Say the name Jack LaLanne, and everybody knows who you mean. He was the undisputed king of fitness, the man who inspired everyday Americans to get off their couches and move. He celebrated his 60th birthday by swimming from Alcatraz with his hands cuffed and feet shackled. He said things like “if it tastes good, spit it out.”
But mention his wife of 52 years, Elaine LaLanne, and people aren’t always as familiar. That might have vague memories of her from Jack’s long-running and wildly popular fitness series “The Jack LaLanne Show,” which was on the air from 1951 to 1985. She wasn’t the headliner, but she was the show’s (and Jack’s) bedrock. They were like a superhero duo—Jack in his red buckled jumpsuit, and Elaine in green—joining forces to get the world off their asses and working up a sweat.
Elaine didn’t get the glory, but she deserves at least half of the praise. She wasn’t the one in the media spotlight for swimming through freezing water outside San Francisco, Tokyo, and Miami, usually while handcuffed and towing at least one and sometimes as many as 65 boats. But she was there for all of it, from the moment he came up with every harebrained scheme to the months of rigorous training to the moment of truth, where there was always the possibility it could go horribly wrong. She was the one to build him up, keep him strong, and if his strength ever didn’t live up to his ambitions, she was the one to nurse him back to health.
It’s a tired cliché to say that behind every great man is an equally great woman. But in the case of Jack LaLanne, this is entirely, inarguably true. Elaine fell in love with the man long before anybody took him seriously, when he was just a guy with a chair, a rubber cord, a broomstick, and a dream. She was, as they say in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, in the “room where it happened,” acting as his closest confidante and collaborator through every fitness inspiration and innovation. She was his sounding board, co-conspirator, and biggest cheerleader for many ideas that initially seemed crazy—juicers, personal gyms—but we now take for granted today.
Jack passed away in 2011, at the young (for him) age of 96. Elaine, now 91, is still going strong. She’s an author, lecturer, civic leader, and more active than most people half her age. Hell, a quarter of her age. Don’t challenge her to a pushup showdown unless you’re ready to lose. We called the inimitable dame of fitness to talk about her remarkable career, and she did not disappoint. It’s not like talking to an active, intellectually vibrant senior and thinking, I want to be like you when I retire. When you talk to Elaine LaLanne, you think, I want to be more like her today.
Spartan: Let’s talk about how you met Jack. You were co-hosting a TV show in San Francisco, right?
LaLanne: That’s right. It was the early days of television and I was on this show called The Les Malloy Show. It was an hour and a half show, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. every day. We had a 12-piece orchestra that was left over from radio. In those days, many of the radio shows had full orchestras. So we had the orchestra, and we opened the show with [singing] “Hi, neighbor! What do you know and whaddaya say?” [Laughs]
That is adorable.
Things were very different back then. I was also booking the show, and we had all the stars who used to come to San Francisco. When their movies screened at one of the big theaters downtown, they would fly in and talk to the audience before the movie. You don’t get that today unless you go to a film festival. So we had a lot of stars that came to town, and it was very easy to get them to come on television. One day, I get this call from Oakland, California. There’s a gal on the line and she says, “I got this guy who can do pushups for your whole show.”
All 90 minutes?
That’s right. So I said, “Oh boy, that sounds like fun. Bring him over. We’ll put him in the corner and he’ll do his thing.”
You were going to put the poor guy in the corner?
Like a houseplant?
Well nobody’s watching somebody do pushups for an hour and a half. That’d be ridiculous.
So the guy shows up and it’s Jack. Were you impressed by him? Or did you think, This guy’s a loon?
Oh no, honey, I was through with men. I’d been through a divorce, so I was thinking I’d never love again, all that stuff. I wasn’t interested. Not long after he did our show, he got his own show on the same network. We’re both on ABC. But his program is on at 9 o’clock in the morning, and they have a kid’s show before him. So he was saying things like, “Go get your mommy, I’ll do a pushup for her.” [Laughs.]
You were watching?
You were done with men but you’d get up at 9 o’clock just to watch Jack’s show? Sounds like somebody had a little crush.
Not right away. It took me awhile to come around. He would do a class at noon, for everybody who worked at the station. It was after he went off the air and before I went on. It got me thinking, Maybe I should do this. I’m eating junk food, things are changing, the sands of time are shifting around. [Laughs.] You know what I mean.
You grow older, your body stops behaving.
Exactly. So I thought, Well, this Jack guy seems like he’s got something to say here. So I listened.
Did he ever flirt with you?
All the time. One day he came over to my desk. It was in the morning, and everybody was getting ready for the day. I was having my cigarette and my chocolate donut.
A breakfast of champions.
I didn’t know any better. At the time, that’s what I needed to start my day. Or at least that’s what I thought. So one day he came over and said, “You know, you ought to be eating apples and bananas and oranges instead of all this junk.” I said, “Oh yeah?” And then I took a long puff of my cigarette and blew it right into his face.
He didn’t even flinch.
Well of course not. He’s Jack LaLanne.
This was in the early 50s when smoking was still socially acceptable. You could smoke in hospitals.
Your doctor never said, “Hey, maybe all that nicotine isn’t the best idea?”
Never. Everybody smoked. But not Jack. So anyway, he kept flirting with me and I kept pushing back. But then I started going to his class at noon, and I realized he’s got a lot of say. It stuck with me. And then I’d go to the tapings of his show, and his brother would come on and say, “You know it takes a whole year to get the nicotine out of your lungs.” Jack would bring in pictures of black lungs and pink lungs and I thought, Oh crap, I’m just 27 years old. I don’t want to be old before I’m old. So that’s when I stopped smoking.
No more blowing cigarette smoke at saucy on-air talent?
Nope. After I gave up the cigarettes, the blues were bluer and the greens were greener, and I realized I felt better. I started boiling everything I used to fry. He was making sense every day, so I started changing my eating habits entirely.
How many times did he ask you out before you finally said yes?
Well, the story I like to tell people is, we danced at a company party and we danced every day since. But actually, I made him work a little harder for it. [Laughs.]
Of course you did.
He kept asking me out and I wouldn’t go out with him. But finally I relented, and agreed to have dinner with him.
Why did you keep saying no?
I was a busy woman! He’d ask me to lunch but I didn’t have time for lunch. Then he’d ask me to go out for dinner, and that just seemed more complicated. I had two kids, and I had to get home to them. But he wouldn’t give up, and he was so sweet about it, so I decided to give him a chance. One night we did go out to dinner. I had danced with him before, at a company party, and I thought, Well, he dances well, so he’s got that going for him. As we’re waiting for our table at dinner, we order some cocktails and he and I are chatting, and I’m like, “My gosh, he’s got a brain, too! He’s so smart.” [Laughs.]
What did you talk about?
Everything. He wasn’t just some muscle man who only knew about barbells. In those days, the movies made it seem like the guys who worked out, the musclemen, they didn’t have much going on upstairs. When I got to talking to Jack, it really surprised me. I had no idea he had such a brain. After dinner we went next door, to another bar, and the piano player is like, “Hey Jack, come over here and sing a song.” He evidently used to sing songs around town. He starts singing this beautiful Nat King Cole song. [Sings] “Because you’re mine/ The brightest star I see/ Looks down, my love, and envies me” And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, he sings too!”
You got the whole package.
The whole package! Brains, brawn, and he sings.
You hit the jackpot.
A lot of people only noticed the muscles. They’d say to me, “Oh Elaine, he’s so handsome, look at that body.” I’d tell them, “Honey, I didn’t fall in love with his brawn, I fell in love with his brain.” Although the brawn was nice. [Laughs]
After that night, were you inseparable?
It took a little longer than that. I made him work for it. [Laughs.] We started dating two times a week, and after six months, I finally invited him down to my house. So that’s how I met Jack LaLanne. [Laughs.] Aren’t you sorry you asked me that question?
No, that was a great story.
And that’s the short version.
How did it evolve from a romantic relationship to a business partnership?
How do you mean?
How did you end up on the show with him?
Did you ever think, Maybe we should change the name to The Jack & Elaine LaLanne Show?
Oh goodness no. Never. Not once.
You didn’t want to share the spotlight?
I have no ego, honey. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been comfortable with myself, so I never needed to be the center of attention. I like myself. I like who I am, I like how I’ve been brought up. Too many people don’t like themselves. You have to believe in yourself; you have to believe you can do it. That’s what Jack did, he believed in himself.
Did he bounce ideas off you?
All the time. We’d go out to dinner and I’d get my pen and pencil, and I’d write down all of these ideas. They’d just come pouring out of him, and I’d try to get them all. That’s how we came up with the Glamor Stretcher. It was like the resistance bands that are so popular today. He came up with that in the ’50s.
Jack was ahead of his time in so many things.
So many things. Like our instant breakfast. We were the first one to have instant breakfast. We’d throw some wheat germ and nonfat milk and yogurt into a blender and make a meal you could drink. Everybody thought we were nuts. We took our idea to a biochemist and produced and sold the product under Instant Breakfast. Jack invented the first leg extension machine. He invented the first pulley machines that pulled up weights. Jack never patented those machines but later did patent the Fitness King in 1965.
He just wasn’t interested. He was always looking forward, trying to find the next idea. He said, “I’m a now guy. I don’t live in the past, I only live in the now.” I was the only one who wrote anything down. He didn’t save anything.
He probably missed out on a lot of profits.
Oh sure. But he never worried about money. He always used to say, “When I get my back up against the wall, I’ll come up with something.” [Laughs]
It seems like everything that came out of his mouth could’ve been on a motivational poster.
Oh yeah. I remember he used to say, “Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow isn’t here yet. The most important moment of your life is right now.” If I heard that once, I heard it thousands of times. I remember once I told him, “I need an idea for a book. It’s a walking book.” That’s all I told him. And then a minute later, he said, “I’ve got it! Call it Dynastride.” I thought he was kidding. He said, “You move your arms and you’re striding, and you’ve got to be dynamite.” I took off with that idea and wrote a whole book around it.
He had some amazing ideas.
He had ideas coming out of his ideas, I’ll tell you that.
And some of them were … maybe not so great.
What? Like what?
Well, like the Twister. Remember that one?
Oh yeah. It was great. Inspired by that Chubby Checker song, I think.
You never told him, “Jack, I don’t know about this one.”
Are you sure?
I never said no. Never. ’Cause I liked everything he came up with.
Even the Twister?
I loved it!
Come on, Elaine. Swiveling your hips on a piece of plastic?
Absolutely. I thought it was amazing.
Amazing might be a strong word.
Hey, at least it got people moving. That’s all we were trying to do. If they’re moving their bodies, we’re doing something.
That’s a good point. Okay, I stand corrected.
I tended to believe Jack because he was right about things that most people ended up being wrong about.
But only in hindsight. You didn’t always know it at the time.
Well sure. But I believed in Jack.
Were there ever moments of doubt? Jack said in an interview once that “The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids; that women would look like men.” Did that ever worry you?
Oh yeah, sure. Back in those days, the medical wisdom was that you shouldn’t lift weights. It’d make you musclebound, and not in a good way. The coaches wouldn’t let their athletes work out at Jack’s gym, so he gave them a key so they could sneak in early in the morning. Jackie Jensen, the baseball player, have you heard of him?
Oh yeah. Played for the Boston Red Sox in the ’50s.
He worked out at Jack’s gym at 5 in the morning. He probably would have been kicked off the team if his coach had found out. He became a very famous, won all sorts of awards. But even with all his abilities, he would’ve been fired if they learned he’d been working out with weights. Jack always used to say, these people know nothing about exercise, just like they know nothing about nutrition because they haven’t been trained in it.
These people meaning doctors?
Yeah. Weights and nutrition were not in their curriculum. Jack believed that nutrition and exercise went hand in hand. Exercise is king and nutrition is queen, and when you put them together you’ve got a kingdom.
But what if he was wrong?
Well yeah, we know that now. But when Jack was championing these ideas, he was in the minority. You’re in a position where you have to decide, do I believe my husband, who I love and trust, or do I believe literally the entire medical community?
I picked Jack.
That was a huge leap of faith.
Not in my head. It just made sense, what Jack was saying. I judged it on what made sense, not who had the bigger degree on the wall. I was brought up to go through life without blinders on. I don’t believe something just because you say it’s true, you’ve got to prove to me. And Jack proved it, over and over again.
You and Jack dated for six years before you got engaged. Why’d you wait so long?
We were busy. That’s the only reason, honey. We just never got around to it. We finally realized we had to do it when we bought a house together in Hollywood and were going to live together. We never lived together before we got married. So we bought the house and my kids, who were out east, were coming to live in the house with us. So Jack said, “We better get married.” So we hopped over to Las Vegas and got married.
No big ceremony?
No. We just went over, got married, and came back the same day. My kids were coming back from Minneapolis the next day and we wanted to be married before they showed up.
Shouldn’t a wedding for the king and queen of fitness be a big deal? I imagine you two dressed in your jumpsuits from the show, doing jumping jacks down the aisle. And there’s no wedding cake, just a big bowl filled with fruits and veggies.
Oh gosh no. What do I need a big wedding for? I’m not one of those people who needs all that stuff. I liked the business we were doing, and our lives. That was my excitement, building and building and building. What do I need a wedding for?
Did you at least have a few guests?
Nope. It was just Jack and I and the justice of the peace. I remember he said to Jack, “Aren’t you at least going to buy her a flower?” [Laughs.]
You and Jack were married for 52 years. What’s your secret?
You have to be friends. Jack and I were friends. We shared the same ideas and the same passions. He didn’t like dissension, and I don’t like dissension. I want everybody to be happy, and so did he.
Did you exercise together?
Every morning, he’d roll out of bed and I’d roll over. [Laughs.] When we lived in Hollywood, he always got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to exercise. Well honey, I’m not getting up at 4 in the morning. I can still hear the clanking of the barbells downstairs. But when we moved up here to central California, he got up a little later, at 5 o’clock. So I’d join him sometimes.
Was he easy to work out with, or was he like a backseat driver, always giving unsolicited advice?
He couldn’t help himself. He loved to be an instructor. A lot of times, we’d do interviews in New York, and they’d bring us to a gym for a nice backdrop. Jack would end up getting distracted by somebody doing an exercise wrong. We’d be like, “Jack, Jack, you’ve got to come over here, we’re doing an interview.” But he didn’t like to see anybody doing an exercise incorrectly. He was like, “They’re not getting the full benefit of their workout.” That was always more important to him than trying to get in front of the camera.
He had a strict two meals a day and no snacks rule. Did you follow that rule as well?
We never snacked. Never, ever, ever snacked. And never more than two meals a day for either of us later in life. A lot of it came from us traveling so much, because we wouldn’t have time for three meals. It became a ritual.
You must’ve had temptations though, right?
Not even a tiny little snack when Jack wasn’t looking?
A piece of birthday cake?
When I turned 80, I announced to him, “Jack, I’m 80 years old and I want cake. If somebody has a birthday party, and they want me to have a piece of cake, I’m going to have a piece of cake. If I die, I die.” He laughed, and said, “It’s not what you do some of the time that counts, it’s what you do most of the time.”
So you had some cake and it didn’t kill you.
It didn’t. I’m 91 now, going on 92, and I’m not dead yet. There are more dangerous ways to celebrate a birthday than cake. I could’ve been out there swimming from Alcatraz with handcuffs on my wrists.
You weren’t going to follow Jack’s lead there?
It was scary enough just watching him do it.
Did you ever say to him, “No, that’s too dangerous, stop taking stupid risks, I don’t want to lose you this way?”
I may have thought it, but I’d never say that stuff out loud. It wouldn’t have done any good. When Jack wanted to do something, he did it. I remember when he told me about his plans for his 60th birthday swim, that he wanted to pull a boat from Alcatraz with both his arms, wrists, and feet tied, I said, “What? You’re nuts!” But he didn’t even want to discuss it. He just told me to go out and get a big bag of ice and meet him in the bathroom.
To do what? Dump the ice on him?
That’s right, while he laid in the bathtub. It was the middle of summer, and it was the only way he could replicate the freezing temperatures of the San Francisco Bay. So I’d pour the ice in the tub and he’d sit there for hours, shivering.
Would he at least wear a wetsuit?
Never for the Alcatraz swims—only for the underwater swims. He didn’t even want to wear one for the Long Beach swims. I don’t know why, he just wasn’t going to do it. I’d talk to him when he was sitting in the ice, cause I was terrified he was going to give himself hypothermia, and we’d talk about how he was going to pull this off. He’d tell me, “I’ve already seen myself coming out of the water. I know I can do it.”
Was he trying to prove something to himself?
To himself and the world. He did his first one when he was 40, swimming the length of the Golden Gate Bridge while carrying a hundred pounds of air tanks on his back. In those days, when you turned 40 you were over the hill. That’s what they said. “You’re getting old.” He wanted people to know, just because you’re 40 or 60 or whatever, that doesn’t mean you give up. There was no such thing as over the hill.
There is such a thing as drowning, though.
[Laughs] Oh yes. And I reminded him of that. At every birthday swim, I wore my lucky hat.
Were you superstitious?
Not really. But it was the only thing I could control. Jack was going out there whether I wanted him to or not. The hat worked the first time; he didn’t drown. So I thought, might as well wear it again.
Did he ever have a close call where you thought he might not make it?
One of the times he swam the Golden Gate channel. The current was stronger than he’d been expecting, and what was supposed to be a one-mile swim ended up being more like six miles. I think he was close to being swept out to sea. When he finally came out, he was shaking so hard. I’d never seen him like that before.
All men tend to act like babies when they get sick. What about Jack? When he had a flu bug or cold, did he complain like he was on death’s door?
I never really saw him with a cold, to tell you the truth. If he did, he certainly hid it well.
So he wasn’t a complainer in general?
I never saw him complain about anything. Not even when people took advantage of them. He was never a whiner, and he never blamed anybody but himself for anything.
You don’t see a lot of that anymore.
You really don’t. Today, everybody is a blamer. They didn’t do anything wrong; it’s always somebody else’s fault.
Were you and Jack different back then, or was it a different time?
I think it was a different time. It wasn’t just Jack and me. In our day, people took responsibility. But nobody wants to take responsibility anymore.
Why does Jack’s legacy endure? There have been a lot of fitness icons since he came along, but he’s still the high water mark. Why is that?
Because he walked the walk and talked the talk. I know that doesn’t sound like it should be a big deal, but I think it’s rare. Jack just didn’t just believe the things he was saying, they were how he lived his life. I know this because I lived with him. I spent every day with him. It was hard sometimes, but he believed it. With every bone in his body, he believed this was a better way to live. I think that’s why people took him so seriously, because he wasn’t just selling an image. What he preached was how he lived.
He liked to say, “I can’t die. It would ruin my image.”
That’s right. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was his sense of humor, he loved that.
Do you feel the same way?
Do I not want to die? [Laughs] Of course I don’t.
What about retirement?
Oh gosh, no. I’d die if I retired. What would I do?
Take a vacation? Do nothing for a little bit?
That sounds horrible.
A lot of people would love to do nothing.
I don’t understand how they do it. I have so much on my plate, so much that I want to do. I just went to Las Vegas to get an Icon Award, at the Action on Film Festival. When you get into your 90s, you get all sorts of awards. People just give you awards for being alive. You get free stuff. [Laughs.] Why would I not show up for that?
Is there anything left you want to accomplish, anything on your life to-do list that you haven’t done yet?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve got so many goals I don’t think I’m going to make. I want to learn tap-dancing, but I never got around to it. I want to learn to speak French fluently, but at this point I know I’ll never get there. Those things won’t be in this lifetime. Those are the goals I’ve wanted to do. But life goes on too fast.
And you’re okay with that?
I’ve been very fortunate, honey. I can’t complain. There’s always more. If I had more time, there’s always more. But you need to be happy with what you’ve had time for. I’ve been lucky beyond my wildest dreams.
Do you have a proudest moment from your career? Something that made you feel like you made a difference?
When people come up to me and say, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.” I’ve had that happen, and it always catches me by surprise. I’ll be at some convention, and these young girls, and sometimes some young men, they’ll come up to me and say, “You changed my life.” I don’t know what to say to that. It makes me feel good, even if I can’t explain it. If I made an impact on somebody’s life, even in a small way, that’s enough. That’s all I need. I don’t even need that, but it’s nice to know.
I’ve heard rumors that Jack was exercising the day before he died. Is that true?
Well, he always did something.
He was true to himself until the very end.
He really was. When he was passing away, I said, “Do you want to shave?” He didn’t need to, but he always wanted to exercise, and this was a way of exercising his mouth.
That’s so sweet. You called it exercising?
We did. I said, “Let’s exercise your mouth.” So we moved his face from side to side. After I shaved him, I could tell he was tired. I’d known him too long, I could see that something was different. I told him, “You don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to stick around any longer.” He smiled at me, and then he was gone.
Not even a minute later. I let him know it was okay for him to go.
He was such a constant part of your life. Does it sometimes feel like he’s still here?
All the time. [Long pause.] All the time, honey.
How do you remember him?
I’m sitting here, looking at all the pictures of him in my office. And then there’s one right in front of me. He signed it, “To the greatest woman who ever lived, my wife Elaine, I can’t live without her” and he signed it “Me.” I’ve got so many notes. He used to write me notes and leave them all over the house, on scraps of paper. I’m still finding them. Even all these years, long after he’s gone, I’m still finding them. It’s like he never left.