Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet
by Mark Adams
(Harper, 304 pages, $25.99)

You’ve probably never heard of the man most responsible for our national obsessions with diet and fitness, says author Mark Adams. But in 1951, when Missouri-born Bernarr Macfadden celebrated his 83rd birthday by parachuting into the Hudson River wearing red flannel underwear, he needed no introduction. Physical Culture magazine, which he’d founded in 1899, was still the cornerstone of an enormous publishing empire. His New York tabloid, though “widely considered the worst newspaper in U.S. history,” had launched the careers of Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan. Macfadden himself had once been an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt, and in his 70s he had narrowly lost a U.S. Senate bid despite running on a platform “largely based on the evils of white bread.”

If history hadn’t produced this eccentric character, surely “we would have had to invent him,” said Louis Bayard in The Washington Post. An orphan at 8, a weakling in his teens, Macfadden beefed up through weight training and soon was loudly espousing a philosophy that deemed weakness “a crime.” Adams’ “hilarious” first book tracks its tireless subject as he eats “sand by the handful” to promote digestion, weds and sheds four wives, sidesteps prison after a closely watched indecency trial, and even files papers to establish his own religion. Yet Mr. America may be the rare contemporary biography “that runs too short.” A reader almost can’t help craving “a deeper exploration” of the political worldview that inspired Macfadden to ally himself at one point with Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Legal battles eventually sapped Macfadden of his fortune, and he “died alone and penniless” in a New Jersey hotel, said Richard Horan in the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. Adams’ lively account gets us inside that hotel, but it “fails to shed even a glimmer of light on its subject’s interior landscape.” Still, Adams “writes with an easy grace,” and he has “plainly gone to great lengths” in his research, said Geoffrey Norman in The Wall Street Journal. He deserves “great credit” for rescuing from obscurity “a man whose influence is still felt in this country more than a century after he muscled his way onto the national scene.”