This note considers US tabloid publisher Bernarr MacFadden, a contemporary of Hearst and precursor of Generoso Pope, and successors such as MacFadden Communications Corp and Sterling/MacFadden.
It covers -
At its height in 1935 the combined circulation of MacFadden's magazines was around 7.35 million - greater than those of the Hearst, Curtis or Time-Life groups - and reportedly attracted over 35 million readers to a mixture of gossip, zany health tips and softcore smut. The group's deeply eccentric founder had tangled with morals crusader Anthony Comstock, lost a fortune as proprietor of the New York Evening Graphic (aptly dubbed the Pornographic by critics) and other newspapers, and acquired prominent middlebrow magazines such as Liberty.
Today he's largely forgotten and his publications, such as True Love, have disappeared or are spread among publishing groups that range from VNU to American Media Inc.
Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955), sometimes dubbed the "Father of Physical Culture" - a title claimed by Sandow and successors such as Charles Atlas and the Weider brothers - was born in poverty in the eastern Ozarks of Missouri. It is tempting to conclude that a relentless narcissism and exhibitionism is attributable to death of his parents while he was still a child and early ill health, which apparently drove an obsession with diet, exercise and positive thinking.
In his twenties he gained attention as a gymnast, professional wrestler and body builder. Promotion of muscle development equipment in the UK and the US failed to bring a fortune. While in England he launched Physical Development, initially a cheap newsletter in the space occupied by Tit-bits and other Northcliffe publications. Returning to the US he launched Physical Culture in 1899 and went on to crank out a succession of health and fitness publications on the theme that 'ill-health is a crime' (to be combatted through a diet of carrots, nuts and raw eggs), consistent with the zeitgeist that produced Mary Baker Eddy and Aimee Semple McPherson.
Physical Culture gained 100,000 readers during the next decade; by 1918 it had around 500,000 readers. Some were presumably attracted by insights about health. Others read the magazine - and similar 'physique' publications - subversively as a precursor of gay porn.
The gospel of 'Professor' MacFadden, voiced in lecture tours and in a chain of 'health restaurants', included a titillating emphasis on the dangers of drugs, gluttony, white bread, tea, sugar, corsets, coffee and sexual repression. In 1903 he staged the first 'physique' contest in the US; later events fostered the career of Charles Atlas. Surviving brushes with the law - including a term in prison for obscene literature - in 1919 he launched True Story, the first of the modern 'confession magazines'.
The success of that title spawned a range of downmarket fiction magazines - sometimes promoted as journalism - with other pulp titles such as True Detective and True Romances. Concurrently he promoted physical fitness centres/resorts featuring treatment such as 'kinesitherapy' and allowing lucky customers the opportunity to obtain degrees such as a doctorate in 'physcultopathy' or buy Strengtho breakfast cereal. That flaunted an increasingly paranoid view of conventional medicine, evident in MacFadden's claim that the American Medical Association was poisoning his wells.
Early attempts to emulate Hearst by gaining selection as a party candidate in state and federal elections were unsuccessful. They appear to have encouraged MacFadden to launch the New York Evening Graphic, which spawned the second era of yellow journalism in that city and was notorious for innovations such as the 'composograph' - a doctored photograph.
MacFadden became increasingly eccentric as he aged. Critics noted that without warning he would periodically moo like a cow, stand on his head (particularly when photographers were present), sleep on the floor to enjoy the energy of 'earth-to-body magnetic currents' (one reason why he habitually walked barefoot) and wear clothes until they fell apart. Cosmotarianism, his new religion, gained few adherents.
Removal as chief executive, however, reflected losses in what was by then a public company and SEC impatience with his habit of using the corporate treasury as a personal ATM.
MacFadden's magazine imprints included -
- Physical Culture Magazine
- Muscle Builder Magazine
- Movie Mirror
- Radio Mirror
- Your Faith
- True Story
- True Experiences
- True Love and Romance
- True Romances
- Your Home
- Dream World
- True Ghost Stories
- Ghost Story
- True Detective
- Master Detective
- Model Aircraft News
Newspapers included -
- New York Evening Graphic
- New York Daily Investment News
- Detroit Daily Illustrated
- Automotive Daily News
- New Haven Times
- Mt Pleasant Daily Times
- Lansing Capital News
- Philadelphia Daily News
- Wyandotte Daily Record
- Greenville Daily News
After MacFadden's departure the group had a lower profile.
In 1992 its pulp magazines (including True Confessions and True Romance) were spun off as Sterling/MacFadden (aka Sterling MacFadden Partnership), a publisher that brought together MacFadden interests with those of Sterling's Magazines. The Sterling's stable included Teen Machine, Jive, Metal Edge and Daytime TV. The new company claimed some 39 titles and reportedly enjoyed annual revenue of around US$60 million. It went on to acquire Sixteen magazine.
MacFadden - rebadged as MacFadden Communications Corp - retained industry titles such as Chief Executive and Discount Merchandiser and sought to build conference operations.
In 1998 Primedia paid US$28 million for Sterling/MacFadden's youth music publications, such as Teen Beat, Teen Beat Allstars, Sixteen Superstars, Tiger Beat, Superteen and Teen Machine. During the following year VNU acquired MacFadden Communication's eight trade magazines targeted at food and snack retailers (including Convenience Store News and Supermarket Business) and five beverage sector magazines such as Beverage World and Discount Merchandiser.
Dorchester Media LLC subsequently acquired Sterling/MacFadden's non-youth magazines, such as True Story Romance.
Biographies of MacFadden include Body Love: The Amazing Career of Bernarr Macfadden (Bowling Green State Uni Press 1989) by William Hunt, Weakness Is a Crime: The Life of Bernarr Macfadden (Syracuse: Syracuse Uni Press 1991) by Robert Ernst and 'Making a Commodity of Truth: Speculations on the Career of Bernarr Macfadden' by Ann Fabian in American Literary History 1993, 5(1).
Hagiographies under his auspices include Fulton Oursler's The True Story of Bernarr Macfadden (New York: Copeland 1929), Grace Perkins' Chats With the Macfadden Family (New York: Copeland 1929) and Clement Wood's Bernarr Macfadden: A Study in Success (New York: Copeland 1929).
First wife Mary Macfadden's memoir Dumbbells and Carrot Strips (London: Gollancz 1956) is entertaining, more so than Barefoot in Eden (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1962) by third wife Johnnie Lee Macfadden. Comstock has attracted considerable attention: salient works are Paul Boyer's Purity In Print (New York: Scribners 1968) and Nicola Beisel's Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock & Family Reproduction in Victorian America (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1997).
For the pre-1950 tabloids and their successors see include I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby! - A Colorful History of Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact (Amherst: Prometheus 2001) by Bill Sloan, Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50's America (New York: PPP Editions 2006) by Will Straw, For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids (Knoxville: Uni of Tennessee Press 1999) by Elizabeth Bird and other works highlighted in the American Media Inc note elsewhere on this site. Tabloid Journalism: An Annotated Bibliography of English-language Sources (Westport: Greenwood 1996) by Gerald Greenberg is of particular value.
For other perspectives see Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1996) by Thomas Waugh.
1892 Macfadden founds Physical Development in UK
1895 sells Physical Development to Hopton Hadley, who relaunches it as Health & Strength
1899 launches Physical Culture in US
1900 launches Women's Physical Development in US
1903 Women's Physical Development becomes Beauty & Health: Women's Physical Development
1905 launches Physical Culture City
1905 receives suspended sentence after action by Anthony Comstock over 'lewd' exhibition
1906 launches Strengtho breakfast cereal
1907 opens sanatorium at Battle Creek, Michigan
1907 indicted for violating federal obscenity law with articles in Physical Culture Magazine
1909 Bernarr MacFadden v United States decision by US Supreme Court
1909 closes Battle Creek sanatorium
1909 opens International Healthatorium in Chicago
1919 launches True Story
1923 launches True Romances
1924 launches True Detective Mystery Magazine
1924 launches New York Evening Graphic
1924 launches Muscle Builder Magazine
1925 launches Philadelphia Daily News with Lee Ellmaker
1929 opens Physical Culture Hotel at Dansville, New York
1929 launches Detroit Daily News
1929 launches New York Investment News
1931 acquires Liberty magazine (est 1924)
1931 sells Detroit Daily News to Patterson & McCormick as part payment for Liberty
1932 sells New Haven Times to Journal-Courier for US$10,000
1932 sells Lansing Capital News and Greenville News
1932 closes New York Evening Graphic
1932 sells Philadelphia Daily News to Lee Ellmaker
1933 launches Babies, Babies, Babies
1935 acquires Deauville Hotel at Miami Beach
1941 relinquishes stake in McFadden Enterprises
1950 Liberty magazine closes
1952 Generoso Pope Jr acquires New York Enquirer, founds American Media Inc (AMI)
1954 Ellmaker sells Philadelphia Daily News to Matthew McCloskey
1957 McCloskey sells Daily News Annenberg
1984 Sanford Schwarz sells Sterling's Magazines
1988 AMI auctioned to MacFadden and Boston Ventures joint venture on death of Generoso Pope
1999 David Pecker and Evercore Partners acquire AMI for US$850m
1999 MacFadden trade publications bought by VNU
2004 Sterling/Macfadden acquired by Dorchester Media