JOE PILATES – The Assignment That Would Last a Lifetime
(October 4, 1961)
Then, another call from Buddy Bloodgood of Sports Illustrated.
“Have you been drafted yet?” he barked into the phone.
“I’m not leaving until the 13th,” I answered.
“So, then you have time for a one-day job? Tomorrow, all day. Right here in Manhattan.” Of course I had the time. Anything to take my mind off the coming separation. I was happy to take any assignment, plus I desperately needed the money. “Okay,” he continued. “Go to 939 Eighth Avenue, by 56th Street, and meet our reporter. There’s an old guy there named Joe Pilates who has some sort of health gym. One of our freelance writers has been going to him for some kind of treatments, and he’s written an article about him. Go there and illustrate that article. The guy’s got these torture machines, with belts and pulleys and springs, and he connects them to people and stretches them out, or God knows what. Get some pictures of him looking wild. You know, crazy, too. Wild and crazy.”
So, I went to Joe Pilates’ gymnasium on 8th Avenue. It didn’t take long for me to see that I had stepped into a modern day, inquisition-like, torture chamber. While the S.I. reporter and I waited for our subject to appear in the entryway I watched a shapely young woman in black leotards hanging upside down, her feet “tied” onto the upper rails of a “rack,” her head and shoulder pressed down on a padded bed. She clutched at a wooden bar connected by steel springs to side posts and she held it over her head. Breathing heavily, she struggled with each agonizing pull on the bar. I was certain that after several more repetitions she would soon confess to anything.
“People pay for this,” I asked myself?
Before I could answer a curtain was pulled aside and a near-naked man stepped into the room, barefoot and wearing only black briefs, he dried his hands on a small white towel.
“Joe Pilates,” he said, smiling. I had been told he was 80 years old, but this guy, though looking way older than me (I knew what my grandpa looked like at age 80) didn’t look a day over 60. As far as the shape he was in, he could have been in his mid-40s. The only telltale sign of his age was the “crepe-like” texture of his golden-brown skin. But under the skin were ageless muscles, iron hard, taut and powerful. In the afternoon of our photo-shoot Joe had run me through all of the cliché strength confrontations: thumb wrestling (he pinned me in a moment; the pressure he exerted on my thumb: unbearable). We arm-wrestled. “Just do it with me,” he said with a soft, Teutonic accent. I did. No contest. He had me stand on his stomach while he sucked it in and then raised me higher using only his abdominal muscles. When he asked me if I could touch my toes (I couldn’t) he bent forward and touched his palms to the carpeted floor and twinkled his eyes at me. “You know why I do this?” he asked, then answered: “Because I train. Everyday, I have trained. When I was in circus, I was training. When I was home, I was training.” He pointed around his gym. “In here, with all this, you too can also touch your hand to the floor.”
When I mentioned that I would be entering military service in a few days Joe told me it would do me good to be out in the cold, early morning air. And while adjusting the springs on his Reformer machine (speaking of the Inquisition) he confided that when it snowed he liked to run around in it, barefooted. “Do that when you’re in the Army,” he said, “they make you a commando.”
Well, wild and crazy is what I had expected or hoped for, The wilder the better, for my purposes, I thought. But Joe wouldn’t cooperate with Buddy’s preconceptions. Joe was nice. He asked me what kind of pictures I had in mind. I could hardly tell him “wild and crazy.”
“Just do what you normally do here,” I replied. He gave us a tour and explained his interesting and inventive machines. He demonstrated how to use them. I shot pictures. He talked. He told me of his days in Germany, his internment in a British Enemy Citizens’ Camp; how he developed his exercise methods by watching the camp animals carefully, how they stretched upon waking. After all, he explained, animals don’t have exercise programs—their lives are their program. Humans avoid the natural conditioning available to them by sitting and standing incorrectly. Unless an animal is disabled or injured, it has only one way to lie down, one way to sit, one way to stand, to walk and to run. People slouch and they slide, they shuffle, they don’t walk naturally. They have a hundred ways to move, most of them wrong. He was here to correct all that, he emphasized, to teach us how to be natural again.
When Joe mentioned that his method of Contrology, if practiced routinely, would help keep people from falling victim to diseases I asked him for a clarification. I couldn’t see how stretching and pulling the body in different directions would prevent desease. So, he explained it to me – as if I were a child,
“You have these firemen on their trucks parking in firehouses all around in your body, here and here,” he pointed to his armpits, his neck and groin. “They are waiting to put out the fires in your body – fires that start when there is the germs coming inside when you have a cut. AN open wound. Then the alarm goes off and the firetrucks rush to the trouble – this is happening all the time. But, when you have the everyday aches and pains, also, the firemen are going, busy, busy all the time. Look at all the people on the streets now, how they are walking around in pain all the time. The firemen, they are so busy putting out these fires from these stupid things. So, with Contrology, when you practice this, the body is healthy and in good shape and the firemen, they are quiet in their firehouses and when the bad germs come, like influenza or bronchitis, there is plenty of firetrucks ready to go out – and kill them…”
Later, I asked to be photographed on one of his earliest inventions, the Bednasium, a sort of hospital bed that had springs attached to its metal-frame headboard. When I climbed onto the bed wearing trousers, shirt and tie, Joe stopped me. If I was going to exercise on his equipment I had to be in “trunks,” same as his Speedo-like briefs. I went into the changing area where I found a cardboard box containing a dozen black Jantzen briefs, chose a medium, then posed for a photograph meant for Buddy Bloodgood’s wall. I couldn’t possibly know that 50 years later this photo would be seen by thousands of people around the world.