The Final Seven Years

The Fading Limelight
In 1948 he married his fourth wife, Johnnie Lee Macfadden, a health consultant and lecturer. He was nearly 80; she was 44. The two newlyweds seemed as playful and as energetic as a young couple in their twenties rather than a couple with a combined age of 124! Nevertheless, the publicity outside of Florida where the wedding was held was scant.
Macfadden wedding  
Wedding pictures. His son, Brewster, "cuts in" at the wedding reception dance.

Macfadden at age 82In celebration of his 81st birthday, he devised the stunt of parachuting from an airplane over Dansville, New York. Wearing a football helmet, baseball catcher's shin guards, and substantial padding underneath a business suit, Macfadden safely completed the jump. He repeated this stunt at different locations for two more birthdays.

Showing His Age
He was physically active and mentally alert well into his seventies, but he certainly began to look awfully old. With age, he lost a great deal of his muscle bulk (he never had any body fat) and actually appeared emaciated (see the photos on this page). Even so, he was spry and athletic at an age when most people of that time had declined physically and mentally. He could still out-perform a lot of men half his age. He kept up a daily exercise routine, and standing on his head (see photo below) was a favorite exercise - he said that standing on his head increased his brain power!

The photo on the left shows Macfadden, ever the ladies' man and still spry at age 84, dancing with Paris chorus girls. Notice his short stature and special Physical Culture shoes.

His marriage to Johnnie Lee brought him a lot of publicity, but it lasted only four years. The truth is that Macfadden was still carrying on affairs with other women well into his eighties.

Although Macfadden was a master showman, could still attract attention, and still had a group of loyal followers, few of the younger people during the 40's and 50's took him really seriously. He was considered somewhat of a kook and an eccentric by the younger generation. The exception to this were the bodybuilders and wrestlers who acknowledged him as their "founding father."

This was also a time when his message of using natural curative means pretty much fell on deaf ears. The medical profession, his old nemesis, had achieved such an unassailable position of power, influence, and infallability that very few people were open to questioning the medical profession.

Legal and Financial Problems
By 1952, Macfadden's legal and financial problems were spiraling out of control. This was certainly exacerbated by people with whom he had business dealings who wanted a chunk of what they saw as a rapidly dwindling fortune. He faced numerous lawsuits. He lost the Hotel Deauville in Miami Beach as a result of a lawsuit involving legal technicalities. Both of his ex-wives  had taken legal action against him, and he even spent a short time in jail for non-payment of alimony. Most of the time, he was simply trying to avoid legal prosecution - trusted friends and associates were turning against him. His foundation was running out of money.

1952 was also the year that Mary Macfadden's tell-all biography of her life with Bernarr, "Dumbbells and Carrot Strips," was published. He felt that the public image which he had worked so hard to create, was severely damaged by the biography - that the physical culture cause had been hurt. He was angered and hurt by this.

Those who were closest to him began to see a change - he was not his old self. He complained of pains in his legs, had lost a lot of his energy and vitality, but he refused to accept any help. In this instance, his solid self-determination and strong will worked against him. There are times when everyone needs to seek help from others, but Macfadden thought of this as weakness and refused to recognize that he needed help from anyone.

In 1955, he developed a urinary tract blockage which he attempted to treat by fasting. October 7, unconscious and near death, he was taken by ambulance to a hospital, but doctors could do nothing to save him. He died Oct. 12, 1955. He had been healthy almost to the very end, and the end came quickly. He lived 87 years, a long and productive life - not bad for someone who had been a sickly, weak child who wasn't given long to live!

Although most people believed that Macfadden died nearly penniless, Johnnie Lee Macfadden claimed that there was still money - that it was buried at various locations across the country. She said that he had told her that he had buried money in steel cartridge boxes, and it amounted to millions! A couple people reported that they had seen Macfadden leave one of his hotels carrying a bag and a shovel and return with only the shovel. However, as far as we know, all attempts to locate the buried treasure have failed. Many people close to Macfadden said that the rumors of buried money were false - that there was no money left. However, in 1960 a steel cartridge box was found buried on Long Island on some property once owned by Macfadden. It contained $89,000! Could it be that the rumor was true and there is actually some of the Macfadden fortune still buried?

An Appraisal of Macfadden's Legacy
It seems unbelievable that a man so well-known and so influential as Bernarr Macfadden could be forgotten. Indeed, most people of the present generation do not know who Bernarr Macfadden was. This is unfortunate, because he was an important as well as flamboyant and colorful figure in American history and especially in the history of the health and fitness movement. It is encouraging to note that recently people are beginning to "rediscover" Macfadden.

Bernarr Macfadden was clearly ahead of his time in many ways. He was the first person in the alternative health care field to become internationally famous. His influence was immense. He was the one person most responsible for creating a health and fitness consciousness in America.

He must certainly be lauded for his tireless campaign against the widespread medical quackery that existed around 1900. One of his greatest achievements was his role in eliminating many of the unsafe and unreliable medical practices (such as electric belts) that were popular during his lifetime. He should also be credited with helping to establish chiropractic and osteopathy as legimate medical disciplines.

He campaigned tirelessly against Victorian prudery and helped Americans understand that sex was not something to be ashamed of. By bringing the problem of venereal disease (which was widespread) out into the open, he was influential in bringing about ways to control it.

His teaching about the value of eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods cannot be faulted; and his belief in the value of exercise, particularly walking, anticipated an age when exercise would be accepted as a requisite for good health. He was also pretty accurate when he wrote about the important role that the mind plays in maintaining good health. Indeed, he deserves to be called the "father of physical culture."

Not all of his ideas about health and disease are accepted even today. This is most apparent in areas where he simply stretched a perfectly good idea beyond its limits. For example, he believed that fasting was a cure for all ailments. In an effort to encompass all health problems - all diseases, he certainly went too far. Generally, the people that were treated by Macfadden experienced noticeable improvement but there were, despite his claims, few actual "cures" for really serious conditions such as asthma and arthritis. Nevertheless, many of his ideas on the natural treatment of illness were valid, but more than that, his ideas about fitness, were amazingly accurate.

Macfadden is studied today in Journalism classes. His place in history as the maverick publisher of pulp magazines and tabloid newspapers is secure. His impact on magazine publishing and upon advertising was immense. Macfadden Publications survived long after his death. Many of the advertising and promotional techniques which he developed are still being used today.

Bernarr Macfadden was an American original. He was totally a self-made man. He was a genius at carving out his own unique niche. He was instrumental in helping Americans emerge from the puritanical mentality of the past, but in many ways, he was out of step with the new society that he had played a part in creating. Some of his ideas about family and business ethics were simply old fashion and insensitive. He was a very complicated and even contradictory man. In the end, he remains an enigma.

This statue of Macfadden which was cast from life when he was 60 is now in the Dansville New York Historical Museum.
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