The Perfect Man
The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman
Victorian Secrets 288pp £10
Victorian popular culture is full of idiosyncratic figures who in their day hit the headlines, made a fortune, then disappeared from view. The strongman and physical fitness guru Eugen Sandow is one. Rising to fame in the London music halls in the late 1880s, he built a lucrative business empire that celebrated not just the body beautiful but also proselytised to the masses on the importance of health, fitness and diet.
The Prussian-born Sandow’s early career as a circus acrobat led to his first break, touring Europe as ‘The Great Muscular Phenomenon of the Century’. He made a sensational debut in London in 1889, thrilling audiences with his astonishing strength, somersaulting with 56lb weights in each hand and even raising a grand piano with eight musicians sitting on it.
By 1893 he was pulling in the crowds in America with a daring pièce de resistance in which he supported the weight of a team of horses on his chest. Examined by an anatomist from Harvard, Sandow was pronounced ‘the most wonderful specimen of man I have ever seen’. At the World’s Fair in Chicago Florenz Ziegfeld hired him for his shows. Returning to Britain, Sandow set himself up as a consultant ‘physician’ cum personal trainer at Sandow’s School of Physical Culture off Piccadilly. He began publishing his own paean to physical culture – Sandow’s Magazine – followed by other merchandising: Sandow’s Spring-Grip Dumb Bells; a Combined Developer for arms, body and legs; his Health and Strength Cocoa; and even a line in women’s corsets. Sandow’s Strength and How to Obtain It (1897) was a bestseller, appealing not just to men, but in its broader advocacy of health, fitness and rational dress, to the rising New Woman.
By the end of the 1890s, and still top of the bill, he had established his franchise of physical training schools in dozens of cities around the world and had dedicated followers in celebrities such as W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Arthur Conan Doyle. At this point, and on a darker level, Waller offers a fascinating perspective on the links between the cult of physicality and racial purity. During the Boer War of 1899-1901, concerned at the levels of physical ‘degeneracy’ among recruits – the result of poor diet, overcrowded living conditions and a lack of exercise – Sandow volunteered to train men for combat, as an act of patriotic duty. Convinced that his own brand of ‘positive eugenics’ would ‘raise the standard of physique for the whole race’, he made the same offer on the outbreak of the First World War.
From 1904, however, the tide began to turn against him with the growth of anti-German sentiment, even though Sandow had taken British citizenship. His business empire rapidly crumbled with the outbreak of war and by 1918 his body was itself going to seed; a serious motoring accident in 1925 probably caused his premature death at the age of only 58.
The cover of David Waller’s entertaining story, with its compelling image of a short, stocky and perfectly formed man with only a strategically placed fig leaf protecting his manhood, leaves us in no doubt about Sandow’s massive appeal to hordes of puny young Victorian and Edwardian men, or the homoerotic power of his photographs today. But somehow, due to a frustrating absence of letters and diaries, part of Sandow eludes us. After his death his widow had him buried with unseemly haste in a pauper’s grave and remained tight-lipped about rumours of her husband’s womanising. Ultimately Sandow’s sexuality remains ambivalent; we never find out the whole truth about this fascinating but enigmatic man.
Helen Rappaport is author of Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarch (Hutchinson, 2012)