Beyond the determination to restore Sandow’s reputation, there is a personal motivation for this book: Eugen Sandow is a very distant relative. For those prompted to search for comparisons between my own physique and Sandow’s, there is sadly no possibility of any genetic influence as he was merely a sort of great-great uncle by marriage. Growing up, I heard stories of his life, and as I learned of his feats, I had visions of him juggling ancient aunts and lifting my great-grandfather’s grand piano onto his back. I noted that adults tended to clam up when children came into earshot, however, and I suspected that there was some scandal associated with a man who brought a tincture of glamour to my otherwise entirely pedestrian ancestors (the others of that generation were accountants, engineers and shop-keepers.) So for the last decade or so I have been investigating his life, getting to the bottom of the family scandal (as revealed in the epilogue) and rooting out a great deal of new facts and stories about great uncle Eugen. I even acquired a set of his patented dumb-bells and tried to follow his training regime, with indifferent results as we will see.
Sandow remains something of a conundrum for a biographer, and although I can unveil for the first time the secret of his origins, I cannot prove or disprove conclusively that he was a bisexual philanderer, as some have claimed. There is frustratingly little intimate biographical information: neither diaries, nor scrapbooks or archive, as if after his early demise his widow and daughters held an enormous bonfire and destroyed all records relating to the man whose memory they wished to obliterate – certainly within days of his funeral they held an auction to sell off anything with a valuable association. To compound the problem further, the many who encountered Sandow tended to be viscerally impressed by his muscles and typically recorded what they thought of them rather than him. In a sense, this book is a biography of one remarkable body and all that it stood for, as well as of the fascinating but inscrutable man to whom the body belonged.