Once There Were Strong Men

Still from “The Mighty Atom.”

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the Mighty Atom’s legendary strong man act at the Panoramic Health Farm, a bungalow colony he owned in Woodridge, New York—my home town that was described by the leftist PM newspaper as a utopia in the Catskills in 1947.

I watched in awe as the 62-year old, 5’4”, 145-pound bearded man with shoulder-length hair perform the stunts that he had been part of his repertory since the 1920s such as bending nails with his teeth and an iron bar across his nose. In his prime, he could pull a fire engine with his hair or twist horseshoes into a pretzel. In fact, until his death at the age of 84 in 1977, he continued to perform. The new documentary “The Mighty Atom” that became available as VOD (iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) on November 14th points out that on the day he died, he walked from room to room in the hospital performing for fellow patients to lift their spirits. After his last tour through the wards, he laid down on his bed and passed on.

The documentary mentions the Panoramic Health Farm and adds that it was a typical kuchelein, the Yiddish word for a resort hotel or bungalow colony where communal cooking facilities were available. For Joseph Greenstein, aka The Mighty Atom, this meant leading his summer residents in healthy cooking classes. As I pointed out in my unpublished comic book memoir done in collaboration with Harvey Pekar, a healthy diet was practically a religious obligation for Greenstein. Ironically, while watching “The Mighty Atom”, I discovered that he had a tattoo on his right bicep—an arrow piercing two adjoining hearts just like a sailor would wear. This, of course, supposedly would prevent him from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

When Pekar spent a night crashing on my living room sofa in 2007, we talked at length about our common interests in radical politics and Yiddish culture. He was intrigued by my experiences growing up in Woodridge, especially the encounter with the Mighty Atom. Just by coincidence, he was researching the topic of Jewish strong men at the time. For those who are Pekar fans like me, you are probably aware that Pekar was something of a strong man himself. Despite his hang-dog demeanor, he never lost a fistfight in high school.

I only wish that Harvey had lived long enough to see “The Mighty Atom” that was directed by his grandson Steven Greenstein. The film is a blend of archival footage of his eye-popping feats and commentary by professional strong men, including two of Greenstein’s surviving sons who performed with him. The gist of the commentary is that sheer brawn does not account for his accomplishments. Indeed, we see one musclebound strong man failing to bend a horseshoe as the Atom did with ease, not even by a centimeter. It is more a function of the mind-body relationship than sheer brawn. To make this point, we meet a young woman who lifted an Audi sedan off of her father who was pinned beneath it when a jack collapsed. It was her willpower and an adrenalin surge that counted much more than physical ability.

This feat was more or less replicated at the point in Greenstein’s life when his career as a strong man in the USA took off. He and his family had relocated to Galveston, Texas from poverty-stricken and anti-Semitic Poland in the early 20s. You might ask yourself why a Polish Jew had chosen Galveston rather than New York City, which had a large Jewish presence. You can thank Wall Street investor Jacob Schiff for that. He funded an immigration program that delivered many Jews from oppressive conditions but with the proviso that they stay out of cities that already had large Jewish concentrations in order to placate anti-Semites. For them, the port of entry was Galveston rather than Ellis Island. This included my maternal grandparents who after getting off the boat in Galveston ended up in Kansas City, just like the ancestors of fellow Kansas City denizens Ed Asner and Calvin Trillin.

After working as a dockworker and an oil well roughneck (was this where Greenstein picked up the tattoo?), he opened up a gas station. One day, a fellow named Harry Weiss stopped there to get a flat tire patched and was astonished to see Greenstein pick up the car with one hand while replacing the tire with the other, just like the young woman who had rescued her father. Weiss, who was best known by his stage name Houdini, realized that this fellow Jew could make it in show business by using his muscles just as he had used his wiles as a magician. His agent, who was traveling with Houdini, signed up Greenstein who then moved to New York to launch his career.

Joseph Greenstein made a living as a performer but also as a throwback to the time-honored profession of snake oil medicine peddler. Except it was not snake oil he was peddling but elixirs to cure whatever ailed you, all of which I am convinced were the real thing. In the documentary you can see him at a carnival demonstrating the wonders of his palm oil soap. After lathering his beard, you can see him take a handful of the suds and swallow it down like it was custard. He also peddled a high-powered laxative. In his pitch, he recounted how when you go into a men’s room somewhere, you can often hear someone growling like a lion because they were having a tough time “evacuating” their bowels. With his laxative, everything came out effortlessly. Considering the pitch made nowadays by spas that specialize  in high colonics, the Atom was way ahead of his time.

Not only was he one step ahead of the health spas, he also was an early antifa activist. In 1937, he was walking through Yorkville on the Upper East Side, a place where I live now that was once called Germantown because of the large concentration of German-Americans, some of whom were active in the Bund, a Nazi support group that had placed a sign beneath the second story window of their headquarters that read “No Dogs or Jews allowed”. Greenstein, who had trained in martial arts as well as strong man stunts, decided to take them on. He brought a ladder and a Hank Greenberg baseball bat with him to their building. The ladder was used to bring down the sign and the bat was used to fend off the 20 Nazi sympathizers who barreled down the stairs to beat up the short but extremely tough Jew. They all ended up in the emergency room of a nearby hospital.

Among the interviewees in “The Mighty Atom” is his son Mike Greenstein, who performed as the Mighty Atom Jr. and died at the age of 95 last year. Like his father, he was performing incredible feats of strength until the day he died.

In 2012, the New York Times reported on the 91-year old man in an article titled “A Truck is No Match for His Teeth”:

He walked out to his 2006 Buick sedan and fished out of its trunk a strong rope and the same leather bite pad he made in 1940. A mail truck was in front of the building, and the mail carrier sighed and agreed to put the truck in neutral.

Mr. Greenstein hooked the towline — or rather, had a reporter hook it — under the truck’s front bumper, and then he put the leather bit in his mouth and leaned backward, stretching the rope taut. With small steps backward, he began pulling the truck up a slight grade, so gradually that the mail carrier lost interest and said, “O.K., enough nonsense; I have to finish my route.”

Although Random House passed on my comic book memoir (prodded by his widow Joyce Brabner who found my politics reprehensible), I hope to complete my own documentary on the Catskills this year that will pay tribute to Joseph Greenstein as well as some of the other Jewish strong men I met as a child.

Around the time I met the Mighty Atom, I also got to know Barney Ross the Jewish boxer who wore a Star of David on his trunks just as the Atom did on his leopard-skin singlet. Ross was working as a greeter at the nightclub immediately beneath our apartment in Woodridge that featured R&B acts, whose pulsating beats seeped through the floorboards of my bedroom to my delight. I used to love to go downstairs and chat with Ross who wore a white tuxedo with a pink carnation customarily. He taught me how to put up my dukes although there was nothing I hated more than going into the boxing ring at summer camp.

I was also obsessed with Sid Caesar who spent weekends at a hotel called the Avon Lodge, where he worked during the summers as a teen in the 1930s. It was there that he and other staff members mounted productions of Clifford Odets plays that reflected their leftwing sympathies. The owner of the Avon Lodge was a good friend of my father and a relative of the people who owned the Grine Felder bungalow colony just down the road. Like the Avon Lodge, it was hospitable to radical politics so much so that the bungalows were named after Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman and other famous Jewish radicals.

I don’t know if Sid Caesar could pull a truck by his teeth but he supposedly held Mel Brooks by his heels outside of an NBC building in one of his legendary anger tantrums. He was known for his superhuman strength, which included punching his fist through walls and even once punching a horse, a violent act reenacted in Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles”.

But perhaps the strongest men of all were the local Communists who braved ostracism and even jail for defying McCarthyism. All of them were WWII veterans who decided to help organize a trade union for the mostly Black and heavily exploited workers at Woodridge’s commercial steam laundry that cleaned the linens of the once thriving hotel industry and that was owned by Jews just like them. If it took presence of mind to bend a horseshow, it took the mind of a superman to risk careers and the disapproval of hysterically anti-Communist villagers to fight the good fight in the 1950s. Those strong men continue to be my inspiration.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.