When Bert Goodrich called the shopfitters into 6624 Hollywood Boulevard, in 1953, most West Coast gyms were low-rent hideaways for a blue-collar army of boxers, grapplers and Herculean bodybuilders. Thanks to Goodrich, a former Mr America and one-time stunt double for John Wayne, a new generation of young and upwardly mobile Americans was about to be inducted into his mirrored palace of barbells, chin bars and pulley machines.
Up in the hills of Hollywood lived a gently spoken pacifist, an urbane man of letters whose personal loathing of sport had taken root on the playing fields of Eton. Over 6 foot 4 in height, with poor vision and the unwieldy demeanour of a “giant grasshopper”, Aldous Huxley was no more likely to be seen at Goodrich’s Gym to the Stars than Joe McCarthy sightseeing in Red Square. To adapt the words of George Orwell, his former student and near doppelgänger, competitive sport was for Master Huxley essentially a crucible of “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence”; it was “war minus the shooting”.
Huxley may have winced at the grunting machismo on display at Goodrich’s gym, yet he was, in his own donnish way, intrigued by the relationship between physique and personality. In fact, Huxley had, since coming to America in 1937, begun to believe that his literary talents and deficiencies were the congenital offshoots of his elongated shape. “The gut of a round fat man, like G. K. Chesterton, may be as much as forty feet long. The gut of a thin man like myself maybe as little as eighteen and would weigh half what the Chestertonian intestine weighs. It would obviously be miraculous if this physical difference were not correlated with a mental difference.” As “a tall, emaciated fellow on stilts”, Huxley reckoned that he simply lacked the stomach of a good storyteller.
Whatever his shortcomings as a novelist of character and dramatic action, there was certainly no denying the staggering panorama of ideas that Huxley, a self-styled professor of nothing-in-particular, could navigate in his fiction and essays. From the history of scissors to Chinese ceramics, Vedic scripture to medieval gastronomy, his reach was telescopic. But Southern California, his adopted home, ushered him towards a new role. Frustrated by his moderate success as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Huxley found sustenance in a diet of mysticism and mescaline, hypnosis and dianetics. Writing for Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post, lecturing to ever-more crowded auditoriums, Huxley took the question of human potential writ large as his intellectual lodestar. What non-revolutionary measures could the godless society pursue to expand the heart and mind? How could co-operation and collectivism replace the urge to control and dominate?
To answer these and other questions, Huxley plundered psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, anthropology, psychopharmacology and evolutionary biology. According to his own definition, he was now a “pontifex”, a bridge between science and the general world, a kind of freelance human engineer. But like the hapless Theodor Gumbrich, the inventor of the world’s first pneumatic trousers, from Antic Hay (1923), Huxley’s rapport with new scientific research and technology was sometimes seriously misjudged.