How the original 97-pound weakling transformed himself into Charles Atlas and brought the physical fitness movement to the masses
- By Jonathan Black
- Smithsonian magazine, July 2009
Like tens of thousands of young men and boys before him, Tom Manfre first caught sight of Charles Atlas in the back pages of the comic books he read so voraciously. With a sculpted chest, leopard briefs girdling his hips, a piercing look on his granite-jawed face, Atlas seemed to be jabbing his finger at Manfre as he commanded: "Let Me Prove in 7 Days That I Can Make You a New Man!"
It was 1947, Manfre was 23 years old, and the man in the leopard-pattern briefs was the toast of New York City. He'd helped President Franklin Roosevelt celebrate his birthday at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. He cavorted on radio with Fred Allen and Eddie Cantor and on television with Bob Hope and Garry Moore. He stripped off his shirt at a Paris dinner party tossed by the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. His measurements had been entombed in the famous Crypt of Civilization, the repository of records at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta intended for unsealing in the year 8113. Scarcely a day went by that a newspaper columnist didn't feature an item about Atlas—dropping by to bend a couple of railroad spikes, perhaps, or ripping a Manhattan phone book in half.
Manfre stuck a check for $29.95 in the mail and got back a 12-lesson course of exercises the author called Dynamic-Tension. For 90 days, Manfre did the prescribed squats and leg-raises and sit-ups. He followed the tips on sleep and nutrition. He remembered to chew his food slowly. Pleased with the results, he sent a photograph of his new and improved body to Atlas and was invited to drop by to meet the man himself.
"I felt like a kid in a candy store," Manfre, 86, says today. "I was thrilled! He put an arm around me and said, ‘God was good to me, and I'm sure he'll be good to you.'" When Manfre won the Mr. World contest six years later, the first person he called to thank was Charles Atlas.
Manfre was not alone in his gratitude. During Atlas' heyday—the 1930s and '40s—two dozen women worked eight-hour days to open and file the letters that poured into his downtown Manhattan office. Grateful knock-kneed boys with scrawny arms and sunken chests reported that their lives had been turned around. King George VI of England signed up. Boxers and bodybuilders gave Dynamic-Tension a whirl. Mahatma Gandhi—Gandhi!—wrote to inquire about the course. A 1999 A&E biography, "Charles Atlas: Modern Day Hercules," included testimonials from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jake "Body by Jake" Steinfeld.
This year marks the 80th that Atlas' mail-order company has been in business. Atlas himself is long gone—he died in 1972—and Charles Atlas Ltd. now operates out of a combined shrine, archive and office over a nail salon in the northern New Jersey town of Harrington Park. But the Internet has given Dynamic-Tension a new life. From all over the world, letters and e-mails continue to pour in, testament to one of the most successful fitness programs ever devised. And to its mythic founder.
The man who made history marketing his muscles was an unlikely hero. Born in Acri, a tiny town in southern Italy, he arrived with his parents at Ellis Island in 1903 at age 10. His name was Angelo Siciliano, and he spoke not a word of English.
He didn't look like much, either. Skinny and slope-shouldered, feeble and often ill, he was picked on by bullies in the Brooklyn neighborhood where his family had settled, and his own uncle beat him for getting into fights. He found little refuge at Coney Island Beach, where a hunky lifeguard kicked sand in his face and a girlfriend sighed when the 97-pound Atlas swore revenge.
On a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, he saw statuary depicting Hercules, Apollo and Zeus. That, and Coney Island's sideshow, got him thinking. Bodybuilding was then a fringe pursuit, its practitioners consigned to the freak tents beside the fat lady and the sword swallower. Alone at the top was Eugen Sandow, a Prussian strongman discovered by showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Sandow toured vaudeville theaters, lifting ponies and popping chains with his chest. Atlas pasted a photo of Sandow on his dresser mirror and, hoping to transform his own body, spent months sweating away at home with a series of makeshift weights, ropes and elastic grips. The results were disappointing, but on a visit to the Bronx Zoo one day he had an epiphany, or so he would recall in his biography Yours in Perfect Manhood, by George Butler and Chris Gaines. Watching a lion stretch, he thought to himself, "Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?...And it came over me....He's been pitting one muscle against another!"
Atlas threw out his equipment. He began flexing his muscles, using isometric opposition and adding range of motion to stress them further. He tensed his hands behind his back. He laced his fingers under his thighs and pushed his hands against his legs. He did biceps curls with one arm and squeezed his fist down with the other. Experimenting with varied techniques, and likely aided by exceptional genes, Atlas emerged from many months at home with a physique that stunned school chums when he first revealed himself on the beach. One of the boys exclaimed, "You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!"
Several years later, he legally changed his name, adding Charles from his nickname "Charlie."
Holding up the world, however, wasn't a career. Atlas was too mild-mannered to go chasing neighborhood bullies, though on the New York subway he once lifted a troublemaker by his lapels and issued him a stern warning. A dutiful son, he learned leatherworking to pay the rent and support his mother. (His father had taken one look at his adopted home and high-tailed it back to Italy.) But Charlie hadn't built up his chest just to make purses. Eventually, he gave up on the leatherwork and took a $5-a-week job, doubling as janitor and strongman at the Coney Island sideshow, where he lay on a bed of nails and urged men from the audience to stand on his stomach.
And this might have been the last anyone heard of Charles Atlas had an artist not spotted him on the beach in 1916 and asked him to pose.
A boom in public sculpture was coming, and busy carvers were desperate for models with well-built bodies. Among the most prominent was socialite sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who, watching Atlas disrobe, exclaimed, "He's a knockout!" Further impressed by his ability to hold a pose for 30 minutes, she soon had him running from studio to studio. By the time he was 25, Atlas was everywhere, posing as George Washington in Washington Square Park, as Civic Virtue in Queens Borough Hall, as Alexander Hamilton in the nation's capital. He was Dawn of Glory in Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Patriotism for the Elks' national headquarters in Chicago. Photographs of him in classic poses, nude or shockingly close to it and with more than a whiff of eroticism, suggest how much he liked the camera and the camera liked him.
And the money was good—$100 a week. Still, Atlas was restless, and ambitious, and when he saw an ad for a "World's Most Beautiful Man" photo contest, he sent in his picture.
The contest was sponsored by Physical Culture magazine, the brainchild of Bernarr Macfadden, a publisher and fitness fanatic, as well as one of the most bizarre figures in the annals of fitness entrepreneurs. (He would later found a publishing empire with True Story and True Romances magazines.) Macfadden was obsessive about his health. When he wasn't fasting, he ate carrots, beans, nuts and raw eggs. He slept on the floor and walked to work barefoot. Impressed with Atlas' photograph, he asked the young man to stop by his office. When Atlas stripped to his leopard bikini, Macfadden stopped the contest, though he waited for a second visit to hand over the $1,000 winner's check and celebrate with a glass of carrot juice.
Atlas got an even bigger jolt of publicity when, in 1922, Macfadden followed up the contest with "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" extravaganza at Madison Square Garden. Seven hundred and seventy-five men competed for the title, judged by a panel of doctors and artists. When Atlas walked away with a second trophy, Macfadden called a halt to any more contests, grousing that Atlas would win every year. Likely, he was merely hyping Atlas' next showstopper: starring in a Macfadden short, silent movie called The Road to Health, directed by one Frederick Tilney, a busy if unsung health and fitness expert. On a ride to the film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, one day, Tilney and Atlas decided to set up a mail-order business to sell an exercise routine. When, after a few years, their collaboration ended, Atlas went solo.
But an extraordinary body did not translate into a head for business, and, within a few years, the company floundered. With profits lagging, Atlas' advertising agency in 1928 turned over his account to its newest hire, Charles Roman, who was 21 and fresh out of New York University. What the young man came up with so impressed Atlas that four months after they met, Atlas offered him half the company on the condition that Roman would run it. It was the smartest move he ever made.