Weissmuller, Peter John ("Johnny")

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WEISSMULLER, Peter John ("Johnny")

(b. 2 June 1904 in Freidorf, Austro-Hungarian Empire [now Romania]; d. 20 January 1984 in Acapulco, Mexico), champion swimmer who won five Olympic gold medals and fifty-two national championships and established sixty-seven world swimming records; he also popularized the film character Tarzan.

Weissmuller's parents were Peter Weissmuller, a former soldier, and Elizabeth Kersch Weissmuller, a homemaker. The family came to the United States in 1905 and headed to Windber, Pennsylvania, the home of a relative. In 1908, three years after Weissmuller's younger brother was born, the family moved to Chicago. Weissmuller's father worked as a construction laborer and saloon proprietor, and then apparently left town and his family. Weissmuller attended St. Michael's parochial school in Chicago from 1908 to 1915, and then Menier Public School from 1915 to 1917, before dropping out so he could work and help support the family.

Weissmuller learned to swim around age twelve on the Chicago side of Lake Michigan at Fullerton Beach and at Stanton Park pool; in the winter he swam at the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). A swimming friend introduced him to William "Big Bill" Bachrach, a coach with the Illinois Athletic Club (IAC), who recognized Weissmuller's potential immediately and offered him an IAC membership.

Weissmuller's first competition was the National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships in Duluth, Minnesota on 6 August 1921, where he won the 50-yard freestyle. Thus began his streak of breaking world records. By early April 1922 Weissmuller had set seventeen new world records, and the New York Times wrote of this "remarkable" youth able "to propel himself through the water" so that "almost every time he plunges headlong an old record passes into oblivion." About the same time, Weissmuller helped the IAC establish four relay records. The press kept reporting on the IAC's "young aquatic marvel" and spoke of Weissmuller as one of the great "natators," "watermen," or "mermen" (other terms for "swimmers" found in the sports sections of the 1920s).

In one of his five races in Decatur, Illinois, on 4 July 1923, Weissmuller broke the world record for the 500-meter freestyle by 11 seconds at 6:55; his records then numbered over 50. In 1923 the Helms Athletic Foundation gave him its nonrepeated American Swimmer of the Year award, and the Helms World Trophy as Athlete of the Year, North America, in 1924.

There was no doubt that Weissmuller would qualify for the 1924 Olympics—except for a question about his citizenship. Despite some controversy, Weissmuller did go to Paris with the U.S. swimming team and won three gold medals and one bronze. In the men's 100-meter freestyle, the handsome six foot, three inch Weissmuller, then at 195 pounds, achieved a new Olympic record of 59.0 by beating his teammates. Weissmuller set another Olympic record (5:04.2) in the 400-meter freestyle, and won the men's 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay. As part of the U.S. water polo team, Weissmuller and his teammates won bronze medals.

With his head and chest high in the water and a powerful kick (adjusting his basic pattern, when necessary, of six kicks for two arm strokes), Weissmuller continued to win indoor and outdoor national championships. In his second and final Olympics in 1928 in Amsterdam, Weissmuller won two more gold medals, one in the men's 100-meter freestyle with a new Olympic record of 58.6. As part of the men's 4 x 200 freestyle relay, he and his teammates took the gold, setting a world record time of 9:32.2. Weissmuller retired as an amateur athlete on 3 January 1929.

Weissmuller appeared in some swimming documentaries in 1929, earned $500 a week to promote swimwear, had a cameo role in Florenz Ziegfeld's film, Glorifying the American Girl (1929), and collaborated with his friend Clarence A. Bush to write Swimming the American Crawl (1930), which he dedicated to Coach Bachrach and the IAC members. In that book, Weissmuller discussed his success as a competitive swimmer and his perfection of the American crawl. Along with instructional photographs, he analyzed his "hydroplaning" of strokes and breathing techniques, timing, and "relaxation."

Beginning in 1931 Weissmuller began a series of four marriages and divorces: singer Bobbe Arnst (m. 28 February 1931; d. 4 October 1932); Mexican actress Guadalupe Villalobos ("Lupe") Velez (m. 20 June 1934; d. 15 August 1938); socialite Beryl Scott Ginter (m. 20 August 1939; d. 29 January 1948), mother of his three children; and golfer Allene Gates (m. 30 January 1948; d. 1962). On 23 April 1963 he married his fifth wife, Bavarian-born Gertrudis ("Trudi") Bauman Brock, with whom he remained until his death.

As the result of a successful screen test at MGM, Weissmuller, displaying his swimming ability and physical athletic presence, appeared in Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932), and became the first "talkie" Tarzan in more than a dozen popular box office features. Weissmuller appeared in other jungle, adventure, contemporary, and horror films off and on through the mid-1950s, and in 1948 he cofounded a motion picture production company that was responsible for all of his Jungle Jim films.

From May 1939 through October 1940 Weissmuller performed in Billy Rose's Aquacade with swimmer Eleanor Holm in the 275-foot outdoor pool at the New York's World Fair in Flushing Meadows. He raised war bonds during World War II and appeared in Stage Door Canteen (1943). Twice a week over a two-year period during the war, he trained Marines in San Pedro, California, by demonstrating how to make high-falling escape dives and how to swim in water enflamed with oil or gasoline.

Television was another successful medium for Weissmuller. He starred in twenty-six thirty-minute episodes of Jungle Jim in the 1950s. He was elected to the Helms Swimming Hall of Fame in 1949 and the following year was voted by the Associated Press as its "Greatest Swimmer of the First Half-Century." An honorary gold medal was presented to Weissmuller during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. He was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, among the first athletes to be so honored.

Weissmuller and his wife Trudi lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from 1965 to 1973, where he played golf and assisted with the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), of which he was one of the first inductees. The couple then returned to the western United States, living in California and Nevada. On 27 August 1977 Weissmuller suffered a stroke that signaled a progressive decline in his health. In October 1979 he and his wife moved to Acapulco, Mexico, where Weissmuller died at home of pulmonary edema. He is buried at the Valle de la Luz Cemetery in Acapulco.

When the U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, people debated which swimmer, Weissmuller or Spitz, was the best swimmer of all time; this debate continues. Weissmuller always convincingly asserted that his entire amateur swimming portfolio of records and wins, not just his gold medals, and his breakthrough leadership in swimming style and technique were unique in modern swimming history.

Biographical information is available in Weissmuller's Swimming the American Crawl (1930), with Clarence A. Bush. Biographies include Narda Onyx, Water, World and Weissmuller, a Biography (1964), and David A. Fury, Johnny Weissmuller, Twice the Hero (2000). For Weissmuller's film career, see Ray Narducy, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Vol. III: Actors and Actresses (1986), James Vinson, ed.; and Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (1994). Lengthy New York Times articles featuring Weissmuller include Bosley Crowther, "YAHOOO-EE-OOO-EE!" (14 May 1939); Thomas Brady, "Toujours Tarzan" (5 Jan. 1947); Keith Monroe, "Johnny Weissmuller Was a Slow Swimmer" (18 Dec. 1966); Arthur Daley, "In Total Disagreement" (22 Dec. 1966); and Dave Anderson, "Tarzan Was 'Better Than Mark Spitz Is'" (4 Nov. 1972). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Jan. 1984). Many of Weissmuller's films are readily available on videocassettes.

Madeline Sapienza