Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Lunch With Jack LaLanne

I wasn't always a travel writer. Back in 1991, I co-authored a book with Elizabeth A. Hall, called "The Great American Medicine Show,'' that explored the evolution of alternative health therapies and movements over two centuries of U.S. history. One of the real-life characters in that book was Jack LaLanne, the pioneering bodybuilder, fitness king and health-food promoter who passed away the other day from pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay, California.

A few years after our book was published, I went to a media luncheon at Sinbad's restaurant in San Francisco, sponsored by KGO-TV, San Francisco's popular Channel 7. There were several dozen people on hand. Seated directly across the luncheon table from me, next to his wife, Elaine, was Jack LaLanne. He was well into his eighties but he still looked strong, like he could bend a barbell just by looking at it. I was thrilled. It was like a chapter from the book had sprung to feisty, octogenarian life. I was nearly as surprised as I would have been had I met the Rev. Sylvester Graham, namesake of the graham cracker, originally a crunchy, no-nonsense breakfast alternative to greasy, sugary meals, or Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Revolutionary War-era physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Unlike them, LaLanne was very much alive. He was friendly and chatty and I talked to him for a long time. Much of the talk consisted of luncheon pleasantries but occasionally it turned more serious. LaLanne, born in 1914, was a product of his time. A fine athlete himself, he bewailed what he considered to be bad behavior by modern sportsmen, especially African Americans. I pointed to Arthur Ashe, the late, great tennis player, as someone who I thought was a great role model for anyone. LaLanne grew thoughtful, paused and allowed that was true. The conversation moved on.

I was wondering when LaLanne would remark upon my own, not-very-intimidating physique. Gently, he inquired about my work-out regimen. "Well, I don't have a work-out routine as such,'' I told him, "but I do walk and I run. My legs are pretty strong, but from the waist up, I guess I don't come up to snuff.'' He suggested some techniques for developing upper-body strength, including workouts on innovative gym equipment that he invented. He was a polite proslytizer.

Reading LaLanne's obituaries today and yesterday, I thought of something silent-movie star Ramon Navarro, a pal of LaLanne's, said when LaLanne was at the peak of his wealth and fame, with a chain of health clubs and a syndicated TV show (shot at times at KGO). "LaLanne is a good man,'' Navarro said. "What he's saying is "Take care of yourself.' ''

It worked for him. When LaLanne strolled out after the luncheon, he looked great: short of stature but wide of shoulders, slim of hips, with near-cartoonish, Popeye-like biceps.

Jack LaLanne was 96.

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