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The First Great Muscleman



Rob Hardy


Among the hundreds of things that go though the mind of Mr. Leopold Bloom as he trots through the streets of Dublin on 16 June 1904 in Ulysses is his conviction that he ought to get back to doing the exercise program devised by Eugen Sandow. We learn that Mr. Bloom has Sandow's 1897 book Strength and How to Obtain It on his shelves, and that when he used to do his exercises, there were gains in inches of his musculature, because he charted them using the Sandow method. Mr. Bloom is imaginary but Sandow is not, and Sandow was on the minds of many real people in the late Victorian and Edwardian times. He has a fine biography in The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow (Victorian Secrets Limited) by David Waller. Waller is a former journalist and a biographer of the Victorian socialite Gertrude Tennant, and he is a distant relative of Sandow, although he assures us he has inherited none of the strongman's physique. Sandow was surprisingly influential in his time, and left a legacy of physical culture that we continue today in our way. Sandow's story is fully told here, with good humor and wonder that a man famous for going about nearly naked became a celebrity in Victorian times. 




As a self-promoter and showman, Sandow did not always tell the truth about himself and his origins, so Waller has had to do a lot of sorting, and there are often likelihoods rather than certainties in the story reported here. He seems to have been born in Königsberg in 1867, an illegitimate child given up for adoption. He said that he had no particular physical prowess as a child, but this may have been his way of emphasizing that he had worked to attain his muscles just as he wanted his adherents to do. He told the story that when he was fifteen, his father took him to Rome and he saw the statues of muscular heroes there. His father reflected that nowadays people cultivate their minds and neglect their bodies, but the young Sandow sensed something wrong in the modern way of doing things. He started frequenting the gym, and it made a difference in his appearance. When he went to university, he concentrated on anatomy, and his exercise system was to codify the regimen according to muscles used. He broke with his family over wanting to become a showman in the circus (or maybe he wanted to avoid conscription), and he toured Europe as a strongman.  




He was taken on this tour by a showman named Attila who had invented many of the standard poses in the stongman's routine. Sandow was originally just a janitor in Attila's gym, but became a star attraction. When Attila was puffing him for engagements in London, a notice read in part, "The Great Muscular Phenomenon of the Century, the Statue of Hercules Alive; declared by H.M. The Emperor of Russia to be the Strongest and Best Developed Man HM had Ever seen..." In 1889, a challenge was issued for a test of strength in London, a challenge from "Sampson" and "Cyclops" for hundreds of pounds. The contest, held at the Royal Aquarium Music Hall, included an adroit performance by Sandow, who entered in evening attire with a monocle, and stumbled over the weightlifting hardware littering the stage. The crowd, and Sampson and Cyclops, laughed at the challenger, as bets were placed. All of a sudden, Sandow ripped off his evening suit, to reveal his muscular body dressed in tights. There was no further laughter, and Sandow easily repeated and then bested the weightlifting feats of those who had issued the challenge. 




It was the start of Sandow's music hall career. He would travel about Britain, and later America, performing on the stage with singers, trick cyclists, comedians, and trained seals. His act impressed all who saw it: "Sandow would start with a revealing warm-up act, followed by poses designed to exhibit his musculature, and then feats of strength. These might include lifting a (quite genuine) horse above his head, or cartwheeling across the stage with dumb-bells attached to his arms and legs, and turning a somersault with 56 lb weights in each hand. He would break an English penny in half between his finger and thumb or tear apart a pack of cards or two, or sometimes three in one go. He lifted up fully grown men with one hand, his arm outstretched. He had a special set of hollow dumb-bells with large spheres at each end. He would lift these above his head with one hand, and, to the audience's delight, a fully-grown man would emerge from each of the spheres."  




The posing aspect of the act had its own life. Sandow was often photographed, and although some of the photos inevitably were used as pin-ups by homosexuals, they represented a real masculinity that was less threatening than that of the aesthetes like Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. There was certainly a double standard at work. No woman could have respectably done what Sandow did, posing literally with nothing but a fig leaf. Many men and women would get an arousal from the pictures, but the pictures made no scandal. Similarly, his near-nakedness on stage was not considered dangerous at a time when it was a scandal for an actress to show her ankle. Not only would he perform on stage; when he was squired around America by showman Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario had the brilliant idea of a more intimate display for the ladies. For a charity donation of $300, after the show in the star's dressing room, women might have a private interview and the opportunity to explore the wonders of Sandow's musculature with their fingers. "It's unbelievable," said one woman after she had been convinced to take a feel. Then she passed out and needed smelling salts to be revived. 




Sandow married the daughter of a man who had taken photographs of him, and her family became his business supporters. Sandow's act was less revealing after the marriage. There are few details about his home life, but he seems to have been devoted to his wife and their two daughters, and though it would not be surprising if he had the sort of dalliances of a peripatetic showman, there is no evidence that this ever happened. Part of the explanation may be that although he never completely gave up going on the boards, Sandow became a prosperous businessman. He had plenty of management work to do as the world took up his exercise books and exercise equipment, and as his disciples attended his institutes of physical culture. When there was a first competition for bodybuilders in England, held at the Albert Hall in 1901, Sandow presided, along with one of his acolytes, Arthur Conan Doyle. Sandow was ascendant then; but his German origins proved a stigma that his British citizenship and rampant patriotism could not overcome, and he overextended his business efforts (even to selling cocoa). He wound up buried in an unmarked grave in 1925 after an automobile accident. 




Still, as Waller lets us know, he is influential even now. The famous mesomorph Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged the importance of Sandow's emphasis on using many repetitions with lighter weights, and said, "He was the first one that shaped his body with muscles." The pictures in this book indeed show a handsome, well-developed, muscular man, without the exaggerated and freakish excesses of modern bodybuilders. Sandow was the model for "The Sandow," a statuette that goes to winners of the Mr. Olympia contest. More important, Sandow was a model of self-improvement, and if you lift weights or exercise in the fitness programs common today, it is due at least in a small part to his influence more than a century ago. This delightful biography restores a fitness icon to his significant place in history. 




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