Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Perfect Man The Muscular Life And Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman by David Waller

Though many may not know his name today, Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) was once one of the most famous men in the world. He was the reigning sex symbol of his day, considered by many to be the perfect specimen of manhood. His near-nude and classically draped photos were prized possessions for numerous late Victorian and Edwardian era ladies and closeted homosexuals.

Written by a distant relative, this books tells the entire Sandow saga, from his humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in Prussia to super-stardom. After seeing classical statues, he decided to model his own physique upon these works of ancient art. He worked hard to achieve his ambitions then ran away from home and became a circus strongman and also supplemented his income as an artists’ model. He performed feats of strength in scanty costumes for awed music hall audiences. And appeared as a star attraction at the World’s Columbian Exposition (aka The World’s Fair) in 1893 under the management of Florenz Ziegfeld, who invited society ladies to come backstage after the show and feel Sandow’s muscles.

Sandow is considered one of the pioneers of physical culture and bodybuilding. In England, where he settled in 1896 with his wife, Blanche, he operated his own gymnasiums, offered mail order fitness courses, sold his own line of workout equipment, penned books and articles about fitness, and even published his own magazine, and worked as a personal fitness instructor. His clients included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who credited his survival of a serious automobile accident to Sandow’s training. His image as a handsome, curly-headed blonde and mustachioed Hercules was emblazoned on postcards, immortalized by artists and sculptures, and appeared on numerous product endorsements, including cigars, cocoa, corsets, body lotion, dolls, and baby powder. When he visited America he was filmed, striking poses, for Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, and the resulting short film, which can be seen today on Youtube, became a popular attraction at peepshows.

Sadly, beyond the muscles, the man remains elusive; which makes Eugen Sandow a difficult subject for any biographer. There are no diaries or personal letters to offer clues about the private man. Mr. Waller does a fine job with what he has to work with. He admits that with Sandow’s personality lost to history, sometimes it’s hard to separate facts from gossip and legends, but he does his best. He addresses rumors about stage trickery in Sandow’s strongman act and also about his sexuality, stating plainly that at this late date we just don’t know if he was a faithful husband, a rampant or occasional dallier, and if his affairs—before and if he had any after marriage—were with women, men, or both.

After the outbreak of World War I, Sandow’s fitness empire went into a decline. Though he was by then a British citizen, a loyal and patriotic one who even offered fitness training for men who wanted to enlist but had failed the army physical, he could not escape his origins. He had been born in Prussia, German was his first language, and in those paranoid days people became suspicious of him. There were even rumors that he was a German spy. And when rumors erupted that his cocoa was manufactured in German or from a German recipe sales plummeted, stores refused to stock it as the public shunned it.

Sandow faded into obscurity and died in 1925, supposedly from the lingering effects of an automobile accident. There is some confusion about his death and the author discusses this.

Whether you’re interested in fitness or not, if you enjoy biographies about people who have not been the subject of dozens of books, like Marie Antoinette, George Washington, and Marilyn Monroe, you might enjoy learning about the once world famous but frustratingly elusive Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman.

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