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The man many of us knew as Tarzan, the man who fought lions and crocodiles, and flew through the trees on vines, was just as extraordinary in real life as the character he played in the movies. In fact, he was a superstar long before he became Tarzan.
It was the roaring 1920’s and the man who would become Tarzan was a swimming phenom winning 5 Gold Medals, 3 in 1924 at the Paris Olympics and 2 in 1928 at the Amsterdam Olympic Games. He was the first person to ever swim the 440-yard freestyle in under 5 minutes, won 52 U.S. National Championships, set 67 world records, and as far as we can tell was never defeated in competition.
All this despite contracting polio at age nine.
The Real Tarzan
While the world over knew him only as Tarzan, his real name was Johnny Weissmuller. His family immigrated to the United States from what is now Serbia in 1905 when he was only seven months old. They came through Ellis Island and settled soon after in Windber, Pennsylvania. Five years later, records show the family living in Chicago, Illinois.
It was here, working as a bellboy and elevator operator at the Illinois Athletic Club, that Weissmuller caught the discerning eye of the man who would lead him to Olympic Gold, William Bachrach. Weighing in at 350 pounds, Bachrach was an imposing task master. Bachrach said of Weissmuller, “He had the gawkiness of an adolescent puppy. Also, the stroke he used was the oddest thing I ever saw… but the stopwatch told it all; nearly record time.”
Bachrach pushed Weissmuller for over a year mainly refining his technique. Weissmuller had a very different style. With the stroke he used, he almost seemed to be hydroplaning across the water which allowed him to keep his head out of the water above his competitors. It was an odd thing to see. Unusual in competitive swimming. Perfect for the movie cameras.
After winning Gold, Weissmuller appeared as himself in several movie shorts which were shot in Silver Springs, Florida and included other Olympic Champions as well. Then in 1932, Weissmuller won the part of Tarzan in “Tarzan the Ape Man.”
In his own words, Weissmuller tells a story of wanting to meet Clark Gable on the MGM studio lot. However, when he arrived they wouldn’t let him in.
Weissmuller begins, “So some kid came along and said, ‘Hey they got 75 guys on the back lot – they’re making a test for Tarzan – go back and make a test and they’ll let you in the studio.’ So, I made a test.” Weissmuller continues, “So I got to get on the studio (lot) and got to meet Clark Gable. And, I knew Greta Garbo. And so, I was ready to go home. And they called me over — a week later and said — you got the job as Tarzan.”
Weissmuller goes on to tell the audience that the MGM handlers wanted to change his name until someone spoke up and said, “you know who that guy is, he’s got all the world’s records in swimming.” The director responded, “Well that’s wonderful. Let him have his name and put some swimming in the picture.”
‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ was an overnight international movie sensation and propelled Johnny Weissmuller to greater heights of stardom than he’d ever reached as an Olympic Champion. The Tarzan yodeling yell he helped create became famous the world over. The 1934 sequel, ‘Tarzan and His Mate,” was just as popular and made history by becoming embroiled in the first major instance of censorship by the newly formed “Production Code Administration” who forced the producers to remove an underwater nude scene.
During the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Weissmuller co-starred with Esther Williams, another famous swimming sensation, in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. The show featured music, dance, and swimming.
In an Esther Williams autobiography, co-authored by Esther Williams, we learn that Johnny Weissmuller pursued her for two years. The autobiography is interesting in another respect, her admitted use of LSD, under medical supervision, to help her self-psychoanalyze the reasons for her panic attacks and the terror that would consume her for much of her life. But, that’s another story.
In 1931, Johnny Weissmuller, with famed architect Paul Williams, completed one of the most unusual homes in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The home is unusual and famous for the 301-foot serpentine pool that winds around the home. The pool features a waterfall, an arched bridge, lush tropical landscaping, and hand painted murals all along the waters winding path. Unfortunately, the home has sat abandoned for the last 20 years. Rumors abound about ghosts, murders, and other myths surrounding the home.
Weissmuller’s persona was larger than life and he had the wives to prove it. Five to be exact. They included band and club singer Bobbe Arnst (married 1931 – divorced 1933); actress Lupe Vélez (married 1933 – divorced 1939); Beryl Scott (married 1939 – divorced 1948); Allene Gates (married 1948 – divorced 1962); and Maria Baumann (from 1963 until his death in 1984). With Beryl Scott, Weissmuller had three children, John Scott, Wendy Ann, and Heidi Elizabeth.
In business, Weissmuller was not particularly successful. He started a swimming pool company in Chicago in the late 1950’s and licensed his name to a number of other business ventures. In 1965, he retired and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While in Florida, he became involved in a tourist attraction originally called Florida Wonderland, a.k.a. Tropical Wonderland, a.k.a. Tarzan’s Jungleland, in Titusville, Florida near the Kennedy Space Center.
Weissmuller retiring to Florida should not come as a surprise, as much of the filming for the Tarzan series of movies was shot in nearby Silver Springs, Florida and was the inspiration for the creation of “Monkey Island.”
In 1973, Weissmuller moved to Las Vegas, Nevada working as a greeter at Caesars Palace alongside boxer Joe Louis.
He later moved to Acapulco, Mexico where he died in 1984.
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