The Ivy League professor and his bodybuilder son

Disappoint parent: Paul ‘not pumping iron’ Fussell

The obituary section in the 24 May edition of the Guardian featured a write-up for Paul Fussell, who has died aged 88. He was an historian who wrote a ground-breaking study of the First World War, for which he won the National Book Award in the US. He was also an ex-military man, having fought with distinction in the Second World War.

At the bottom of the obit it said that he was survived by two children, both listed as writers.

Well, yes, that is true. However, as with many an obit, it doesn’t actually get to the nub of the matter. His son, Sam Fussell, was a writer. But rather than penning a weighty intellectual tome which may have pleased his father, he wrote a memoir called Muscle. This book recounted how, in a matter of months, he went from being a gifted, yet skinny, Oxford and Harvard graduate to a hypertrophied muscle man posing on a dais while wearing nothing more than a thick layer of fake tan and a posing pouch.

So how did this unlikely change come about?

In the early 1980s, Sam Fussell was a young man long on brains but short on physique, who feared for his personal safety living in New York. He was also struggling to deal with his parents’ divorce. These circumstances, and a chance discovery of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, led him to the local gym, where he took to the weights with all the zeal of the convert.

It was not long before Sam quit his job and took up bodybuilding full-time; possibly not the career path his Ivy League professor father imagined for his son when he sent him off to Harvard.

He explains his desire to change his physique thus:

I wanted to get as big as possible as fast as possible. The bigger, the better – that boded best for personal protection. So it was the most massive bodybuilders who caught my eye. Builders whose flexed arms were actually larger than their heads. Builders who could balance a glass of milk on top of their chests. Builders like Cuban expatriate Sergio Oliva, Bertil “Beef It” Fox and Geoff “Neck” King.

Pre-iron: the pale and wan Sam Fussell

He details his four years as a bodybuilder from the point of view of an insider, but also with the distance and wit of the intellectual.

So he describes that:

During my reps, I resorted to what Schwarzenegger likes to call “The Arnold Mental Visualisation Principle,” more commonly known as the imagination, and saw my chest growing to such gargantuan proportions that no shirt on earth could contain it.”

His transformation from intellectual to muscle man didn’t simply change his physique. It transformed the way he walked (to the bodybuilder’s waddle) and he began using phrases such as “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

As he explains,

It was an expression I’d picked up in the weight room. I found myself frequently using it as a substitute for, “Have a nice day.”

When he told his father he was spending his inheritance from his grandfather on a cheap apartment so he could bodybuild full-time, Paul Fussell called him a psychotic.

Sam Fussell eventually moved to LA to train, where he became best friends with bodybuilders called Vinnie, Bamm Bamm and Nimrod. He started taking steroids. He even, briefly, dated a female bodybuilder, called G-spot. He describes fumbling with her on the sofa in hilarious detail:

When, finally, I reached below her gold dumbbell pendant for her breast, I found it harder than my own.

In order to gain the necessary muscle definition in preparation for his first bodybuilding contest, he went on what was called the ‘shrink-wrap’ diet, losing 12 pounds in just six days: equivalent, perhaps, to what those Wedding Boot Camps put women through before their first marriage.

His father rarely wrote to him in LA. On one occasion he simply sent him a “heavily underlined Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School application.” Paul and Sam Fussell eventually stopped speaking entirely.

The memoir ends in 1988, with Sam Fussell tiring of bodybuilding. Looking on Wikipedia, it appears that he never went back to the intellectual life. He is currenly listed as working as a hunter in Montana.

The obituary does not make it clear if father and son were reconciled before Paul Fussell’s death. All I know is I am going to read his World War One history, The Great War and Modern Memory, and I encourage every single person who has reached the end of this blog to read Muscle. Just like Sam’s headlong pursuit of bulk, you won’t regret it for a moment.

Making the most of that Harvard education: a built Sam Fussell
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12 thoughts on “The Ivy League professor and his bodybuilder son

  1. ‘Muscle’ is one of the all time great books which is a must read unlike yet another WW1 smart- arse ‘history’: or as the Chinese call it ‘Journalism’. Fathers & Sons Eh! Something to think about?

  2. Sam wasn’t called Sam on his birth certiicate. But Paul wanted to name him after Samuel Johnson and called him Sam anyway. It stuck.

  3. I met Sam when I was an undergrad in New York and had gotten a summer membership at the Vanderbilt Y just to work out. This was back before gyms were really much of anything other places to exercise. The weight room was tiny and Sam had already quit his publishing job and was really there all the time. I remember he and a bunch of the other guys took a trip to Venice Beach just to check it out. I was too young to go and I don’t think I was even invited, but the place had a good vibe and I remember Sam as being pretty nice and open about his story. He also taught me a lot about lifting that summer. I returned to Columbia sophomore year having put on a fair amount of bulk and was really thankful for the time I had spent there. I knew Sam had left to pursue bodybuilding but didn’t know about his book until years later when I saw a used copy at the Strand at Central Park. I agree, its a great story and it looks like its being made into a movie. Too bad about his relationship with his father. I sure hope they reconciled and hope he’s doing well.

  4. I’d imagine father and son reconciled as his father dedicated his book, The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters, to one Samuel Wilson Fussell. This was published in 1994, long after Sam Fussell’s Muscle was published in 1991.

  5. Sam Fussell also wrote an extraordinary essay on bodybuilding called, “Bodybuilder Americanus,” published in the University of Michigan Press collection of essays titled, “The Male Body.” It takes on the subject from a very different angle than Muscle. But it’s equally hilarious.

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