“It’s a problem when you get older — you lose your balance and fall,” she explains. “I show people how to do the exercise. They’re simple but toughies.
Jack smiles proudly at his wife. “She’s the strength beneath my muscles,” he says.
Despite his decades-long devotion to exercise, Jack LaLanne wasn’t always the poster child for physical fitness.
As a boy, young Jack trafficked in the dark underworld of sugar-laden treats, trading his lunchtime sandwiches for doughnuts and chocolate bars. He wore a back brace to support his weak shoulders, as well as arch supports in his shoes. He had a face full of acne and was so scrawny, he likes to say, that even the girls beat him up. But his moods ran violent, and one night he even threatened his older brother with an axe. “I was a mess,” he says.
Worried and desperate for help, his mother took him to a lecture by traveling nutritionist Paul Bragg, who promised physical and emotional redemption to anyone who renounced sugar and embraced exercise. That night, at the age of 14, Jack was inspired. He began lifting cement blocks in his backyard and, a few months later, joined the Berkeley YMCA. One day, he noticed two men with chests the size of beer kegs who kept a private set of weights in a locked box.
“I asked if I could use the [weights], too, and they said no,” Jack remembers. “I said, ‘If I wrestle you guys and pin you, will you let me use them?’ They laughed, but I pinned them both. Then they gave me a key.”
That key opened more than the box: It unlocked a career. Jack took the weights to a foundry and had a set of dumbbells made. Before long, he was leading training sessions in his backyard for local firefighters and police officers who couldn’t pass their annual fitness tests. He was 15.
After graduating from high school in 1932, he earned a chiropractic degree, and four years later, he opened the nation’s first modern health club, on the third floor of an office building in Oakland, Calif. “They thought I was nuts when I opened that gym,” he says, recalling how doctors and athletic trainers warned their clients to stay away. “They said, ‘You guys will lose your sex drive, become muscle-bound or, worse, get hemorrhoids.”
But Jack was unwavering. Rather than fight back, he let his physique do the talking for him. He began appearing at Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif., performing stunts and human pyramids as a way to promote weight lifting and exercise. A towering mass of power, with bulging biceps and thighs the size of redwoods, Jack was a walking billboard for his beliefs.
In 1950, he got a call from someone at the Les Malloy Show, a popular San Francisco TV variety program. The woman on the other end of the line was the co-host of the show, a 27-year-old, chain-smoking, junk-food addict named Elaine, who invited him on as a guest.
“I wasn’t impressed,” she says, in terms of meeting her future husband back then. But the network was, and eventually Jack was offered his own show. Jack and Elaine were soon sharing a newsroom.
“One day, I was at my desk smoking a cigarette and eating a chocolate doughnut, and Jack came up to me and said, ‘The only thing good about a doughnut is the hole. You should be eating carrots and apples. I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t care,’” recounts Elaine, who responded by taking a drag of her Lucky Strike, raising an eyebrow and saying, “Oh, yeah?”
The pair began dating soon afterward and were married in 1959. “I fell in love with his brain, not his brawn,” Elaine says.
Jack continued to show off his brawn (if not always his brain) with dangerous public stunts, upping the ante each time to draw more attention to his cause. For his 41st birthday, he swam handcuffed through the San Francisco Bay’s shark-infested waters from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf. When he turned 47, he swam the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge — twice. And then there was his 70th birthday, when he swam a mile and a half in choppy waters, pulling 70 boats carrying 70 friends, all while handcuffed and shackled.
“I was really nervous,” Elaine admits, shuddering from the memory of his 70th-birthday feat.
Today, Jack limits his publicity stunts to hawking his juicer with Elaine on the airwaves. For his recent birthday, his 96th, Jack said the only thing he had planned was to “tow [his] wife across the bathtub.”
It’s a good joke — and one he’s used before. These one-liners, I come to learn, are typical of Jack, and something Elaine fondly refers to as LaLanneisms. He uses these canned witticisms with regularity throughout our interview — especially, it seems, when the topic of conversation turns more serious than he’d like.
“Dying is easy,” goes one of his favorites. “It’s living that’s hard.”