MONTREAL — He was a school dropout from Montreal who took bodybuilding out of sweat-soaked gyms and helped usher in the modern-day fitness boom – and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan and Saddam Hussein in the process.
Ben Weider, an unprepossessing gentleman who traded in muscle-making but peddled in messages of bridge-building and peace, died in Montreal on Friday at age 85.
Among those who paid tribute to him were Mr. Schwarzenegger, who was an unknown muscle-man in Austria in the 1960s when Mr. Weider and his brother, Joe, plucked the teenager from obscurity.
“Ben Weider was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. He and his brother, Joe, grew up poor in Montreal, but through their vision, hard work and determination, became founding fathers of bodybuilding and the worldwide fitness revolution,” the California Governor said in a statement.
“Ben and Joe were like fathers to me, bringing me to America when I was a young man just making my way in the world. I never would have achieved the success I have enjoyed in life without them and they supported me in everything I have ever done.”
Long before perfect pecs, washboard abs and toned tummies became common buzzwords, the Weider brothers set out to make beefcake respectable. In time, they turned their nearly messianic beliefs into a global empire.
Ben's career began in a cramped flat on Montreal's Coloniale Avenue, the immigrant neighbourhood made famous by writer Mordecai Richler, where he joined his brother in launching a mimeographed weight-training magazine called Your Physique. The subscription price was $2 a year.
Eventually the pair were doing multimillion-dollar global business in weight-training equipment, vitamins and magazines, and in 1946 Ben became the founding president of the International Brotherhood of Body Builders.
Along the way, the brothers helped bring about a cultural shift, moulding public perceptions as well as hard bodies as they converted a pastime associated with basement gyms into a legitimate activity.
Some have compared their contribution to the sport to what Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner did for the sexual revolution.
“These are two of most influential people you've never heard of,” Mike Steere, who contributed to the Weiders' 2006 autobiography, Brothers of Iron, said yesterday from New Jersey. “By legitimizing muscles and strength, they changed the way celebrities look. The body beautiful of today is a fit body. It didn't used to be. They contributed to a change in the conception of human beauty.”
Ushering in the revolution wasn't easy. In the conservative, church-dominated Montreal of the 1960s, Ben approached a well-known Jesuit priest, Father Marcel de la Sablonnière, about installing a weight room in the pastor's Montreal community centre, offering to donate barbells. The priest initially balked at the idea of semi-clad men pumping iron, but at Mr. Weider's urging, he relented.
“This guy could convince you of just about anything,” said Jacques Duchesneau, Montreal's former police chief and a close friend of Mr. Weider. “When he had an idea, there was nothing you could do to change his mind.
“It was not about making money. This guy was so generous you would not believe it.”
Mr. Weider saw bodybuilding as a way to bridge divides. At a bodybuilding meet in apartheid-era South Africa in 1975, he threatened to cancel the competition if black and white athletes were not allowed to stay in the same accommodations.
His passion took him to places like China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as well as Iraq, and once – on the same trip – to Tel Aviv and Ramallah; he dedicated two gyms and managed to meet separately with both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the mayor of Tel Aviv.
Today, Mr. Weider may be one of the few Canadians to have received the tributes of the Order of Canada and an honorary degree from Baghdad University.
Overcoming a childhood of poverty and episodes of anti-Semitism, Mr. Weider devoted himself to wide-ranging philanthropy. One of his last acts of giving was a second free gym in September to Palestinians in Ramallah on the West Bank, one of a multitude donated around the world. He also gave discreetly, helping the Catholic Church in Montreal restore its downtown Mary Queen of the World Cathedral.
Despite Mr. Weider's wealth, his favourite restaurant was Montreal's homey Snowdon Deli, where he frequently had a bagel and coffee for breakfast and knew the waitresses by name.
“My father was a very gentle, thoughtful person with a very clear sense of right and wrong,” his son, Eric, said yesterday. “He believed that you don't succeed by defeating other people, especially in today's modern world.
“He was no fantasizer; he understood people had strong differences that often led to violence. But his nature was to try to find commonalities. He believed that there is good in all people.”
Mr. Weider also applied his powers of persuasion to get the French to revise their thinking about one of their most revered figures, Napoleon. Mr. Weider, regarded as a Napoleonic scholar, posited that Napoleon had been poisoned by one of his own countrymen rather than dying of stomach cancer as was widely believed.
He spent three decades trying to prove his theory. Instead of responding with outrage, France bestowed upon Mr. Weider its highest tribute, the Legion of Honour. His 1982 book, The Murder of Napoleon, co-authored with David Hapgood, became a bestseller and sold in 45 languages.
In a poignant twist, Mr. Weider will miss a moment in his hometown's spotlight. This Thursday at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, he was to attend the unveiling of a priceless collection of rare Napoleon artifacts, including the emperor's signature bicorn hat, that Mr. Weider donated from his personal collection. They will be on display free in the museum's permanent collection.
He leaves his wife of 49 years, Huguette, three sons, a sister, and his brother, Joe.