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Professor Bernarr McFadden, c. 1893
A youthful "Professor" Bernarr Macfadden, c. 1893
F.W. Guerin—Library of Congress

Rich, flamboyant, and mad for publicity, he put his name on everything from books to buildings. He married and divorced repeatedly and loved to brag about his sexual prowess. When he decided to go for the Republican nomination for president, many Americans knew his name, but few had any idea of what he really stood for. His political platform, such as it was, seemed to focus largely on deporting aliens.

He was also very proud of his hair.

His name was Bernarr Macfadden, and the year was 1936.

Self-made muscleman

Unlike many millionaires then and now, Bernarr Macfadden was truly self-made. He grew up in poverty, went to work at age 9, and built a fortune that, by the late 1920s, reached an estimated $30 million, or about $420 million today. He even made up his own name, changing it from Bernard McFadden because he wanted something more distinctive.

A slight and sickly child, Macfadden became interested in bodybuilding at an early age and seems to have spent much of his youth hoisting dumbbells. By his early twenties, he was wrestling professionally, advertising himself as a personal trainer, and publishing pamphlets on exercise and fitness. That led to the launch of a magazine, Physical Culture, in 1899, with Macfadden as its frequent cover subject. According to Mark Adams, author of the 2009 biography Mr. America, he was now styling himself as "Prof. B. Macfadden."

Soon, the “professor,” whose formal education was skimpy at best, began dispensing advice on all manner of health topics, both in his magazine and in books he cranked out at an alarming pace. Sample titles: Foot Troubles, Strengthening the Eyes, Natural Cure for Rupture, and The Virile Powers of Supreme Manhood.

Eventually the American Medical Association could take no more. Focusing on Macfadden’s magazine, the AMA accused it of doing “incalculable” harm and suggested that it was “edited for morons.”

Meanwhile, Macfadden’s publishing empire was expanding apace. In 1919 he launched True Story, the first women’s confession magazine and a pioneer of what would later be called reader-generated content. It was followed in short order by True Romances, True Love, True Detective, and other true moneymakers. In 1924, he started his own daily newspaper, the New York Evening Graphic, a sensational tabloid known for its lurid headlines and elaborate fake photos ("widely considered to be the worst newspaper in U.S. history," biographer Adams notes). In 1931, he purchased Liberty magazine, a mass-market weekly and rival to titles like The Saturday Evening Post.

Even Time magazine, which called Macfadden “a puny Missouri hillbilly” and a “wiry-haired, wrinkle-faced little character,” among other snarky things, had to admit his “genius for the common touch in the publishing business.”

Advice to chew on

But first and foremost, Macfadden remained obsessed with health—both his own and the nation’s. He eschewed coffee, alcohol, tobacco, white bread, hats (bad for the hair), and often shoes. He opposed vaccines, apparently due to a bad experience he’d had as a boy, and expressed nothing but contempt for the medical profession (which returned the compliment). He was a big believer in fasting, milk drinking, high-fiber food, lots of chewing, sleeping on hard floors, and, of course, Bernarr Macfadden. By following his own advice, he believed he could easily live to 125, possibly 150.

To further spread his philosophy, Macfadden put his name on camps, schools, hotels, and hospitals. He opened vegetarian restaurants in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. He launched a breakfast cereal, Strengtho. He even attempted to create his own Utopian community—Physical Culture City—in northern New Jersey.

In fact, it seems to have been his interest in health that eventually led Macfadden into politics. He lobbied for the creation of a new cabinet post called Secretary for Health, a job he presumably saw himself as ideally qualified for. When that didn’t happen, he decided to aim higher.

“He developed definite longings for the nomination for the Presidency and those close to him received the impression that he would have accepted the honor from either of the major parties,” his newspaper editor, Emile Gauvreau, later recalled. Macfadden himself was quoted as saying, "If the lightning strikes, it will find me a willing victim."

Although he’d been a major booster of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential bid—and even hired Eleanor Roosevelt to edit a short-lived magazine called Babies, Just Babies—he soon grew disaffected with Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and switched his allegiance to the Republican party.

On the stump and on the skids

When Roosevelt came up for reelection in 1936, Macfadden saw his opportunity. In a series of speeches across the country, he attacked the “menacing problem” of government spending and said the national debt “has mortgaged our babies, our children, and our children’s children.”

But he was most vociferous on the topic of immigration. Illegal and indigent immigrants should be shipped back to their homelands, he argued, and not supported by American tax dollars. He seemed particularly incensed by what he called the “yellow peril.” According to a news account of a speech in St. Louis, Macfadden said an official in California had told him "there were 250,000 Japanese in that state and ‘everyone of ‘em armed.’”

In June of 1936, he attended the Republican nominating convention in Cleveland, listening to a radio broadcast of the proceedings in his hotel room. According to Adams, he apparently hoped the convention would become deadlocked and the party would turn to him. Instead it nominated Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, who went on to lose to Roosevelt in the November election.

Though disappointed, and out an estimated $100,000 in bribes, Macfadden wasn’t entirely done with politics. In 1940, he made a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, this time as a Democrat. He finished third in the primary. In 1953, he attempted to run for mayor of New York City as a third party candidate but was denied a place on the ballot.

By then, it wasn’t just his political fortunes that were at a low ebb. His financial fortune was, as well. His publishing empire had all but collapsed, due in part to shareholder lawsuits that accused him of diverting company money to pay personal expenses, including his 1936 presidential flirtation. He argued that he had never been a serious candidate but was just trying to build up the Macfadden brand for publicity's sake.

Though he no longer had an empire to promote, Macfadden continued his quest for attention until the end. He celebrated his 75th birthday by standing on his head for newspaper photographers. For his 83rd birthday, he parachuted out of an airplane into the Hudson River, wearing red flannel underwear and a football helmet. For his 84th, he did an encore over Paris.

When he died in 1955, at age 87, he left behind a wife nearly 40 years his junior and an estate that was essentially worthless. His widow maintained that he had buried cash all over the country, possibly as much as $4 million worth. But despite one mysterious $89,000 find in 1960, the money has never turned up.

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