"Whiteman's Burden"

Whiteman’s Burden title page and illustration.

The diets of contemporary celebrities are often the subject of much conjecture, with comments coming from “a source close to the star” and color photos featuring the “before and after” printed in countless magazines for sale in the supermarket. In the early 1930s, Paul Whiteman’s 100-pound weight loss made him the focus of such attention.

Whiteman’s weight loss was prompted not by public scrutiny or a desire for rolls in films–Whiteman had already attained professional success–he lost the weight at the behest of Margaret Livingston, who refused to marry him unless he lost 50 pounds.

Margaret Livingston Whiteman and Paul Whiteman.

Instead of quotes coming from anonymous sources, Whiteman’s fans were treated to an explanation straight from the family. After receiving upwards of 40,000 requests for the recipes that Whiteman followed to a slimmer waistline, Margaret Livingston Whiteman (with collaborator Isabel Leighton) wrote the story of Whiteman’s weight loss (which was also somewhat the story of their courtship).

Whiteman’s Burden book jacket.

She compiled the menus she wrote for him and letters the two of them had written to one another in the early phases of the diet, and published the completed work as Whiteman’s Burden

The menus Livingston Whiteman created stressed the importance of vegetables, and the limiting of portion sizes. She encouraged Whiteman to eat salads dressed with Nujol Oil French Dressing (abbreviated in the book as NOFD).

A menu featuring Margaret Livingston Whiteman’s Nujol Oil French Dressing (NOFD)

In the recipes section of the book, Livingston Whiteman refers to the dressing as “Paul Whiteman (non-fattening) Salad Dressing.” The dressing contains one cup of Nujol oil, also known as Mineral oil, which is a laxative used to treat constipation.

For breakfast, Whiteman often had cereal or fruit. Occasionally, there were six strips of bacon on the side. For lunch and dinner, Whiteman ate soups–cream of asparagus or cream of carrot–along with main dishes such as fried chicken, steak with mushrooms, lamb chops, and roast beef. Whiteman’s dessert options seem more limited. He might have had Jell-o, tapioca pudding, or orange ice. Only rarely could he indulge in a slice of chocolate cake.

In the form letter sent to inquiring fans, Whiteman’s secretary writes that a copy of the book “can be referred to in any public library.” At this point in the project, I have not found documentation to support this claim, which may have been hyperbole or a simple suggestion that the letter writer check their local library. Today, however, the book is available in fewer than 30 libraries across the country, and copies are most likely housed (as is our copy here at Williams) within the institutions’ special collections departments.

Written by Laurel Rhame, Project Archivist