The median age of household heads of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED subscribers is 41.7 years, according to a recent survey—which is almost another way of saying that about 25 years ago, give or take a few years either way, a good million SI readers were first making the acquaintance of Charles Atlas in The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac, It Takes a He-Man to be a G-Man and other advertisements in which countless meek, puny, pipestem-legged creatures were transformed almost overnight into barrel-chested specimens of American manhood.
This week they will renew that acquaintance, as Writer Stephen Birmingham (The Body Beautiful, page 58) reclothes the leopard-clad legend in the mantle of reality.
Birmingham, now 30, quickly overcame the insult that led him to sign up for the Atlas course at 13, and grew up to become an advertising copywriter by trade, and the author of two novels, the second of which, Barbara Greer, will be published next week (Little, Brown & Company, $4.50). Just to show that his dealings with the human form are by no means exclusively confined to the masculine gender, the book has been sold to Columbia Pictures, possibly as a vehicle for Kim Novak.
Birmingham can now expect to have his ear bent with every Charles Atlas anecdote, apocryphal or otherwise, that has ever been told, and I would like to start the ball rolling with my own favorite. It concerns a Philadelphia friend of some years ago, a giant of a man, who had played varsity football at Princeton and, having just lined up in the scrimmage of the business world, was beginning to worry about getting out of condition. The Atlas "only 15 minutes a day, no apparatus, money-back if not delighted" approach sold him com pletely, and he began to practice his lessons assiduously, clenching and unclenching his fists at his desk and flexing his legs against the office radiator. Things were going swimmingly. But perhaps the course, had been designed for former 97-pound weaklings, not former Princeton linemen. One morning at about Lesson 8, he was standing in the trolley car, newspaper in one hand and overhead strap in the other, when he flexed a little too hard and suddenly pulled strap, railing, fittings and all into the laps of about 40 startled riders seated along one entire side of the car.
July 26, 1959
He never completed the course, but I must say that, to his credit, he never asked for his money back either.