Joseph Pilates puts his future wife Clara, a kindergarten teacher, on the boat to Ellis Island. The story goes that Clara suffered from arthritis and Joe worked with her to increase her mobility and ease her pain. Once in New York they opened their gym at 939 Eighth Avenue, in the same building that housed George Ballanchine’s rehearsal studios for George Ballanchine’s New York City Ballet.

Joseph Pilates never received the level of recognition that his brilliant work clearly deserved, and even today it is difficult to break through the myth and find the true story. This is partially true because most of what we know about his life comes from students of students of his students.

While many facts about Joe’s life are verifiable, sources still disagree on the basics. In fact, I have reviewed several websites and each one gives a different year of death (1966, 1967, 1968), as well as a different cause of death (died in a fire, as a result of a fire, as a result of smoke inhalation of a fire, etc.). According to your New York Times obituary Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at Lenox Hill Hospital, but the Times he never mentions the cause of death. And indeed there was a fire on the same floor as his studio in 1965, where Joe suffered a scratch on his leg while inspecting the studio.

According to Pilates elder Mary Bowen, “To set the record straight, no, Joe did not die in a fire. He died two years later … of advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years …” Apparently, all good things breathe the world could not prevent his scarred lungs (remember he was rheumatic and asthmatic as a child) from feeling the effects of smoking. Since Joe did not leave a will, Clara took over and ran the studio until he retired in the mid-1970s. This is where the story gets a little more interesting, like when the different Pilates schools were formed.


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