Bernarr Macfadden, and he has a fair claim to being the father of the modern manias for health food and bodybuilding— and also for gritty tabloid journalism and reality TV.

In Mark Adams’ Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet (Harper), the largely forgotten pulp publishing magnate and fanatical physical training guru has his wild story told for the first time in many decades. Combining a healthy love for the undraped human body with a brutal dedication to stark privation in perfecting it, Macfadden comes across as one of the 20th century’s most driven and fascinating kooks, fighting to liberate America from the chains of prudery, appetite, the medical establishment, and good taste.

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