Abbye Stockton of Muscle Beach fame dies at 88 in California

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AP on Bakersfield Californian 6/30/06 AP

Abbye Stockton, a pioneer of female weightlifters who helped establish the popularity of Muscle Beach and inspired women through columns in a fitness magazine, has died. She was 88.

Stockton, known as Pudgy since she was a child, died Monday at her home of complications of Alzheimer's disease, according to daughter Laura Stockton.

"Her biggest contribution was that she was strong and muscular but also managed to maintain her femininity," her daughter said Friday. "She was very attractive, and she was also very concerned with helping others, to share what she had learned about being healthy and fit."

Born in Santa Monica, Stockton was a 19-year-old telephone operator in the late 1930s when she and future husband, Les, began frequenting the area just south of the Santa Monica Pier established for those devoted to "physical culture."

The couple, who married in 1941, performed various routines at Muscle Beach, including the "high press," in which she lifted a 100-pound barbell over her head while balancing atop her husband's hands.

"In those days, lifting weights was considered unfeminine," Stockton told Sports Illustrated Women in 2002. "People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn't be able to get pregnant. We just laughed because we knew they were wrong."

Stockton organized the first Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned weightlifting competition for women in 1947 and wrote a column in Strength and Health magazine from 1944 to 1954.

"When you look at Pudgy's life, you have to understand what a powerful symbol she was," said Jan Todd, a professor in the department of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Todd-McLean Physical Culture Collection.

"She was years ahead of other women in terms of interest in training with weights and using weights to create a figure that is really now our modern, ideal figure - muscular but not too muscular," Todd said.

A 5-foot-1, 115-pound blond, Stockton drew admiring stares and whistles on Muscle Beach. The two-piece bathing suits she wore added to her allure. Stockton also attracted the attention of newspaper and magazine photographers, appearing on the cover of more than 40 magazines.

"Pudgy was one of the greatest athletes I've ever known," fellow Muscle Beach alum Jack LaLanne told The Los Angeles Times. "She was a bodybuilder, a gymnast, an acrobat. She did everything. She was an exceptional human being."

After World War II, the Stocktons did occasional exhibition shows. In 1948, the Stocktons opened the Salon of Figure Development, a women's gym. Two years later, they opened the Stockton Studios, adjacent men's and women's gyms.

Les Stockton died in 2004. Besides her daughter, Stockton is survived by her brother, Dr. Thomas B. Eville.

A memorial service was pending.