Arts & Entertainment
3 min

American Hunks: Book review

Buddy boys through the ages

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE. American Hunks includes 1940s steel-town lad Buddy DiCecco.

Brett Josef Grubisic contributes a long opening essay to this delightfully eclectic compilation of historical man pix. It can profitably be skipped in favour of a sprint to the buff bods themselves. Citing a range of scholarly heavyweights from Roland Barthes to Susan Bordo, Grubisic’s analysis only makes dryly explicit what the average intelligent browser will assimilate intuitively as the images unfold.

Stretching chronologically from 1860 to the dawn of the 1970s, the photos and drawings themselves, as selected and captioned by David L Chapman, beautifully capture the erotic codes and cultural trajectory of the posed and naked male though the decades. I began scanning the hundreds of studs as you might expect, with a random search for the naughtiest ones. You won’t find a hard pole here, but there’s a generous sampling of relaxed ones, plenty of meaty bottoms and weighty baskets endearingly cupped in skimpy cotton.

Ever heard of a “club swinger”? Do not think of retro bars full of hipsters. Think of Gus Hill, a travelling showman from the era when musclemen displayed their wares either at circuses or on the vaudeville stage. Gus and other manly swingers would work up routines in which “large, bowling-pin shaped objects” were swung dexterously around the head and shoulders. Wrestlers were even more popular. An 1870 postcard from Rockwood Studios in Manhattan shows “Austin” in feathery-fringed, high-waisted panties and lace-up high-heeled boots, his arms fetchingly akimbo. Sepia shots from 1866 show a well-known gym guru’s arms and torso, almost scrawny by present standards. His macassar-greased coif and ragged muttonchops prove that some styles mercifully never come back.

A cover from an 1890s issue of New York’s satirical Puck magazine offers a beefy and mud-splattered footballer among adoring society ladies, while a top-hatted ponce looks on dejectedly. The subheading reads: “Muscular masher eclipses the dainty dude” (as if it were really the ladies he wanted).

The famed Eugen Sandow shipped in from Germany in 1893 and sent a shockwave through American strongman culture. A five-page spread shows off the hero in all his hulking glory, with amusingly fake fig leaves pasted over his willy. A shrewd businessman, Sandow allowed private up-close ogling of his muscles after regular stage performances. Swooning women and top-hatted dandies were invited to “caress his sinews to make sure each one was hard as steel.”      

Chapman opens his chapter on World War I with an uncensored shot from a German conscription office where a group of naked young inductees are queued up for their medical. The few visible dicks don’t look overly perturbed by the exposure. The chapter is filled with arresting military and advertising images, from bare-chested men on recruiting posters to fanciful ads sporting soldiers bathing naked in the trenches with Ivory Soap.

Cheesecake shots of Hollywood heartthrobs range from Rudy Valentino in a wig to Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe in Tarzan loincloths, from a surprisingly petit-pectoralled Errol Flynn to Brando in his redolent Stanley Kowalski T-shirt and a still-pretty Elvis Presley in satin boxing trunks.

Some of the chapter tags seem  arbitrary. The poses and muscles and even hairstyles look about the same whether we’re browsing through the “Supermen at War” spin on World War II or the “Age of the Chest” chapter that follows. One treat from the 1950s is an early Tom of Finland drawing depicting a north-woods log-roller on the cover of Physique Pictorial — price 35 cents.

I had a powerful boyhood attraction to actor Tony Dow, aka big brother Wally on Leave It to Beaver. Here you’ll find him in a rare publicity shot, shirtless and hoisting a barbell to show off his budding adolescent torso. 

My fave image: The utterly charming Buddy DiCecco, a steel-town lad from 1940s Pennsylvania sporting baby-blue swim trunks, a coy smile, luscious lips and a haughty-innocent gaze fired straight at the camera. Buddy is totally absent from the web (I searched), so paper may be your only chance. At the other pole of aesthetic fetish, you’ll encounter a somewhat hefty Mae West, circa 1957, hemmed in by eight pumped guys in what appear to be diapers and girly white sandals. I’ll stick with Buddy.