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 the rehearsal studios of George Ballanchine’s New York City Ballet.

Joseph Pilates never received the level of recognition his brilliant work clearly deserved, and even today it is difficult to cut 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’ve checked several websites and each 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 from a fire, etc). According to your New York Times obituary Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at Lenox Hill Hospital, but the Times never mention 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… from advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years…” Apparently everything good breathes in the world he couldn’t prevent his scarred lungs (remember he was a rheumatic and asthmatic as a child) from feeling the effects of the cigarette. Since Joe left no will, Clara took over and ran the studio until she retired in the mid 70’s. This is where the story gets a bit more interesting as when the different schools of Pilates were formed.

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