Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow was thought to possess the perfect male body. Like Oscar Wilde, he is essential to understanding modern manhoodby David Waller / December 1, 2011 / Leave a comment
On the evening of Tuesday October 29, 1889, at around 10 o’clock, a young man wearing a monocle and evening suit jumped onto the stage of the Royal Aquarium Music Hall in Westminster. There was a moment of astonishment among the crowd, followed almost immediately by catcalls of derision, as the feeble-looking youngster with flaxen hair and girlish face declared in a voice barely audible against the hubbub, that he intended to prove himself the strongest man in the world.
The man was an unknown Prussian by the name of Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). Having ripped off nearly all of his clothes, he triumphed on that evening and became an instant music-hall sensation, going on to great success as a performer in North America and throughout the British empire. He became an early example of a global celebrity, thought to possess the most perfect male body, and in my new book I argue that he deserves to be resurrected as a significant cultural figure. He straddled the Victorian world and the modern, and, like Oscar Wilde, helps us understand the birth of modern manhood. He also deserves credit for initiating the modern craze for physical fitness.
On the night of the challenge, the Royal Aquarium was full to the rafters with excited young men, drawn from all social classes, some members of parliament from across the way, others mere clerks, but all fuelled with drink, smoking cigars, hot and perspiring under the bright limelight. Their ruddy, bewhiskered faces were reflected in the mirrors that lined the refreshment bars on every tier of this massive theatre. Over the course of the previous hours, they had seen a succession of acts, each one ushered on by a stage footman slipping a giant card bearing a number into a gilded frame on either side of the proscenium. Now at last they reached the highlight of the evening when Sampson and Cyclops were set to perform their bogus feats of strength. For three months, these professional strongmen had been juggling hollow barbells, bending iron bars and snapping steel cables, and pretending to lift a horse in a halter. They had issued a challenge: any contender besting Cyclops in a trial of strength could win a prize of £100, and a further £1000 to anyone who could beat Sampson himself. These were fabulous amounts and ought to have been a temptation for all those who had ever wrestled arms or tried their strength at the fairground. Yet nobody had picked up the gauntlet until Sandow mounted the stage.
Having declared his intentions in halting English, Sandow stood under the lights and let the noise build for what felt like an eternity, but in reality was no more than a minute, time which he used to survey the audience with an affectation of innocence, and to appraise the two burly men he would soon be up against. They too were laughing and shouting derisively, gesticulating contemptuously and appealing to Captain Molesworth, the master of ceremonies, to get him removed so that they could begin their act in earnest. Sandow stepped forward, as if to engage them both in conversation, and promptly tripped over a large dumb-bell left out on the stage. Sampson guffawed at the newcomer’s clumsiness, while Cyclops smiled complacently. Sandow took the monocle out of his eye, blew on it and polished it with his handkerchief, his stumble to all appearances caused by vision as weak as his wits, and this ruse was enough to decide Sampson to take him on. Amid the laughter and boos of the swells, he handed a £100 note to Molesworth, and the contest was set to begin.
This was the moment the young Prussian had been waiting for. With one sharp and unexpected movement of his arms, he ripped apart the front of his evening suit and the waistcoat and starched shirt beneath, to reveal his magnificently muscled torso, garbed only in a flesh-coloured undergarment. “Before they had all been shouting and laughing,” wrote one newspaper reporter of this momentous unveiling, “but the enormous development of his biceps, forearm and breadth of chest changed all that, and they remained dumb with amazement.” For a second or two, there was amazed silence, which soon gave way to a hum of appreciation, and then the entire theatre erupted with frenzied shouting as all and sundry began to lay wagers on the outcome of the contest, treating the contenders like racehorses under starting orders at the Derby.
Sandow won the contest and, although he never got his hands on the £1000 prize money, he was from that night onwards a celebrity. He signed a £150-a-week contract at the Alhambra theatre in Leicester Square, where on November 29th the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, came to marvel at Sandow’s muscles in his dressing room. In his heyday during the 1890s and the Edwardian era, Sandow was one of the most famous people on the planet, renowned not so much for his strength as the supposed perfection of his physical form. In an age scandalised when a female actress displayed a bare ankle on stage, he performed nightly, wearing very little other than a fig-leaf. Women threw their jewels at him, and men stared at his body in envy or lust.
He married and led an irreproachably uxorious life, but he was admired by gay contemporaries such as John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter. He conquered America in the mid-nineties, and in the early years of the twentieth century travelled through the length and breadth of the British empire. He took British citizenship in 1906 and built a global business empire based on his patented exercise regime and fitness equipment such as the Sandow spring-loaded dumb-bells. One famous, albeit fictional adherent of the Sandow system was Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, who took up the exercise programme in pursuit of youthful repristination.
The acme of assimilation came in 1911, when he was appointed professor of physical culture to King George V, a monarch not hitherto recognised for his love of physical fitness. Sandow made a great fortune, but lost virtually all of it during the first world war, and he died in 1926 at just 58 years old. “I remained a weakling,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on hearing of the strongman’s death, speaking with the self-satisfied tone of one who resisted Sandow’s attempts to get him to take up exercise. “But I am alive and Eugen is dead. Let not my example be lost on you. The pen is mightier than the dumb-bell.”
David Waller’s “The Perfect Man: The Life and Muscular Times of Eugen Sandow” is published by Victorian Secrets. Visit www.victorianstrongman.com for more details