As a schoolboy back in the Fifties, I once wrote off for a Charles Atlas course. His ads were ubiquitous in those days: ingredients included a picture of Mr Atlas himself, a beaming giant clad in leopardskin underpants with a chest like a pile of rubble, flexing a pair of enormous biceps; and ‘before’ and ‘after’ snaps of satisfied customers, revealing how a ‘seven-stone weakling’ had been transformed into a second Tarzan simply by following Mr Atlas’s course in ‘dynamic tension’. Although I was much larger than most of the boys in my school, I was physically fearful and hopeless at games: maybe I hoped ‘dynamic tension’ would provide a sudden surge in self-confidence. I never signed on – that would have made too large a hole in my pocket money – but I dimly remember that ‘dynamic tension’ involved flexing one’s muscles and keeping them flexed as per instructions, and chewing one’s food very slowly. I’m fairly sure that one of the line-drawings designed to woo potential musclemen showed Charles Atlas pulling a railway train with a rope, one end of which was clamped between his iron jaws, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.
Angelo Siciliano was born in southern Italy in 1893, and was ten when his family moved to Brooklyn. As a young man he was a ‘seven-stone weakling’, but he decided to remedy matters after a muscular youth humiliated him in front of his girlfriend on the beach at Coney Island by kicking sand in his face. A drawing of the sand-kicking incident loomed large in his promotional literature, supplemented with an account of how, after he had developed giant muscles, Charles Atlas sought out the kicker and took his revenge. It is said that Atlas thought up the notion of dynamic tension after watching the lions in the Bronx Zoo: they seemed to be fine, well-built creatures, whose muscles had developed by interacting with one another without the aid of dumbbells or chest-expanders. Dynamic tension worked wonders for the spindly youth. In 1922 a friend told him that he looked just like the statue of Atlas on top of a hotel on Coney Island, so he changed his name forthwith. He was described as ‘the world’s most perfectly developed man’ at a muscleman contest held in Madison Square Gardens, and set up in business in 1929.
Charles Atlas became a national hero between the wars. The great heavyweight boxer Joe Louis took his course – as did, some years later, Rocky Marciano and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He provided the model for the bodies (if not the heads) of statues of Washington and Alexander Hamilton. He attended President Roosevelt’s birthday bash at the Waldorf Astoria, performed with Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor, peeled off his shirt for Elsa Schiaparelli, the famous dress designer, and impressed his admirers by tearing telephone directories in half and bending railway lines single-handed. According to a learned article in the Smithsonian magazine, George VI, the ultimate ‘seven-stone weakling’, completed the course – can this really be true? – while Mr Gandhi applied but took things no further.
Charles Atlas died in 1972, but it’s good to report that his course carries on. I have fond memories of my brief encounter with the great man, and – if my school was anything to go by – thousands of my contemporaries felt the same way. Not long afterwards I wrote to All-Bran suggesting they too should run ‘before and after’ snaps – ‘before’ showing a listless figure weakened by constipation, ‘after’ a smiling new man, swept through by a diet of All-Bran – but although they wrote me a nice letter and enclosed a factory-fresh packet of bran, they never took up my suggestion. What a wasted opportunity. Charles Atlas knew better.