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The fanatical millionaire who saved Castle Heights

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New book details life and times of health guru Bernarr Macfadden

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

In the spring of 1928, just a year or so before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 which led into the Great Depression, a New York City millionaire rescued Castle Heights Military Academy from a likely death.

This wealthy savior was a fanatic when it came to health, a genius when it came to publishing, and he had an ego that would embarrass even Donald Trump.

Mark Adams tells the tales of Castle Heights’ benefactor in his new book, Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet.

“He was America’s first great health guru, who  happened to invent tabloid journalism in his spare time,” said Adams in a telephone interview last week. “He was a fan of nudity. He must be the only candidate for U.S. Senate to circulate nude photos of himself.”

Born a poor boy in the Missouri Ozarks, the flamboyant Macfadden pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worked out with dumbbells, practiced what he preached (dieting, fasting, walking) and followed his star to the Big Apple where he became the father of physical culture, a powerful publisher and wealthy man. He was a kook to many but an inspiration to millions.

Along the way he shared his eccentric beliefs with the nation, practically invented Charles Atlas (“hero to 97-pound weaklings”), married four times, sired eight children and admired and befriended Italian dictator Mussolini. 

 The BookMr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation DietWritten by Mark Adams, published by HarperCollins, $25.99

The School and the ManCastle Heights in Lebanon educated thousands of students from across the nation and the world from 1902 to 1986. From 1928 to 1974 Castle Heights Military Academy was operated by the Bernarr Macfadden Foundation.Macfadden was a health fitness fanatic in diet and exercise but also published numerous magazines during the first half of the 20th century, such as Physical Culture, True Romances, True Detective and True Confessions. Lurid headlines were a mark of Macfadden publications, and he also published a daily tabloid, The New York Evening Graphic, dubbed the “Porno-Graphic” due to its sensationalistic nature, racy photos and gossip columns.Macfadden died of a urinary track infection Oct. 12, 1955, at age 87 with his former fortune of millions reduced to pennies.

“His greatest strength was probably confidence,” Adams said. “He believed that he had found the one secret truth, and it was his job to share it with the world and maybe make a lot of money too. Macfadden didn’t invent most of this stuff. His role was the Elvis of American health. He took some ideas already out there and made them palatable for a mass audience.”

In 1928 with a check for $100,000, Macfadden purchased a command audience all his own -- the faculty, staff and cadets of Castle Heights. It also gave him human guinea pigs on which to test his theories.

“When I first came to Castle Heights, we couldn’t bring pillows. He wanted us to sleep without a pillow so we would have straight backs,” said Ted Lavit, who attended Heights for 11 years (class of 1957). “We were required to drink milk. When I was real small, they required me to drink the cream. They weighed us every month and took our height, and it was put on monthly report cards.

“We couldn’t have condiments on the table in the cafeteria: no salt, sugar, pepper. He just didn’t believe in that. Later the rules became sort of lax. There were places under the dining room tables in the geeber school (upperclassmen were nicknamed geebers at Castle Heights, younger students were called goobers) where they could hide the salt, pepper, ketchup, hot sauce and stuff like that.”

Lavit recollects that Macfadden, an avid pilot, parachuted down to the Lebanon airport in the late 1940s when he would have been about 80 years old. He remembers the fitness fanatic jumping off the stage after making a speech as well as singing a self-composed song, “I Love Life,” a capella-style before his eighth-grade graduation class.

“He wore a white suit and a bowtie. He reminded me of Mark Twain. He was not tall but he just had a great bearing, even at his age,” said Lavit, a native of Brooklyn who has practiced law for the past 45 years in Lebanon, Ky. He still has the photo taken of him and his father beside Macfadden in 1953.

Macfadden’s main on-campus participation was in fiscal matters. Indeed, the bottom line primarily commanded his time during Castle Heights visits. But he fascinated faculty and cadets with his worldwide recognition and his eccentricity.

Rob Hosier, president of the Castle Heights Military Academy Alumni Association and a class of 1963 grad, never met Macfadden but knows the man through sifting through the numerous artifacts and correspondence preserved in the alumni house and museum.

“You never see a picture of Macfadden with his eyeglasses. He was interested in promoting self. He was a very egotistical man but smart,” Hosier said. “When he was on campus, they referred to him as Col. Bernarr Macfadden.

“He was heavily involved in dietary needs of the cadets. He had every student participate in one sport and he retooled the cafeteria. They cut back on meats. A daily green salad was mandatory, and they drank so much milk that they opened their own dairy.”

There remain few physical remembrances to Macfadden on what was once the Castle Heights campus on the high hill in the middle of Lebanon. His Macfadden Foundation Auditorium, built in 1941 to seat 1,400, still stands, but the doors and windows are boarded, and the structure is up for sale. Macfadden Gymnasium, constructed in 1937, was demolished years back and is now the site of a law office. Off the main drive up to Lebanon’s city hall is Macfadden Court, a short road that crosses in front of the Mitchell House where Heights students once slept and studied when it was called Macfadden Hall.

Hosier, whose father taught at Heights for 34 years, from 1939-1973, notes a couple of interesting events tied to Macfadden and the school.

To prove how fit the cadets were, in the winter of 1928 Macfadden took the Heights football team to New York play St. John’s High School of Brooklyn. The cadets won the game 25-0. And even more curious, in March 1931 he brought 45 young Mussolini Fascists, ages 20 to 24, for a three-month stay on the Heights campus.

Macfadden also sent his two sons, Brewster and Berwyn, to Castle Heights where they attended the junior school, but neither graduated from the senior school.

In the early 1930s, Macfadden wrote of his adopted Tennessee academy: “In all likelihood it will never be profitable from the point of view of dollars and cents. But while I have red on one side of the ledger, it is offset by the red-blooded men it sends into the world. Actuated by the right sort of ideals, they will be a credit to others and to their country.”

As for biographer Adams, an editor for National Geographic who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., he discovered Macfadden after he became health editor at GQ magazine.

“I really had to get up to speed quickly, so I started going through old publications from other companies to steal ideas,” Adams said. “I happened to be in a junk shop and came across a stack of magazines of a man in a loincloth flexing his muscles. It was Physical Culture.”

Here Adams eyeballed such fantastic headlines as “Raw Foods Cured My T.B,”  “My Fat Is Going Away and I’m Coming Back,” “70 Billion Cigarettes a Year Sapping the Nation’s Strength” and “The Havoc Wrought by Beauty Doctors.”

“I thought, ‘What is this? Did a flying saucer drop this here?’ This was 1924, the Jazz Age, and here was a rather thick magazine devoted to alternative health and fitness, diet and exercises. I started looking into Macfadden’s story and all these interesting people he knew: Ed Sullivan, Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt, Walter Winchell. He almost went to prison, he ran for Senate. The more I read about him, the more I thought this guy’s life would be a great book,” Adams said.

He gathered his ball of string of Macfadden facts and started writing, and five years later, he was done with his look at a pop-culture icon who has practically faded from sight. The same cannot be said of his legacy which lives on in The National Enquirer and sensational, gossip-laced TV shows.

Adams did test some of Macfadden’s beliefs by fasting and walking and came away a believer to some degree.

“The main thing I learned is that if you’re willing to make a radical change on how you eat and exercise, you can change your level of wellness or goodness of how you feel almost overnight.”

And as for Adams’ assessment of Macfadden and his relationship to Castle Heights, he said, “He poured a lot of money into it. Castle Heights was one of the cornerstones of his legacy, his way of contributing to the next generation and in some ways a laboratory.”

Heights alumnus Hosier sums up Macfadden’s fantastic life saying, “For all of the criticism and jokes made about him, he did live to be 87.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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