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The Diet Martyr

In life, Dr. Robert Atkins was a renegade, doing battle with the medical Establishment over his famous low-carb diet. In death, he’s the focus of a holy war, pitting ascetic versus libertine and disciple versus disciple. The schisms in the Church of Atkins.


Robert Atkins  

Veronica Atkins is selling the apartment on Sutton Place South, though everything is still there: the reasonably priced art her husband loved to buy, and his pills, rows of nutritional supplements—he gobbled 50 a day. She lives in Palm Beach now in grief, and sometimes in steely anger. The grief is over her late husband, the famous diet doctor Robert C. Atkins, and so is the anger. The money has come since his death—hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of Atkins Nutritionals—along with vindication. Atkins’s low-carb approach to eating has reshaped food markets. T.G.I. Friday’s now promotes low-carb items—like chicken wings—with an Atkins seal of approval. Subway has an Atkins line. There is even a low-carb beer, Michelob Ultra. Most of it has come too late. Atkins has been gone almost a year, dead at 72 after a fall on a sidewalk. “It’s tragic,” Veronica says one morning over coffee, “that Bobby’s not here for this.”

They met late in life—he was 57 when they married. Everywhere he went—speeches, conferences, even to his nightly radio show—she was there. “I am depressed now,” she says. But then, worse, is that his detractors won’t let him be. “They vilify him,” she says in her slight Russian accent. To her, it sometimes seems as if his death has only intensified the attack.

Her Bobby had long been embattled, almost from the moment he published Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution in 1972. They still line up to take shots at him. “Nasty people,” she fumes. They say Bobby was fat—even the mayor made that crack. They intimate that he died from heart disease. They say his diet is harmful. “Why won’t they let him alone,” she wonders, “and let me grieve in peace?”

In death, Atkins has seemed a diet martyr, more successful and more controversial than ever. Detractors dispute his message, argue over his death, its cause, its meaning. You might lose weight on Atkins, they concede, but you’d harm your health, just, they allege, as he did. For doctors who’d long opposed him, the success of meat-mad Atkins was a grim sign. “It’s the world gone insane,” says Dr. John McDougall, who once had a best-selling diet book of his own—vegetarian, of course.

But it isn’t only his detractors who won’t let him be. Atkins’s own disciples skirmish, each trying to claim his mantle. At least four former Atkins employees have opened practices, competing to fulfill, as one said, “Atkins’s dream.” These loyalists continue to parse the master’s words, reinterpret his meaning. “I’m moving to where Atkins would have gone,” says Dr. Fred Pescatore, a former Atkins employee who will, in May, publish The Hamptons Diet. (“They all think they know better,” says Veronica.)

Atkins himself might have savored the attention his corpse is getting. He was, in life, palpably hungry for it—and it came almost too late for him to enjoy. Almost.

‘Should I invite Dr. Atkins?” Samantha asked her dozen guests.

It was July 2002, a Saturday, shortly before lunch at Pauline Pitt’s summer place in Southampton, the rental with the great garden. Pauline had already directed that the buffet be set up by the pool when her daughter, Samantha Boardman, had the cheerful inspiration. Why not invite Dr. Atkins? Wouldn’t that be perfect!

“Everyone shrieked with delight,” recalls Samantha.

“Oh, of course, he’s the best thing,” said Pitt, heir to banking fortunes. “Everybody wants him around.”

He was pugnacious, open-minded, "a showman,” says his wife—he did a stint as a Catskills comic waiter.

This was the glorious summer that a piece by Gary Taubes in The New York Times Magazine asserted that low-fat diets had failed, and provided scientific evidence, of the kind Atkins himself never did, for why. The article didn’t claim that Atkins was right, but said he might be, and that was enough. The American Medical Association and the American Heart Association had got it wrong. Instead, the article said, this cocky diet doc—who’d always seemed a sideshow to real obesity research—might just be on the money.

Soon, Atkins would be invited in from the official cold he’d been relegated to for most of his career. The American Heart Association, no less, invited him to speak. Barbara Walters named him one of the ten most fascinating people of the year. His book would sell a breathtaking million more copies. Atkins had to think that he might get another shot at Oprah, his ardent desire. (Atkins, who’d managed just one appearance, constantly bugged friends, “Don’t you know anybody at Oprah?”) Atkins, of course, still had one serious worry—a nagging heart condition. Three months earlier, he’d been at breakfast when his heart stopped—one of his employees revived him, giving him mouth-to-mouth. Still, heart be damned, at the hospital Atkins ordered bacon and eggs and declared he had diseases to cure. “I think I can wipe out diabetes,” he said.

And why not? Optimism was his strong suit. “He always felt infallible,” says one friend. Plus, suddenly, this aging, beleaguered doctor with the second chin (which he sometimes hid behind a cupped hand) seemed fascinating, just as Barbara Walters had said. That summer, everyone wanted him at dinner. Even high society.

Atkins owned a sweeping double-towered brick house on the wrong side of Southampton, and had never been part of the fancier Hamptons set. “Under the radar,” said one social monitor. In fact, when one Hamptons socialite was considering a job with the diet doctor, a friend responded, “Oh, I thought he was dead.” The obese might drive in from Ohio, consign their hipless waists to his care. In fancier circles, Atkins seemed a relic. Said one socialite who got a glimpse of his house, “So late-seventies.”

And yet that season, Samantha seemed just one of the attractive young socialites happy to be seen with the great Dr. Atkins. She’d get him to dinner at Swifty’s with Dr. Pat Wexler, a Botox pioneer, and Lou Gerstner Jr., former head of IBM. She must have seen him half a dozen times. Boardman, then studying to be a psychiatrist, was even considering going to work for him, perhaps run his practice. And so, she thought, wouldn’t it be just perfect if on a sunny Hamptons weekend Dr. Atkins would stop by for a buffet lunch by the pool? He showed up in slacks, which didn’t matter, even if most everyone was in bathing suits or sarongs. The real panic was, Oh, my goodness, the buffet.

“It was like having a guru around,” said Pitt in a panic. The grilled salmon and grilled chicken—those were okay. But hide the Tate’s carrot cake and the brownies. Atkins, in any case, had the peaches, and then brought out a few of his Atkins dessert bars, which he cut into pieces.

Of course, at lunch Atkins did nothing but talk about the diet. “Just give him the chance,” joked Veronica. He seldom talked about anything else. At the Pitts’, every question was directed at him. “Can I eat this?” “Can I have wine?” “Did you, after all these years, have a gratifying feeling of I told you so?”

“I’ve had that feeling all along,” said Atkins.

Just nine months later, Atkins would be dead, his time of triumph cut short. His old foes would resurface. They’d always been necessary enemies. Now, as if they needed him one more time, they called him back to battle, this time posthumously.

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