One of the most outstanding swimmers of all time, Johnny Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and set dozens of national and world records. His stellar performance as a competitive swimmer helped to focus the attention of Americans on the health benefits of the sport. However, he is perhaps best remembered by most Americans for his portrayals of author Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes and Jungle Jim on the screen from the early 1930s through the mid-1950s. After his retirement from work in motion pictures and television, Weissmuller lent his name to a swimming pool company and became a spokesman for the product.
Born in Austria-Hungary
Not until after his death in 1984 did the full truth about Weissmuller's origins emerge. Throughout his lifetime, he claimed to have been born Peter John Weissmuller, the son of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, on July 2, 1904, in the small Pennsylvania mining town of Windber, near Johnstown. Olympic historian David Wallechinsky uncovered credible evidence in the 1980s that Weissmuller had in fact been born in Freidorf, Austria-Hungary, now a part of Romania, and was brought to the United States shortly after his birth. Wallechinsky further contended that Weissmuller's parents later switched his identity with that of his Americanborn brother, Peter, to qualify their older son to compete on the U.S. Olympic swimming team.
The Weissmullers did not linger long in Windber, where Johnny's father toiled in the coal mines to scratch out an existence for his family. By 1908 they had relocated to Chicago, where Weissmuller's father owned and operated a neighborhood tavern while his mother cooked in the city's famous Turn-Verein restaurant. Johnny was enrolled in St. Michael's Parochial School. He later attended Chicago's Menier Public School but quit after completing the eighth grade when his father died of tuberculosis, probably contracted during his years as a coal miner in Pennsylvania.
To help support his family, Weissmuller worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at Chicago's Plaza Hotel. In his spare time, he and younger brother Peter, both avid swimmers, joined the Stanton Park pool, where Johnny won all the junior swim meets in which he competed. At the age of twelve, he lied about his age to win a berth on the local YMCA swim team. During the summer, he spent every spare moment at Chicago's Oak Street Beach, where he and Peter pulled twenty people from the waters of Lake Michigan after a boating accident. Only eleven of those they rescued survived the
mishap. The incident impressed upon Weissmuller the importance of learning to swim at an early age.
Trains under "Big Bill"
Not long after the death of his father, Weissmuller came under the influence of a new father figure when he began to train at the Illinois Athletic Club under the guidance of William "Big Bill" Bachrach, already famous as the trainer of several Olympic swimming champions. According to Ralph Hickok, author of A Who's Who of Sports Champions, the red-mustachioed Bachrach, an imposing figure at 340 pounds, was a tough taskmaster. When Weissmuller asked Bachrach to train him, "Big Bill" laid out his conditions for doing so: "Swear that you'll work a year with me without question, and I'll take you on. You won't swim against anybody. You'll just be a slave, and you'll hate my guts, but in the end you just might break every record there is."
Bachrach's promise seemed strangely prophetic. In Weissmuller's first major competition, the 1921 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) outdoor championship, he handily won his very first race, the 50-yard freestyle swim. But that was just the beginning. Over the next three years, he won every race he entered. In the run-up to the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, twenty-year-old Weissmuller looked unbeatable. He was already the world record-holder for the 100-meter freestyle. In Paris he would compete with the defending Olympic champion, Duke Kahanamoku , who also represented the United States, and his younger brother, Sam. According to biographer David Fury, before the 100-meter event, Duke turned to Weissmuller and said: "Johnny, good luck. The most important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let's do it!" And do it, they did. Weissmuller won the race, finishing in 59 seconds flat, winning the gold medal, followed closely by Duke and Sam Kahanamoku, who took the silver and bronze medals, respectively.
Two days before the 100-meter freestyle event in Paris, Weissmuller had taken gold in the 400-meter freestyle race. Later in the day of his 100-meter win, he swam as part of the winning U.S. team in the 800-meter relay. Weissmuller left Paris with three gold medals around his neck. Four years later at the summer games in Amsterdam, he carried the American flag at the opening ceremonies and went on to repeat his wins in the 100-meter freestyle and the 800-meter relay for a total of five gold medals at the two Olympics. Throughout the 1920s, Weissmuller was invincible in amateur competition, winning thirty-six national individual AAU championships and sixty-seven world championships. In 1924 he set a world record in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing in 57.4 seconds, and became the first swimmer to break the one-minute mark. His record in this event lasted for a decade. He was named American Swimmer of the Year in 1922, won the Helms Trophy in 1923, and was elected to the Helms Swimming Hall of Fame in 1949.
|1904||Born in Freidorf, Austria-Hungary (now Romania), on June 2|
|1909-15||Attends St. Michael's Parochial School in Chicago|
|1915-17||Attends Menier Public School in Chicago|
|1919||Joins Illinois Athletic Club and trains under tutelage of swim coach Bill Bachrach|
|1922||Swims 100 meters in less than a minute|
|1924||Wins three Olympic gold medals at summer games in Paris|
|1928||Wins two Olympic gold medals at summer games in Amsterdam|
|1929||Turns professional and swims in exhibitions nationwide|
|1929||Appears in his first film, making a cameo appearance as himself in Glorifying the American Girl|
|1931||Marries Bobbe Arnst, his first wife (divorced in 1932)|
|1932||Tarzan, the Ape Man, first of twelve Tarzan films in which he stars, debuts|
|1933||Marries actress Lupe Velez, his second wife (divorced in 1938)|
|1939||Marries Beryel Scott, his third wife, with whom he had three children (divorced in 1948)|
|1948||Stars in first of Jungle Jim films|
|1948||Marries Allene Gates, his fourth wife (divorced in 1962)|
|1963||Marries Maria Bauman, his fifth and final wife|
|1984||Dies in Acapulco, Mexico, on January 20, of pulmonary edema|
Not long after the Amsterdam Olympics, Weissmuller turned professional. He toured Florida resort hotels, putting on exhibition swims in return for enough compensation to cover the costs of his travel expenses. He also signed a lucrative contract (paying $500 weekly) with B.V.D. to promote the company's swimwear. In 1929 he appeared in his first film, making a cameo appearance as himself in Glorifying the American Girl. The following year he teamed with writer Clarence Bush to produce his first book, Swimming the American Crawl and also wrote two articles for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1931, Weissmuller married Bobbe Arnst, the first of his five wives. They were divorced in 1932. The following year, Weismuller wed Latin actress Lupe Velez, whom he divorced in 1938. He married Beryel Scott, his third wife, in 1939. The couple had three children but were divorced in 1948, the same year that Weissmuller married Allene Gates, his fourth wife. He and Gates divorced in 1962. Weissmuller married his fifth and final wife, German-born Maria Bauman, in 1963.
The early 1930s brought a second career for Weissmuller, who in 1932 made his debut as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan in the film version of Tarzan the Ape Man, opposite Maureen O'Sullivan, who played Jane. For Weissmuller, it was just the first of twelve Tarzan films he starred in over the next decade and a half. Of all of the Tarzan films with or without Weissmuller in the leading role, the swimming champion's second outing, Tarzan and His Mate, is widely considered the best. A compelling romance, the 1934 film, directed by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Conway, costarred Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Although the story line at first glance might seem a trifle hokey, the on-screen chemistry between Weissmuller and O'Sullivan is by far the most effective of all their screen pairings. The sudden appearance of Jane's old flame and his hunting chum threatens the idyllic love match between Tarzan and Jane. The two Englishmen try their best to persuade Jane to forsake the jungle and return with them to the delights of London's Mayfair. In the end, Jane's love for Tarzan prevails, and she sends her ivory-hunting former love packing. The performances of both Weissmuller and O'Sullivan in this film are by far the best of all the Tarzan movies they made together. Of the film, the late critic Pauline Kael wrote: "It's cheerful and outrageously preposterous. You are right in the heart of the craziest Africa ever contrived for your entertainment; no wild beast ever misses a cue."
When Weissmuller had grown too old to don Tarzan's trademark loincloth, he took on the screen persona of Jungle Jim for another twelve films, running from the late 1940s through 1953. Although he appeared in a handful of films after the last of the Jungle Jim movies, his career in motion pictures was effectively over by the mid-1950s.
Leaving Hollywood behind, Weissmuller returned to Chicago where he launched his own swimming pool company and lent his name to assorted other business ventures, including health food stores and cocktail lounges. Hardly the world's sharpest businessman, he got himself into some unfortunate business deals, largely because of his inherent naivete. Weissmuller's choices in the business arena cost him dearly, draining away much of his earnings.
In the mid-1960s, Weissmuller moved to Florida to manage the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. In 1973, he headed west to Las Vegas and worked for a time as a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Weissmuller's health began to deteriorate significantly. After suffering a series of strokes, he and his wife moved to Acapulco, Mexico, where he died of pulmonary edema on January 20, 1984.
For more than a decade, Weissmuller dominated the international competitive swimming scene, quickly accumulating an impressive array of American and world records. Sportswriters in the 1920s vied with one another to come up with the most creative nickname for the rugged American swimming champion, conjuring up such colorful entries as "Flying Fish," "King of Swimmers," "America's Greatest Waterman," and "Prince of the Waves." Although his fame as a swimmer was eventually overshadowed by his popularity as the star of a dozen Tarzan movies, Weissmuller will forever be remembered as one of the greatest swimmers of all time.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WEISSMULLER:
(With Clarence A. Bush) Swimming the American Crawl. Grosset & Dunlap, 1930.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1921||Won 50-yard freestyle in amateur debut at Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship|
|1922||Named American Swimmer of the Year|
|1922||World records in 150-yard backstroke and 300-meter freestyle|
|1923||Set new world record in 150-yard backstroke, 6.8 seconds faster than previous record|
|1923||Helms Trophy as North American Athlete of the Year|
|1924||Three gold medals at Paris Olympics, in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events and as a member of U.S. team in 800-meter relay|
|1924||World record in 100-meter freestyle with time of 57.4 seconds|
|1928||Two gold medals at Amsterdam Olympics in 100-meter freestyle and 800-meter relay|
|1949||Elected to Helms Swimming Hall of Fame|
|1951||Voted Best Swimmer of the Half-Century by a panel of sportswriters|
|1972||Awarded honorary sixth gold medal at Munich Olympics|
|1974||Named King of Swimming Undefeated by International Palace of Sports|
(With Narda Onyx) Water, World, and Weissmuller. Vion Publishing, 1964.
Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement. Volume 21. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.
Fury, David A. Johnny Weissmuller: "Twice the Hero." Thorndike, ME: Thorndike Press, 2001.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. five volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Fury, David. "Johnny Weissmuller … the Two Career Star." Burroughs Bulletin (April 1993).
"Tarzan, The Ape Man." Magill's Survey of Cinema (June 15, 1995).
Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
"Johnny Weissmuller Pools: The Legend of Excellence." Delair Group. http://www.delairgroup.com/pools/jw/history.html (October 4, 2002).
"Tarzan and His Mate." Tarzan en Jane. http://users.skynet.be/sky40152/tarzan6.htm (October 5, 2002).
"Tarzan and His Mate (1934)." At-A-Glance Film Reviews. http://rinkworks.com/movies/m/tarzan.and.his.mate.1934.shtml (October 5, 2002).
"Tarzan and His Mate (1934)." Reel.com. http://www.reel.com/movie.asp?MID=6705 (July 7, 2002).
Sketch by Don Amerman
Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984), who played the role of Tarzan in films made during the 1930s, was one of the best swimmers of the twentieth century. He won five Olympic gold medals, set 24 world records, and won 51 AAU titles.
Although many older sources claim that Weissmuller was born in Windber, Pennsylvania, the son of Austrian immigrants, it has become known since his death that he was born in Freidorf, near Timisoara, Hungary (now in Romania). His parents immigrated to Windber when he was three years old, and his father supported the family by working as a coal miner. Later, Weissmuller simply claimed that he had been born in Pennsylvania.
"You Might Break Every Record There Is"
Weissmuller, who only attended school through the eighth grade, was sickly and weak as a child, and his family doctor put him on a special high-nutrition diet and advised him to take up swimming to strengthen his body. When he was a young boy, his father moved the family from Pennsylvania to Chicago, where Weissmuller joined the YMCA when he was 14. At age 15, he joined the Illinois Athletic Club. The coach there, Bill Bachrach, said, "Swear that you'll work a year with me without question and I'll take you on. You won't swim against anybody. You'll just be a slave and you'll hate my guts, but in the end you just might break every record there is," according to Ralph Hickok in A Who's Who of Sports Champions.
In Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, James D. Whalen wrote, "Bachrach, a gruff individual weighing 350 pounds, yelled at the exhausted Weissmuller during workouts, 'Form! Never swim for speed-always for form!"' His advice paid off. Weissmuller trained for over a year, then attended his first competition, the 1921 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) outdoor championship. He won the 220-yard freestyle swim. The only event he lost, the 440-yard freestyle, would be the only race, of any distance, that he ever lost during his entire swimming career.
In 1922, Weissmuller set world records in the 150-yard backstroke and the 300-meter freestyle. He also won national championships in the outdoors 100-, 220-, and 440-yard freestyle events and in the indoor 100-and 220-yard events. He won all the same championships in 1923, and also set a world record in the 150-yard backstroke. His new record was 6.8 seconds faster than the old one. On July 9, 1922, he became the first person ever to swim 100 meters in less than a minute, completing the distance in 58.6 seconds. He also broke the 5-minute barrier in the 440-yard freestyle swim.
Weissmuller swam in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and won gold medals in the 100-and 400-meter freestyle events. He set a world record of 5:04.2 in the 400, and his time of 59.0 in the 100 was an Olympic record. At the same Games, he was a member of the gold-medal-winning 4-200 freestyle relay team as well as the bronze-medal-winning U.S. water polo team. In the same year, he beat his own world-record 100-meter time, lowering the record to 57.4 seconds. This time wasn't beaten until 1944.
In 1925, 1926, and 1927, he won 15 more national titles. He held the record for the 100-yard freestyle, with a time of 51.0 seconds, for the next 17 years, and his record for the 200-meter freestyle stood for seven years. At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he won more gold medals in the 400-meter freestyle and as a member of the 4 × 200-meter relay team.
In addition to being a fine athlete, Weissmuller was good-looking, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and long legs. He weighed 195 pounds and was six feet, three inches tall. He also had a gift for entertaining crowds. Between serious swimming events, he often made the crowds laugh by doing comedy dives. After the 1928 Olympics, he became a professional swimmer, and performed at exhibitions all over the United States. In 1940, when he was 36, he broke his own 100-yard freestyle record, swimming the distance in 48.5 seconds. Bill Bachrach's insistence on good form was apparent in his style; as Pat Besford wrote in Encyclopedia of Swimming, "His high-riding stroke, with its pull-and-push arm stroke, independent head turning action for breathing and deep flutter leg-kick, was revolutionary and had a tremendous influence on the development of the crawl throughout the world."
Tarzan was Born
Weissmuller's second career as an actor began in 1932, and might not have begun at all if Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM) had not had a very successful jungle movie, Trader Horn. The studio had a great deal of extra jungle footage, and not wanting to waste it, decided to use it to make a film based on the book Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, about a man who had been abandoned in the jungle during his infancy and then raised by apes. According to Gabe Essoe in Tarzan of the Apes, MGM director William S. Van Dyke said, "What I want is a man who is young, strong, well-built, reasonably attractive, but not necessarily handsome, and a competent actor. The most important thing is that he have a good physique. And I can't find him." The studio considered hundreds of candidates with no success. Tarzan screenwriter Cyril Hume was staying at the same hotel as Weissmuller. When he saw the champiion swimmer in the hotel pool, he knew he'd found the man the studio wanted. According to Essoe, Van Dyke later praised Weissmuller's ability to be comfortable wearing almost nothing. He said, "Most actors without clothes are undressed rather than naked and are too self-conscious to act naturally." Because Weissmuller was a swimmer, he was used to being in public while wearing only swim trunks.
At first, Weissmuller wasn't interested in the movie part, and in fact he had signed an exclusive contract with BVD, a manufacturer of swimsuits and underwear, as a spokesman for their products. BVD refused to release him from the contract and let him act for MGM. MGM, undaunted, sent over a team of lawyers to try and convince the executives at BVD to come to an agreement. Eventually, the two sides made a deal. If BVD would let Weissmuller act for MGM, MGM would allow BVD to photograph all the big MGM stars in swim suits. This list included stars such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow. MGM would hire Weissmuller for seven years, beginning with a pay rate of $500 a week, with raises of up to $2,000 a week during that time.
The producer of the film, who didn't follow sports, had no idea that Weissmuller was a well-known Olympic champion and at first, wanted to change his name. According to Besford, he said, "Johnny Weissmuller, that's too long, it won't go on the posters, we'll have to change it," until someone told him who Weissmuller was.
Although Edgar Rice Burrough's original Tarzan was a "noble savage" who was a cultured gentleman who spoke several languages, the film Tarzan is an animal-man who can barely speak. Tarzan, the Ape Man was well-made for its time, starred the beautiful Irish actress Maureen O'Sullivan, and featured scanty costumes, romance between Weissmuller and O'Sullivan, little dialogue, and a lot of jungle action. It was an immediate success with both the public and critics, who praised its sweeping action, entertaining story, and its actors. Essoe quoted critic Thornton Delehanty, who wrote that Weissmuller was "the complete realization of this son-of-the-jungle role. With his flowing hair, his magnificently proportioned body, his catlike walk, and his virtuosity in the water, you could hardly ask anything more in the way of perfection."
"Would Always Be Tarzan"
Weissmuller would go on to star in eleven more Tarzan movies, half for MGM, and half for RKO. The MGM films were of higher quality, and according to Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel in the Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Tarzan and His Mate 1934 "is considered the cream of the crop." They also wrote, "For generations who saw Weissmuller swinging from vines on the big screen, and their children who saw him doing the same when the movies were rebroadcast on television, Weissmuller would always be Tarzan."
Throughout the Tarzan series, Weissmuller swam in at least one scene-usually more-showing off his famous form and speed, and often wrestled crocodiles or other watery menaces. Fortunately, the role did not demand much acting ability; in the Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel wrote, "Weissmuller was a wooden actor with a halting speech pattern that worked just fine for the monosyllabic role of the ape man created by Edgar Rice Burroughs."At the same time, however, Weissmuller was well aware that he was not a particularly skilled or expressive actor, and he retained a sense of humor about his lack of acting talent and his character's limited conversational ability. Of his role as Tarzan, he once said, according to Hickok, "It was up my alley. There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say." He commented that the secret of his success as Tarzan was his ability to grunt, according to Ray Narducy in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. He also joked about his character's frequent habit of swinging through the treetops on a long vine; according to Robert A. Newton and Gwendolyn Wright Nowlan in Movie Characters of Leading Performers of the Sound Age, he said, "The main thing is not to let go of the rope."
When Weissmuller grew older and loincloths no longer flattered him, he starred in the low-budget Jungle Jim series, in which his character was very similar to Tarzan, except that he wore clothes. The first of these adventures was filmed in 1948; 15 more were made, although in the last three, his character was called "Johnny Weissmuller," not "Jungle Jim." In 1956, he appeared in a television series called Jungle Jim, which lasted for 26 episodes. Weissmuller only played in one film that did not involve Tarzan or Jungle Jim. Titled Swamp Fire, the film also starred Buster Crabbe, another swimmer who played Tarzan in a rival film company's film in the 1930s.
After retiring from the movies, Weissmuller gave his name to a swimming pool company, the Johnny Weissmuller Swimming Pools Company, a franchise based in Chicago, and had a fairly successful business career. He was also manager of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His love life was less successful; he married six times. He had three children, Wendy, John, and Heide, with his fifth wife, Allene Gates. His autobiography, Water, World and Weissmuller, was published in 1967.
Weissmuller's last film appearance was in a film called The Phynx in 1970. After battling a series of strokes and surgeries, he died at his home in Acapulco, Mexico in 1984.
Besford, Pat, Encyclopedia of Swimming, St. Martin's Press, 1976.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1989.
Essoe, Gabe, Tarzan of the Apes, Citadel Press, 1968.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers 3, 3rd ed., edited by Amy L. Unterberger, St. James Press, 1997.
Newton, Robert A. and Gwendolyn Wright Nowlan, Movie Characters of Leading Performers of the Sound Era, American Library Association, 1990.
Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel, Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Facts on File, 1990.
Encyclopedia Britannica,http://www.britannica.com/seo/j/johnny-weissmuller (December 28, 2000). □