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The Diet Martyr


He understood the consumers on a more personal level, too, and they returned the favor, treating him like a savior. He claimed to have seen 50,000 patients in his career; entire families came to him. Many sought him out as a last resort. They formed a loyal following and, sometimes, called his detractors “pharisees.” (Even the woman who’d had the bad reaction from ozone returned.)

Soon, friends were urging Atkins to give up his medical practice. Plus, his wife wanted him to think about retirement. “I nagged him,” she said. By 2002, he hired new management for Atkins Nutritionals. One of its early moves was to reduce the medical practice, eventually to just fourteen people.

Atkins hadn’t ever designated a successor. He’d talked to Samantha Boardman, the socialite who’d been so intrigued with him that summer, about coming onboard, perhaps taking over. He wanted her to start showing up, getting involved.

A couple of friends, interested in stabilizing him financially, offered to buy Atkins Nutritionals. Bob Meister, vice-chairman of Aon Corporation and a friend from Atkins’s bachelor days, put a deal together with Gary Winnick, former head of Global Crossing. “We were going to give him a valuation of $50 million and make him a partner,” says Meister. “Bob was never interested in pursuing money. It was frustrating to all of us.” (Plus, his businesspeople figured the company was worth more.)

Atkins didn’t want to give up his practice. Socially, Atkins could be shy; he didn’t have many close friends. But doctoring came easily. Even as a 72-year-old, he saw patients three times a week, usually arriving before 8—the other two days he often wandered into the office to read journals or, simply, to hang out. And the doctor was always in, even if he was out. “Wherever we went, people wanted advice and he’d give them consultations,” says Veronica.

Finally, in November 2002, his season of vindication, Atkins agreed to buy a place in Palm Beach. They’d have it renovated, ready to occupy in the spring. Meantime, on occasional visits, they stayed at Meister’s 11,000-square-foot estate with the Renoirs and Picassos on the wall—“Wow,” Atkins said, not overly impressed. Pricey art wasn’t the sign of status he sought.

For physicians like Barnard and McDougall, Atkins was as near to evil as you could get in a white coat.

On April 6, 2003, two days before his calamitous fall, Atkins boarded a private plane, a Gulfstream belonging to Steve Ross, chairman and CEO of the Related Companies, heading home from Palm Beach to New York. Meister, who’d arranged the ride with Ross, said Atkins had a lot on his mind. He’d just received amazing news. Goldman Sachs was part of a deal to offer $533 million for Atkins Nutritionals, of which Atkins owned 80 percent. Atkins was ready to sell. On the plane, the talk turned to patients. Ross’s two daughters had juvenile diabetes. He wondered if Atkins could help. Atkins assured them he could. He said to send them along.

Two days later, a Tuesday, Keith Berkowitz, an internist who’d worked at the Atkins Center for a couple of months, was on his way to work. At about 7:20 a.m., he saw a crowd hovering around a fallen figure on East 55th and Third. Pushing through, Berkowitz spotted Atkins. There was ice nearby. There’d been a late-winter storm that weekend. He was bleeding heavily from the back of his head. Berkowitz took the ambulance with Atkins, who soon lost consciousness.

Atkins would spend nine days at Cornell Medical Center in intensive care, swelling to 258 pounds as fluids were administered. Atkins had never been thin—“He disguised his weight under layers of clothing,” said Fischer. Still, he wasn’t fat. Meister had put him on the scale just a few days earlier, as part of a bet. He’d weighed under 200. Veronica, inconsolable, sat by his bedside. Unable to look at his bloated hands—“Like ham hocks,” she thought—she whispered in his ear, asking for a sign that he could hear. On the ninth day, she agreed to pull the life support, letting him die.

Atkins was quietly cremated. No autopsy had been performed, an omission that became important later.“I knew what he died of,” Veronica explained,“and also I wasn’t thinking clearly. Plus, the idea of having him cut up to bits and pieces . . . I felt then, I still feel, I have nothing to prove.” At his memorial service—tickets were advertised in the newspaper on a first-come-first-served basis—at an undisclosed location that turned out to be the 92nd Street Y, the theme was “To Dream the Impossible Dream.”

At the moment of his death, Atkins was perhaps the most famous diet doctor in history. And though this TV showman, this shouter, this exaggerator—even his loyal staff said so—seemed an unlikely figure to turn the nutrition world on its ear, that’s just what he seemed to have done. He’d outlasted Pritikin, bested McDougall, displaced Ornish. His opponents—was it possible?—seemed bereft without their best enemy.

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