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An important new work from one of our premier cultural historians.
Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man considers the surprisingly complex evolution in representations of the white male body in late-nineteenth-century America, during years of rapid social transformation. John F. Kasson argues that three exemplars of physical prowess — Eugen Sandow, an international vaudeville star and bodybuilder; Edgar Rice Burroughs's fictional hero Tarzan; and the great escape artist Harry ...
An important new work from one of our premier cultural historians.
Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man considers the surprisingly complex evolution in representations of the white male body in late-nineteenth-century America, during years of rapid social transformation. John F. Kasson argues that three exemplars of physical prowess — Eugen Sandow, an international vaudeville star and bodybuilder; Edgar Rice Burroughs's fictional hero Tarzan; and the great escape artist Harry Houdini — represented both an ancient ideal of manhood and a modern commodity. They each extolled self-development, self-fulfillment, and escape from the confines of civilization while at the same time reasserting its values. This liberally illustrated, persuasively argued study analyzes the thematic links among these figures and places them in their rich historical and cultural context.
Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man
WHO IS THE PERFECT MAN?
EUGEN SANDOW AND A NEW STANDARD FOR AMERICA
Images of male muscular development and bodily perfection have both a distinguished lineage and a troubled history in Western culture. Though securely established in classical Greece and Rome, their position afterward became highly precarious, particularly in the context of a Christian pursuit of spiritual perfection that denied the body. In response, artists from the Renaissance on have been remarkably resourceful in attaching both male and female nudes to classical, biblical, ideal, or exotic subjects. In addition, beginning in the 1840s, the new medium of photography offered an expanding range of images of the nude in more and less acceptable guises: academic studies for artists; records of medical and scientific subjects; ethnographic evidence of exotic peoples; and pornography. Still, even in the late nineteenth century, to display the unclad male figure, let alone the female one, bereft of divine, allegorical, or alien trappings—not as a god, virtue, ruler, hero, exotic figure, or scientific specimen but simply as a person—was to risk falling from the lofty plane of the nude to the shameful one of the merely naked.1
Given this context, the emergence of the unclad male body from the realms of high art, science, and low life into the broader culture toward the turn of the twentieth century demands historical investigation.That body did not simply walk free. It faced suspicious inquiries as to its status. And it carried heavy aesthetic and cultural baggage, into which were stuffed a multitude of claims and aspirations, fantasies and anxieties. This baggage bore various tags, sometimes prominently, about manliness, heroism, power, virility, and eroticism. The figure who could lift them all would be regarded as not an ordinary but a perfect man.
This was perhaps the weightiest baggage that accompanied Eugen Sandow when he disembarked from the liner Elbe in New York in June 1893, and it only increased during his appearances across the United States in the next year. Sandow arrived at a key moment: just a month earlier, the stock market had crashed, slowly pulling the economy into a deep depression that profoundly threatened the sense of independence and control once enjoyed by men. Already bankers and businessmen feared ruin; soon millions of workers were unemployed, and tens of thousands of tramps drifted around the country. The depression intensified a widespread sense of gender malaise. To many, manhood seemed no longer a stable condition—absolute and unproblematic—but rather an arduous, even precarious achievement that had to be vigilantly defended. Supposedly a biological category, manhood was also a performance.2 And Sandow quickly emerged as the most brilliant performer of manhood of the 1890s. In his live appearances at vaudeville theaters, in widely circulated photographs, newspaper and magazine illustrations, and in some of the very first moving pictures, Sandow's unclad body became the most famous in the world and his name a synonym for muscular development. He helped to reshape notions of what male bodily perfection—and masculinity itself—might be in modern industrial society. And for all his active participation in this process, this "perfect man" was not simply a figure waiting to be discovered. In significant respects he was created out of the cultural demands of his time.
FROM ADONIS TO HERCULES
An acrobatic strongman on the English music-hall stage, Sandow made his American debut on June 12, 1893, at the Casino Roof Garden at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street in New York City. He wasan unusual attraction for the Casino, whose manager took pride in its being among the most refined variety theaters in the country, offering comic operas and other stylish acts in a theater of fantastic Moorish design. Sandow's six-week run came during the slack season, one made worse by a heat wave that baked the city and by the economy's plunge into depression. After the stock market's collapse in May, credit had tightened like a fist. Businesses failed daily. The Erie Railroad went bankrupt in July, and other railroads rapidly followed. Rich, middle-class, and laboring men alike had reason to feel tense about the future and uncertain about themselves. Depending on their class and political position, they would cast the blame on labor agitators or greedy capitalists, Democrats or Republicans. All were receptive to a man who embodied strength and confidence—as were many women of all classes. The wealthy saw Sandow first, but instantly newspapers and illustrated magazines made him a household name.3
Sandow went onstage immediately after a performance of William Gill's musical spoof Adonis, one of the most popular American plays of the time. In retrospect, we can see the two acts not simply as diverting offerings on a single variety bill but as contending performances of masculinity, the first of a series of such contrasts that Sandow's American tour entailed. To appreciate the effect of Sandow's performance, we need to watch the previous act closely.
The title role of Adonis, the perfection of male beauty, was taken by a handsome, trim matinee idol named Henry Dixey. Adonis, first produced in 1884, when he was twenty-five, had made his career. Dixey was a "master of pantomime," in the words of one critic, and had made "his body ... a thoroughly trained instrument of expression, of which he has perfect and complete control." He was so successful at embodying this popular theatrical ideal of physical perfection that he was virtually trapped in the role, performing it more than seven hundred times in New York alone, in addition to tours around the country and an acclaimed run in London.4
Adonis was a late-Victorian burlesque lampooning the conventions of melodrama, society plays, and gender roles as it presented women in aggressive competition for and pursuit of an irresistibly beautiful man. Gill's play turned inside out the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor falls in love with his female creation, whom Aphrodite brings to life. (The Pygmalion story was beingfreshly popularized at the time both in comic treatments, including a play by W. S. Gilbert performed in New York in 1881, and in paintings by the British artists G. F. Watts and Edward Burne-Jones and the Frenchman Jean-Léon Gérôme.) In Gill's play a sculptress has created in her statue of Adonis a "perfect figure." Indeed, he is so beautiful and alluring that she cannot bear to sell him as promised to a wealthy duchess. Seeing Adonis, the duchess, together with her four daughters, is instantly and passionately smitten as well. The daughters try to conceal their ardor as each offers a refined observation about the figure's artistic merits: "Isn't it lovely." "What grace in that nostril." "What symmetry in that eyebrow." "What indications of strength in those biceps." Until the fourth sighs, "And what lovely calves."
To resolve the question of ownership, an obliging goddess brings the statue to life. Theatrical photographs suggest how Dixey comically achieved this metamorphosis. The determinedly absurd plot combined the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe (in which Dixey had earlier played) and a college farce. The pursuit of Adonis rapidly becomes entangled with three figures who are burlesques of stock characters of melodrama: the Marquis de Baccarat, a quintessential "polished villain"; Rosetta, a self-declared simple and poor "village beauty ... pursued by all the lordly vilyuns for miles around"; and Rosetta's rustic father, Bunion Turke, who, doubting his daughter's virtue, repeatedly declaims the necessity of shutting against her his "poor but honest door" and "poor but honest heart"—even as he attempts to steal Adonis's lunch. To heighten the absurdity (and the gender inversion), Adonis ludicrously assumes the disguise of a village maid and is briefly courted by the Marquis. For her part, Rosetta, who promptly falls in love with Adonis and who boasts that she weighs 120 pounds, was played by the hefty Amelia Summerville. (In an earlier production she had been played by the 300-pound George K. Fortesque in drag.) Ultimately, Adonis is cornered by all his female pursuers, who demand that he choose among them. Instead, he beseeches the goddess who gave him life, "Oh take me away and petrify me—place me on my old familiar pedestal—and hang a placard round my neck:—'HANDS OFF.'" Thus, exhausted by his stint as a flesh-and-blood object of desire, Dixey as Adonis reassumed the pose of a perfect work of art as the curtain fell.
Adonis pointed to a new set of attitudes governing gender relations and bodily display, in which genteel women were assuming some of the prerogatives that earlier in the century had been reserved for men.5 That a man might be the construction and possession of women, valued solely for his beauty, his body openly admired and aggressively pursued by them (as well as courted by his own sex)—such was the stuff of both male fantasies and male anxieties. In its farcical way, Adonis played with the meaning of gender in modern life and with the question of whether anatomy indeed determined destiny or merely offered a pretext for roles and disguises. Still, if at the end of the play anyone in the audience were asked who best portrayed the perfect man, the answer would undoubtedly have been Henry Dixey.
Then it was Sandow's turn. When the curtain rose again, Sandow, clad only in a loincloth and Roman sandals, had assumed the statue's pose in Dixey's stead—and the contrast made the audience gasp. One observer wrote, "New York has come to look upon Dixey as a fairly well-made young man. When New York has seen Sandow after Dixey, however, New York will realize what a wretched, scrawny creature theusual well-built young gentleman is compared with the perfect man." Slowly, this new statue came to life as Sandow struck classical poses and moved his "forest of muscles" at will. For almost a decade, Dixey had successfully played the part of a beautiful classical statue come to life, but Sandow took on the dual roles of sculptor and masterpiece. He instantly eclipsed Dixey. In the words of one journalist at the time of his debut: "It was hard for the spectators ... to believe that it was indeed flesh and blood that they beheld. Such knots and bunches and layers of muscle they had never before seen off the statue of an Achilles, a Discobolus, or a fighting gladiator." Another reporter marveled: "He postures so as to bring the muscles more prominently before the audience, and he appears to be able to make them rise and fall just as easily as he can open and shut his eyes."6
In the second part of his act Sandow demonstrated his strength and dexterity. With a crisp, military manner and to piano accompaniment, he performed a series of feats with two fifty-six-pound dumbbells, repeatedly exceeding what the audience thought possible. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, he turned a back flip; he did the same feat with his ankles tied together and his eyes blindfolded. Then, with a great show of exertion, eight men brought onstage a huge barbell with a basket holding a man at each end. Using only one hand, Sandow lifted the two men over his head, stopping momentarily to hold the barbell straight out from his shoulder as a further proof of his strength. In still another feat displaying his powerful abdominal and dorsal muscles, he had his knees fastened to a Roman column and then bent backward to lift two men over his head.
The finale of Sandow's half-hour performance was the human bridge. Making his body into an arch with his chest upraised and his hands and feet on the floor in the "Tomb of Hercules" position, he supported a wooden platform on his shoulders, chest, and knees. Then three trained horses (actually ponies), with an advertised combined weight of twenty-six hundred pounds, stepped onto the platform and stayed there for about five seconds supported by Sandow, whose "every muscle ... stood out like whipcord."7
From the moment of his New York debut, Sandow was seen not simply as a remarkable figure of strength and showmanship but also as a new ideal of the male body which brought to the fore a host of personal and cultural issues. At the height of his career, from 1893 to1906, he repeatedly toured the United States (the total duration of his visits amounted to nearly seven years, far more time than he spent in his adopted home of England or anywhere else), but already by the end of his second American tour, in 1894, his presence had dramatically altered the discussion. His appearance shattered the prevailing image of the strongman: the thickset, barrel-chested performer in circuses, dime museums, and beer halls who might be mistaken for a blacksmith but never for a gentleman, let alone an Adonis. Sandow brilliantly succeeded in winning the applause of elite theatergoers even before he gained the attention of the broader middle and working classes. To them all, he represented a new standard of male fitness, beauty, strength, and potency. Starkly exposed and thoroughly publicized as he was, he became an icon of the hypermasculine who with his extraordinary muscular development literally embodied characteristics that many men and women believed were threatened by modern life.
Spectators viewed Sandow's body as both an attraction and a challenge, a model of strength and an object of desire, an inspiration, a rebuke, and a seduction. He simultaneously incited superlatives and stirred disquieting controversies and ambiguities. He was touted as the "strongest man in the world" and the "perfect man," yet he was pursued by challengers, imitators, and impostors who claimed they could duplicate or better his feats. He was celebrated as a monument not only of strength but also of classical beauty, yet his body was criticized as abnormal, even decadent. He cultivated prestige in both medical science and sport, yet he was supremely a creature of the vaudeville stage, the newspaper interview, and the photographer's studio. He presented himself as a modern gladiator with a heroic aura, yet he aroused charges of fabrication and deception. He was ostensibly an apostle of asexual health and strength, yet he implicitly promised to restore lost virility. He never acknowledged himself as an object of erotic interest, yet he enlarged the boundaries of the display of the male nude in live exhibitions and in photographs that elicited intense interest from women and especially from men at a time when the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality did not squeeze so tightly as to inhibit a man's frank admiration of another man's body.8 He claimed to embody an ancient heroic ideal of manhood that had been lost in the modern world, yet he turned his body into a commercialspectacle and a commodity whose image was widely reproduced and sold.
THE RECOVERY OF LOST MANHOOD
Superlatives and ambiguities began with Sandow's accounts of his upbringing and training. At the outset of his American tour, he concocted an autobiography that emphasized his eminently respectable origins and heroic achievements, and he reiterated it throughout his career in interviews, articles, and amply padded books (beginning with Sandow on Physical Training, a compendium of physical instruction, biography, press clippings, photographs, and line drawings.9 In the process he changed his name from Friedrich Wilhelm Müller to a version of his mother's maiden name, Sandov (frequently Anglicizing his new given name of Eugen to Eugene as well). He preserved his background in Prussia, where he was born on April 2, 1867, but elevated his father from a fruit and vegetable seller in the markets of Königsberg to a successful jeweler and merchant. At the same time he shrewdly insisted his strength was not a gift of nature but an attainment strenuously earned. Indeed, the more he retold the story, the more his health as a youth declined. In some of his earlier newspaper interviews during his first American tour, as well as in his first book, he was "healthy," though less strong than his fellows; in later accounts he grew "very slight and sickly" as a child, and "my parents, as well as the physician, had serious doubts as to whether I would live."10
In this way Sandow struck chords about masculine strength and self-determination that have been played by many exemplars of American manhood from his time down to our own. Making his body became a sign of a man's ability to make his way in the world against all adversaries, strictly on his own merits. A strong, muscular body was an emblem of strong character and command. The message could be used equally well to validate the achievements of men from obscure and privileged backgrounds.
Born in the lap of the upper class, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the turning point of his boyhood was his resolve to remake his "sickly, delicate," and asthmatic body into the strong, vigorous frame of afearless leader. Significantly, he determined to do so at the age of fourteen after a trip to Maine on which two boys taunted him unmercifully and he discovered himself helpless to lay a blow on either. His transformation was no seven-day wonder. but years of boxing lessons and exercise paid off. A decade later, in the Dakota Territory, when a profane, two-gunned barroom bully called Roosevelt "four eyes" and goaded him beyond endurance, the eastern dude met the challenge decisively: "As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right ... . When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head ... he was senseless."11
From the other end of the social spectrum, the leading American exemplars of physical culture in the early twentieth century credited Sandow for their own youthful conversions of body and will. The once frail and tubercular Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955) saw Sandow, perform in Chicago in 1893 and almost immediately began posing in classical and muscular attitudes himself. In 1899 Macfadden launched a monthly magazine, Physical Culture, which crusaded for health, fitness, exercise, and nutrition—as well as the "inspiration" of the muscular male (and occasionally female) body—with what might be regarded as missionary zeal, huckster's effrontery, or both. "Weakness is a crime," the magazine darkly warned readers. "Don't be a criminal."
A decade later, in 1909, sixteen-year-old Angelo Siciliano, a self-described "ninety-seven-pound weakling" and target of sand-kicking beach bullies, fastened a picture of Sandow on his dresser mirror and determined to emulate his hero. Within a few years he was performing as a strongman, first in sideshows at Coney Island, then on the vaudeville circuit. Having adopted the name Charles Atlas, he was proclaimed, in contests sponsored by Macfadden, the "World's Most Beautiful Man" in 1921 and "America's Most Perfectly Developed Man" the following year. For the next four decades, Atlas ruled as the most prominent physical-culture entrepreneur in the nation.12
All these men emphasized how, by dint of determination and method, they had transformed themselves from puny boys to men of strength, confidence, and command. The theme of metamorphosis lies at the heart of bodybuilding; and a longing for male metamorphosis lay deep in the culture of the United States and much of western Europe at the advent of the modern age. Sandow invoked it again and again.
Sandow dated his own conversion (almost certainly inauthentic) to the age of ten while on a studious Italian holiday with his father. By Sandow's account, in Rome he and his father pondered in art galleries the magnificently sculpted figures of ancient warriors and athletes "bespeaking power and energy in every limb." Sandow claimed to have asked his father not about the attainment of male power and virility but about their loss: "How is it that these men were so strong?" Why were men today so inferior in strength and stature? His father explained: "The heroes of old, my little Eugen, ... never lolled at ease in a carriage or a railway train." Modern civilization marked the ascendancy of the brain over the body, but the price was "world-wide degeneration in health and strength."13 Enraptured by this classical ideal, or so he later maintained, Sandow resolved to reclaim for himself, for men, and ultimately for humanity the health and strength they had lost.
But how? In Sandow's account he avidly acquired every book on athletics and exercise that "I could persuade my generous parents topurchase" and spent every spare moment at the gymnasium, all without much success. Only when he began to study anatomy seriously and to devise his own system of exercises to develop each and every muscle did he find "the key to the secret I had been endeavoring to solve." Here, it appeared, was a wholly individual achievement of almost Promethean proportions: to bring strength to the weak and health to the ill. From Sandow's account, one would never know of the enormously influential gymnastic movement founded by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) to revive German manhood after the humiliating defeats of the Napoleonic Wars or of the vast revival of enthusiasm for the classical Greek ideal of the male nude dating back to Johann Winckelmann in the mid-eighteenth century.14
In this way Sandow appropriated the prestige both of science and of classical art in his career as a bodybuilder pioneering the display of the nearly nude body. Here again, he was not entirely original. Among men, self-declared "professors" of physical culture grew commonplace in variety shows, music halls, and dime museums; and, especially among women, "living sculptures," "tableaux vivants," and "model artist" shows had for half a century borrowed classical subjects as the thinnest of pretexts for the display of the female body.15 Yet Sandow cultivated an air of bourgeois respectability that lifted him above these low entertainments. Though he admitted he served apprenticeships in circuses and wrestling matches on the European continent, he asserted that they came only after he dropped out of medical studies and the resulting rift with his father forced him to support himself. Throughout his career he cannily sought the appearance and demeanor of a gentleman, if a rather flamboyant one. Sandow early sensed, as would Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzan of the Apes, the importance of social credentials as well as great physical strength. Both Sandow and Burroughs were aware that a privileged class standing was vital in the new ideal of the male body, that class remained inscribed on the body, even the nude body. Class and, in Sandow's case, the incessant cultivation of classicism provided social and aesthetic cover that saved the body from mere nakedness.16
While knocking about the Continent in circuses and as an occasional artists' model (labors converted to picaresque adventures in his reminiscences), Sandow met one of the most successful professional strongmen, "Professor Louis Attila" (Ludwig Durlacher; 1844-1924), then living in Brussels. A canny self-promoter, Attila eventually claimed among his students Tsar Alexander III, King George of Greece, and Britain's King Edward VII. Under the professor's tutelage, Sandow vastly developed his physique through progressive weight training, and, even more important, he honed his abilities as a showman.17 Attila also orchestrated Sandow's first great breakthrough: his successful challenge in London for the title "strongest man on earth."
Challenges were a mainstay of stage strongmen, as they were of other stage performers (as we shall see with Harry Houdini) and of prizefighters such as John L. Sullivan. Formal challenges—including standing offers to best all comers and published challenges (known as cards) aimed at a specific rival—flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. These challenges, borrowing elements of the aristocratic duel, gave working- and middle-class men occasions to participate vicariously in dramas of strength, courage, and honor. And, of course, they contributed considerably to publicity and box-office receipts.18
In the fall of 1889 a French strongman who had taken the name Charles A. Sampson packed London's Royal Aquarium music hall as he nightly reiterated a dramatic challenge. Appearing with his protégé Cyclops (the Pole Franz Bienkowski), he offered a cash prize of five hundred pounds—as well as his self-awarded title, the "strongest man on earth"—to anyone who could duplicate his feats. In earlier appearances Sampson had performed such prodigies of strength as lifting a barbell that supposedly weighed an imperial ton (2,240 pounds) and raising a platform that supported an elephant. Yet like most stage strongmen, he accomplished these exploits far less through strength than through showmanship, deception, and special equipment that blurred the line between strongman and magician. A successful challenger to his title would need not only strength but also cunning.
With Attila's aid, on October 29, 1889, the unknown Sandow rose from the audience at the music hall to accept Sampson's challenge. He first surpassed Cyclops in a series of lifts. The following week he triumphed over Sampson himself, duplicating, if not as gracefully, the Frenchman's tricks of bending an iron bar, snapping a wire by expanding his chest, and breaking a chain with his arms.19 With this triumph Sandow supplanted Sampson as the leading strongman on theBritish music-hall circuit, a position he retained until his debut in the United States almost four years later made him an international star.
THE CHALLENGE OF SANDOW'S BODY
Sandow was not simply an athlete but also an actor, a man of the theater even more than of the gymnasium, and it is no accident that his career flourished during the great age of the music hall in England and of vaudeville in the United States, both of which placed a premium on specialty acts that could be reproduced for broad audiences night after night in a kind of industrialization of the theater. Onstage and off, he performed compressed dramas of masculine strength, agility, and physical development. These demanded great skill and training, to be sure, those not merely of sport but of showmanship. (Even his bent-press lifts might be regarded as less a proof of strength than a spectacular balancing act. Modern bodybuilding has continued to exist uneasily between sport and spectacle.) He offered his body not so much as an instrument of his achievements but as an achievement in itself: a heroic sculpture come to life. For muscular strength, development, control, and proportion, that body seemed instantly to set a new standard. To an unprecedented degree, Sandow made his body a subject of immense popular attention and cultural debate from the moment of his New York debut, as his press coverage clearly attests.
His extraordinary body fascinated observers, first, because it could be so successfully cloaked in a mantle of ordinariness. A Barnumesque giant who could lift a five-hundred-pound weight with his middle finger, break iron rods across his arms and legs, perform a regulation army drill with a good-sized man instead of a musket, or defeat three large and expert wrestlers at once would be impressive enough. That these and equally prodigious feats were achieved by a handsome young man of middle height who, when conventionally dressed, easily blended into a crowd seemed almost incredible. Sandow learned to cultivate this surprise and to startle spectators with the speed of his transformation from late-Victorian man-about-town to modern Hercules. When he had emerged from the music-hall audience to challenge Sampson in London, he had come onstage sporting a monocle and evening clothes especially designed to be whisked off, like the unveiling of an artist's masterpiece, to reveal his powerful, sculpted body. So American viewers repeatedly marveled how this genial blond man, who was "nothing like so formidable in appearance as many men one [met] on the street every day," could reveal a body of almost superhuman development.20 Thus, to his gradual transformation from sickly youth to strongman Sandow added a second, virtually instantaneous metamorphosis: from man of the crowd to marvel of muscle. This simultaneously placed Sandow in a class by himself and appealed to fantasies of self-transformation in boys and men, much as Clark Kent was to inspire later generations to dream of stripping off their street clothes and eyeglasses in a telephone booth and turning into Superman.
With his triumph over Sampson, Sandow claimed the title "strongest man on earth," and upon his arrival in America, he immediately won a new title: the "perfect man." Bodybuilding stresses muscle mass, definition, symmetry, and proportion, and Sandow embodied these to an unprecedented degree. His body's combination of well-proportioned, articulated, and extraordinary measurements fascinated trained observers and novices alike. By Sandow's own report, he stood five feet eight and a half inches and weighed 190 pounds. He boasted a neck of "18½ inches; biceps, 19½ inches; forearm, 17 inches; chest, normal, 52 inches; contracted, 46 inches; expanded, 58 inches; waist, 29 inches; thigh, 26 inches; calf, 18 inches." These numbers prompted one reporter to observe that Sandow's waist was "not much bigger around than" the renowned beauty Lillie Langtry's, while his chest was "a good deal bigger ... than [President] Grover Cleveland's." A century later, in a world of specialized equipment, systematic training, sophisticated diets, and anabolic steroids, Sandow's measurements would not earn even a second glance from experienced observers, but in 1893 they were staggering. Still more impressive was his overall muscular strength, control, and definition; before the names of the major muscle groups were common parlance, Sandow seemed a walking anatomic chart. "With the fond pride of a mother displaying a large family of children," he showed off his "collection of muscles one at a time and ... [dwelled] modestly but lovingly upon their merits." A reporter exclaimed over his triceps ("much bigger than the calf in an ordinary strong man's leg"), the externalobliques covering his ribs (each "twice as big around as a man's thumb"), and the erectors, lats, and other muscles on his back ("so thick, so deep, that the backbone, which is quite invisible, runs along at the bottom of a deep gorge"). Sandow proudly exhibited his trapezius muscles ("as thick through as the back of a man's hand is broad, and thicker in some places") and his abdominal muscles ("each about as big as a man's wrist"), which gave the impression of a corrugated washboard.21
He delighted still more in examinations by physicians and other experts, stripping for their inspection even as he shrewdly wrapped himself in their scientific and social prestige. The day before his public debut at New York's Casino Theatre, Sandow offered a private demonstration before a group of two hundred, including many physicians. Perhaps the most knowledgeable among them, Dr. Ramon Guiteras, a member of the New York Athletic Club and a former amateur boxer, declared him far stronger and faster than Sullivan, as well as "about the most perfectly developed specimen of a man I have ever seen."22
Mention of Sullivan reminds us that while Henry Dixey stood (especially among middle-class theatergoers) as one contender for the title "perfect man," because of his physical beauty, John L. Sullivan for a decade claimed that title (especially among working-class men), on account of his violent physical strength and fighting skill. Heavyweight boxing champion from 1882 until his loss to James Corbett ten years later, Sullivan attracted a greater following than any previous sports figure in American history. He early earned the nickname the "Boston Strong Boy," which stemmed from such feats as lifting barrels of flour and kegs of nails above his head; and during his boxing career he acquired numerous other appellations—"the Boston Hercules," "the Boston Miracle of huge muscles, terrific chest, and marvellous strength," "the finest specimen of physical development in the world."23
Born in Boston in 1858 to an Irish hod carrier, Sullivan worked as a plumber's apprentice, a tinsmith, then a mason, all before he was out of his teens. He was quarrelsome and restless. By temperament and physique as well as by class and culture, he proudly displayed the tough, manly bearing by which workers sought to affirm their independence in a time of shrinking respect and autonomy. His frequentdisputes and occasional fights lost Sullivan his early jobs, but his aggressiveness and bravado were to distinguish him as a boxer and to make him a beloved hero to the working class.
In Sullivan's career as a boxer, as in Sandow's as a strongman, sport and stage melded in intense performances of manliness. Sullivan began his boxing career at the age of nineteen, slugging in exhibitions at local variety theaters and music halls. Though he catapulted to fame on the basis of bare-knuckle prizefights, generally fought outside the law, his fortune and following were sustained by stage bouts in which he challenged all comers to last four gloved rounds of three minutes apiece. "My name's John L. Sullivan," he would boom from the stage, "and I can lick any son-of-a-bitch alive." (However, in an era of growing racial segregation, Sullivan refused to fight black contenders such as the Australian heavyweight champion Peter Jackson.) If there were no takers, he sparred with a fellow member of the troupe. On other tours he did not box at all but posed or acted. Exploiting the enthusiasm for "living statues," which Sandow would transform, Sullivan struck poses as "the biggest undressed heroes of antiquity": "the Dying Gladiator," "Hercules at Rest," "Cain Killing Abel," and so on.
In 1890-1891 he played the part of a virtuous Irish blacksmith in the tailor-made melodrama Honest Hearts and Willing Hands. With Sullivan's ascendancy, prizefighting moved from the shady pursuit of gamblers and saloon keepers to a more respectable mass entertainment that attracted solidly middle-class and professional patrons as well as the working classes.24
In 1892, as the thirty-four-year-old Sullivan trained for his championship bout with the Californian James Corbett, his celebrated body was rigorously examined by the nation's leading figure in physical education, Dudley A. Sargent. Sargent was best qualified to determine who the perfect man was from a purely physical standpoint, and, because he also examined Eugen Sandow the following year, he is best qualified to help us compare the two figures.
Sargent was both a scientist keenly interested in the possibilities of bodily perfection and a onetime circus acrobat who knew firsthand the kind of theaters in which both Sullivan and Sandow got their start. After a brief stint as a performer in his teens, he left such entertainments behind for the life of a college athletic instructor. He took charge of the Bowdoin College gymnasium in his native Maine at the age of twenty, two years before he enrolled as a freshman. He went on to receive a medical doctorate from Yale, transforming that college's gymnastic instruction in the process. Since 1879, as director of Harvard's Hemenway Gymnasium, he had trained numerous teachers of physical education and devised an array of muscle "developers," equipment sold throughout the country.25 He also took detailed body measurements of all Harvard and Radcliffe students. The distribution of variants among these measurements formed a bell-shaped, or normal, curve, which to Sargent, as to many would-be scientists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seemed an empirical revelation of natural law. If the statistically "typical" man stood at the absolute mean, or center, of the bell curve, then, Sargent believed, the "ideal" man possessed equally symmetrical measurements while improving all, so that not only was each element strong and well developed in itself but together they plotted a straight line in their relation to the typical man. Anthropometry proved, according to Sargent, "[t]here is a perfect form or type of man, and the tendency of the race is to attain this type." Yet one price of civilization, he believed, had been the contravention of this law. The specialization of tasks in modern life,as well as the use of conveniences, discouraged balanced exercise of the whole body and contributed to improper physical development and, with it, disease. Furthermore, because bodily health and moral vigor were interconnected, this imbalance and debility inevitably invited moral decline as well.26
Sargent was thus John the Baptist of fitness, preaching the gospel of physical education and longing for the coming of a messiah, a "perfect man" who would show forth the way to all. He had beheld this vision in classical "statues of the Gladiator, the Athlete, Hercules, Apollo, and Mercury," and as he composed his anthropometric charts on thousands of young men, he eagerly awaited the second coming.27
It was not Sullivan. Sargent examined the heavyweight champion twice during the summer of 1892, first on June 2, at the beginning of training for the match with Corbett, and again on August 13, a month before the fight. Like other physical educators of the period, Sargent believed that concentration on a single activity or sport created a physical imbalance and, with it, a potential moral distortion. He claimed that he not only could identify a gymnast or a baseball player by his distinctive muscular development but also could tell his particular event or position. 28 So Sargent's perfect man would have no mark of specific endeavor or work. Not surprisingly, he found that Sullivan had the body—and presumably the morals—of a slugger. (Although Sullivan was toasted for his lordly generosity at the bar, he was notorious for drunken rages and flagrant affairs.29) In fact, the dissipation of the Boston Strong Boy was starkly evident in the first examination. Standing five feet ten and a half inches, he weighed 236 pounds, 20 of which he managed to shed in the next two months. Nor did his bodily measurements present the model of symmetry that the physical educator so esteemed. (The measurements of Sandow, who was two inches shorter and at least twenty-six pounds lighter, are included in the table for comparison.)
Even the trimmer Sullivan of the second examination had a girth in waist, hips, thighs, and knees that approached and in one instance exceeded any comparable measurements in Sargent's extensive tables. Sargent tried to put the best face on these figures. Euphemistically, he commended Sullivan's "large trunk" as "a reservoir of vital action" and his "powerful ... thighs as a basis of support." Sullivan, he concluded, exemplified "the brawn and sinew that conquers both opponents and environments and sustains the race."30 But he was certainly not the perfect man.
Most telling of all were the full-length photographs of the nude Sullivan at the second examination, showing him with arms at his side and with arms raised and muscles flexed, when he was supposedly in fighting trim. Sargent emphasized that they displayed the champion's "strong points," and Sullivan and his book publishers were proud enough of them to include them in his Life and Reminiscences. Still, they show the great divide that was just opening between different conceptions of the exemplary male body and how Sullivan was on the verge of losing not just his championship but also his centrality as a manly physical ideal.
No one could mistake Sullivan for a classical nude; he is merely a man undressed. He is massive and powerful but markedly lacks both the proportion and the articulation of musculature that Sandow would do so much to popularize. He has a thick waist, big buttocks, solid but undefined legs. His body is a blunt instrument, shaped to give and receive hard blows and difficult to topple. With some effort, a present-day reader may imagine why in his prime Sullivan could be called a Hercules. But it takes no effort to understand why he was never regarded as an Adonis or Apollo. With Sandow's New York debut ten months later, however, a figure emerged who was hailed as both Hercules and Apollo, even as Sargent's prophesied "perfect man." So it is also not hard to understand why, when asked by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World to conduct an examination of Sandow, Sargent jumped at the chance.
For Sandow, this examination was in an important sense a title bout, and he went to it eagerly. He arrived at the Broadway hotel in which Sargent had assembled an array of equipment, shed his cutaway coat and steel-gray suit, and presented himself to the physician. Sargent had already made clear his skepticism about mere musclesize in discussing his examination of Sullivan: "We often read of seventeen inch biceps, and seventeen inch calves, but these proportions are more likely to be found on dime museum freaks than on well developed athletes."31 Nonetheless, Sargent was immediately struck by Sandow's muscular development, especially in the upper arms and back. The first measurements—of height and weight—must have disappointed Sandow. He tipped the scales at only 180 pounds (10 pounds less than his reported weight) and measured five feet eight inches—a half inch shorter than he claimed. (Undaunted, Sandow would later maintain that he stood over five feet nine inches.32) But once past these preliminaries, Sandow excelled in the tests, including those measuring both his reaction time and his strength.
Even so, moving an indicator up a scale hardly satisfied Sandow's sense of drama, and he proposed tests of his own. Searching for the heaviest man in the room, he chose the 175-pound Sargent. The strongman knelt down behind the physician and had him step with one foot onto Sandow's open palm. Then with his arm straight, Sandow lifted the surprised Sargent up and placed him on a table. He performed other feats of strength with Sargent, including one that might have been billed "The Human Trampoline." Sandow lay on the floor and asked Sargent to stand on his abdomen. With the doctor in place, Sandow kept his abdominal muscles relaxed for a moment, then suddenly contracted them, popping Sargent into the air. Sandow concluded by making the muscles on his arms and legs dance as Sargent marveled at his control.
Sargent had at last found the figure whom he had so long sought. His enthusiastic judgment was a press agent's dream:
Sandow is the most wonderful specimen of man I have ever seen. He is strong, active and graceful, combining the characteristics of Apollo, Hercules, and the ideal athlete. There is not the slightest evidence of sham about him. On the contrary, he is just what he pretends to be. His behavior under the tests was admirable. I might add that he combines with his other qualities that of a perfect gentleman. He has a considerable knowledge of anatomy, and can call the muscles by their proper names. I shall be glad to have him come and lecture before the students of Harvard.33
The "perfect man" was also the "perfect gentleman." With Sargent's examination all Sandow's claims had been authoritatively verified. Having defeated the lightweight Henry Dixey, he had now knocked out the heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan just as assuredly as had Corbett in the ring.34
Ultimately, however, the challenge posed by Sandow's body affected much more than perceptions of public figures such as Dixey and Sullivan. His supposed recovery of the classical ideal made men reevaluate their modern bodies in private and look in the mirror with new eyes. A reporter found Sandow "not only inspiring because of his enormous strength, but absolutely beautiful as a work of art as well ... . One look at him is enough to make the average young man thoroughly disgusted with himself, and to make him give up his nightly habit of standing in front of the [looking] glass in his pajamas [the sense of the passage suggests without pajamas] and swelling his chest with pride." More immediately and intensely than any figure before him, Sandow aroused a desire among men to emulate another man's body, a desire that, depending on the individual, might be more or less mixed with an erotic impulse to possess it. As if to shake off this ambiguous desire, the reporter thrilled to imagine how that manly power might prove itself in a fight: "There is ... no doubt that he could kill any man with a blow very easily. He could crush in the chest, break the neck, or fracture the skull of any man, and not use one-half his strength."35 Sandow always emphasized his composure and restraint, even when others picked a fight, but he would not have disagreed with the reporter's assessment. Here was a figure who combined the qualities of Adonis and Hercules.
ASSAULTS ON MANHOOD
This image as Adonis and Hercules was one that Sandow and his managers carefully promoted, and it proved enduring. Yet it was never uncontested. Questions and controversy started to swirl around Sandow within weeks of his debut at the Casino. They began, perhaps surprisingly given the newspapers' stress on Sandow's great strength and potentially murderous capacities, with a violent assault on the vaunted strongman. Still more surprising, the assault came at the hands of a woman.
As Sandow left the Casino after his nightly performance on July 1, 1893, a woman in her thirties stepped from the crowd of admirers and demanded to speak to him. He tried to move past her, whereupon she struck him several times with a horsewhip, cutting his face. This was an act of contempt, an effort to reduce Sandow to the level of a beast. White with anger, Sandow raised his walking stick as if to retaliate. Three bystanders leaped forward and held him. The woman was immediately arrested and charged with assault and blackmail.
Almost as quickly as the bystanders leaped forward, the press seized on the incident. The assault on the "perfect man" fascinated them. It was already a familiar theme. The National Police Gazette, the most popular men's weekly of the era and a staple of barbershops, specialized in exuberantly illustrated stories of women attacking men, whether in a good cause or not. Accounts of women horsewhipping husbands, lovers, and slanderers frequently emblazoned its pages, together with stories of (preferably young, ideally scantily clad) women, ranging from "plucky" to "insane," who punched, bit, stabbed, slashed, bludgeoned, and shot men. Plainly, these accounts aroused male readers, who found such gender-crossing punishments both provocative and disturbing. Already in the 1890s, it was clear that some women were not content to rely on male protectors, either at the ballot box or in the bedroom, but would assert their own claims vigorously, even violently. Thus the female attack on the "strongest man in the world," the "perfect man," had crucial if unspoken sexual implications. If Sandow was a Hercules, who was this queen of the Amazons?
The day after the horsewhipping, an excited press identified Sandow's attacker as "Lurline, the Water Queen." A "vigorous woman" who "looks as if she could wield a cowhide with considerable effect," she had been born in Boston "as plain Miss Sarah E. Swift." Lurline, as the press insisted on calling her, had acquired her sobriquet as an aquatics performer in a revealing costume, and her association with Sandow dated back to his beginnings as a strongman under the tutelage of Attila in Belgium. He was, in her account, a lowly servant in a circus and occasional artists' model when she advanced the money for lessons and clothes to transform him into a strongman and gentleman. Besides bankrolling his success, Lurline maintained, she had given him crucial assistance when he triumphed over Sampson in London: as Sandow passed around the chains and coins that he proposed to break in his competition, she deftly switched them with others made to snap easily. She had now come forth to remind Sandow—and, because he had turned a deaf ear, the public—of his debt. Not only did she cast him as a charlatan in his feats against Sampson, but also Lurline and her lawyers appeared eager to bring forth details from Sandow's past, including his family history, that would undermine his claims to respectability. Their insinuation that Sandow had no money, no clothes, and nothing to eat when he came to Lurline for aid made him hardly better than a beggar, perhaps even a kept man.36
Feeding the controversy, Lurline brought Sandow's former mentor, Attila, to New York. Whether Lurline intended to blackmail Sandow, as seems probable, or to humiliate him and so be revenged, it was hardly in his interest to keep the story alive and in the papers. The two settled matters privately, and the blackmail charge was dropped.
If Lurline represented an obvious threat to male power and dominance, others were more insidious. The genital power that men were encouraged to see as the core of their identity could, it was believed, be easily sapped by the temptations and strains of modern life: from overwork to overindulgence, from solitary masturbation to the perils of the brothel, including the venereal diseases that afflicted more than one man in ten. Sandow's splendidly self-made physique must be understood in relation to the anxieties of men who often felt unmade and unworthy. The pages of the National Police Gazette that carried stories of vengeful women and strongmen such as Sandow bulged with advertisements addressed to "WEAK MEN" that offered cures for various symptoms of impotence, or "lost manhood," and other afflictions, ranging from the supposed effects of "self-abuse" to syphilis. These home remedies, in the golden age of patent medicine, were purportedly devised by fellow sufferers and extended in a philanthropic spirit:
FREE CURE I was Quickly and Permanently CURED of Nightly Emissions, Complete Impotency, Varicocele and Small, Wasted and Shrunken Organs caused by Self-Abuse. Thousands have been fully restored through me. I will mail the means of this UNFAILING SELF-CURE (sealed) FREE ...
CERTAIN PARTS Of Body Enlarged. Beware of Bogus Free Cures. Send for the common sense method. Surest and safest developing tonic known! Cures all weak men. Increases Sexual Power. Sealed information Free ...
WEAK MEN suffering from Lost Manhood. Youthful Errors, Spermatorhoea, Gonorrhea, Gleet, Syphilis, and all Private Diseases, should read my 64 p. Book and learn how to cure themselves quietly at home ...
ELECTRICITY FOR WEAK MEN Only cure for lost manhood, emissions, debility, weakness of man or woman, varicocele. I will send you Dr. Judd's Electric Belt and Battery combined ...37
Whereas some men were anxious about their ability to perform sexually, others worried about the loss of sexual power that intercourse itself might entail. In a diary entry of 1898 a young Virginian, Stephen D. Boyd, expressed conventional medical wisdom when he steeled himself against the temptation of sex with a young woman: "There would be a great drain of nerve force and much useful time and energy would be more than wasted ... . It is only a momentary physical pleasure, and where indulged in with high nervous excitement causes certain sclerotic changes in the spinal cord and exhaustion of the brain and injury to the medulla."38
Such advertisements and reflections suggest some of the deeper fears about manly power and virility, and the keen sense of shame that attended them, to which Sandow's body so eloquently spoke. The average young man's "nightly habit of standing in front of the glass" might not involve "swelling his chest with pride" so much as an anxious self-appraisal. And Sandow's body both highlighted other men's inadequacies and, together with the photographs, exercises, books, and muscle developers he sold, offered another self-help restorative for lost manhood.
LOOKING AND TOUCHING
After his successful New York run, Sandow performed at Boston's Tremont Theatre in July, where he followed a light opera in a program that The Boston Daily Globe called "Mirth and Muscle." In a city concerned about artistic and moral propriety, Sandow achieved a noteworthy triumph. One reporter wrote, "It was very agreeable to observe the delighted enthusiasm with which ladies and gentlemen of the highest culture and refinement witnessed an exhibition of animal strength which had not the remotest suggestion of vulgarity."39 Yet he was still not the stupendous attraction he was to be a month later in Chicago.
The lavish world's fair, the Columbian Exposition, which had opened on May 1 and was ultimately to attract 21.5 million admissions, was then at its height at Jackson Park, six miles from downtown Chicago. Its exhibits created a special context for anyone purporting to be a "perfect man." At the fair various human "types" were on displayin both formal and commercial settings. The colossal sideshow that formed the Midway presented peoples and cultures from around the globe with the intention of suggesting a hierarchy beginning with the most westernized nations and stretching on to the least "civilized," such as the Dahomey village. Then, in the Anthropology Building at the fair proper, visitors could survey an even greater range of types from prehistoric times to the present, beginning with North American native peoples. Fair goers might then consider "typical" modern American men and women in relation to these, as exemplified by "anthropometric statues" based on Dudley Sargent's measurements and photographs of thousands of Harvard and Radcliffe freshmen. Many visitors paid a small fee to have their bodies measured and compared with the standards Sargent had devised. In this way, fair goers might consider exotic bodies, typical bodies, and their own bodies during a single visit.
But where stood a model of white male perfection? Not in the "White City" of the fair or along the Midway. Yet such a marvel awaited the fair goer willing to travel to downtown Chicago: "The perfection of physical manhood," "the strongest man on earth!" "the sensation of the century," "the modern Hercules." On August 1, Sandow began a three-month run at the Trocadero Theatre, as well as an immensely profitable three-year partnership with the impresario who so trumpeted his abilities. The Trocadero owner's twenty-six-year-old son, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., would make the stylish display of bodily perfection a specialty, although he would soon concentrate on female beauty. Sandow was the springboard for his extraordinary career as a theatrical producer, which lasted four decades until his death in 1932.
Billed as "America's only refined European theatre," the Trocadero offered a range of tickets (fifty cents for general admission; seventy-five cents and one dollar for reserved seats) and a diverseprogram of exotic attractions: songs, dances, specialty acts (later including "Scott, the calculating collie"), and bands. But it quickly became apparent that to lure tourists from the fairgrounds to Michigan Avenue, near the Art Institute, the theater needed a headliner. The young Ziegfeld had taken notice of the strongman's success in New York and, in a bold gamble, engaged him to play at the Trocadero for the last three months of the fair.
Sandow's performance as the tenth act on the bill served as the grand finale of the evening's entertainment. Keeping alive the drama of challenge that had distinguished the strongman's career from the outset, Ziegfeld offered ten thousand dollars "to any athlete duplicating his performance."40 Ziegfeld spent lavishly on advertising. He cultivated publicity both in high society and in the press, emphasizing Sandow's dashing figure and erotic appeal, and he added greater showmanship to Sandow's feats of strength. When his musical accompanist came onstage with his piano, Sandow effortlessly lifted the man with one hand and then lifted the piano. The snug silk shorts he wore in the opening portion of his act may have been more modest than those he had favored in New York or Europe, but his body and his feats so captivated spectators that they sometimes forgot to applaud. Ziegfeld also arranged private receptions for specially invited guests, including, in addition to all the reporters he could muster, scientists and physicians qualified to authenticate Sandow's muscular development, athletes prepared to admire his feats, artists and sculptors educated to appreciate the classical beauty of his body, and Chicago's leading socialites to ogle and swoon over it. Among these last were Harriet S. Pullman, wife of the sleeping-car manufacturer and civic leader George Pullman, and Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of the merchant and real-estate magnate Potter Palmer and herself a leading force behind the Columbian Exposition.
Sandow eagerly invited their inspection. Even more than in New York or Boston, spectators remarked on his extraordinary combination of strength and beauty. The drama critic for the Chicago Daily News, Amy Leslie, meticulously inventoried his "blue eyes and wealth of golden, close-cut curls," "pink and white" skin, "red lips," "even, shiny, and white" teeth, and "soft" face "lighted by a smile that is just short of girlish." "Mr. Sandow," she concluded, "is a dangerously handsome young man." Others marveled over Sandow's fair complexion,too. One Chicago spectator remembered his skin as "velvety and most extraordinary," "a transparent white without blemish."41 Sandow heightened the effect by shaving his body hair to display his musculature (as have bodybuilders ever since).
Sandow's skin was an emblem in two respects. Its whiteness testified to his status as a gentleman whose body had not been exposed to the sun. Still more important, it was a sign of racial purity. Sandow represented not simply a male physical ideal but a white European male ideal. Appropriately for one whose career was inspired by classical European statues, he was selected in 1901 as the model for a statue of the "perfect type of a European man," and his body arduously cast. One statue thus cast was enshrined in the British Museum, and a duplicate was exhibited in the lobby of B. F. Keith's vaudeville theater in Boston, then presented by Sandow to Dudley Sargent on behalf of Harvard University.42 In later travels in India and elsewhere, Sandow extolled the virtues of physical culture to people of color. Yet a clear sense of racial hierarchy remained. In accounts of his first American tour, he cheerfully related how he punished an impudent "nigger" bellhop by dangling him over a stairwell sixteen stories high.43 Sandow's anecdote was in keeping with a period of blatant racism. (The Supreme Court decision enshrining segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson was only three years away.) Beginning in Chicago, with the ethnographic displays as a sort of backdrop, he became, in an important sense, the great white hope, a figure whose ideal physique confirmed the place of white European men on the top of the racial hierarchy.
Sandow appealed not just to the eye but also to the touch. He would strip to his tights to display his muscular development and control, make gnarls of muscle bulge and disappear at will over his body, and, at his receptions, urge spectators to feel the size and hardness of his muscles for themselves. The result was a curious mixture of intimacy and distance. Earlier, in New York, a male journalist had described such an experience: "He took my hand while I was in his dressing room and rubbed it across his abdominal muscles, and the feeling was just about the same as it would be rubbing the hand over an old fashioned washboard."44 With women, the encounter was much more charged. Ostensibly an invitation to verify his muscular development, it carried obvious if unspoken erotic elements. In Chicago, Amy Leslie reported how Sandow "walked over to me and threw out a stack of corded muscles under the white, smooth skin of his chest in a sort of mechanical way that rather stunned me." When she did not immediately feel his chest, Sandow took her gloved hand and "said amiably, 'hit me hard; you will not hurt me.'" Mrs. Potter Palmer was less shy. Reportedly, she stroked Sandow's massive chest and declared she was "thrilled to the spine."45
These receptions became an established part of Sandow's appearances on his early American tours and fortified his image as an irresistible ladies' man.46 The National Police Gazette portrayed one such event with all its erotic titillation, more powerful because never overtly declared, in an article the following year. The writer emphasized Sandow's dominance and his female admirers' timidity as the strongman bade each to touch his body. "I want you to feel how hard these muscles are," he urged them. "As I stop before you, I want eachof you to pass the palm of your hand across my chest." The first woman he approached drew back timidly. "Oh, please," she remonstrated. "Never mind." "Ah, but you must," Sandow replied. "These muscles, madam, are hard as iron itself, I want you to convince yourself of the fact." The reporter described Sandow tenderly taking the woman's gloved hand in his own and passing it slowly over his muscle. "It's unbelievable!" she gasped, staggering backward, and an attendant rushed to her aid with smelling salts. It is as if the phallic power of Sandow's body toppled her with a touch.
The drawing that accompanied this article, in all likelihood a product of the illustrator's imagination rather than direct observation, set forth its own fantasy of phallic power and female response. Its fashionable young women are far from timid. They surround the shirtless strongman and vie for the pleasure of feeling his muscles and appraising his body. Conceivably, the seated woman on the left represents the overcome figure described in the article, but she may have taken a chair to gain a better view of the strongman's massive chest. Here is a scene recalling the pursuit of Dixey's character in Adonis, the only instance we have seen thus far where the erotic appeal of the male body was openly (if comically) recognized. In this illustration Sandow performs a double legitimation: of the unclad muscular male as an object of desire and of women as active admirers.47
A more searching and provocative study of these receptions appeared in a drawing and unsigned article in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. The fact that the artist clearly based his drawing of Sandow on an earlier studio photograph where the pose is identical, then elaborated it as the text and his fancy dictated, undermines its status as reportage but makes it all the more revealing of responses to Sandow's body. Here Sandow stands at the center foreground, dumbbells on the floor behind him. He wears Roman sandals as a token of classicism—and almost nothing else. So lightly drawn are his shorts that they seem to fit like a second skin. In contrast to his virtual nudity, the spectators are all in evening dress. The picture thus shows a confrontation between two kinds of power: social and financial power, signaled by the viewers' clothes; and physical power, signaled by Sandow's naked muscularity, which commands the attention of men and women alike.
People cluster around him, approaching with a frank curiosity andadmiration as if he were a classical statue or scientific specimen—two models of viewership to which he appealed. A half century earlier even exhibitions of nude sculpture, such as Hiram Powers's acclaimed Greek Slave, often included special showings for women, so that they would not have to view undraped works in mixed company. Male nudity in art was more easily accommodated, but the issue of the exposed male body in daily life remained highly charged. Although men frequently swam naked among themselves, for example, they would wear tank tops for mixed bathing at least into the 1920s; and as late as 1934 men were arrested, fined, and rebuked for appearing topless on a Coney Island beach.48 Yet here, before a live semi-nude subject, women and men peer eagerly. To the extreme right, a woman holds a lorgnette to her eyes. A second feels Sandow's bare forearm with her gloved hand. Sandow himself returns her gaze as he offers himself for her inspection. Both his fists are clenched, his arm muscles hard. To the left, a bespectacled older man leans forward, intently examining his body. No one speaks.
This is a study of male exhibition—perhaps tinged with exhibitionism. The scene crackles with tension between the genteel disavowal of erotic interest in the male body and the obvious (if unspecified) gratifications of gazing on and touching this essentially nude man. The success of the event depends on the preservation of its ambiguities. The woman feeling Sandow's bulging arm and marveling at its hardness, the spectators appraising his body—all seem to participate in a connoisseurship that, to be sustained, cannot permit the nature of its interest to be clearly defined. An essential attribute of the ideal nude was its impersonality; that is what saved it from mere nakedness. But is it here a work of art (or subject of science) that these spectators consider or a specific individual in a state of undress? 49
On another level, the scene becomes a study in a different set of ambiguities between the natural and the artificial, between physical development and social decadence. Although Sandow presented himself as reclaiming from the degeneration and torpor of modern life a classical masculine ideal in heroic action, the text accompanying the illustration sounded a dissenting note. Both aesthetically and morally, the author recoiled from the spectacle of Sandow's body and of its admirers. Instead, the writer interpreted Sandow as an instance of "ab- normal development" and his success as part of a modern hunger "for the outré." Sandow's body struck him as not beautiful but grotesque, reminding him "of some great, massive, gnarled oak, petrified and as relentless as stone." When he thought of ancient Rome, he remembered its decadence: "when the nobles of both sexes visited the gladiators in their quarters and admiringly examined their brawn and sinews" before they placed their bets.50
Thus article and illustration left the relationship between Sandow and his admirers ambiguous. Were they "fans" courting him "at his private levee," as the headline implied? If so, it might attest to how male physical development was superior to all social hierarchies. Or were those hierarchies still intact, and was Sandow the spectators' pet, their plaything, ultimately their victim, as were the ancient gladiators? And if he was a gladiator, what contest was at issue? Sandow versus contenders for the title "perfect man"? Virility, embodied by Sandow, versus the debilitating tendencies of modern life, epitomized by his admirers? Sandow as the male representative in the war between the sexes? Sandow as the great white hope? Sandow was extraordinary in his ability to stand center stage simultaneously in these multiple arenas.51
By means of these illustrations and texts, the circles of men and women who looked at and, in imagination at least, felt Sandow's body widened to tens of thousands of readers and were extended still further by drawings of his body that accompanied newspaper articles and advertisements describing his exploits. In intimate detail, his body became better known to more people than that of any previous man in history, apart from those depicted in religious art. Important as the illustrator was in this process, the crucial role was played by the commercial photographer.
From its inception in 1839, photography stimulated and satisfied demand for intimate knowledge of the body, and beginning in the late 1850s, souvenir photographs became a major industry throughout North America and Europe. Would-be celebrities of all sorts—stage performers, writers, and politicians—came to depend on the work of studio photographers. For Sandow and for the nascent bodybuilding business, the photographer was essential. The camera captured moments from Sandow's onstage performances, of course, just as it recorded conventional actors in their roles; but it also permitted himto display far more of his body than even his scanty stage costume would permit—and it allowed each viewer to examine it singly and anonymously, to view Sandow not in public but in private.
From the moment of his 1889 triumph over Sampson, Sandow posed often for leading theatrical studio photographers. That same year, equipped with assorted weights, he made one series of photographs for the London Stereoscopic Company and another in classical poses, wearing only a fig leaf, for the London photographer Henry Van der Weyde. During his first American tours, he made still more, including a series for the foremost theatrical photographer in the country, Napoleon Sarony, and for one of his leading competitors, Benjamin J. Falk, both of New York, as well as for the Los Angeles photographer George Steckel.
Sandow carefully distanced himself from circus performers and human oddities, the subjects of popular photographs, and made pictures that showed he wanted to be ranked with leading actors and even works of art. He offered himself in a number of roles—as classical ideal, polished gentleman, and thoroughly modern athlete—and assumed various guises: he posed in tights (adorned with a medal), in leopard skins (secured by a belt), in evening dress (sporting a boutonniere), and in the nude (shielded only by a fig leaf). He flexed an array of muscles, lifted weights, demonstrated exercises, and dreamily stared into space; he reclined against Roman columns, and he rode a bicycle. In classical poses that still figure prominently in bodybuilding, he struck a range of attitudes from the triumphantly erect (the Farnese Hercules) to the submissively prostrate (the Dying Gaul).52 He held his emotions within relatively narrow limits: pensive rather than weary as the Farnese Hercules, elegiac rather than tortured as the Dying Gaul. Just as photographic reproductions of classical sculpture were helping to disseminate ancient conceptions of the ideal body, photographs of modern muscled men in classical poses offered compelling, apparently objective proof that these ideals could indeed be achieved. In the photographer's studio, makeup and lighting enhanced muscle definition and created a monumental physical presence. Careful retouching and printing in the darkroom did the rest. The smooth, monochromic print completed the process of abstraction and idealization and placed the contemporary body on a plane with classical sculpture. Multiple perspectives on Sandow's body furthered the parallel, giving the viewer the impression of appraising a statue from various angles.53
These images were sold at theaters, hotels, and photographers' studios and by mail in various sizes, including the popular cabinet format on stiff cardboard (roughly four by six inches when mounted) for perhaps $.35 and the larger panel size (roughly seven by thirteen inches) for $1.50.54And as the basis for newspaper and magazine illustrations, they were widely circulated and took Sandow from the theatrical spotlight into the hands and imaginations of countless thousands of individual owners, who could amass their own collections.
These images of muscular display were (one suspects intentionally) left open to the widest range of constructions and responses, allowing viewers to make of them what they pleased. They attracted women, inviting thousands to participate in intimate encounters with Sandow and to gaze on his body with all its thrilling force and eroticism. A Frenchman visiting the summer resort of Newport, Rhode Island, was startled to discover Sandow's nude portrait displayed in fashionable ladies' sitting rooms. But in all likelihood, these photographs fascinated men even more, with an exhibition of muscularity that sustained many fantasies about physical prowess, virility, strength, and eroticism across a broad spectrum of sexual orientation. All the while Sandow managed to skirt censorship, even though its sentries were especially vigilant. In 1883 Anthony Comstock, the organizer and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, had listed photographs of classical nudes among the many immoral "traps" for the unwary. In a similar spirit, in 1910 a judge upheld the Sandow-inspired health reformer Bernarr Macfadden'sconviction for sending obscene materials through the mails, basing his ruling in good part on a magazine cover showing the Venus de Milo, the Discus Thrower, and the Flying Mercury.55 By avoiding any declared erotic intent and by cultivating an urbane dignity, Sandow became the first great male pinup in modern history.
Among all Sandow's poses, the gladiator deserves special remark. The role of the gladiator, in which Sandow frequently cast himself and was cast by others, underwent a revival in the late nineteenth century. To be sure, the gladiator had been a complex and controversial figure even in ancient Rome, and (as the piece on Sandow in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly has already shown) in the late nineteenth century he could easily be associated with the brutality and decadence that led to the ancient empire's decline and fall. Yet the gladiator remained a compelling positive figure as well, which legitimated and popularized the unclad muscular male body in situations of violent and often primitive combat. (Gladiator movies did the same for the bodybuilder Steve Reeves in the 1950s and 1960s, making him the first bodybuilder since Sandow to become an international celebrity.56)
This positive image was congenial to a growing celebration of America's historic encounter with the primitive. In July 1893, less than three weeks before Sandow's Chicago debut, the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous address in that city, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." For Turner, the frontier, the "meeting point between savagery and civilization," was the historic site not only of American individualism and democracy but also (though he did not make this claim explicit) of American manhood:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments to civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin ... . Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shoutsthe war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion ... . Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe ... . The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.57
So when Turner added that the frontier had, as of the 1890 census, vanished, and with its passing an era in American history had closed, a fair inference was that an era of American manhood was passing as well.
The frontier might be gone, but Americans might still savor the spectacle of gladiatorial combat in other realms of history and contemporary life through art. The French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme explored both its heroic and its brutal dimensions in a number of paintings and sculptures of warriors and martyrs in the Roman Colosseum. Some of the most famous of these, including Pollice verso, popularly known as "Thumbs Down" (1872), were quickly purchased, even commissioned, by American collectors; and they became still more widely known and admired through reproductions.58 In addition, several of Gérôme's American students at the École des Beaux-Arts carried this interest back to the United States. Preeminent among these was the great Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins, who found modern analogies to the gladiatorial arena in the surgical clinic (The Gross Clinic, The Agnew Clinic) and the boxing ring (Between Rounds, Taking the Count, Salutat). Such works evinced the hunger for a modern heroic warrior who, contending in the arena and commanding the eyes of the multitude, could achieve a splendor and purity akin to the combatants of old.59
As promoters of modern boxing and wrestling did their best to reach larger audiences in the late nineteenth century and to distance themselves from their rowdy working-class antecedents, figures involved in both sports cultivated the gladiatorial analogy. Contestants were often referred to as gladiators and given the names of ancient warriors by the press. Among the many nicknames bestowed on John L. Sullivan, for example, was "Spartacus Sullivan," and his 1892 autobiography was grandly titled Life and Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator.60 Similarly, the New York policeman turned Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon adopted the studded breechcloth and high-laced sandals of the Roman gladiator for his matches and added still more gladiatorial props for publicity photographs. Like Sandow, he found in Roman models of strength, muscular development, and courage a fit manly context for displaying his body.
Sandow disdained many of these competitors for the gladiatorial ideal, particularly professional boxers. "A man cannot fight a prize fight," he sniffed, "and be a gentleman." At the same time, he told stories to show that although he was slow to anger or respond to provocation, if forced he could teach any bully a lesson he would never forget. Even as Sandow modestly denied he was a perfect man, he added, "If any man thinks he is stronger than I—well, then, I should try to be nearer perfection than he when we meet."61
Indeed, much as Sandow endeavored to stand alone as a resurrection of the ancient gladiatorial ideal, he attracted both challengers and counterfeits. The first impostor claiming to be Sandow reportedly preceded the strongman to America, though his feats were decidedly inferior. In Chicago, as Sandow appeared at the Trocadero, another strongman, Sebastian Miller, twisted horseshoes at the nearby GrottoTheatre but aroused scant interest. The Grotto then booked Sandow's former rival Charles Sampson, who persisted in claiming the title the "strongest man on earth." Sampson specialized in breaking chains and bending coins, but he challenged Sandow to a competition involving any feats of strength, adding accusingly, "providing trickery is not employed."62 Sandow ignored these taunts, and Sampson quickly sank back into obscurity.
When Sandow arrived with Ziegfeld's Trocadero company in San Francisco in the spring of the following year, 1894, he discovered another impostor appearing under the name Sandowe already performing at the Orpheum Theatre. Imitating Sandow's latest feat, the pretender balanced a grand piano and four musicians on his upraised shoulders, chest, and knees. More galling still, he affected the appearance of the Prussian strongman right down to the cut and curls of his hair. Ziegfeld obtained a court injunction, forbidding Sandowe (alias Irving Montgomery, a Birmingham, England, strongman) to appear in the area under his assumed name. When Montgomery violated the injunction, the matter went to court. As in the earlier contretemps with Lurline, the Water Queen, the case hugely amused the press but did Sandow little good, even though he was vindicated. Inevitably, it identified him as a man of the theater rather than a self-made titan of strength and beauty, and his feats appeared more as stage tricks than as heroic accomplishments.
More profoundly, Sandow's great appeal lay in his claim to being an original, a man who stood apart from the crowd. Although his achievement may have been based on his imitation of classical models, he seemed to have attained his ideals to an unparalleled degree. All his accolades—the "strongest man," the "perfect man"—rested on that foundation. Of course, Sandow encouraged emulation and purported to share his methods. (He advocated the use of five-pound weights, but this would not have achieved his muscular bulk.) Nonetheless, followers were meant to understand there could be only one Sandow. And the extent to which his body and his feats might be successfully duplicated, even counterfeited, destroyed his mystique. From the lost world of manly strength and heroism, he sank into the modern world, where there were no longer originals, only copies.
Perhaps in part goaded by the controversy with Montgomery, at the end of his San Francisco appearance in May 1894, Sandow promised to pursue the gladiatorial ideal in an audacious spectacle: he would wrestle a lion with his bare hands. The proposition recalled not only the one-sided contests between lions and Christians in the Roman Colosseum but also the first labor of Hercules, in which he slays the Nemean lion (to which Sandow often alluded in his poses). Under Ziegfeld's management, the event was ballyhooed as "the sensation of the century," and Sandow expertly stoked the fires of prefight publicity. "The lion is a coward" before a man, Sandow sneered. He claimed to have earlier killed two wild lions in hand-to-paw combat for the pleasure of the Turkish sultan.63 But the San Francisco event was to be a wrestling match rather than a duel to the death. In consideration of Sandow, Commodore, representing the king of beasts, was to be muzzled and his claws covered with leather mittens. In consideration of the lion, the "perfect man" was to carry no weapons and had agreed to a bar on strangleholds.
On the night of the contest, the press reported, three thousand spectators, including "prominent citizens" and "ladies of wealth and fashion ... burning up with eagerness to see Sandow, the modern Sampson, twist the daylights out of the four footed athlete," gatheredin a large tent in Golden Gate Park. But from the start, something was clearly wrong, and "the sensation of the century" quickly turned into a ludicrous farce. Only after attendants poked and prodded the lion did the "aged," "worn and weary," "moth-eaten" creature limp out of his box. "As soon as Commodore found himself in the arena he lost heart and fell down." The intrepid Sandow, clad in pink tights, strode boldly forward and eyed his opponent. For his part, "Commodore ... tried to bury his face in the sawdust." The reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle gave a blow-by-blow account of how Sandow tugged Commodore's ear, shook him by the mane, pulled his whiskers, slung him by the tail, raised him by the neck, and generally rolled him to and fro in an effort to arouse some response. But the lion was either too old, too sedated, or too abused, possibly all three, to offer resistance. Shouts of "fake" and hisses erupted from the crowd. To pose as gladiator required a ferocious antagonist, a worthy natural opponent by which to measure the qualities of civilized man. Now the heroic ideal fizzled. Perhaps lions had degenerated even faster than human beings! When officials at last intervened and Sandow was congratulated "for his gallantry in entering this den of wild beasts," the crowd laughed derisively. Sandow departed with his winnings as fast as he could and never "fought" a lion again.64
Despite this debacle, Sandow's position as a celebrity was secure. Changing his act little, he continued to tour extensively in the United States until 1906, when he was nearly forty. In 1894 he recorded some of his vaudeville feats on brief filmstrips for Thomas Edison's kinetoscope. Two years later, he made two similar projected film shorts for W. K. L. Dickson, an erstwhile Edison assistant, at the Biograph Company. Both films concluded with his astonishing back flip. Nonetheless, they lacked the immediacy of his live performances and the intimacy of his still photographs.
In ensuing years he endeavored to build on his success as a performer in both England and the United States by encouraging men and women to embrace physical fitness through his sponsored gymnasiums, special equipment (for example, "Sandow's Patent Spring Grip Dumb Bells"), magazines, and mail-order course. A 1903 advertisement for the last, issued in conjunction with the opening of his College of Physical Culture in Boston, broadened his targeted audience to anyone seeking relief from such ailments of modern life as "consti-pation,indigestion, or disordered nerves." He also revisited Dudley Sargent, who reiterated his abiding conviction that Sandow was"the most perfectly developed man the world has ever seen."65
In 1906 Sandow formally became a British subject and thereafter concentrated on affairs in England. Although he was appointed "Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture" to King George V in 1911, the honor did not altogether shield him from anti-German sentiment during the Great War. In response, the old master of self-invention claimed his mother's Russian heritage rather than his father's Prussian stock. He also pressed physical fitness into the war effort, seconding Prime Minister David Lloyd George's concern about the "lost army of the rejected," the dismaying number of men who failed the army's physical examination. Indeed, in his zeal he contended that by following his methods, society could virtually eradicate disease.66 When Sandow died in 1925 at the age of fifty-eight, newspapers attributed his death to an injury sustained in a final feat of strength. Sometime earlier, after a road accident, he had, single-handed, lifted a car out of a ditch. The strain reportedly resulted in a burst blood vessel in his brain. Obituaries sealed his legend: the "weakling" who became the "world's most perfect man," the extraordinary individual who had devised a program of training whereby "the average man" could also "become strong and vigorous."67
Sandow's success was filled with ironies that illuminate the passage from Victorian to modern culture. He helped many Americans (as well as countless others, especially in the English-speaking world) to negotiate this transition, not by clearly delineating what was at stake but by keeping ambiguities suspended. In the name of ancient ideals, he adroitly tapped antimodernist sentiments and fears of an emasculating civilization. Yet ultimately he raised a new, potentially more punishing "scientific" standard against which to measure one's inadequacy. The concept of a perfect body, ostensibly devised in opposition to modern industrial society, in fact capitulated to the presumption that perfection lay in materially defined, standardized, and repeatable processes and products. He helped to displace the Victorian conception of the body as a moral reservoir and instrument of productive labor with a modern conception of the body as an expressionof individual desire and site of pleasure. In place of pride in manly bearing and competence in the workplace, he exemplified a compensatory "working out," a concentration on manly strength and beauty off the job. At a time when the nascent field of "scientific management" was pressing for workers as specialized in their bodies as the work they performed, Sandow offered a vision of the reintegrated male body—yet one that might easily become a product in its own right. Elevating his background and presenting himself as a gentleman, he fortified the ideal of manly dominance based on the body, but in the process he surrendered the assertions of working-class power that had frequently accompanied this ideal. On the music-hall and the vaudeville stage, he adapted older traditions of manly physical challenge to promote a new mass culture of entertainment. And as he made the exposed male body a compelling spectacle in live performance, he also drew on classical art traditions to pioneer its dissemination in still and moving pictures. Lastly, Sandow revealed how the erotics of the male body could be broadly exposed precisely because it was never explicitly mentioned. Studious concentration on antique sculpture and muscular development provided the crucial fig leaf.
Ultimately, Sandow's success as a performer of masculinity suggested the changing status of gender in the modern world. His physique was widely interpreted not simply as an individual achievement but as a reaffirmation of male identity at a time when it seemed to be losing authority and coherence. By stressing the potential for strength, control, heroism, and virility in the male physique, he reassured a broad public of the continuation of these qualities—and their potential for further development—in the modern world. Yet for many who scrutinized Sandow's body and its meaning, nature and artifice were hard to separate. A triumph of man's natural potential to some eyes, his body appeared the epitome of the artificial to others. If his manliness was a performance that impostors could counterfeit, what were the deeper implications for gender imposture? Even as Sandow claimed to return to ancient ideals of male strength as the core of male identity, the possibilities of gender as a repertoire of assumed roles and cultivated performances rushed in.
Copyright © 2001 by John F. Kasson
In 1904 a balding, compactly built banker in Muncie, Indiana, posed for the camera on his forty-fifth birthday. It was not a conventional birthday portrait, however. For the occasion he stripped to the waist, flexed his biceps, and had himself photographed from behind. His business life was sedentary, but during the next forty years he kept up various physical regimens, ranging from lifting light weights to deep-breathing exercises. His name was Albert G. Matthews, and he was my great-grandfather; he died nine days before I was born.
I first saw this portrait in a family album as a child, and it prompted questions that fascinate me still. My initial response was surprise: What was he doing? Other male relatives in photographs showed their bodies, if at all, only in swim trunks as they squinted at the camera, usually holding a fish. Later I wondered, What was his sense of his body, and how was it shaped by the technologies and culture of his time? What models of strength did he admire? What dreams and anxieties did this image contain? Family photographs were one of the earliest ways by which I learned the importance of visual evidence in history, and in retrospect, I can see that this photograph was the first historical fragment that led to this book.
Many years later, I sifted through some thirteen thousand photographs at Harvard University devoted to the most famous of all Albert Matthews's contemporaries (ten months his senior), the man who was president when his birthday portrait was made in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt. Here the sense of theatricality that I had first glimpsed with my ancestor burst forth on a colossal scale. Crucial to Roosevelt's success was his ability to turn prized characteristics of manliness into spectacle, literally to embody them. The camera and the pen were essential aids in that effort. Born in 1858 to one of the richest and most socially prominent families in New York, Roosevelt created his own stirring drama of childhood adversity overcome in an account of how he transformed his "sickly, delicate," asthmatic body into the two-hundred-pound muscular, barrel-chested figure of a supremely strong and energetic leader. His Autobiography, first published in 1913, included illustrations of Roosevelt in positions of executive authority (assistant secretary of the navy, governor of New York, president of the United States) carefully balanced with portraits of him active and outdoors (on horseback, returning from a bear hunt in Colorado, with hand on hip as Rough Rider colonel in the Spanish-American War, and holding a rifle "in winter riding costume").
The photographic archive showed that Roosevelt had practiced such poses assiduously, and no American of his generation or president before or since — not Lincoln, not Kennedy, not Reagan — developed a broader repertoire. Once past his childhood, when he was pictured in the unisex white dress, long hair, and bonnet worn by upper-class children of the time, he seems to have determined never to appear before the camera in a pampered guise again. In a routine physical examination as a Harvard undergraduate, he learned from Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, the college physician and the nation's leading authority on physical education, that he had "heart trouble" and should lead a sedentary life, taking care not even to run up stairs. Roosevelt replied that he could not bear to live, that way and in- tended to do precisely the opposite. A photograph from about this time shows him outside the Harvard boathouse wearing rowing togs, bare-chested and barefoot, his jaws filled out with a beard, his biceps bulged by his fists.
From his college clays to the end of his life, Roosevelt appears to have considered no hunting trip complete without recording it either in the field or in a photographer's studio. For his first book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), based on his adventures in the Dakota Territory, he struck various attitudes, holding a rifle and wearing a fringed buckskin outfit in the style of Buffalo Bill and sporting the holsters, pistols, chaps, and broad-brimmed hat of the ranchman. In 1898, upon his return from Cuba, where he had led his regiment of Rough Riders in victorious charges up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, he instantly memorialized his achievements in portraits that displayed a commanding martial bearing. In 1904, the year my great-grandfather posed for his birthday portrait, Roosevelt repeatedly jumped a fence on horseback until a Harper's Weekly photographer caught just the right dynamic image for the upcoming presidential campaign. After his presidency, a stage of life in which most of his successors have done nothing more strenuous than golf, he threw himself into new activities — with photographers always at the ready. He recorded his exploits as big-game hunter and explorer (including obligatory poses with animal trophies) in Africa in 1909. Four years later, after his fiercely energetic but unsuccessful "Bull Moose" campaign against William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, he headed for uncharted wilderness and big game once again, this time in Brazil, where he nearly lost his life. He spent his last years, also before the camera, stumping on behalf of the U.S. military effort during the Great War and itching to be in the thick of battle himself.
Many historians exploring manliness in this period have stopped with Roosevelt. But my pursuit has taken me further. And it has led to three immensely popular artists who entertained Americans in the two decades between 1893 and 1914: the strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), the escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926), and the, author of Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). Sandow, Houdini, and Burroughs's Tarzan all acquired immense national and international fame. They literally became part of our language, which suggests that the cultural need for the metaphors they supplied was great, as was the power with which they entered into the lives of their audiences. Viewed in conjunction, these figures assume still greater significance: they expressed with special force and clarity important changes in the popular display of the white mate body and in the challenges men faced in modern life.
Although Sandow's name is no longer a household word, he is still revered as the father of modern bodybuilding and a pioneer of physical culture. In his heyday as a vaudeville performer, his position was even more exalted. Physical-fitness experts and journalists alike hailed him as the "perfect man," and his unclad body became the most famous in the world. He established a new paradigm of muscular development and attracted countless followers, ranging from the reformed "ninety-seven-pound weakling" Charles Atlas to the poet William Butler Yeats. His significance for cultural history is still greater. His display of his physique provides a fresh point by which we can assess the changing standards of male strength and beauty that may have inspired men like Albert Matthews to inspect their own bodies in private.
Sandow's celebrity has faded, but Houdini's hold on the popular imagination remains strong even today, though the nature of his feats and the context of his career have been obscured. For the general public, his name dominates the history of magic-to the intense annoyance of many conjurers and magic historians, who rank others superior. Wildly erroneous myths about him persist, such as that he died performing his "Chinese Water Torture Cell" escape (as does Tony Curtis's character in the 1953 Paramount film Houdini). Meanwhile, there has been little effort to place him in full historical and cultural context as not only the most brilliant escape artist in the history of illusion but also a magus of manliness, known for some of the most audacious displays of the male body in his time.
Burroughs's fictional character Tarzan is best known of all, but, again, in ways that obscure the significance of his creation. As the subject of twenty-four books written by Burroughs over thirty-five years, and of roughly fifty films, four major television series, a radio serial, and comic books, Tarzan and his adventures have been adapted in ways that hardly resemble the original. The persistence of his popularity testifies to enduring cultural fantasies about manly freedom and wildness. And an examination of the cultural milieu at his first appearance in Frank Munsey's All-Story magazine in 1912 illuminates important, if forgotten, aspects of American life a century ago. It reveals why a story about an immensely strong, incomparably free, indomitably wild noble savage could so entrance men who felt locked in the "iron cage" of modern urban, corporate life.
*Endnotes were omitted.
Copyright © 2001 John F. Kasson
Posted January 27, 2014
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