A ‘lady of iron’ and a model for fitness
In the days before Lycra, Spandex and 24-Hour Fitness (otherwise known as the 1930s), Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton worked out in men’s swim trunks on the beach south of Santa Monica Pier. As the stretch of sand became known as Muscle Beach, Stockton rose to fame as the “First Lady of Iron” -- a woman who packed mind-boggling strength into a curvaceous and buxom form.
Stockton’s childhood nickname didn’t quite portend success as a female bodybuilder, but by the time she was in her 20s, Stockton (born in 1917) could lift barbells and her boyfriend right over her head.
It was her boyfriend, Les, who nudged Pudgy to lift weights to shed the pounds she had put on in her job as a telephone operator. The routine worked, and soon the pair were hitting the Santa Monica beach every weekend to work out with the fitness buffs there.
Weightlifting was relatively novel at the time -- outside of circus tents and vaudeville acts. Conventional wisdom held that weightlifting strained the heart and compromised male fertility.
That didn’t stop the Muscle Beach-goers from pumping iron, but at the time, most of their seaside performances consisted of gymnastics and acrobatics -- with Pudgy and Les soon leading the show.
The 5-foot-1, 110-pound Pudgy could lift her 185-pound beau over her head with one hand. She could hold up a dumbbell while Les sat on her shoulders, or balance him over her head in a handstand. She could stand on his palms and lift a 100-pound barbell over her head.
With trust like that, the two married -- and soon took their show on the road. Along with a friend, Bruce Connor, they performed in football game halftime shows as the Three Aces. When Les went overseas during World War II, Pudgy performed with other Muscle Beach alums as “Pudgy and Her Boys.” When Les returned home, he became fond of his new moniker: Mr. Pudgy Stockton.
Pudgy Stockton wasn’t the only woman to wow the spectators at Muscle Beach. Relna Brewer could single-handedly toss brawny men. April Atkins could lift three fellow weightlifters at a time. Beverly Jocher, drawn to Muscle Beach from Philadelphia, could support 590 pounds of acrobats on her 110-pound frame.
But Stockton, with her 38-20-36 figure and sun-bleached curls, was a favorite. She was featured in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and -- by her own count -- was pictured on nearly four dozen magazine covers. She worked hard to make sure the press didn’t downplay her femininity in favor of her brawn and posed not just lifting weights but also sewing and washing dishes in her Santa Monica home.
Stockton strove to make weightlifting appeal to women. She wrote a column, “Barbelles,” in Strength and Health magazine, extolling its virtues for the female form. She opened the country’s first women’s gym -- the Salon of Figure Development, whose floral-wallpapered interior looked rather like a living room -- on Sunset Boulevard, and with Les later opened “his and hers” gyms in Beverly Hills.
In 1953, Stockton put her bodybuilding career on hold to have a daughter. A few years later, Muscle Beach closed in Santa Monica and reopened farther down the coast, in Venice.
But Stockton, who died in 2006 at age 88, had a lasting legacy. She paved the way for modern female bodybuilders and helped prime American women for the fitness craze that erupted in the 1980s. In her own day, she undid the prevailing notion that lifting weights made a woman seem mannish. With her tiny waist and large bust, she was anything but.