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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Perfect Man: The Adonis Without Steroids




"With the frontier closed and women beginning their long push into the workplace, men obsessed over Tarzan, cowboy literature, and bodybuilding, even if they were sitting in offices all day."

 --Jesse Ellison

Have you ever heard of Eugen Sandow? That is actually the man's stage name. He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller in Prussia in 1867. He was so frail as a young child he was not expected to live very long. In his youth, Sandow would visit museums in Italy where he became a great admirer of Greek and Roman statues of gladiators and mythical heroes. He loved to flex and copy the poses of the classical artwork he found so appealing.

By the time he was 19, Sandow was already performing strongman stunts in side shows. I bet you can't even conjure an image of this strong young man.

Would it help you to know that Sandow traveled Europe as a wrestler before he entered an elaborate competition in the U.K. (the late Victorian equivalent of X Factor) to find the strongest man in the world?

Probably not much help at all, huh? Well, Sandow was a major celebrity of the time, and one of the most noted influences on later generations seeking a perfect body. He is often cited as the godfather of modern-day muscle building. Eugen Sandow is perhaps the most legendary bodybuilder of all time, and he was world renown as as a "perfect" body long before steroids. He pioneered the notion of working out for the sake of aesthetics.


It seems that Sandow, more than anyone else idealized the image of the sculpted perfection of classical art. His ripped abs and muscular physique were the Holy Grail for body-conscious men of today. Before him, no one believed that a human could attain such physical perfection. Sandow not only popularized the look but also made it achievable. He changed countless attitudes about health and fitness, and people today continue to feel these effects.

Here are Sandow's measurements:
  • Height 5ft 9in - same as Sylvester Stallone
  • Waist 29in
  • Chest 48in (62in when flexed)
  • Neck 18in
  • Biceps 19.5in
  • Forearms 16.25in
  • Thighs 27in - same as Chris Hoy
  • Calves 18in
Here are two of Sandow's legendary weight lifts:

* One-arm dumbbell clean and pressed, 312 lbs
* One-handed stone lift, 1500 lbs


David Waller, author of a Sandow biography The Perfect Man, says, "He (Sandow) was an ordinary looking man. He had blond hair, and almost looked quite girlish. But when he took off his clothes, to the astonishment of the audience, he had this amazing torso."

Sandow stumbled across an educator in the emerging world of physical fitness named Louis Durlacher, better known as Professor Attila. Durlacher had developed a system of progressive weight training in which muscles are strengthened by gradually increasing the weight lifted over time. Today, it’s the cornerstone of bodybuilding. When Attila met Sandow, he knew he’d found the perfect specimen to test his system.

"In 1889, the pair moved to London to secure a strongman show for Sandow. In order to grab people’s attention, they set their sights on the city’s reigning brawny duo, Sampson and Cyclops. Sampson was known for lifting “imperial tons” (2,240 lbs.), Cyclops for tearing coins in half.

"Sandow began by challenging Cyclops to a feat of strength. Sandow soundly defeated Cyclops in a series of barbell lifts.

"In the final challenge -- chain-breaking, in which both contestants had to break free only by flexing their muscles -- Sandow also prevailed. Sampson had never been defeated in this competition, but then again, he’d always cheated; his chains were rigged to fall apart. Sandow had discovered Sampson’s trick weeks earlier and tracked down the blacksmith, who made him a set of his own fake chains. On the night of the contest, the chains burst off Sandow’s body in record time, and Sampson stormed off stage. London had a new king of strength."

(Tim Farrell. "Flex Appeal: The Father of Modern Bodybuilding." 
Mental Floss Magazine. March-April, 2009)


After his success in the strongest man competition, Sandow got a contract on the musical scene in London and became an instant celebrity. His popularity grew since he was cultured, highly intelligent, and well-mannered. He also dressed very well and had a charming European accent, coupled with deep blue eyes and hearty laugh.

As a music-hall sensation, Sandow demonstrated his strength with feats like bending iron bars, snapping chains and supporting horses and soldiers on his back.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Broadway impresario of the famed Ziegfeld Follies and the glorifier of the American girl, was so impressed with Sandow that he wanted to display Sandow at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but  Ziegfeld knew that Maurice Grau had Sandow under a contract. Grau wanted $1,000 a week. Ziegfeld could not guarantee that much but agreed to pay 10 percent of the gross receipts.

Ziegfeld decided to produce a massive show with Sandow as headliner, and together they crisscrossed the country multiple times. In the show, Ziegfeld exhibited Sandow in a black velvet-lined box with his body covered in white powder to appear even more like a marble statue come to life as lights shone on his individual muscles.

By the time he left America, Sandow’s name was a household word, and he had earned more than a quarter million dollars.


In 1894, Sandow featured in a short film series by the Edison Studios. In 1894, he appeared in a short Kinetoscope film that was part of the first commercial motion picture exhibition in history.

Sandow also opened the first of his Institutes of Physical Culture, to teach methods of exercise, dietary habits and successful weight training to the public. His ideas on physical fitness were extremely novel at the time and had a tremendous impact. 

In 1898 Sandow founded a monthly periodical, originally named Physical Culture and subsequently named Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture that was dedicated to all aspects of physical culture. This was accompanied by a series of books published between 1897 and 1904 - the last of which coined the term bodybuilding in the title.

In addition, Sandow worked hard at improving exercise equipment, and invented various devices such as rubber strands for stretching and spring-grip dumbbells to exercise the wrists.

In 1901, Sandow organized the world’s first major bodybuilding competition in London's Royal Albert Hall. The venue was so full that people were turned away at the door. Imagine -- the three judges presiding over the contest were Sir Charles Lawes, the sculptor; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author; and Eugen Sandow himself.

Sandow was a genorous man. Out of his own pocket, he paid the housing costs of foreign athletes at the Olympic Games held in London in 1908. He also provided money in 1909 for training for would-be recruits to the Territorial Army, to bring them up to entrance fitness standards, and did the same for volunteers for active service in World War I. And, in 1911, Sandow was even designated special instructor in physical culture to King George V, who had followed his teachings.

Sandow died at his home in Kensington, London on October 14, 1925, at age 58 of what newspapers announced as a brain hemorrhage. It was allegedly brought on after straining himself, without assistance, to lift his car out of a ditch after a road accident two or three years earlier.

His funeral was anything but fitting. After his death Sandow's widow Blanche had him buried with unseemly haste in a pauper’s grave and remained tight-lipped about rumors of her husband’s womanizing.

Author David L. Chapman (Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding) entertains the speculation that Sandow actually died from syphilis, which is known to cause aortic aneurysms. Such a scenario would certainly help explain the hatred Blanche apparently bore Sandow. Chapman also asserts Sandow was bisexual.

"In 1925, the strongman’s fabulous physical envelope was dumped in an unmarked grave, and deliberately neglected by a widow who spent the rest of her life fighting to perpetuate Sandow’s oblivion." 

(Miranda Seymour. "The Perfect Man by David Waller: Review."  
The Telegraph. January 13, 2012.)


Since 1977 , as recognition of his contribution to the sport of bodybuilding, a bronze statue of Sandow has been presented to Mr Olympia winners. The statue is simply known as "The Sandow."

In an era predating professional sports leagues, Eugen Sandow was arguably the most famous athlete in the world. While his name is rarely heard these days, his legacy still exists in training gyms, muscle magazines, vitamin shops, and sporting-goods stores across the globe.

Those Sexy Victorians

And, naturally, even in those Victorian times, Sandow quickly became a sex symbol. Ladies would pay a surcharge to attend private viewings backstage, where they were encouraged to fondle his muscles. But it is also believed he had a gay following. Rumours circulated that he was a bisexual philanderer, but shortly after his death his widow and daughters started a huge bonfire, burning anything that related to his personal life.

"I think he got away with it as he made the body be seen as healthy and respectable," Waller adds. "He created a craze for physical culture."

With the Perfect Body."

When Eugen Sandow took the stage in 1894, clad only in a pair of miniature briefs, audiences swooned. In fact, it was quite unusual in those days for a man to remove his shirt in public. Not only did Sandow have one of the finest musculatures in the Western world, but he made physical beauty his primary talent: Instead of focusing on magic tricks or daring feats, Sandow simply posed like a gorgeous hunk of marble.

Sandow employed these allusions to classical art and statuary as an alibi, an excuse for posing practically nude, for as long as the hunk posed as a statue, he could get away with the provocative posturing, and he was a huge hit among men and women.

Although Sandow was never fully naked onstage, in photographs he did some nude modeling. Photographs of Sandow were given a pass as “art,” rather than pornography, because of his classical poses. In doing so, he established the vocabulary of physique photography which continued into the 1950s and 1960s.

Though the bodybuilding trend was initially based on notions of health, it found broad appeal using the allure of physical attraction. Sandow recognized the value of sex appeal. Instead of catering to mainstream morals, German-born Sandow played up his womanizing reputation, even encouraging scandalous rumors to circulate.

Naturally, Ziegfeld didn’t believe in bad publicity. He let word of Sandow’s escapades fly. He even spread a rumor that the muscleman was tomcatting about with sexpot actress Lillian Russell, which caused a major stir in gossip columns.


It was no accident that the imagery of “physical culture,” as recreational exercise was known, became closely intertwined with sexuality and pornography.

Once, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston art-collector and social doyenne, invited a party of ladies home to share the thrill of stroking Sandow’s awesome biceps.

Men and women alike clamored for cabinet cards featuring Sandow in the buff, and his physique inspired the first generation of gym bunnies. As Tim Farrell wrote for Neatorama, “Sandow did more than simply shock and titillate audiences with his tiny waist and ripped muscles; he pioneered the notion of working out for the sake of aesthetics.”

(Hunter Oatman-Stanford. “The World's First Hunk: Why We're Obsessed with Muscle Men.” Collectors Weekly. October 11, 2013)

Sandow Images on a cigar box


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