“Pudgy was one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever known. She was a bodybuilder, a gymnast, an acrobat – she did everything. She was an exceptional human being. There was only one Pudgy. – Jack LaLanne”
The inaugural post in this series couldn’t have a more fitting subject than Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton. She radiates femininity through time and space in her photographs even as she flexes and lifts heavy weights. Pudgy wasn’t the first woman to gain recognition for lifting weights. She wasn’t the strongest woman either. Her contribution to female athletics was cultural. She brought strength and beauty together in breathtaking fashion. Pudgy literally lifted women’s fitness from circus acts and parlor tricks and brought it into the mainstream. In so doing, she paved the way for all those who came after her. Her rugged pioneer spirit on the sands of Muscle Beach was tempered with grace and charm that captured the hearts of those who knew her.
Born Abby Eville in 1917, “Pudgy” was a nickname she got from her father as a young girl. She grew up in Santa Monica, California and lived an active lifestyle until she graduated high school and got a desk job as a telephone operator. She started to gain weight, and mentioned it to her then boyfriend, Les. Les came home with some weights and a York Barbell training course. It was then that her journey into fitness began in earnest. Though she did calisthenics and lifted weights, she really loved acrobatics. In particular, she liked handstanding, and would often go down to the beach to work on moves with her boyfriend and their friend Bruce Conner. They called themselves the Three Aces, and started performing acrobatic shows at Muscle Beach in the summer of 1939.
Muscle Beach grew rapidly in popularity as servicemen passed through California on their way to the War. After the war, they were eager to get back out to California. The population of Muscle Beach exploded and became a cultural phenomenon. At the center of it all was Pudgy. She was now an icon. By 1945, she was on magazine covers and sponsored by a supplement company. By the end of the decade, she had 42 magazine covers to her credit and was writing a column in Strength & Health called Barbelles. Not one to rest on her laurels, she helped organize the first weightlifting competition for women, the “Pacific Coast Weightlifting Championships”. At 5’1” and 118 pounds, Pudgy hit a 100 lbs. press, 135 clean & jerk, and 105 lbs. snatch. Pudgy went on to start a gym called the “Salon of Figure Development” on Sunset Boulevard where she earned the modern day equivalent of $200 dollars an hour training clients like Marilyn Monroe. She took off a few years to have her daughter, then returned to the gym business for the next 20 years. She and her husband Les stayed together into old age and could often be spotted going up and down the 200 stairs well into their seventies.
She was a military wife to a World War II vet, a mother, an entrepreneur, and a role model. She showed millions of women that one can be fantastically strong and incandescently feminine. In the words of her friend and colleague, Jan Todd, “Every woman bodybuilder who puts on a swimsuit and steps up on the posing dais, every woman weightlifter who strains under a clean and jerk, and every woman powerlifter who fights through the pull of a heavy deadlift owes a debt of gratitude to Abbye Pudgy Stockton.”
Matzer Rose, Marla (2014-06-10). Muscle Beach: Where the best Bodies in the World started a fitness revolution St. Martin’s Press.
Los Angeles Times Obituaries