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Johnny Weissmuller’s name has become synonymous with Tarzan—the role he played in the 1930s and ’40s to the delight of millions. Many don’t know that he also earned five Olympic gold medals for swimming before his renowned acting career—or that he had five marriages. This authoritative biography of the first Tarzan, written by his only son, offers an intimate look at Weissmuller’s early life, middle years, and later decline, covering his experiences from swimming training and Olympic triumphs to failed marriages, phenomenal stardom, and a subsequent career as Jungle Jim.
A sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of the man who was Tarzan to movie fans around the world, Tarzan, My Father includes interviews with his father’s celebrity friends and former wives, recollections of conversations with his father over the years, and family stories involving Hollywood stars such as Humphrey Bogart.
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Tarzan My Father
By Johnny Weissmuller Jr., William Reed, W. Craig Reed
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2002 Johnny Weissmuller Jr. with William Reed & W. Craig Reed
All rights reserved.
Books, magazine articles, newspaper accounts, Internet files and Web site data purporting to be "the true story of Johnny Weissmuller, from birth to death"—I have read them all. Most of them are flawed, and many are pure fiction.
Ambrose Bierce once said that history is "an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by [persons] mostly fools." There's a lot of horse sense in that caustic definition, and I suppose that this family history also contains errors as well as information that will be deemed trivial by picky critics. Be that as it may, it is the closest thing to the truth that family records, diligent investigation, and good intentions by this well-meaning fool can make it.
* * *
My grandfather, Petrus Weissmuller, met my grandmother, Elizabeth Kersh, in the year 1902, in the small town of Szabadfalu (later renamed Freidorf, meaning "free village" in German), which was located in the Banat region of Hungary. He was twenty-five, and she was twenty-two. Petrus was a captain in Franz Josef's Austro-Hungarian Army, and he was on leave with a fellow serviceman who lived in Szabadfalu. Petrus and Elizabeth were introduced following a Sunday church service. The chemistry was there.
Petrus courted Elizabeth by mail and promised to come for her when his enlistment in the army expired. The following year he did so, and they were married in Szabadfalu, in the Catholic church where they had first met, on the 18th day of April 1903. The newlyweds lived with Elizabeth's parents in the same town.
Szabadfalu and other small towns in the Banat region—such as Timisoara, Gottlob, Johanisfeld, and Liebling—like most towns in neighboring Transylvania, had been populated by Germanic settlers as early as the thirteenth century. As late as 1919, Banat's population was a mixture of Romanians, Austrians, Serbs, and Hungarians, with the German-speaking Austrians comprising twenty-three percent of the total. The Weissmuller clan (originally Weiszmueller, then Weissmüller—translated as "white miller") were ethnic Austrians.
After boundary changes were made in 1919, following World War I, the Banat area of Hungary became a part of Romania and Yugoslavia (bounded on the north by the Marcos River, on the east by the Transylvanian Alps, on the south by the Danube, and on the west by the Tisza River). It was at this time that Szabadfalu was renamed Freidorf. This caused much confusion in later years concerning records of birth. Many people from that region, to this day (depending upon their birth dates), don't know whether they are legal citizens of Hungary, Romania, or Yugoslavia. Most Austrians, however, don't seem to care so much: "Austrians are Austrians!" they affirm.
On June 2, 1904, Grandmother Elizabeth gave birth to an eleven-pound boy, whom his parents named Janos (John) Weissmuller. Her pregnancy had not been terribly difficult, but Elizabeth did complain, in a letter to her mother, that the baby was "just too heavy." Photocopies of the records of the Roman Catholic Parish of Freidorf, Temes County, Hungary (now Romania), include the following entry:
Baptism Record: Janos (Johann) Weiszmueller, a male, legitimate child, was born 2 June, 1904 and baptized in the parish church on 5 June 1904. His parents were Petrus Weiszmueller, a day worker from Varjas, and Ersebert (Elisabetha) Kersch, of Szabadfalu. The Godparents were Janos Borstner and Katharina Erbesz. Ref: Romanian National Archives, Freidorf Parish Records Baptisms Band 7, No. 40
My grandfather was, apparently, a bluff, hearty man who loved life and people and had grandiose dreams of success and fortune. Mostly, it amounted to just that: dreams. After his marriage, he worked on farms surrounding Szabadfalu, but the work was not steady and generated little income. He began to pressure Elizabeth to emigrate to the United States of America. Elizabeth, who knew that Petrus possessed more imagination than drive, worried that a move to America would change nothing except their location. But Petrus persisted, and, in the fall of 1904, Elizabeth finally agreed. Petrus eventually managed to accumulate enough money to purchase passage for his family on the S.S. Rotterdam, which is recorded in official files as having left the City of Rotterdam on January 14, 1905.
While at sea, Elizabeth wrote a letter to her mother, which she sent after arriving in New York:
I don't know what it will be like there mother. The same for me, I suppose, as it was at home.... I'll be busy caring for Petrus and Janos. Maybe I'll work somewhere. Petrus talks of living in Chicago for awhile. He has some cousins somewhere in the city. I hope things will be good for Petrus there. And I hope Janos will have a life that will make his father and me proud.
The manifest of the S.S. Rotterdam records the arrival in New York on January 26, 1905, of "Peter Weissmuller, age 27, German race, from Szabadfalu, Hungary. Elisabeth, wife, age 24. Johann, child, age 7/12 [seven months old, out of twelve]. No occupation was given for Peter W., and the family was going directly to Windber, Penn. to brother-in-law Johann Ott. Peter W. was in possession of $13.50 and the condition of health is recorded as good for all three members of the family."
Things didn't work out as Elizabeth had hoped. After a brief visit with friends and family in Chicago, my grandparents moved on to Windber, Pennsylvania, at the urging of other relatives who lived there. There was good money, they assured Petrus, to be made in the coal mines of Windber.
Grandfather Petrus went to work in the mines, working long, hard hours. By doing so, he defied local folklore; the people of Windber believed that after the stroke of midnight, the ground shifted and demons appeared—demons who could change human intruders into dust. Ignoring this fable, Petrus worked overtime. He needed money. He was determined to return to Chicago and open a beer saloon. He was, after all, a former captain in Franz Joseph's army, and mining was no career for a man of such distinction. In the meantime, Elizabeth gave birth to my uncle and christened him Petrus Weissmuller, after my grandfather. Uncle Pete came into the world in 1905, and he was the first Weissmuller born a United States citizen.
Upon his eventual return to Chicago, Grandfather Petrus, in affiliation with Keely's Brewery Company, opened his beer saloon, and Grandmother Elizabeth took a job as a cook at Chicago's famous Turn-Verein Society. Located in northwest Chicago, the society sponsored many social events; it offered gym classes, had a fencing team as well as a fife-and-drum band, and ran a public playground. Moreover, the society fed just about everybody who attended its events. Elizabeth was a wonderful cook, and in that capacity she prospered. She was a respected and valued employee of Turn-Verein for many years.
Petrus, however, went bust after squandering money on friends and strangers alike and, presumably, drinking up large quantities of his stock. Elizabeth paid off his debts after the saloon closed, but by that point the marriage had soured. Petrus resented the fact that his wife was a success and he was a failure. That's when the drunken rages and beatings began.
My father, who almost never talked about those early years in
Chicago (other than recalling his swimming experiences), once told me that he used to cover his ears so that he could not hear the screaming and slapping when his father came home drunk and beat his mother. Dad was then only about ten years old, so there was nothing he could do about it, but he sure didn't want to hear it. He began to sneak out of the house at night—sometimes all night—and he often slept underneath the elevated railroad on Cleveland Avenue, covering himself with newspapers. Although he dreaded it, he usually came home in the morning and took the inevitable beatings and cursings from Petrus. Bloodied lips and blackened eyes became almost normal for young Johnny Weissmuller. He once confessed to me that he felt guilty because there were times when he really wanted to kill his father.
He didn't have to. Grandfather Petrus deserted his family in 1916. Grandmother Elizabeth, good Roman Catholic that she was, spread the word that her husband had contracted tuberculosis from working those long shifts in the mines of Windber. The "demons," she swore, had finally tracked him down, and he died a horrible, hacking death of the black lung disease around 1918. I suppose she wasn't up to the tribulations of a Catholic divorce, and this seemed a simple way for her to lay her husband to rest; or perhaps she simply made up the story of his dismal demise to make herself feel better.
Her story was so widely believed that it persists in most "biographies" written about the Weissmuller family to this day. But it simply is not true. I have in my possession the divorce decree of Elizabeth and Petrus, dated February 20, 1925. It reads, in part,
... subsequent to their intermarriage the Defendant [Peter Weissmuller] has been guilty of extreme and repeated cruelty toward the complainant [Elizabeth Weissmuller] without any provocation or just cause thereof; particularly in the month of February A.D. 1924 when said defendant while using vile language struck the complainant a blow in the face [numerous other accounts of bodily harm are listed and, finally,] ... again on the 20th day of November A.D. 1924 when said defendant threatened to kill said complainant....
The divorce was granted, of course, and it is rumored that the old reprobate lived to a ripe old age, remarrying along the way and spawning a large brood of little Weissmullers. However, nobody, including close family members, really knows what happened to Grandfather Petrus.
Elizabeth took complete charge of the Weissmuller family of Chicago after 1916, but Petrus still came around and hassled her often. I am not sure when he finally died, but he was not grieved by the rest of the family.
The story of my grandfather is a tragic one, but no different from the thousands of other emigrant stories that record dreams, disappointments, and despairs. We praise the successes of those who came to settle in America and try to forget the failures. Sadly, Grandfather Petrus was a failure, and he plays no further part in this story.CHAPTER 2
Road to the Olympiads
My father was once quoted as saying, "Before swimming, there was nothing ... only surviving." I never heard him utter those words, but he did tell me that his only intimate contact with water before he was eight years old was during the horrible experience of the Saturday-night bath in a big, old, porcelain bathtub. Then, one wonderful day, Grandmother Elizabeth bought him a pair of water wings and nudged him into Lake Michigan off Fullerton Beach in Lincoln Park. Dad said to me, "I can't really explain it except to say that it was like coming home. I had found my element. Swimming? Hell, for me it was easier to learn than walking."
I have read in various "Weissmuller biographies" that Grandmother Elizabeth took my father to the beach at the advice of her family doctor, who told her, "swimming may be the only thing that can save your sickly son from an early grave!" I once mentioned this to Dad, and he said, "That's a load of crap! Skinny? Yeah. Sickly? Never in my life!"
Still, it's possible that swimming did save my father from a life of juvenile delinquency and perhaps even prison. He was, by his own admission, a wild one in his youth, and he hung out with an even wilder crowd.
What started out as a series of childish pranks, such as snatching ice-cream cones from little old ladies on the street, progressed to heavier infractions: snapping cables off streetcars, placing Bull Durham tobacco cans filled with explosive potash and sulphur on streetcar tracks on the 4th of July, and, eventually, some rather serious street-gang fights. People got hurt. Some members of my father's gang moved on to snatching purses and rolling drunks. My father and a few of the others objected to that, and the gang split into factions. Inevitably, they began to fight among themselves.
As my father told his original biographer, Narda Onyx, and later repeated to me in a somewhat modified form,
I found myself backed into a corner by six punks who decided to teach me a lesson. I had been working out as a boxer in the local gym and fancied myself a tough guy, but this was a tall order. Still, I was winning the match until a local Irish street cop broke up the brawl. He gave me a pat on the head and praised me. The Catholic priest at Saint Michael's Parochial School gave me a pat on the butt and ordered me into the chapel, where I spent hours on my knees and said dozens of "Hail Marys." After that, I only confessed very minor sins!
Dad said even that didn't help much. He had so many cracks across his fingers with the sharp edge of a ruler, and so many kneeling sessions in the chapel, that one day, after being forgotten for hours by an avenging priest, he "passed out." He told me that he had faked the entire scene, but it was so convincing that Grandmother Elizabeth angrily took him, and his brother Pete, out of Saint Michael's and enrolled them in Menier Public School, a mixed tutoring place for boys and girls alike. Dad was twelve, and he was still more fascinated with boxing and swimming than with girls, and he said that he wished he could have maintained that kneeling posture.
My father went through some rough times during his childhood, but he also experienced many happy times. He went to the opera often with Grandmother Elizabeth, and, while listening to the tenors, he decided that it really wasn't such a bad thing to have a high-pitched voice (at an early age, he'd injured his vocal chords by accidentally impaling his throat while trying to jump a picket fence in emulation of his movie hero Douglas Fairbanks).
In fact, young Johnny saw a way to make money out of this vocal impairment. He struck a deal with the neighborhood vegetable peddler, who was getting old and hoarse from shouting out his daily sales pitch: if he could yell out "Tomatoes! Potatoes! Fresh beans and cabbages!" in a loud enough tenor voice to attract the attention of local housewives, the peddler would pay him with baskets of fruits and vegetables. It worked out just fine. Grandmother Elizabeth was especially happy. She was desperate for money; in addition to working at Turn-Verein, she cleaned floors or did anything that helped support her family. As she saw it, her son's new job sure beat blowing up streetcar tracks, and it helped immensely with her household budget.
As I said, Dad did not often talk about this time of his life, but from time to time he did reminisce, and a few stories slipped out. "I'll never forget the visits to your grandmother's relatives who owned a farm somewhere in the country outside Chicago," he once recalled. "They had cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys and goats and all kinds of other animals we seldom saw in Chicago. These relatives, like almost all of their neighbors, were Germans and Austrians, and they held this thing they called a 'Schlacht,' where they roasted a pig, played God-awful music, danced, drank gallons of beer, had potato-sack races and yodeling contests. That's where I perfected my yodel, by the way."
I said, "Dad, I read somewhere that the sound experts in the film studio took your yodel and reworked it and put a lot of other sounds in there to make the Tarzan yell."
He answered, "Well, yeah, they did that at first, but then I just practiced it and learned how to imitate it. Like this...."
How much of the on-screen Tarzan yodel was really Dad's voice and how much was the sound mixing of Hollywood technicians we will probably never know, but I do know that he could perform one hell of a Tarzan yodel with his own pipes, especially after he'd had a few drinks. I've never heard anyone else come close—nor, I'm sure, has anyone in Acapulco.
A lot of the information that I have concerning my father's growing-up period in Chicago came from Grandmother Elizabeth. She told me that Grandfather Petrus had been a bookie on the side, in his bar, and that her two boys eventually got into a little book themselves. For Dad, that didn't last long. He abandoned the bookie caper and took up swimming so enthusiastically that he had little time left for anything else. Uncle Pete, however, was lured by the excitement of it all and sank deeper and deeper into this shady lifestyle until it finally consumed him. It wasn't that he was a bad guy—he was just seduced by the fast buck. He was also seduced by a few fast women, which led to a bout with syphilis in his late teens. My father took time off from his regimented athletic training schedule to take care of Pete. The brothers exchanged harsh words over that. Good health and hard work were almost gospel to Johnny Weissmuller.
Dad dropped out of public school at about the age of twelve. He worked as a bellhop and later as an elevator operator to help with family expenses, and he attended swimming school in his spare time. In 1916, he made the YMCA swim team. A short time later, he met the man who would change his life forever—the man who would set him on the track to swimming and Olympic stardom.
Excerpted from Tarzan My Father by Johnny Weissmuller Jr., William Reed, W. Craig Reed. Copyright © 2002 Johnny Weissmuller Jr. with William Reed & W. Craig Reed. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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