For reasons that I will happily discuss later, I was recently in London with my family and had a to-do list of physical culture-related materials that I wanted to check out. First, there would be a meal at the German Gymnasium. This was one of the first public gymnasiums to open in nineteenth-century London and has been given a second life as a trendy restaurant whose menu pushes the boundaries of what the gym’s owners would have deemed healthy. In other words, it was going to be incredible.
Next, I was going to train at Physical Culture. This is a London-based gym, that opened in 1928 and is still in operation today. Not only does it embody the kind of no-nonsense gyms I love to train at, it is replete with unique machines and the owners have a keen sense of its own history. In other words, I was going to have an amazing time, regardless of how my own training went.
Last, but not least, there was Eugen Sandow’s grave. The ‘first modern bodybuilder,’ Sandow is the reason why so many of us train. He helped to initiate a body culture and gym appreciation at the dawn of the twentieth century which endured and eventually strengthened, into the multifaceted gym cultures we currently enjoy. This list, combined with maybe a cheeky visit to the Wellcome Library to check out their physical culture selections, was the stuff of dreams.
I say that because none of my dreams came true! Although we did have an amazing holiday so I guess there is a silver lining. What I had planned as an article about Sandow’s grave and my experiences of it will instead be an article on Sandow’s grave and why it is so significant. Rather than view this as a ghoulish or macabre article, I encourage you to see it for what it really is, evidence of my strangeness made manifest. With that in mind, let’s go grave hunting (not in a literal sense… the British banned that several centuries ago).
Why Sandow’s Grave
Without rehashing it too much, especially as Rogue Fitness produced a documentary on Sandow that explains it in far greater detail than I ever will, Sandow is one of the most important figures in the history of fitness. That is quite a bold statement to make but it is one I can happily stand by. From the 1890s to the 1910s, Sandow was a global fitness icon. He sold products around the world, rubbed shoulders with literal royalty, and managed to position himself as an expert on health despite having no discernible education to write home about. To use an annoying term from the present age, he was also the first fitness star to go viral in a time before the internet or television. For bodybuilding fans, he also hosted the first modern bodybuilding show in 1901 and edited one of the first explicit bodybuilding magazines.
Accepting Sandow‘s importance, the next question is why should I visit, or want to visit, his grave. Aside from my own interest in death and the otherworldly, which I blame entirely on George Romero’s zombie movies capturing my subconscious at an early age, I wanted the opportunity to acknowledge my own personal debt – both personal and professional – to Sandow.
There is, I believe, an odd recency bias within the fitness industry. Because the target audience for fitness tends to be teenagers and those in their twenties, the cultural history of weight training seems to be limited to the past decade. Speaking with younger lifters, some will struggle to name a legend from even 15 years ago, never mind the Golden Age of bodybuilding or beforehand. While Arnold Schwarzenegger remains well known, those who preceded him, like Sandow, are often lost to time.
In effect, I wanted to pay respects to someone whose legacy is, often I believe, relegated to the Mr. Olympia statue. I also wanted to see his headstone because of its troubled past.
Sandow’s Family Drama
From his marriage to Blanche Brooks in 1896, to his death in 1925, Sandow was one of the most famous people in the world. He toured widely, had an extensive commercial empire and, as is clear from following his career, was a man who thrived on business. While we don’t know the exact causes, it is clear that Sandow and Blanche were estranged by the time of his death, aged 58. The evidence was the lack of a gravestone at Sandow’s burial plot.
Historians have, of course, speculated on this. The first great Sandow biographer, David Chapman, suggested that Sandow died of syphilis following a string of infidelities, this was disputed by later Sandow biographer David Waller. Rather than seeing Sandow and Blanche at odds, Waller suggested that it was the financial difficulties Blanch found herself in following Sandow’s death that explained her odd behavior. As Waller reports, the two seemed to be in a harmonious relationship until at least 1914, although they were in such financial straits that a month after Sandow died, their family home was sold.
What is clear is that Blanch was clearly uncomfortable with Sandow’s legacy for some reason. His gravesite remained effectively abandoned for nearly 80 years and, for the rest of her life, Blanch gave no interviews whatsoever about Sandow. There was, at one point, a short-lived campaign in Health and Strength magazine to crowdsource money for a Sandow gravestone but this was nipped in the bud very quickly by Blanch who made it clear to organizers that she was not on board.
This same strife always explains, in part, why we have no personal papers for Sandow despite his extensive professional life. Incidentally, on this front, Sandow is not alone. There is another well-known (although not by Sandow standards) British physical culturist from this era whose wife supposedly burned all their personal papers after they died as an act of revenge. Let it never be said physical culture isn’t interesting.
It is impossible to know why Sandow’s grave was left unattended for so long – although I do subscribe to Chapman’s account of Sandow’s life and behaviors. What is clear is that it took until 2002 for some small marker to be laid at Sandow’s grave and 2008 until a Sandow stone was put down.
The Sandow Gravestone
So who helped to recognize Sandow’s legacy? The answer lies in a Sandow super fan, Thomas Manly. Manly is the author of the 2002 novel, For the Love of Eugen whose plot revolves around a Sandow admirer whose devotion is so strong it miraculously brings Sandow back to life (in ghost form at least). The book is hard to track down and, on discovering its existence in researching this article, I am now furiously trying to find it.
The one review I found for the book, from Valentin in October 2003 reads
I found this book very hard to find but when I did it was good fun. Although I am French I understand the humour. Quite soon into the story the cat dorian begins to have a voice, well not voice but we read his thoughts, they are very funny. Eugen Sandow is a very sexy ghost, the most sexy ghost I have ever known. If it can be found, this is a very good book.
I learned far too much about gravesites and commemoration in preparing this article. That being said I do think there is something culturally and spiritually significant about preserving the gravesites of key men and women from the history of physical culture. These sites allow us to pay our respects to those who came before us and, in the egotistical world of strength, remind us of the Greco-Roman memento mori or, remember it is inevitable that you will die.
Before that though, eat, lift, and be merry.