Hi David and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the subject of The Perfect Man, The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman.
I’d like to start with the very arresting cover. It shows Eugen Sandow striking a characteristically muscular pose, dressed in a pair of rather fetishistic-looking boots – and a fig leaf.
There are other wonderful photographs of him in the book. Did the availability of photographs of Sandow influence your decision to write the book? The credits say they are part of your personal collection…
His contemporaries thought he had the perfect body and saw him as the literal embodiment of classical male beauty, combining both strength and symmetry. To this day, the photos are extremely impressive and I defy anyone to look at them and not want to know more about the man and his body. Certainly, the images piqued my interest as a biographer – but more than the pictures, his life story is truly fascinating. He started with nothing, attained wealth, fame and social status, and then lost it all: it’s almost operatic in its poignancy. We are all doomed to experience bodily decrepitude, but very few of us attain physical perfection along the way!
Incidentally, one question I always get asked about the images is: how did he fix the figleaf in place? There are various theories: string? Wire? Or even the nineteenth century equivalent of photoshop?
Sandow was a distant relative of yours – ‘a sort of great uncle by marriage’. He is obviously a fascinating and eerily modern figure in his own right, but did the family connection, however tenuous, make him more interesting to you?
There are references to him in contemporary literature for example James Joyce’s Ulysses – Leopold Bloom takes up the Sandow exercise programme in search of “youthful repristination” ie a bid to fend off middle age. But without the family connection it’s unlikely I would have heard of him. There was a whiff of scandal about him in that one of his daughters married and then deserted my great-grandfather and their children. All my other ancestors were dull and respectable engineers and accountants, so it’s no wonder that I was intrigued by him.
Did the connection make you feel inclined to treat him more charitably (chivalrously, you call it) than you might otherwise have done?
I don’t think so. I tried to maintain a sense of ironic detachment throughout. My argument is quite serious: he deserves to be resurrected as a major cultural figure of the fin de siècle and the early twentieth century. But one should never forget that he was a hero of popular culture who made his name by taking his clothes off and performing tricks such as balancing a cannon on his nose or wrestling with a lion. He was disingenuous, unreliable, litigious, even a liar when it came to details of his own origins and early life, which unlike his body he was keen to cover up. But there was a tremendous sincerity about his mission to bring physical fitness to the masses.
There are all sorts of rumours about his sex life, not surprising given that men and women found him desperately attractive, but absolutely no direct evidence of philandering or homosexuality. If I had found the evidence I would have written it up.
You locate Eugen Sandow very fully in his own social context, in popular culture and the new entertainment industries. He was one of the first people to conceive of himself as a brand, not only performing himself but setting up a chain of gyms, then called fitness schools, and ultimately lending his name to cocoa and baking powders. Did his unorthodox background in Germany, his lasting outsider status in England, contribute to the way he commodified himself?
As you suggest, his background in Germany is shrouded in mystery: while he claimed to the son of a respectable Prussian tradesman and his wife, it seems he was in fact illegitimate. He left Germany at the age of 17 when he ran away with the circus. No doubt he wanted to make his fortune but another motivation was to avoid military service. Later, when he took British citizenship and was every inch the prosperous Edwardian businessman, you are right to say he was an outsider – as became only too apparent during the Great War when his German heritage helped to ruin him.
But I think he owes his business success less to these early years, than to his father in law Warwick Brookes. Brookes was the leading commercial photographer in Manchester and knew many music-hall stars. Together, they put together what we would call a business plan. Stage celebrity gave Sandow money and brand recognition, the platform for diversifying into other business areas including mail order, manufacturing fitness equipment, food additives etc. Sandow was well-travelled of course and saw the opportunity to turn himself into a truly global brand, catering to the needs of the overworked and underexercised masses. His business empire only fell apart when he strayed from his “core competence” as the physical culture guru and moved into food manufacturing proper.
It was fascinating to read that when you were able to locate and buy a set of his patented dumb-bells, and followed the accompanying instructions, they actually worked! Did you feel the dumb-bells in some sense provided evidence for Sandow’s authenticity? A visceral connection over one hundred years later…
Yes. There is no doubt that they work: I could barely move for the first week after I followed the regime, so they were reaching muscles that other exercise did not reach. They are so-called spring-loaded dumb-bells: you squeeze them together and this really forces you to concentrate. They are beautiful, stainless steel objects with leather handles, a faint musty smell evoking ancient exertions. They cost a fortune, by the way.
The book debunks the idea that all Victorians were somehow desexed. It makes a case for a much more recognisable climate of fascination with the bodies of others and one’s self, and sexual curiosity that could find at least some expression, for women as well as men. Why do we stereotype the Victorians as bloodless and asexual?
It’s the Bloomsbury backlash—Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and their crowd had such a profound influence on how later generations saw the Victorians. But at the risk of stating the obvious the Victorians were human, like us, and they liked having sex as much as we do. However, they did not talk about it half so openly. It is evidence of the famous double standards that Sandow could parade around wearing virtually no clothes, while it was a national scandal when an actress displayed a bare ankle in the stage version of George du Maurier’s Trilby. He legitimised his performance by allying himself with respectable doctors and soldiers so that it became impossible to criticise his motivations, on the principle of honi soit qui mal y pense.
How long did it take you to research the book? Did you complete the research before embarking on the writing? Was your idea of your distant forebear much altered at the end of the process?
It took eight or nine years all told, but not continuously: I wrote another book along the way. So it was what management consultants would call an “iterative process”, involving writing and research at the same time, and much revisiting of the material. By the end I came to respect him more: he was really an ingenious and enterprising fellow, with umpteen more or less engaging character flaws to counterbalance that physical perfection.
Has immersing yourself in the life of Eugen Sandow changed you?
I wish I could say that as a result of the process, I looked a bit more like him, but it’s the opposite I’m afraid!
Are you working on another biography? If so, can we know who it is?
Not yet. I am quite seriously thinking of turning Sandow’s life into an opera, Jerry Springer style. And I am writing a screenplay based on my first biography, The Magnificent Mrs Tennant.
Thank you, David.