“A remarkable story. . . . It is to Mark Adams’s great credit that, in Mr. America, he has rescued from obscurity a man whose influence is still felt in this country more than a century after he muscled his way onto the national scene.” —Wall Street Journal
“Hilarious. . . . Delightful. . . . If Macfadden hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent him.” —Washington Post
Mr. America is the fascinating true story of Bernarr Macfadden, a self-made millionaire and founding father of bodybuilding, alternative medicine, and tabloid culture. Madfadden’s impact on popular American culture is everywhere, from yoga to raw food diets to US Weekly, and Mr. America vividly brings to life this charismatic and intriguing character.
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Mark Adams is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in GQ, Outside, the New York Times Magazine, Fortune, and New York. He lives near New York City with his wife and three sons.
Read an Excerpt
How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet
Little Orphan Bernie
Winston Churchill has said that all the famous men of his acquaintance were the products of an unhappy childhood. Macfadden cannot remember having had even a moderately cheerful day before he was twenty.
...Robert Lewis Taylor, New Yorker, October 14, 1950
No one in the tiny Ozark town of Mill Springs, Missouri, was likely to have been surprised when William McFadden decided to drink himself blind one day in 1873. McFadden, a Union Army veteran with a menacing face and bushy beard, was a sometime farmer with only three interests in life: hunting deer, drinking corn whiskey, and playing the horses. In between these pursuits he would sometimes endure a few hours with his family, which consisted of his young wife, Mary, and their three children, the newborn baby Alma, three-year-old Mary, and four-year-old Bernard.
Gregarious in his few sober moments, William McFadden was transformed by alcohol into a monster. Years later, his famous son would recall the unhappy cycle of life in the two-room McFadden home. William would begrudgingly earn a few dollars from farm labor, invest his earnings in whiskey and long shots at the racetrack, then return home to the farmhouse on the Black River to beat his family.
What surely did surprise the residents of Mill Spring on that day in 1873 was that Mary had decided her marriage was over. She was not a strong woman, and at age twenty-seven she was thirteen years younger than her large, powerful husband. Once already she had run away to her parents' house with her two eldest children to escape William's abuse and give birth to Alma. This time, though, Mary had reason to believe she was leaving for good. She was ill with tuberculosis, a near-certain death sentence.
Mary packed up the children and crossed the Black River in the family's small skiff for the last time, pulling hand over hand on a rope strung across the water. She moved back in with her parents, the Millers, who lived in Ironton, forty miles upstate. A penitent William occasionally sobered up long enough to make the journey north and lurk outside the Millers' log fence, in hopes of rekindling his relationship with his wife. Instead, Mary sued for divorce. Bernard and his sisters never saw their father again. Within a year of their separation, he was dead from delirium tremens.
The Ozarks were a particularly bleak place in the 1870s. Missouri was bogged down in Civil War debt and battered by an economic recession, one of the worst in U.S. history. Missouri had, essentially, endured its own civil war. A large chunk of the state was taken and held by Confederates until 1862, and while Missouri nominally owed its loyalty to the Union, an estimated twenty-five to thirty thousand of its men fought for the Southern cause, including Frank and Jesse James, whose daylight robberies would terrorize the region into the 1880s. Its already poor roads were trampled by soldiers on the march, its draft horses had been conscripted by armies on both sides, and its rich farmland, where countless anonymous battles took place, needed to be reclaimed after years of disuse. Mill Springs was hit by a cholera epidemic the same year as Mary's final escape to Ironton. Two summers later, the state's crops were devastated by a plague of grasshoppers.
Against this backdrop, little Bernard grew into something of a mama's boy, a delicate child whom the local boys took malicious glee in dunking mercilessly in the local rivers. The earliest known photograph of Bernard, taken at around age four, shows a passive child with a weak mouth. He appears to be waiting for someone to take him by the hand and lead him somewhere. Perhaps he'd had a premonition of the childhood odyssey that lay before him.
Five years of suffering began at around age seven, when Bernard, who remembered being ill for most of his childhood, was vaccinated for smallpox in the manner standard at the time...by having a scab from a smallpox lesion applied to a cut in his arm. The price of immunity in his case was six months in bed from blood poisoning.
One morning not long after Bernard had recovered, his mother took him to St. Louis. They were met at the Mississippi River docks by a strange gentleman. Mary explained to her son that the man was going to take him away on a steamship. She did not mention a return trip. Long after the boy had grown up and reinvented himself as Bernarr Macfadden, he recalled the resulting scene as being "torn screaming and clawing and kicking in a frantic agony of fear" from his mother's arms. The man managed to pull Bernard from Mary and lead him toward the wharf, but the boy broke free and ran back to his mother, tears running down his face. Mary told her eight-year-old son the cold truth. Hopeless and nearly destitute, wasting away from late-stage tuberculosis, she no longer had the energy or means to care for a growing boy. She was sending him off to the cheapest boarding school she could find.
Bernard wouldn't learn much at the school, whose name is unknown but which Macfadden later referred to as an "orphan's home" and "the Starvation School." In his opinion, the gruel-fed orphans in Oliver Twist were overstuffed gluttons compared to his classmates, one of whom took him aside upon his arrival and whispered, "You'll find out. They never feed us nothin'." In truth, the headmaster did feed them something, and that something was peanuts. In the years before George Washington Carver alchemized goobers into everything from soap to axle grease, the legumes were sold as hog feed at about a dollar a ton. If a boy at the Starvation School found himself in possession of a nickel, it was often invested in more peanuts, which would be consumed "shells and all," Macfadden said. Were one of the students blessed with the bounty of an entire apple, "no boy ever asked for the core, for there was no core to give away."Mr. America
How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet. Copyright © by Mark Adams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“Bernarr Macfadden was the ultimate life coach and one of the great influencers of his generation. He set the stage for the world of health and self help as we know it today. Mr. America is required reading for anyone committed to increasing the quality of their life.”
“This book is a delightful and colorful piece of true Americana. Enjoy every twist and turn of it.”
“When you read this book, you’ll be astonished you hadn’t heard of Bernarr Macfadden—one of the most fascinating, brilliant, bizarre, and influential characters in American history. I know I was. I want to thank Mark Adams for bringing him to light in this great biography.”
“Hilarious. . . . Delightful. . . . If Macfadden hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent him.”
“A witty, perfectly pitched re-creation of a long-forgotten and madly outsized figure. Adams will make you laugh with fresh information on every page, and in this age of flabby, overlong biography, his delightful production has a leanness that Macfadden himself would approve of.”
“Imagine if Rupert Murdoch, Jack LaLanne, and Dr. Andrew Weil all got together and had a baby, then raised that child on wheat germ and 100 pushups a day. Only such a prodigy could give you a sense of the sheer eccentric magnificence of Bernarr Macfadden.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
About: The rise and fall of Bernaar MacFadden, a great promoter of what he called "Physical Culture" which espoused fasting, exercise and healthy eating. Magazines, books, health centers and even a religion are created by Macfadden in order to bolster his cause, bank account and ego. As I had never heard of Macfadden before this book, you can imagine that his huge popularity and empire doesn't last.Pros: A thorough look at a forgotten man, some of whose ideas were ahead of their time (such as eat less, exercise more). Includes notes and bibliography. Adams even tries some of Macfadden's health regimens like fasting and eating all raw foods.Cons: Pictures in a clump in the middle of the book, I like them spread out and placed where they fit the text. No in-text citations. Because Macfadden had so many business ventures, it can sometimes read like a dry business book.Grade: B
I had a hard time putting down this book and I'm really not that kind of reader. I finished it in just a couple of days. The story of Bernarr McFadden is one of those rags to riches to rags stories. He was the victim of his own hype. A victim in that he started to believe he was as brilliant as he convinced his customers he was. Then he started thinking he was better than them and that's when things went wrong. Kind of like many of our modern politicians. You have to wonder what this guy could have done in the age of 500 TV channels and the internet and all. It was a very well written book that I thoroughly enjoyed.