On this edition of Famous Catholic Fridays, we take a look at the man of the muscles: Charles Atlas.
Catholic Credentials: An Italian immigrant and cradle Catholic; devoted husband and father; considered joining a monastery after his beloved wife died; read his Bible daily; said the key to being healthy was “live clean, think clean, and don’t go to burlesque shows.”
Nerd Credentials: He spent his life helping puny little weaklings become He-Men: that’s something I think most nerds can appreciate, whatever end of the physical spectrum we’re at.
Angelo Sicilliano was born in Arci, Italy in 1893. At the age of 10, he and his family immigrated to America, where he arrived skinny, sickly, and not speaking a word of English. Naturally, little Angelo was bullied something fierce by the other boys of Brooklyn, once getting beaten unconscious with a sack of ashes on his way home on Halloween. Matters were not improved by the fact that his uncle would beat him for getting into fights. And for those of you who remember the “Insult that Made a Man out of Mac” ads – with the skinny youth getting humiliated by a beefy lifeguard in front of a good-looking girl – that actually did happen to him at one point during his teenage years.
|Based on a true story|
When he was 17, Angelo had had enough. Inspired by a statue of Heracles he saw at the Brooklyn Museum, he vowed that he would create a similar body for himself. So, he jury-rigged some weights out of stuff found around the house (he was too poor to buy any) and set to work. Months later, the results were disappointing; he hadn’t packed on any appreciable muscle.
When Angelo wanted to think, he would go wander around the Bronx Zoo. One day, contemplating his problem, he stood watching a lion stretching itself, its muscles “running around like rabbits under a rug” as he put it. “Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?” he asked himself. Then it hit him; all the lion had been doing was “pitting one muscle against another!”
So he threw out his weights and tried something else; body-weight exercises. Squats, stretches, push-ups, crunches, and so on.
The results were spectacular. After training the whole winter, he emerged onto the beach to the astonished stares of his friends. “You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!” one said. And thus Angelo acquired the name that would make him famous (later on, when he had his name legally change, he paired it with his childhood nickname “Charlie”).
Muscles alone, however, didn’t change young Charlie’s life right away. True, no one dared bully him any longer, but no one’s going to pay you just to be muscular (this being the days before the Hollywood blockbuster). At first he continued to work in his father’s shop as a leatherworker, then he became a janitor/strongman at a Coney Island sideshow. And there he might have remained, if an artist hadn’t spotted him on the beach one day.
See, public sculpture was booming around 1916, and sculptors were in sad need of models with well-built and proportioned bodies. To them, Charlie was a godsend; not only did he have a spectacular build, but he could hold a pose for up to 30 minutes at a stretch. By the time he was 25, Atlas was pulling down $100 a week (he had been making $5 at the sideshow) and had posed as the image of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Civic Virtue, and Patriotism (among others).
But Atlas wasn’t cut out to simply be a model; he wanted to do big things and really contribute to the world around him. So, when he spotted an ad for a “World’s Most Beautiful Man” contest with a $1000 prize, he sensed an opportunity and sent in a picture. When his turn came, he was immediately declared the winner. He followed this up by winning a “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” contest the following year (his second victory caused the contests to be stopped, since the judges figured he’d probably win every year if they continued).
Now with about $2000 on hand, Charlie began to invest the money in a new business idea; selling a fitness course by mail. It met with some success, but Charlie quickly realized that he didn’t have the ability to run a growing business like that alone.
Enter Charles Roman; a fresh college grad and aspiring advertise agent. Atlas met him while scoping for new agents and asked Roman to come up with a new angle for his company. Roman responded with the famous “Man out of Mac” ads and coined the phrase “Dynamic Tension” to describe the Atlas work-out technique. Atlas was so impressed that he offered Roman half of all his profits to run his company.
Under Roman’s savvy advertising sense and psychological shrewdness, the Charles Atlas Company took off. In the midst of the Great Depression, with most companies folding around them, they were booming. Atlas was selling something that men in the Great Depression desperately wanted: confidence and self-respect.
It would have been understandable, even excusable, with Charles Atlas being one of the most recognized celebrities in the world, a multi-millionaire, with the President of the United States and the King of England among his clients, for the man to grow proud and conceited in his glory. But the most remarkable thing about Atlas was that he didn’t. He was, in spite of all his strength, wealth, and fame a genuinely nice guy. He loved the limelight, but was just as eager to spend time with the ordinary fans who would write to him by the thousands (at the height of his popularity, he had a team of almost 30 women to open and sort his fan-mail). He tried to write replies personally whenever he could, and sometimes would even invite fans to come and meet him, during which they would be surprised by how much interest he showed in their lives (in particular, he would often ask if they went to church). He wanted to create a bond with his students so that they would trust him and so be all the more motivated to improve their lives. Moreover, his view of health extended beyond the mere physical into spiritual and emotional realms. He believed that a man could never be truly healthy unless he did things like keep his house clean and orderly or go to church regularly. He decried the expanding divorce rate, claiming that it was the result of a mass failure to live truly healthy lifestyles.
Here he is as a guest on "What's My Line"
Atlas was one of the rare celebrities who truly lived up to his hype. He taught people to “live clean, think clean, and don’t go to burlesque shows” and he followed his own advice to the letter. He avoided smoke and alcohol, even on the rare occasions when he went to nightclubs (he used to host New Years Eve parties where the only beverage served was carrot juice). He was utterly devoted to his wife, Margaret, and to his two children; Charles Jr. and Diana. In fact, his love for his wife was so strong that when she died after 47 years of marriage he considered entering a monastery, believing that the world had nothing left to offer him. His parish priest, however, convinced him that he could still do good work in the world by inspiring young people.
And, for all his showboating in public, he was remarkably humble in private life. Despite being a multi-millionaire he eschewed the usual trappings of wealth like yachts and fancy cars (unlike his partner, Charles Roman). Instead, he lived his whole life in a four-room apartment with his family and went into the office every afternoon. It was as if he were simply any other white-color working man in the mid-twentieth century. The only luxury he indulged in was a fondness for double-breasted suits. The only ‘vice’ he had to hide from the public was the fact that he occasionally added weight-lifting to his workouts. The limelight, to Atlas, seems to have been not only a pleasure, but also a means of fulfilling his vocation; he knew that his purpose in life was to promote clean, healthy living, and the cameras and publicity stunts were the means he could use to do that.
As his life wound down, Atlas continued to live as he had always lived; promoting health, fitness, and clean living. He kept on reading his Bible, working out, and running literally until the day he died in 1972 at the age of 79.
Charles Atlas was that rarest of specimens, the genuine article. He presented himself to the world as more or less just what he was; a self-made man, a savvy merchant, a fine physical specimen, a devoted family man, and a committed Catholic. He teaches us that decency, hard-work, and clean-living can have real and tangible benefits not just in the hereafter, but even right now in the world we live in.
Vive Christus Rex!