Eugen Sandow had a body that men envied and women drooled over, and it brought him fame and fortune. The only person who didn’t appreciate his success was his wife.
Sandow was born Friedrich Muller, the son of a green grocer in a German city in East Prussia. He was a draft dodger and changed his name to Eugen Sandow to avoid conscription. His family didn’t appreciate that. When his parents said, “What are you going to do, join the circus?” Sandow said yes, and ran away with one that was passing through town.
He toured and performed as an acrobat until the circus went bankrupt in Brussels. In this city he met Louis Attila who helped Sandow develop his physical structure and showmanship. Together they made ends meet showing off their strength in music halls. In 1889 Attila moved to London and sent word to Sandow of an irresistible challenge.
The popular duo Sampson and Cyclops were posing as strongmen on stage with a cleverly choreographed act that concealed their lack of strength. Each night Sampson issued a challenge to the audience: he would pay 500 pounds to anyone who could match the stunts he performed on stage. Sandow was intrigued, so he went to London and briefly resumed training under Attila. One night he answered Sampson’s call to prove his physical prowess and handily won the prize.
This turned Sandow into a sensation, and he spent the next four years touring the music halls of Britain, wowing audiences with his feats of strength. In 1893 he followed fame and fortune to New York where his act was under appreciated, perhaps because he had to share the stage with some third rate burlesque talent.
This was not the American dream he was promised until one patron noticed how the women in the audience responded to Sandow’s flexing and posing. Florenz Ziegfeld took him under his wing and coached Sandow to play to the audiences’ fascination with his bulging muscles. He downplayed the heavy lifting for these “muscle display performances” and added some sensationalism such as breaking a chain around his neck. Ziegfeld used the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to debut Sandow’s new routine. The audiences went wild, and for the next three years, Ziegfeld and Sandow toured extensively. They continually added new ways to demonstrate Sandow’s physical prowess such as fighting a lion, or tearing apart furniture. In addition, Sandow made a short film with Thomas Edison featuring his poses. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wLJtjEv-Ik)
Sandow got the inspiration for his manly physique from Greek and Roman statues. He measured the sculptures and crafted his body to their exact proportions, thereby creating “The Grecian Ideal” as the representation of the perfect male body. After a thorough examination, doctor and Harvard professor Dudley Sargent pronounced Sandow “the most perfectly developed man in the world.” His stage performances exploited this image by featuring him standing on a rotating pedestal encased in glass. With physical perfection came lots of female attention, and Sandow became a sex symbol, something he didn’t seem to mind at all.
The intense schedule and demands of celebrity caused Sandow to have a nervous breakdown. At some point on a trip to England, Sandow had married Blanche Brookes. When he became ill, he retreated back to England and the care of his wife.
Away from the limelight, Sandow became passionate about helping people maintain personal fitness. He created a place for people to learn about and practice bodybuilding and exercise called Institutes of Physical Culture. The popularity of these gyms inspired other teachers to do the same, and a fitness craze started gaining momentum. In order to reach the masses, Sandow published a magazine and five books. The book that gave the sport its name, Body Building or Man in the Making, was published in 1904. In Body Building, Sandow states his intention. “What I live to teach is the gospel of health, and the bringing of the body to the condition to which Nature intended it.” He outlined his system for achieving maximum physical potential as well as exercises for both men and women that dealt with specific ailments such as constipation, digestion and liver problems. (http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/sandowindex.htm#lied)
Sandow capitalized on his success by developing equipment to enhance the efficacy of the exercises. His spring-loaded dumbbell and weighted resistance band were available through mail order, which made it possible for the general population to get in shape in the comfort of home. In Body Building, he insisted, however, that rote repetition of the exercises was not enough. He emphasized the connection between the body and the mind. “The secret of success does not lie in the construction of the apparatus, but in the proper application and use if it, and this can only be obtained through the brain. In other words, it is not a question as to how much you exercise, but how you exercise.”
Sandow’s entrepreneurial spirit extended beyond the gym. He produced Sandow Cigars and Sandow Health and Strength Cocoa. In addition, he was one of the first proponents of mandatory physical education in school. He believed that employers should give their employees time off for daily exercise, and he developed exercises for pregnant women to ease the pain of childbirth.
Perhaps his biggest contribution to the sport of bodybuilding came in 1901. Sandow organized the first bodybuilding contest, called the “Great Competition,” held in Royal Albert Hall in London to a standing room only crowd. One of the judges was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Being a perfect physical specimen and sex symbol had its price. Despite his physical strength, Sandow’s emotional weakness for women did him in. When he died, the public story was that he had a stroke, but many believed he had succumbed to syphilis. In retaliation for his philandering, his wife insisted that he be buried in an unmarked grave.
Sandow hasn’t faded into total obscurity, however. He has been immortalized by a bronze statue sculpted in his image which is the prize for winning the Mr. Olympia contest. It is called The Sandow.
QUESTION: What physical feature do other people appreciate most about you?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved