In a new biography, German historian Eva Rincke uncovers incredible, never-before-heard details about Joseph Pilates’ impoverished childhood, love of boxing and correspondence with President John F. Kennedy.
by Eva Rincke
After the birth of her son four years ago, Eva Rincke began taking mat classes at a local community center. “I became interested in Joe’s life when my teacher, Simone Falkenberg, told us some wild stories about him,” Rincke, a professional historian, recalls. “There was something about him that really touched me. I loved his conviction, which made him fight for his method against all kinds of resistance. I wanted to learn more about him, and when I couldn’t find a biography, I decided to write one myself and started doing research.”
For the next two years, she devoted herself to investigating Joe’s life. For details about his early years, she pored through registration cards, marriage and death certificates in the city archive of Mönchengladbach, Joe’s hometown, for information about the Pilates family. “I combined this data with historical background I gathered from the local newspapers of the time, as well as books like an 1882 guidebook for housewives from working-class families.” She also combed through newspaper accounts and historical records from Germany, England and the United States.
The hundreds of hours of research culminated in her book, Joseph Pilates: A Life to the Core, which was published in Germany this past September. (Rincke is hoping to publish an English translation in the near future.)
As is often the case, the truth is even more fascinating than many of the myths that have sprouted up around this legendary person. Here, Rincke shares the 12 most surprising facts she uncovered about Joseph Pilates.
1. Joe grew up in grinding poverty. Born in 1883, the second of nine children of Friedrich and Helena Pilates, Joe grew up in the industrial town of Gladbach (now known as Mönchengladbach) near Dusseldorf in western Germany. To find out about Joe’s childhood, I searched the city’s archives and found evidence that the large family moved frequently from one tiny apartment to another; most had just one or two bedrooms plus another room that also served as the kitchen, living room and laundry room. The rooms were dark and dank even during the day, and didn’t have modern bathrooms; instead residents used privies on the landings or outhouses in the yard. Joe’s father was a metal worker who worked in one of the many local textile mills; on his small salary, these were the best accommodations the family could afford.
2. The Pilates were not of Greek descent. Mönchengladbach city archivist Gerd Lamers discovered that the Pilates name isn’t Greek, but actually is derived from the family’s ancestral homestead, which has been called a variety of names like “Platesgut,” “Platisgut” and “Pilatus Haus und Hof” since the 16th Century. (Over the centuries, the name evolved into “Pilates.”) In a 1956 interview with Doris Hering in Dance Magazine, Joe recounted that when he was a boy, his schoolmates would tease him about his name with taunts of “Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ.”
3. Joe had an unusual hobby for a German of his generation: boxing. Joe was a regular at his father’s athletics club, where he was introduced to weight lifting and gymnastics, including pommel horse, parallel bars and floor exercises as well as boxing. At the time, public boxing matches were illegal in Prussia (boxing was associated with Prussia’s longtime enemy, England), so it was unusual for a German boy of that era to learn to box. Joe was a natural in the ring, however, and later, when he was interned in the Knockaloe camp for German civilians on the Isle of Man during World War I, he trained his fellow detainees in the sport. According to the German magazine, BoxSport, the Knockaloe boxers were so well trained, they dominated German boxing throughout the 1920s.
After the war, from 1920 to 1923, Joe owned a boxing gym in Gelsenkirchen, near Dusseldorf. He also helped establish an amateur boxing network in the area and even stepped into the ring as a professional himself at least six times.
When he moved to New York in 1926, one of his first clients was heavyweight Charley Massera. (The first mention of Joe’s studio in an American newspaper was in February 1934 in a Pennsylvania paper, the Daily Republican of Monongahela about Massera: “He was taken in hand by Prof. Joe Pilates, former instructor of physical culture for the Berlin police force…in three months, Massera hardened his muscles to such extent that he could take a solid wallop in the stomach from [world heavyweight champion] Jack Dempsey without flinching.” (Either the journalist or Massera got the facts wrong—Joe actually did physical training with the Hamburg, not the Berlin, police department.)
4. His first client was his mother. Even in her 30s, Joe’s mother Helena’s grueling routine of household chores left her hobbled by knee and back pain. Joe suggested that he could help her and showed her some stretching exercises that he knew from his gymnastics training. As John Winters, an assistant in Joe’s New York studio, later told Bethia Caffery, a writer for The Evening Independent in 1980, mother and son were equally surprised when her pain began to subside.
5. There’s little evidence Joe ever performed for a circus. Though it’s often claimed that Joe worked as a circus performer, I haven’t been able to find any trace of his big-top feats. This may mean that Joe never worked for a circus, or just worked for very small troupes, in which case his name didn’t appear on the bill. I did discover that he took part in a vaudeville show while interned in England, including something that was called “a modern strength act” as well as “a balancing act on chairs and ladders.”
6. Joe began getting dancer clients soon after arriving in the U.S. In 1929, three years after Joe arrived in the U.S., modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, then 50, came to Joe’s studio. Overweight and in constant pain from a knee injury that threatened to end her career, she had heard through the grapevine of the robust German who was able to make the weak strong and the overweight thin with his strange equipment. Joe worked with her on his massage table, which he simply called “the table,” but later became known as the Cadillac. She went to the studio regularly for months, and after a year, not only was her knee pain gone, but she was slender again and “had ankles like a young girl,” recalls Ted Shawn, St. Denis’ husband, in the unpublished part of his memoir, Ten Thousand and One Night Stands, which I found in the archives of Jacob’s Pillow. The success of Joe’s work with St. Denis quickly spread throughout the American dance world, thanks in part to the proximity of his Eighth Avenue studio to Broadway theaters and vaudeville halls.
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