MONTREAL — Tributes poured in over the weekend for Montreal bodybuilding legend Ben Weider, who died unexpectedly on Oct. 17 at age 85 at the Jewish General Hospital.
But upon his passing, Weider, who cut an upright and cultured figure, was remembered as much for his scholarship and absolute passion for French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as he was, along with his brother Joe, for his business acumen in making bodybuilding an internationally recognized and practised avocation.
“It was his intensity when it came to Napoleon,” commented Joe King, a veteran journalist who knew Weider for some 30 years. “I have a book out next spring [on prominent Montreal Jews] that devotes a whole chapter to him.
“When you walked into his office, you just knew Napoleon dominated his life.”
A fitness buff in his own life, Weider was reported to have exercised daily right up until the day of his death.
Ironically, Weider passed away just days prior to the planned official inauguration of a new, permanent gallery devoted to Napoleon at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Some 60 objects from Weider’s collection, which he wanted to remain in Montreal, form the heart of the gallery.
Weider also penned several scholarly books about his favourite subject, including a few that provided persuasive forensic evidence, using hair samples, that Bonaparte was murdered, such as The Murder of Napoleon (1982), and Assassination at St. Helena Revisited (1995).
Weider’s evidence was so compelling, King noted, that it was eventually accepted as true by the French government, although there is still no absolute consensus among researchers and scholars about the cause of Napoleon’s death.
Weider, as president of the International Napoleon Society, also wrote a well-received paper on Napoleon and the Jews, in which Weider described how Napoleon’s Civil Code helped protect Jewish rights and how Napoleon himself held a very sympathetic view of Jews.
In 2000, Weider, who during his lifetime received dozens of honours and titles from around the world – including a 1984 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Order of Canada in 1975 – accepted France’s highest honour, the Legion of Honour, in Montreal for his scholarly investigations.
For most people, however, the Weider name was inextricably linked to bodybuilding, a multibillion-dollar business he oversaw for some 60 years from a humble industrial building on Bates Road in the Cote des Neiges area, while his older brother, Joe, oversaw the magazine end of the business in California.
Even though Weider’s panelled office was adorned with Napoleonic and other arcane historical accoutrements, it was from there that Weider lobbied hard for the respectability he believed bodybuilding deserved, including for it to be accepted as a sport by International Olympic Committee. Up until the day of his death, however, the IOC had yet to do so (although as of August 2000, the International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB) has been a permanent member of the IOC).
Still, Weider, as president until retirement in 2006 of the IFBB – which he and his brother founded in 1946 – travelled far and wide in pursuit of making bodybuilding popular around the world.
In 1968, it was the Weiders, anticipating the fitness revolution to come, who first brought then-unknown Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to California. Schwarzenegger, a former movie superstar and current governor of California, remained friends with the siblings to the present day.
“Without them having done that [brought me over],” he told the Associated Press upon leaning of Weider’s death, “I mean, I wouldn’t have known how to come over here. I sure didn’t have the money. So that was a very important kind of stepping-stone for me.
It was Ben Weider’s running of the IFBB, Schwarzenegger said, that made it so popular in almost every country around the world.
“It’s all because of his work and his brother’s work.”
Over the years, Weider’s photograph was taken with leaders of virtually all of the 173 countries affiliated with the IFBB, including the late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat and several leaders of Israel, where Weider established a gym in Tel Aviv. Weider, although Jewish, was welcomed with his bodybuilding message in most Arab countries, which organized their own bodybuilding organizations in affiliation with the IFBB.
In interviews with The CJN over the years, Weider said he considered himself someone who could bring nations together through his fitness movement. In apartheid South Africa in 1975, at an IFBB-sanctioned event in Pretoria, he insisted on shared accommodation for the competitors.
As detailed in Joe and Ben Weider’s 2006 autobiography, Brothers of Iron, written with Mike Steere, however, few, including the Weiders themselves, ever would have predicted the business empire that they did.
Ben was born in 1923, a year or two after Joe, to immigrant parents Louis and Anna.
Dirt poor, the family lived on Colonial Avenue in Montreal, and it was Joe, almost six feet tall and a miserly 113 pounds, who first took up lifting barbells in response to anti-Semitic taunts in the neighbourhood. Ben, as he described himself, was the more “fun-loving” of the brothers, but like his brother, he dropped out of school during the Depression in order to work.
Ben served in the army during World War II, and upon his return, unable to find positions because of perceived anti-Semitism, organized Montreal’s first bodybuilding contest at the Monument National Theatre on St. Lawrence Boulevard, “The Main,” while putting together a fitness magazine with his brother, who later moved to New Jersey and finally to California.
Although he became bodybuilding’s worldwide ambassador, Weider also made significant philanthropic contributions within the Montreal and Jewish community, including for the construction of the YM-YWHA Ben Weider JCC and institutions within the Lubavitch community.
Weider, who was buried on Monday, is survived by his wife of 49 year, Huguette Derouin, sons Louis, Eric and Mark, and siblings Joe and Freda.