- The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow by David Waller
British author David Waller, whose previous work was a biography of English literary figure Gertrude Tennant, has published a new biography of the strongman/physical culture expert Eugen Sandow entitled The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman. Written for a popular audience, Waller’s engaging book reads like a Victorian novel as it relates Sandow’s rise to international stardom and his ultimate economic fall from grace. Waller, who is distantly related to the Sandow family, brings to light a number of new facts about the Sandow story, particularly through his use of literary source material and his analysis of the strongman’s various business enterprises. However, while there is much to be admired in the book, sport historians familiar with more critical interpretations of the Sandow story through the work of Caroline Daley, John Kasson, Kenneth Dutton, and Sandow biographer David Chapman, will also find much to lament in Waller’s work.
Among the book’s important contributions is the great detail Waller spends examining Sandow’s various business endeavors and, particularly, the various strategies he employs to “brand” himself. Equally fascinating is Waller’s inclusion of many literary references to Sandow. The book opens, for example, with the tale of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s attribution of his uninjured escape from a wrecked automobile to his following of Eugen Sandow’s regimen. Waller also quotes the letters of literary figures Edmund Gosse and J. Addington Symonds, who were devotees of Sandow’s cabinet card photographs. And, his analysis of the uncanny similarity between H.G. Wells’s novel, The Secret of Tono-Bungay (1909), a story about the promotion of a tonic that is simply a placebo, and Sandow’s promotion of his embrocation, corset, and cocoa business ventures is especially interesting. Further, he has uncovered details about Sandow’s tour of India not reported by others such as the fact that he “toured the country with a tent capable of holding 6,000 persons and nightly had to turn away thousands” (p. 199). To help place Sandow’s acts in context, Waller provides exceptional descriptions of the music halls in which Sandow performed. He also offers an opinion regarding one of the central topics raised in David Chapman’s biography of the strongman—the question of Sandow’s sexual orientation. According to Waller, there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that Sandow was homosexual or bisexual.
Despite these important contributions, the book is marred by the fact that it is poorly referenced and not researched sufficiently. One example of this is Waller’s contention that Sandow never met any of New Zealand’s 1905 All Blacks rugby squad, a claim disproven in John McCrystal’s The Originals: 1905 All Black Rugby Odyssey (2005). Waller’s use of Arnold Schwarzenegger as an historical expert on the history of bodybuilding is also regrettable, as is his assertion that Sandow deserves credit for the modern physical fitness craze without any critical discussion of such forces as the German Turner movement, [End Page 578] Muscular Christianity, or magazine publisher Bernarr Macfadden—Sandow’s contemporary and rival in the publishing industry.
Far more irksome to those interested in the study of the strength sports is Waller’s antipathy toward bodybuilding, which he describes as “a cult where men and women do freakish things to their bodies and end up with limbs and torsos that look like condoms stuffed with walnuts” (p. 11). His lack of interest in the body Sandow created through training and its impact on the viewer is, in fact, striking for one who has chosen to write about “the father of modern bodybuilding.”
Overall, Waller’s book is an easy read that relays Sandow’s basic story while also providing elements not found in other scholarly works. However, Waller’s failures to critically engage the other historical scholarship on Sandow, his reliance on “historical...