Chasing Joe Pilates

// By Stacey Redfield

The life history of Joseph Pilates appears to be covered, to some extent, in just about every Pilates book, workshop, conference and training program.

The narrative that’s passed on about his life generally goes like this: He was born in Germany, and it is rumored that he was a sickly kid who became obsessed with developing his own physical strength. He first wife died in Germany when he was 30, and somehow he made his way to England—Joe stated that he was touring with a circus troupe. When WWI broke out, he was interned on Britain’s Isle of Man because of his German citizenship. It is a common belief in the Pilates community that the rehabilitative work he did with his fellow detainees became part of the foundation of what we know today as Pilates. (Unfortunately, records from the Isle of Man were destroyed in the war and I haven’t found any official account of his work there.) Pilates immigrated to the United States in 1926, and in doing so, made the acquaintance of Anna Clara Zuener, whom we all know as Clara, and with whom he remained until his death in 1967. After arriving in the States, he opened the New York City studio in which he taught for the duration of his life, though exactly when he opened it is unclear.

There is also plenty of lore about Joe Pilates. For instance, there are many stories about Joe’s love of beer, women and cigars. Though there’s reason to believe them, one might wonder, for example, just how far-fetched is the story of Joe running through the streets of New York in the middle of winter wearing just a pair of skimpy white trunks and his gym shoes?

Major facets of the life histories of Joe and Clara have yet to be uncovered. For instance, why exactly did Joe come to America? He came after WWI, and Germany was experiencing a severe economic depression and political turmoil, which could be reason enough. There are several additional answers to that question depending on what resources you consult. For example, one article published by People in 1959 (before it became a stand-alone magazine in the ‘70s) stated he came at the urging of famous boxing promoter and publisher Nat Fleischer. I question how true that is based on the evidence presented later in this article, however I do believe that Fleischer gave Joe his start in this country. Since the majority of newspaper and magazine articles on Joe’s studio that I’ve found were written in the 1950s, it leaves much speculation about the first 30 years of his career here.

There is even discrepancy in the story of how Joe and Clara actually met. I’ve heard two versions of the story: that they met on the boat to America and that they met on the boat from Ellis Island. The ride from Ellis Island is very short, so that would have been one heck of a romance!

A few years ago, I undertook a research project to try to see what I could discover to answer some of these questions. I’m somewhat of a history buff, and I have always been fascinated with the collection of old photographs in the book The Joseph H. Pilates Archive Collection. I started spending my open studio hours looking up some of the pieces of history I saw pictured in the book. My little project became an obsession when a random Internet search uncovered an original copy of Return to Life Through Contrology.

I became a collector, searching archives for original articles that appeared in newspapers and magazines during Joe’s lifetime. I spent 10 years tracking down a hard-to-find Sports Illustrated article from the 1960s, because there were East and West Coast editions. I have vintage articles from The New York Times and the New York Daily News and photos from Chuck Rapoport, who photographed him in 1962, five years before his death. I regularly show the video footage of Joe Pilates compiled by Mary Bowen to my clients. My research has taken me to the New York Public Library where I spent days reading old newspapers from the 1920s to the 1960s. I have been in touch with historians from the Isle of Man where Joe was interned during WWI, as well as the Smithsonian Institution, and with dozens of collectors, authors and any living person that could tell me about life in the 1920s. I have also read the original patent for the Reformer, the Wunda Chair—and yes, a catapult. (I am not quite sure where he was going with that!)

Each piece of information led me to more, which eventually led me to the National Archives where records for every legal immigrant that comes to our country are stored, including official records for Joe Pilates and Clara Zuener. There, I uncovered several documents that might interest others who have wondered about Joe’s life. I was able to uncover passenger ship manifests and official naturalization documents for both Joseph H. Pilates and Anna Clara Zuener. I also came across Joe’s draft registration card from World War II. Here’s what I’ve learned from these documents. (Click on each thumbnail document to open a larger PDF version.)


Joseph Pilates in the Westphalia manifest Clara Zuener in the Westphalia manifestPassenger manifests showed both Joe and Clara (then known as Anna Clara Zuener) crossed on a ship called the Westphalia, which left from Hamburg, Germany on April 14, 1926,and arrived in New York on April 27. They both traveled in second class and arrived in New York with Joe declaring $500 in cash—a large sum at the time—and Clara declaring $35. Joe was going to stay with his uncle, William Meyer, who resided at 112 E. 59th Street in Manhattan, Clara was heading to Brooklyn to stay with her uncle Louis Mitschang who resided at 480 Harman Street.

Ballin manifestIt turns out that Joe had also crossed previously on a ship called the Albert Ballin on Oct. 6, 1925, returning to Germany 60 days later. The second page of the manifest showed that Joe travelled in first class and declared $800 in cash. It also declared his final destination to be 22 Broadway in New York City, where the offices of trademark attorneys Marks and Clerk were located. Marks and Clerk were the very same attorneys who filed patents for the Universal Reformer in Berlin, Aug. 27, 1924, and in the United States, Aug. 24, 1925.

Joe’s declared calling or occupation on both passenger manifests was “teacher.” Clara had declared her calling or occupation was “head of household.” Both declared themselves “S” for single, and both stated that they spoke and wrote in English.

Joseph Pilates petition for U.S. citizenshipJoseph Hubertus Pilates declared his intention for U.S. citizenship on June 20, 1929. It was granted on Feb. 7, 1935, by the Southern District court of New York. According to his sworn affidavit, he was born on Dec. 9, 1883, in MuenchenGladbach, Germany, which is located about 30 minutes west of Dusseldorf. He declared himself a widower, stating that his first wife, Maria died in Germany in 1913. They had one daughter named Helene (known as Leni) on November  30, 1906. She was born in Gelsenkirchen and resided in Germany. According to passenger ship records, Leni came to America to visit her father in 1939.

According to the affidavit for citizenship, Joe also declared a second wife Elfriede, whom he married October 10, 1919 in Westphalia, Germany, which was shortly after his release from the Isle of Man. Joe declared on the document that they were married until her death in 1931. She died in Dusseldorf,  Germany.

There were two sworn witnesses to Joe’s naturalization petition: Nathaniel Fleischer, a well known publisher and promoter in the boxing world, and Charles Trier, who listed his occupation as a producer of operas and plays. It would be unfair to speculate any connection between Charles and Pilates elder Carola Trier until additional research can be done. Both witnesses stated that their continued association with Pilates began February 1, 1930. Joe Pilates declared his address as 939 8th Avenue and his occupation as Director of Physical Culture.

Clara’s Petition for CitizenshipAnna Clara Zuener declared her intention for citizenship on Nov. 28, 1933. It was granted on Jan. 14, 1937. According to her sworn affidavit, Clara declared she was “not married.” Clara was born on Feb. 6, 1883, in Chemnitz, Germany. Her last declared residence before leaving for America was in Kaiserslautern, Germany. She did not list any previous marriages or children. Clara also stated that she resided at 939 8th Avenue in New York and her occupation was the Assistant Director of Physical Culture.Clara’s two sworn witnesses were Clarence Busch, whose occupation was declared as an artist; and Ruth Coe, whose occupation was declared as a musician. They both stated a continuous association with Clara since Jan. 1, 1932.

Cuba trip manifestIt is likely that Joe and Clara met on the boat on their way to America. They may have even gone their separate ways initially, but by 1937 they both were documented as residing in the same 8th Avenue location. After conducting searches in New York State and nationwide, I was unable to find an official certificate filed to support a legal marriage between them. I did find a passenger ship manifest that showed Joe travelled to Cuba on June 18, 1938, and declared his marital status as single.

With the declaration of World War II in 1942, compulsory military laws required Joe to register for the draft at the age of 59. At this point, Joe owned his 8th Avenue Pilates studio. The Van Dyck studio building where both Joe and Clara worked and resided was well known as an artist’s colony. His draft card also contained the following information: Race: white, Eyes: blue, Hair: gray, Complexion: ruddy. Clara—no last name was listed—was credited as the “person who will always know your address.”

Stacey Redfield is the owner of Physical Methods, a Pilates equipment studio located in Bethlehem, Pa. She is in the process of establishing an archive of Physical Culture.

What Pilates is and what Pilates isn’t Part 1

The History of Pilates

The Benefit of Pilates

Is Pilates right for me?

Pilates is not right for you if…

Athletes and Celebrities who do Pilates

All about Spinal Health

Some Pilates Anatomy

Pilates on Elmwood

About dkpilates

Pilates Instructor, Yoga Instructor, Personnel trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Don teaches Contemporary and the Authentic forms of Pilates, in the later 90's, Don began his study of Yoga. His study of Yoga includes the Hatha, Iyengar, Bikram, and Astanga disciplines. His other areas of interest in fitness include Martial Arts, Spin, Boot Camp Training, and Weight Training. Don has extensive training and certifications from AFFA, IDEA, MadDog, B-Fit and Polestar. Don Continues his of Pilates education with Michelle Larson in Santa Fe New Mexico. His personal philosophy related to fitness is to aid students in a personalized balance of strength, stamina and flexibility. He is dedicated to design a program specifically for his students independent of the season of their life to create functional movement and help them reach their fitness goals.
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