Joseph Pilates met 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 relieve her pain. Once in New York they opened their gym at 939 Eighth Avenue, in the same building that housed rehearsal studios for George Ballanchine’s New York City Ballet.
Joseph Pilates never received the level of recognition that his brilliant work clearly deserved, and even today it is difficult to wade through the myth and find the true story. This is partially true because most of what we know about his life has come 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 have reviewed several websites and each gives a different year of death (1966, 1967, 1968) as well as a different cause of death (he died in a fire, as a result of a fire, as a result of smoke inhalation from a fire etc.). According to his New York Times obituary Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at Lenox Hill Hospital, but the Times never mentions cause of death. And there was indeed a fire on the same floor as his studio in 1965 where Joe suffered a bad leg scrape 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…of advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years…” Apparently all the good breathing in the world could not keep his scarred lungs (recall that he was rheumatic and asthmatic as a child) from feeling the effects of smoking. As Joe left no will, Clara took over and ran the studio until she retired in the mid-70s. This is where the story gets a bit more interesting, as this when the different schools of Pilates were formed.