One winter’s day in 1904, Arthur Conan Doyle steered his Wolseley Motoring Machine too quickly into the drive of his Surrey country home. The car clipped a gatepost and ran up a high bank before overturning completely. Doyle’s passenger was thrown clear but the author was pinioned by the heavy vehicle. “The steering wheel projected slightly from the rest,” he wrote later, “and broke the impact and undoubtedly saved my life, but it gave way under the strain, and the weight of the car settled across my spine just below the neck, pinning my face down onto the gravel, and pressing with such terrible force as to make it impossible to utter a sound…”
The creator of Sherlock Holmes remained under the car until a crowd gathered and was able to lift the vehicle from him. “I should think there are few who can say that they have held up a ton weight and lived unparalysed to talk about it,” he recalled. “It is an acrobatic feat which I have no desire to repeat.” In correspondence, Doyle subsequently attributed his narrow escape to a course of muscular development he had undertaken with Eugen Sandow, the world-famous strongman and music-hall performer who provided personal fitness coaching from his Institute of Physical Culture at 33a, St James’s Street, in the heart of London’s fashionable Clubland. The training had left Doyle in superb physical condition and provided Sandow with what today we call “celebrity endorsement” for the near-miraculous efficacy of his method.
Readers who come across this anecdote in a biography of Doyle may be forgiven for regarding Eugen Sandow (pronounced “You-jean Sand-ow” to rhyme with “how” or “now”) as a mere footnote in late Victorian and Edwardian cultural history. Sandow (1867-1925) is now almost totally forgotten by the broader public by whom he was once adored. The man who rose from humble origins in Prussia to become internationally famous as the literal embodiment of masculine perfection a century ago – the possessor of the most famous male body in the world – lay for more than 80 years in an unmarked grave in Putney Vale Cemetery. Only recently has his great-grandson erected a memorial, ending more than three-quarters of a century of ignominious anonymity. He is remembered today chiefly by body-building enthusiasts, for whom a statuette of Sandow is the coveted first prize in the International Federation of Body Builders & Fitness Mr. Olympia competition. (Arnold Schwarzenegger won one of these figurines in 1980). Not surprisingly for so good-looking a man, who posed near-naked for photographs long before pornography entered the mainstream, Sandow has also become an icon of homosexual culture: the various Sandow artefacts (such as bill-posters, dumb-bells, cigar-boxes and indeed semi-nude photographs) that regularly come up for sale on eBay tend to be flagged as “gay int.,” i.e. of special interest to the gay community. Even in his lifetime, he was a pin-up for a circle of covertly homosexual intellectuals such as the author and critic Edmund Gosse and J. Addington Symonds, the consumptive art historian who moved from Victorian England to Switzerland in search of health and athletic young boys. In 1889, barely weeks after the strongman made his music hall debut, Gosse sent pictures of Sandow to Symonds at his home in Davos as a Christmas present and Symonds wrote a drooling thank-you note by return. “They are very interesting,” he gushed. “The full length studies quite confirm my anticipations with regard to his wrists and ankles & feet. The profile and half-trunk is a splendid study. I am very much obliged to you for getting them to me.”
In his heyday in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Sandow’s appeal was very much broader: he was a music hall celebrity and an international sex symbol. Early accounts of his performances suggest that he was capable of stirring up an erotic frenzy akin to the impact of The Beatles on their female audiences 75 years later. When Sandow appeared on stage, according to an 1890 newspaper account, “semi delirium seized the delighted dames and damsels. Those at the back of the room leapt on the chairs: paraquet-like ejaculations, irrepressible, resounded right and left; tiny palms beat till…gloves burst at their wearer’s energy. And when Sandow, clad – a little in black and white, made the mountainous muscles of his arms wobble! Oh ladies!” “He was a handsome, beautifully proportioned man, and a born showman,” enthused Vesta Tilley, his friend and fellow music hall celebrity. “The ladies were particularly attracted by his performance, and he once showed me a good size box containing all sorts of jewellery – rings, brooches, bracelets, etc, which had been thrown on to the stage by ladies attending his performance.” Later, in North America, society ladies paid a surcharge to attend private viewings backstage after the show, where they were encouraged to fondle his muscles.
Kings and crowned princes beat a path to the door of his fitness salon in St James’s. Tens of thousands who could not afford his personalised attention subscribed to his mail-order fitness courses. Scientists and artists studied him, deeming him not merely strong, but the perfect specimen of male beauty. Before Sandow, nobody believed that a human body could copy the perfection of classical art. Artists clamoured to paint him, sculptors to model him. The Natural History Museum took a plaster cast of his body as representing the ideal form of Caucasian manhood, the remnants of which are still in the basement of that institution, long hidden from view. On an early visit to the US, Thomas Edison filmed him – one of the first moving pictures – and postcard images of his near-naked body were circulated by the thousand.
According to his own account, he was born in Königsberg in Prussia (now Kaliningrad, part of Russia) as Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, the son of a jeweller. He ran away from home and made a living as a circus strongman, wrestler and artist’s model in Belgium, Holland, France and Italy before being plucked out of impoverished obscurity by an Anglo-American artist by the name of E. Aubrey Hunt. In a gloriously camp encounter, Hunt is said to have spotted Sandow walking along the beach at the Lido in Venice in nothing but his bathing shorts. The sight was so impressive that Hunt hired Sandow to be the model for his portrait of a Roman gladiator in the arena.6 Hunt told him about a contest at the Royal Aquarium Music Hall in Westminster, in which a strongman by the name of Sampson was issuing challenges to find the mightiest man in the world. Sandow travelled to London, won the contest and was promptly signed up for a three-month show at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square. In the course of the next two years, he became a music hall sensation, regularly topping the bill in London and in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham and other provincial cities. Wearing little more than a fig-leaf and a pair of tights, Sandow would ape the poses of Greek and Roman statues, demonstrating his strength by tearing apart packs of cards, bending iron bars, snapping chains and supporting horses and a squadron of soldiers on his back.
As with a modern-day rock-star or promising screen actor, his agents saw the North American market as the key to greater fortune and Sandow opened in New York in the sweltering summer of 1893. There, he encountered Florenz Ziegfeld (later to achieve fame as the promoter of the eponymous Ziegfeld Follies), who brought Sandow to Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Sandow triumphed again and spent the next seven years in North America, where he set a new benchmark for American virility.
Despite his successes in North America, he chose to settle in London, marrying an English wife and eventually (in 1906) taking British citizenship. In 1896, he established his Institute of Physical Culture in London’s St James’s, where ladies and gentlemen would go for the late-Victorian equivalent of a workout. He wrote a number of best-selling books, starting with Strength and How to Obtain It. First published in 1897, this went into four further editions during his lifetime and was translated into many languages. From 1898-1907, he edited and published Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture. At a time when most men were sedentary and unhealthy, constitutionally disinclined to take any kind of exercise, and when British and indeed much of European society feared the onset of physical and moral degeneration, Sandow’s self-improvement system claimed to be able to transform weaklings into paragons of health and strength. One famous, albeit fictional, follower of his method was Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, who took up Sandow’s regime in search of “relaxation … and the most pleasant repristination of juvenile agility”. An early example of a David Beckham- or Claudia Schiffer-style personal brand, he developed a chain of licensed fitness training schools and a mail-order business selling everything from Sandow’s stretching equipment to cigars, Sandow’s cocoa, chocolate powder and branded body-lotion. Although the chocolate powder failed to catch on, he was initially successful in business and became every well-toned inch the prosperous Edwardian gentleman, a patron of Ernest Shackleton, a friend of Lord Esher and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In March 1911, he was appointed Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to King George V. He and his family lived in Dhunjibhoy House, a substantial residence in Holland Park Avenue in west London, named in honour of an Indian benefactor whom Sandow claimed to have cured of elephantiasis during a tour of the sub-continent.
In his lifetime, Sandow was a famous figure throughout the British Empire and North America, an idol to generations of young men and women and companion and fitness advisor to an impressive list of Kings, Emperors and Prime Ministers. In the 1890s, he was an early champion of physical culture, an emblem of masculinity and a symbol of human perfectibility. By the 1920s, he still had many thousands of adherents around the world, but his fame was much diminished. He was the subject of several biographies during his own lifetime, but the first and only modern one appeared in the US in 1994, when David L. Chapman rescued Sandow from almost total obscurity, demonstrating in his Sandow the Magnificent how Sandow invented the oddball sport of bodybuilding. This assessment of his influence, while undoubtedly correct, is far too narrow: he is not just the “father of bodybuilding” and thus initiator of a cult where men and women do freakish things to their bodies and end up with limbs and torsos that look like condoms stuffed with walnuts. He deserves to be resurrected as a significant cultural figure in his own right. Sandow straddled the Victorian world and the modern, like Oscar Wilde helping us to understand the birth of modern manhood. He also deserves credit for initiating the very modern craze for physical fitness.
Beyond the determination to restore Sandow’s reputation, there is a personal motivation for this book: Eugen Sandow is a very distant relative. For those prompted to search for comparisons between my own physique and Sandow’s, there is sadly no possibility of any genetic influence as he was merely a sort of great-great uncle by marriage. Growing up, I heard stories of his life, and, as I learned of his feats, I had visions of him juggling ancient aunts and lifting my great-grandfather’s grand piano onto his back. However, I noted that adults tended to clam up when children came into earshot and I suspected that there was some scandal associated with a man who brought a tincture of glamour to my otherwise entirely pedestrian ancestors (the others of that generation were accountants, engineers and shop-keepers.) So for the last decade or so I have been investigating his life, getting to the bottom of the family scandal (as revealed in the epilogue) and rooting out a great deal of new facts and stories about great uncle Eugen. I even acquired a set of his patented dumb-bells and tried to follow his training regime, with indifferent results as we will see.
Sandow remains something of a conundrum for a biographer and although I can unveil for the first time the secret of his origins, I cannot prove or disprove conclusively that he was a bisexual philanderer, as some have claimed. There is frustratingly little intimate biographical information: neither diaries, nor scrapbooks or archive, as if after his early demise his widow and daughters held an enormous bonfire and destroyed all records relating to the man whose memory they wished to obliterate. Certainly within days of his funeral they held an auction to sell off anything with a valuable association. To compound the problem further, the many who encountered Sandow tended to be viscerally impressed by his muscles and typically recorded what they thought of them rather than him. In a sense, this book is a biography of one remarkable body and all that it stood for, as well as of the fascinating but inscrutable man to whom the body belonged.
Extract from The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman by David Waller