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“Like a lot of people, all my life I’ve wanted to write a book, but I never intended it should be about me.”
Joe Bonomo, The Strongman et me give YOU the STRENGTH, POWER and MUSCULAR DEVELOPMENT that will make you into a RUGGED HUMAN JEEP! Let JOE BONOMO Master Builder of Men, show YOU how to build YOUR BODY into MEAT and MUSCLE; and your MUSCLES into SPRINGS of STRENGTH and STEEL. Look at you, reading The Strongman by Joe Bonomo. Do YOU want the STRENGTH, DEVELOPMENT of a CHAMP? POWER and intimidated by his suit of muscle and his showmanship. You visited him in his trailer later, asked, “How can I be strong, like you?” and after he laughed and scoffed and pinched your twiglike arms with his giant hands, he tossed you to the floor and showed you a few rough arm and leg exercises, adding — thicklyaccented — “Eat everything!” Ears ringing, you looked down at your runty body and vowed to make something of yourself. You ate better, exercised, lifted weights, bulked up. You became a star on the football field and in the gym, you grew handsome. You cast a darkeyed glance backwards at your beloved Coney Island and saw how the boardwalk defined “star”. Can you look in the mirror and not see him? You stayed in shape by hauling large bags of sugar, huge ice cream tubs, cakes of ice for your papa’s business. You became friendly with every strongman and physical enthusiast who strutted through town, including Charles Atlas, nine years your senior and to you a talisman of physical perfection. After high school you spied a talentsearch ad in the Daily News for a “Modern Apollo.” You entered and won, beating out over five thousand contestants. The newspaper gushed: “The committee of judges chose Bonomo as the man whose physique measured nearest to those of the Apollo, whose statue now in the Vatican in Rome, is perhaps the noblest presentation of the human form.” You were nineteen. The grand prize was a thousand dollars and a tenweek movie contract; your first appearance was in a small role opposite Hope Hampton in A Light in the Dark, in 1922. (“Camera tests also showed that Bonomo’s features would photograph excellently.”) The Hollywood dreammaking machine gears turned, and you were listening to the myth. You moved to southern California. The movies were silent then, openmouthed dreams, so you didn’t have to speak and betray your Brooklynese. You became a renowned stuntman in serials, fighting tigers, enduring splintering chairs, leaping from fiery rooftops, gathering distressed damsels in your bulky arms, chapter after chapter after chapter. You started the Bonomo Boys Club in response to the fan mail you were receiving, for which you hired friends of your parents to answer. You played Tarzan. You were this essayist’s height. You were Lon Chaney's stunt double in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. You waited in the margins for your moment. You pronounced your last name BAHNuhmoh. You pronounce yours buhNOHmoh. You were of average
People give you copies of the book. They think that they’re the first to do this, as if you’d never heard of him before. They give him to you after class, send him to you through the mail, drunkenly press him into your hands at a party. “Thought you might get a kick out this!” they say. You’ll be proud to say, “I’m Bonomo Built.” Your left arm is too skinny.
To get what YOU want out of life, get fit with JOE BONOMO!
You were a Christmas Baby, born in 1901 at the cusp of a century you’d come to grasp intuitively.1 Your father Albert owned a candy business that supplied concessions at the Coney Island amusement park. Legend has it that when entering the New York harbor from Turkey, your papa mistook the Statue of Liberty’s torch for an American icecream cone — your family’s confectionary future thus foretold. You grew up on Sea Breeze, a block from Surf Avenue and the boardwalk. You were a skinny kid, nicknamed “Toothpicks.” Playing alone, or with your dog, you sniffed not only salt in the bracing Atlantic air but the commerce, exchanges, and frivolity of the boardwalk. You ignored or otherwise hid from local bullies, but one day a Polish strongman named Ladislaw showed up in town and, while hawking your papa’s hard candies and saltwater taffy you watched Ladislaw perform in front of a crowd, astonished and
Biography derived from The Strongman by Joe Bonomo, and “Joe Bonomo Is My Hero” by Miriam Linna.
Carbon Copy Magazine
Photo Day at Saint Andrew The Apostle, the early 1970s. You’d gather in the allpurpose room where strangers hung a heavy burgundy curtain behind which flashbulbs popped weirdly, as on the redcarpet. There were no “oohs” or “ahhs.” Kids headed down the hall in a straight line and onebyone stepped behind and then emerged from the curtain. They dreaded it, most of them. The perspiring headshots, the awkward smiles, the complications inside so many of them. One thing you liked? The nicknames the photographer gave each of you, and later the joshing comparisons during recess. You loved it the year he said, “Good job, Tiger!” as you hopped off of the chair. You wore that one proudly on the blacktop. You were told you were a photogenic kid. (Bonomo’s features would photograph excellently.) A picture taken of you taken when you were six hung in the front window of the family photography studio in Wheaton Plaza. Or so you were told. You played a sad clown once, welcome respite from your grueling stunt work. Soon the talking pictures came but the most skilled and dedicated voice coach couldn’t untie your tongue from the tangle of its borough roots, and your Coney Island “Anthon" to Claudette Colbert’s “Cleopatra” would remain an unhappy dream. (When Cecil B. DeMille heard your accent, he held his head in his hands and groaned. Henry Wilcoxon — born in the British West Indies, raised in London — got the part.) After a few nearfatal accidents and the death of a fellow actor onset, your stuntman prowess started to feel to you like a kind of a curse. Injured, you were replaced as Tarzan. Your body was broken in over thirty places. You couldn’t believe it; a visit to the Mayo Clinic confirmed it. Toothpicks, you were through in Hollywood. You always liked being the Narrator at Saint Andrew’s school plays. You didn’t have to memorize lines, your time in the spotlight was limited — you were on stage, you were off — and your voice led through the winding, beckoning thicket of words and sibilants to a single citizen country where you felt comfortable. Your conscious body couldn’t betray you there.
perspective.” You feel that way about your past self. Look at you preening, upset, dreaming, your door closed against the prying eyes in the hallway. You, so far away, so near? Autobiography: one’s self plays many roles. You’re writing about a string of characters, you then, you now, you eternally, you never. Virginia Woolf: “Vague as all definitions are, a good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”
Don’t YOU, too, want to give yourself arms, legs, and shoulders you’ll be proud to display? But it’s you you’re looking at. You were always happiest when you were on your own. You had friends, one very close, but when school was over or bikeriding was done or the pool was closed, you could put aside the script. Shoot baskets on your own until dusk, fall to your knees in the woods, get your hands wet, peer into windows, dodge your reflection (look at you). The conversations in your head always sounded better.
“I think very few of us ever achieve our childhood
ambitions,” you wrote. “In this uncertain world ‘the road of growing up’ is too filled with unexpected detours and compromises for a girl or boy to follow a direct line to that distant star to which they have hitched their wagon…. I guess I could have had a more laudable ambition, but the important thing is that I eventually achieved the goal that, as a small boy, I had set my heart on — to someday be known as the strongest man in the world — which, you will admit, with some three billion humans cluttering up the earth, was taking on fairly long odds.” In a lot of photos he looks like your dad. One Christmas or birthday your parents give you a chest expander, a contraption that you held chesthigh while squeezing the springloaded ends toward the middle. You wait until you’re sure none of your siblings are around, lock the bedroom door, and stand shirtless in front of the mirror. Are you kidding me. You strain, press both ends, your arms shaking. In between reps you stare hopefully at the Charles Atlas ad in the magazine on your bed. You don’t get the vintage kitschy irony of Atlas and midcentury bodybuilding yet, the presteroid romance and b&w innocence; that will come later. You look at yourself in the mirror, study the dreadful terrain of acne on your face, frown at your hollow, bony chest. How Bonomo Made A Man Out Of Dick! Straining, you press again, so hard your shoulders ache.
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Covers every part of YOUR BODY, inside and out. Gives YOU strength, build, speed, and endurance.
The “I” is the great compass pull. It draws you to the page, corroborates you, defends you, embarrasses you, renews you. Where do the “I” and the “You” intersect? Is the job to move from “I” to “You” to “He / She” and back again? Ernest Hemingway said, “Never write about a place until you’re away from it, because that gives you
To help and encourage you, take a good look in your mirror. Are you satisfied with the results so far? Do you see a New You emerging…a you that feels better…looks better… IS better?
The etymology of selfhelp: the practice of bettering oneself without relying on the assistance of others. 1748, from self + improvement. 1831, from self + help. Apparently coined by Thomas Carlyle.
address to all of the Toothpicks and Plain Janes out there. The magazines soon metamorphosed into smaller, popular “minis,” pocketsized, 64page manuals on how to live a better, healthier, happier life.
In 1859, Samuel Smiles published SelfHelp; with Illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance. Chapter titles included “SelfHelp—National and Individual,” “Energy and Courage,” and “Character—the True Gentleman.” Smiles wrote, “The spirit of selfhelp is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigor and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.” The book sold 20,000 copies in its first year. When Smiles died in 1904 sales were over a quarter of a million. You were three. A September 26, 2010 keyword search of “selfhelp” on Amazon.com turns up 112,311 results.
Decades later you’d find them strewn throughout used book stores, small, soft relics, and then online, where readers were both touched and bemused by your corn, your midcentury decorum, your era’s belief in a better Me. The secondperson pointofview might also suggest the distance, small or enormous, traveled between “I” and “that other me.” Look at you.
The directaddress “You” is a conventional rhetorical tool found in selfhelp books. A kind of SecondPerson Omniscient, it allows the author to strike up the illusion of intimacy with the reader, who may be feeling vulnerable or guarded, wrapped in shame or defeat. The secondperson pointofview allows the writer to wag his finger, to cajole, or to invite, to say, It’s just the two of us. And in the Choose Your Own Adventure books. There, you get to play God. “When you come right down to it, all you have is yourself,” said Pablo Picasso. “Yourself is a sun with a thousand rays in your belly. The rest is nothing.”
After leaving Hollywood you returned to New York where you married Ethel, and had a daughter, Joan. Your papa died soon after, leaving his confectionary business behind. With an eye on your father’s legacy, and fond and respectful of his work ethic, you began a small publishing concern with a Hollywood photography associate named Tony Bruno. Your first collaboration, Good Healthkeeping: A SelfBetterment Magazine, tanked due to mismanagement. But you were undeterred. Wisely keeping the distribution inhouse, and overseeing production with a careful eye, you started writing and publishing a new line of physical fitness and beauty regime magazines, encouraging men to bulk up and women to slim down, and both to learn to dance. (Plus: “The ABC’s of Brassieres.”) You moved into Manhattan, took an office on Broadway, produced various elegant letterheads. Your tone was encouraging and democratic, a firm but polite direct
47 | Carbon Copy Magazine
When you were 12 or 13, between bouts of adolescent blues, you ordered the Charles Atlas “Dynamic Tension” book. You’d saved your allowance money. Like so many others you were captivated by the ad in the back of magazines, the one with the skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face, then returning brawnier and more cocky to toss the bully on his butt, and to get the girls. Hero of the Beach! You don’t know if you knew about him, yet, whether you'd seen the minis or The Strongman, the photos of the strangelyfamiliar, thick thighed man in a loincloth and a convivial smile. It turned out that he used a similar skinnykidgets revenge scenario in his ads. You’d grown up with the Bonomo Turkish Taffy jingle sung at you by well meaning family members and strangers alike. In the gray pages of the comics, Atlas’ tanned figure looked ancient, eternal. His proximity to ads for Sea Monkeys, XRay Specs, and mini Army figures made him seem fun, friendly. You liked Atlas’ program because you could do it on your own, at home, or under the desks at school. Isometrics! Tense the muscles in private, tense the muscles in hiding, press your fists together, cock your arm and resist, watch the muscles balloon, the girls swoon! You didn’t need to go to the weight room in the basement of your school, pump iron with the jocks. The program was a kind of self resistance. You don’t remember how long you stuck with Charles Atlas’ regime. A couple of weeks, maybe. You could work your body, you could improve your mass, space and gravity, the body falling, resisting, falling, resisting, self help, your body a gymnasium.
“The selfabsorption that seems to be the impetus and
embarrassment of autobiography turns into (or perhaps always was) a hunger for the world,” says Patricia Hampl.
You expanded. Your papa made you sales and promotions manager of his candy business, where you worked with your older brother, Victor. You invented the cutout bin, selling overmanufactured, slowmoving record albums and other merchandise at cutrate, and
watched as the remainders flew out the doors of Rexall, Woolworth, Walgreen. “You make it,” you said, “I’ ll sell it!” You became the Hercules of Retail Inventory Liquidation. You wrote dozens of more minis. “There were muscle and bustline and personality manuals,” Miriam Linna writes, “but now also booklets on how to make more money, how to look lovelier after 40, how to use makeup, look taller, dance better, be a better hostess, find the man of your dreams, and simplify housework…. Minis on birth control, giving parties, being assertive, and, yes, an informative manual about pot, pills & heroin called Don't Be A Dope. Each of these little books starts off with an intro by the boss titled, ‘Pull Up A Chair. Let’s Talk About...’ where you’d be served a slab of wisdom and encouragement from JB. These minis were so popular that they stayed in print for thirty years with only slightly modified illustrations and graphics.”" According to a New York Times article dated April 9, 1940, the Federal Trade Commission required that Joe Bonomo Publications of New York “cease misrepresenting the results obtained through the use of the ‘Companion Exerciser,’ sold by him, or through the courses, designated, respectively, the ‘Muscle Tension System,’ the ‘Complete Bonomo System,’ and that named ‘Beautify Your Figure’.” Linna: “One of the last of the minis was titled, What I Know About Women, by Joe Bonomo. It was comprised of 64 blank pages!”
Famed Physical Culturist. YOUR body, How To Build It, How To Use It, How To Enjoy It.
You discovered masturbation as a kind of knowledge. JOE BONOMO, Master Builder. Autoeroticism, self help. You and your fantasies. Girls, gawky or round and perfect in their imagined need, openmouthed in silent dreams, their blouses or bathrobes falling away, shy smiles as unambiguous language, eager Daphne’s to your feverish Apollo. You’re a doppelganger of sorts, aren’t you, an appellative predecessor. A silhouette into which you do, do not fit. You were by all accounts a gladhander, a skinny kid who become a dynamic extrovert, if your autobiography is to be trusted. (Cease misrepresenting.) You transformed yourself from Brooklyn to Hollywood, Toothpicks to toothsome. Your mini books wrapped figurative arms around our undersized shoulders, encircled our plump waists, looked us square in the face and said, YOU can do this! In fifth grade, the nuns and lay teachers thought you were going to go into politics, you were so chatty, so personable, so grinningly winning. Each term on your report card you earned a checkmark to “Improve Classroom Behavior.” You interrupted. You were an earlyRitalin contender. You were excitable, friendly. You were made to sit alone in a schooldesk arrangement with three empty desks flanking you. You and Catherine C. were the only ones to raise your hands for white milk on Hot Lunch Wednesday, when everyone else ordered chocolate. Sugar was an unwelcome stimulant. Then, puberty hit and you turned inward. Away from your reflection in the mirror, but held there, too. You became quieter, more comfortable on your own, watching yourself. By the time you learned about the Strongman, the Internationally Famed Physical Culturist, he’d become your antidouble, the one extending the hand while you kept yours in your pocket, the one who beefed up and grew into a public personality while you withdrew, wishing for invisibility. If you gave me a car I’d dream up the stunt. You smashed things over other people’s heads, you drove vehicles off of bridges, you leapt from roaring trains, you burst into lairs, you wrestled alligators. You fought Mark S. on the blacktop in fourth grade at Saint Andrew’s. Joe O. and the others pushed you into it. You don’t remember who or what started it, only that it had to happen. You circled each other warily, the sun boring down, your ears hot with embarrassment. The look on Mark’s face. You’ ll see it again: bravado, acting, fear. You circled and circled, Joe pulled you aside, said fake like you’ll punch him in the gut and then punch him in the face! and you nodded like it was something you’d do.
Joe Bonomo | 48
You wonder about misrepresenting yourself, about the imprecise but fertile area between calendar truth and narrative truth, what can be corroborated, what can’t. That’s not true, that didn’t happen. Cease and desist. Then and now, truth and lies. You transformed yourself from runt to robust. Which is the truth? To get what YOU want out of life. Montaigne’s many selves. Your dad took you to pick up your mom and new baby brother at Holy Cross Hospital: the indelible image of her in the lobby, the weary smile, her long red hair streaming, a new boy cradled in blue. Your dad says that you weren’t there. Peter Ives: “We do not write about things as they are or were or will be. We write about these things as we are.”
You had the dubious pleasure of attending an allmale high school, Our Lady Of Good Counsel. Dress shirts and ties, no sneakers. But no girls to worry about. In Ethics class you learned that petting was OK, if it was with a close friend. (Sex, too, your textbook hinted.) At the end of the term you wrote a psalm that straddled the sacred and the sensual; your inspired teacher shared it with other teachers in the faculty lounge. The Best That’s In You, by Joe Bonomo, Internationally
The cries of the other kids grew into shrieks and rang in your ears as the circle you and Mark made grew tighter. You were fighting a kid you liked. You were sweating into your dress shirt. Absurdity, before you knew the word, but felt its nausea. The bell rang. The disappointment in the crowd was palpable. No one landed a punch. You were not “The Hercules Of Recess.” You wrangled guns from villains, threw villains off of trains, swung from jungle vines, dove off of a ship’s high mast. You posed with seven English Tiller dancing girls hanging off of your most perfect strongman body, and you smiled for the camera.
A year later, Peter Boyle would play the monster in Young Frankenstein for big laughs.
“You” is hard to wrestle with. The distance it both
Maybe you’re sick and tired of being kidded by the other fellows. Yes! I know what YOU want…. I want to make a winner of you! I don’t care how old you are, where you live, or what you do, my proposition goes for YOU. Get started before the rest of the crowd does! Mike S. made you sit in a puddle of spit once. He invited you over to the low stone wall lining the basketball courts, near the bike racks. You went over, though you knew something was up. “C’mere.” You sat next to him and everyone guffawed. Your seat was moist all day. Poor you. How’d YOU like to be able to beat the crowd in athletic contests — prove your skill, strength, and speed? Later that spring in a CYO baseball game you were drilled in your ribcage by a fastball, thrown by a kid who’d probably been shaving already. You went down hard, but only nine kids had shown up that Saturday, and you had to stay in the game or your team would forfeit. You wincingly made it down to first. You hero, you! Yesterday, adventure, action, black and white, silent, the cliffhangers of Friday, the denouement of Monday.
affects and requires feels native and contrived. How can that be. Once a writer told you that the hardest sentence for anyone to put down is “[insert your name] died yesterday.” The finality, the verity that language pretends. The obligation in that rhetoric of distance, of removing yourself from your self and placing yourself in the community, where people die. Look at you. The flexible, doublemirror bind of the second person creates a kind of stable schizophrenia. How can that be. The I and You in tandem, the elastic subject. Pull as far away as you can, and there you are. What grows in that distance between the two? Myths, distortions, substitutions, wishedfor’s, fillinthe blanks. All of the contents of I, all of the contents of You. And what about You? You fit, too.
To what does this all add up? “We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people,” Michel de Montaigne. We’re an amalgam. The remarkable thing is that You is a part of you at all. You were this essayist’s antibody double, his surname’s twin. Etymologically, “Bonomo” (bon homo) means “good man.” You like to think that you were. You like to think that you are.
The New York Times reported on September 23, 1973 that Steckler Associates, local producers of television commercials, was preparing to enter the feature film field with The Strongman. Len Steckler, the producer director who headed the company, described the prospective film as being “loosely based on the career of Joe Bonomo, the New York strongman from Coney Island who went on to a career as a stuntman in silent and early talking films.” Steckler, who would be making his debut as a feature film director with The Strongman, said: “We feel the exciting nostalgia, visual effects, comedy and romance make this a decidedly unusual project.” Filming was planned for the next year in California. Peter Boyle (“who sprang to prominence as the hard hat hero of Joe”) was going to play you. Exciting nostalgia? The movie never happened — another Hollywood dream dashed — though a 24 page screenplay treatment survives. Maybe financing fell through, maybe the producers found a project they felt would be more lucrative. Maybe the blend of sentimentality, visual effects, humor, and romance seemed too corny, dated, implausible.
49 | Carbon Copy Magazine
All of the people you meet will see a greater you…a you in perfect health, head held high, your shoulders back…ready to conquer the new horizons open to you in this great world!
You died of pneumonia on March 28, 1978 at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, an eternity of sky blue sunshine away from Coney Island. A year earlier, the Museum of Modern Art screened the only surviving copy of your 1925 film The Great Circus Mystery. In a role that did not overly tax your interpretive gifts, you’d played Landow the Strongman. A decade before your death you wrote: “Each person, whether young or old, can fulfill the dream of his or her life by just working at it. Perhaps that’s the secret of the happy life we all search for.” You generally shy away from your image in photos, in videos, tending to dislike the sound of your own voice, the angles at which the lenses find you. You pull The Strongman off of your shelf occasionally, out of curiosity, out of affection, out of irony, out of nostalgia for the grainy photos of a man who preceded you, essaying the graphic distance. •
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