Eugen 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 eighty years in an unmarked grave in Putney Vale cemetery (only recently have admirers erected a proper memorial). He is remembered today chiefly by body building enthusiasts for whom a statuette of Sandow is the coveted first prize in the International Federations of Body Builders Mr. Olympia competition. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose career has many parallels with that of Sandow, won one of these figurines in 1980.
In his heyday in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Sandow was a music-hall celebrity and an international sex symbol. On the UK music-hall stage, he stirred up an erotic frenzy akin to the impact of the Beatles on their female audiences three quarters of a century later. According to one 1890 newspaper account, when Sandow started his act, “semi delirium seized the delighted dames and damsels. Those at the back of the room leapt on the chairs: parakeet-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!” 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 him, 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. 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. 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. 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 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 imitate 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 seven of the next fifteen 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, taking an English wife and eventually (in 1906) 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”.
He developed a chain of licensed fitness training schools and a mail-order business selling everything from Sandow’s stretching equipment or cigars, to Sandow’s cocoa, chocolate powder and embrocation, a 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.
With the coming of the First World War, his business empire unravelled and he lost most of his fortune. The mysterious circumstances of his untimely death and his estrangement from his family are explored in my recent book.
The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman, is published by Victorian Secrets. Find out more at www.victorianstrongman.com
The alternative Diamond Jubilee at the Museum of London Docklands
Thu 31 May 2012, 6.45-9.45pm
Book in advance £6 (concs £5, Friends £4)
A female monarch achieves 60 years on the throne and a nation rejoices. Yes, it’s Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1897. Be astonished by shows of burlesque and Victorian style hip hop, marvel at illusionists, and delight in Steampunk-themed craft workshops. Dress code: fin de siècle finery and Steampunk chic.