As with a modern-day rock-star or promising screen actor, his agents saw the North American market as the key to greater fortune and Sandow opened in New York in the sweltering summer of 1893. There, he encountered Florenz Ziegfeld, later to achieve fame as the promoter of the eponymous Ziegfeld Follies, who brought Sandow to Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Sandow triumphed again and spent seven of the next fifteen years in North America, where he set a new benchmark for American virility.
Despite his successes in North America, he chose to settle in London, taking an English wife and eventually (in 1906) British citizenship. In 1896, he established his Institute of Physical Culture in London’s St James’s, where ladies and gentlemen would go for the late Victorian equivalent of a workout. He wrote a number of best-selling books, starting with Strength and How to Obtain It. First published in 1897, this went into four further editions during his lifetime and was translated into many languages. From 1898-1907, he edited and published Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture. At a time when most men were sedentary and unhealthy, constitutionally disinclined to take any kind of exercise, and when British and indeed much of European society feared the onset of physical and moral degeneration, Sandow’s self-improvement system claimed to be able to transform weaklings into paragons of health and strength. One famous, albeit fictional follower of his method was Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, who took up Sandow’s regime in search of “relaxation … and the most pleasant repristination of juvenile agility”. An early example of a David Beckham- or Claudia Schiffer-style personal brand, he developed a chain of licensed fitness training schools and a mail-order business selling everything from Sandow’s stretching equipment or cigars, to Sandow’s cocoa, chocolate powder and embrocation, a branded body-lotion. Although the chocolate powder failed to catch on, he was initially successful in business and became every well-toned inch the prosperous Edwardian gentleman, a patron of Ernest Shackleton, a friend of Lord Esher and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In March 1911, he was appointed Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to King George V. He and his family lived in Dhunjibhoy House, a substantial residence in Holland Park Avenue in west London, named in honour of an Indian benefactor whom Sandow claimed to have cured of elephantiasis during a tour of the sub-continent.
In his lifetime, Sandow was a famous figure throughout the British Empire and North America, an idol to generations of young men and women and companion and fitness advisor to an impressive list of Kings, Emperors and Prime Ministers. In the 1890s, he was an early champion of physical culture, an emblem of masculinity and a symbol of human perfectibility. By the 1920s, he still had many thousands of adherents around the world, but his fame was much diminished. He was the subject of several biographies during his own lifetime, but the first and only modern one appeared in the US in 1994, when David L. Chapman rescued Sandow from almost total obscurity, demonstrating in his Sandow the Magnificent how Sandow invented the oddball sport of bodybuilding. This assessment of his influence, while undoubtedly correct, is far too narrow: he is not just as the “father of bodybuilding” and thus initiator of 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. He deserves to be resurrected as a significant cultural figure in his own right. Sandow straddled the Victorian world and the modern, like Oscar Wilde helping us to understand the birth of modern manhood. He also deserves credit for initiating the very modern craze for physical fitness.