In the era of "false news" and partial truths, Johnny Weissmuller
(1904-1984) is mostly remembered, when he is remembered, as the actor
who made Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan character world famous. But
Janos Weissmuller had a previous notoriety: as a five-time gold medalist
for the United States at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, as a champion
freestyle swimmer. Born in Szabadfal, Romania (also known as Freidorf in
German, due to the large German population), his "family belonged to the
group of Donauschwaben (Danube Swabians), who came to the United
States after the turn of the twentieth century." Weissmuller used
his brother's citizenship documents (his birth certificate, as record
keeping was less rigorous in the early 20th century) to avoid
questions when he represented the United States in the Olympics. Though
truths are partial and often complicated, they still remain truths: the
fluid rules of citizenship mean that "facts" need interpretation within
a cultural, social, and legal context.
In tracing his biography, of course, it is always an important caveat
to note that lives are complicated and complex. Public images often
belie the individual, everyday lived life of a person, and, as an
example, Johnny Weissmuller's 79 years were filled with an array of
areas that biographers have sectioned off as discrete from one another:
but, at core, one's life remains holistic and interwoven. Biographers,
historians and cultural theorists, have characterized Weissmuller's
impact on the world in four main ways: he was a champion Olympic-level
swimmer; he became a vehicle for promulgating American culture to the
world in the 1920s and through the 1940s; he grew into a much revered
and admired Hollywood film star; and, in sum, Weissmuller emerged as an
American and international cultural icon to millions of citizens
throughout the world. A fifth, more personal facet of his life included
the fact that he was married five times (some speculate an early, sixth
marriage, as well): to Bobbe Arnst, Lupe Velez, Beryl Scott, Allene
Gates, and Maria Bauman. As in most life accounts, these
seemingly-discrete "bits" weave together to form the whole man.
In fact, theories abound as to the "logical" weavings of his life. For
example, he became an international cultural icon, somewhat "feminized"
in his portrayal by MGM, but as a leading man emerging during the 1930s,
his virile manhood and "available" status (he was married at the time,
but this was downplayed) was played up. The logics of Edgar Rice
Burroughs' "jungle" versus "civilization" dynamic within the Tarzan
books may have imprinted themselves upon Weissmuller: he sought a
grounded stability within marriage, yet was attracted to a certain
wildness, as exemplified by his volatile marriage to Velez.
Johnny Weissmuller took swimming lessons at Lincoln Park's Fullerton
Beach (a bay fed by Lake Michigan) at age eight. He continued to play at
swimming and diving on and around the beaches with friends (including
"the Rocks" and Ocean Street Beach). He competed, with his friends the
Miller boys, at Stanton Park Pool, and began swimming competitively in
Chicago at the age of 12 for the YMCA. He "not only won all of his
swimming races but also was the champion at running and high
In the United States in the 1920s—and particularly when the modern
Olympic movement was a relatively "youthful" entity, having begun in
1896—there were no "age group" teams to speak of (they came in during
the post-WWII 1950s), but Coach Peters, of the Hamilton Club, asked him
to join their team. Weissmuller's swimming potential was eventually
noticed by William Bachrach, who was then the coach of the Illinois
Athletic Club (IAC) swim team. In 1920, at age 17, Weissmuller
"auditioned" for the IAC, swimming a 100-yard "trial" for Coach Bill
Bachrach. He later admitted his form was atrocious, and related that
"Bachrach told me to swim for form and not for speed. Throughout my
career I swam for form. Speed came as a result of it."
According to David Fury's biography of Weissmuller, he trained and
internalized the lessons for the crawl stroke Bachrach taught him for
eleven months without any competition. Bachrach had him isolate his arm
stroke, mindful of keeping his elbows high and bent; not over-reaching
(and crossing over) in the catch phase; remembering to pull, then push;
and constantly being reminded to "relax" during the recovery phase. He
emulated his diving start from a teammate, Olympic gold-medallist (1920
Antwerp) in the 400-meter crawl, Norman Ross, and his turns from
watching Olympian gold-medallist backstroker and freestyler Harry
Hebner, who won three medals over the 1908, 1912, and 1920
Olympiads. His six-beat flutter kick, an improvement over his
admission that "my legs were used in a 'mongrel' way," was an
adaptation from the great Duke Kahanamoku (named "the father of modern
surfing"), an Olympic gold medallist freestyle sprinter from Hawaii.
The famous Johnny Weissmuller freestyle stroke was made of many factors:
his long (6' 3"), skinny but powerful frame, based on his genetics; his
ability to concentrate on a singular goal; his eclectic role modelling
of other successful athletes' styles; his coachability, and the
brilliance of his coach, Bill Bachrach. But, in Fury, he is quoted as
saying, "'It's the greatest secret of my success. Relaxing at the same
time you are swimming at maximum speed'". He claimed that Bachrach
drilled that principle into him: it carried him into a career in
Hollywood film, and relaxation—and at least appearing relaxed under
pressure—seems to have been a philosophical thread and goal that ran
throughout his whole life.
As a swimmer, Weissmuller was said to be a "natural": that is, he was
superior (and enhanced through training these capacities) at
comprehending what Counsilman terms "three main sources for stimuli":
"the feelings of touch or pressure, the vestibular sensations that
inform him [sic] of his body position, and the kinaesthetic sensations
that arise in his muscle tendons and joints." In sum, Weissmuller,
according to his coach Ernst Bachrach and "Doc" Counsilman both,
possessed "this nebulous quality of feel for the water." If he had
to work too hard for this feel, it would have undermined the concepts he
valued so highly—and learning to relax and to emphasize "naturalness"
were lessons he carried through his career in Hollywood and golfing.
Johnny Weissmuller, touted for his six-beat style flutter kick and his
planing effects in the "American crawl," as a member of the United
States Olympic teams of 1924 and 1928, won five gold medals. In the 1924
Paris Olympics, he was a member of the bronze medal men's water polo
team. But he also set an Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle race
(time: 59.0 seconds), with Duke and Sam Kahanamoku finishing second and
third for an American sweep of the medals. The 7000-strong Parisian
crowd cheered for nearly three minutes for his 1.4-second margin of
victory. Weissmuller also won the gold in the 400-meter freestyle,
beating Swede Arne Borg in an Olympic record 5:04.2—in an extremely
close race. His third gold medal at the Paris Olympics was as the anchor
for the 4x200 meter freestyle relay. The USA team's closest competition
was from "Boy" Charlton-lead Australia: the USA men's relay team time
was a new world record of 9:53.4. In the 1924 Paris Olympics, Johnny
Weissmuller was the emergent star, and the USA's men's and women's swim
teams dominated the field: "An analysis of the Olympic games swimming
events show the great superiority of the American swimmers, both men and
women, over all their rivals."
The incredible American sweep of the medals in the men's 100-meter
freestyle and the overall dominating performance of the USA swimming and
diving teams at the Paris Olympiad brought Johnny Weissmuller into high
relief for Europeans. In a retrospective of the Olympics, Tri-Color
Magazine's Norman Ross, wrote: "Johnny Weissmuller, of course, was the
outstanding star" in the swimming events, "winning both the 100 and
400-meter free style swims and holding down the anchor position on the
relay." Weissmuller continued breaking records in between Olympics:
for example, in August of 1926, in rather picaresque language, Time
"John Weissmuller, ferry-finned pool-plasher of the Illinois A. C., is swimming faster than ever before. Last week he leaped into the Miramar pool, Manhattan, lalloped nine times up and down, clipped 1 1/5 sec. from his own world's record for the 220-yd. dash by traversing the distance in 2 min. 14 2/5 sec."
He was never defeated in official swimming races in his career—he
became a symbol of the modernist era, a success-story of American
Returning to the United States, Weissmuller continued training with the
Illinois Athletic Club, pointing for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympiad. In
1927, he set a new world record in the 100-yard freestyle (51 seconds):
this record held for nine years; he set the American record for the
100-yard freestyle (49.8). Four years later, he won gold medals in the
100-meter freestyle (in a time of 58.6), and on the 800-meter freestyle
relay team (4 x 200-m freestyle relay). The relay team improved its
Olympic time by 17.2 seconds over the 1924 effort.
His success and total dominance in swimming—he was never beaten in a
sanctioned race—lead to his being named 1922 American Swimmer of the
Year and 1923 Athlete of the Year (given by the US-based Helms Athletic
Foundation in 1949); being inducted into the Helms Swimming Hall of Fame
(in 1949); and named the "Greatest Swimmer of the Half-Century" in 1950
by the Associated Press and the Sportswriters of America. He was also
the first inductee into the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale,
Florida, in 1965, and received an honorary sixth gold medal at the 1972
Munich Olympiad (the Games where Mark Spitz won seven gold medals).
Weissmuller is quoted as having said, "I was better than Mark Spitz
is." He went on the qualify that statement: the rules for turns had
changed, so that swimmers did not have to touch the wall with their
hands; lane line technology had improved, to dampen the echo effect of
waves in a pool; pool technology (and starting blocks) had changed, to
advantage swimmers' times: "it all adds up," he said.
Symbol of Americana
Johnny Weissmuller came to fame through his swimming prowess. In Europe,
his dominance of Olympic swimming at the Paris and Amsterdam Olympiads
established him, during the era of the "Roaring 20s," as a prototypical
(and somewhat deliberately stereotypical) American: leisured, seemingly
carefree, (unspoken) white, and representative of an upper-middle
class sport. The United States State and Commerce Departments, Dyreson
convincingly demonstrates, worked together in 1923 to "spread American
products and American lifestyles around the world through sport".
And Weissmuller's extraordinary success at the 1924 Paris
Olympics—indeed, all of the American swim/aquatics team's
success—fitted in nicely with the scheme: his four medals brought him
European, and ultimately world-wide, recognition.
The United States government plan was predicated on the success of their
athletes on the playing field, the track, and, in Weissmuller's case,
the swimming pool. Thus, much was invested in this new form of "soft
manifest destiny". In attempting to open "new markets by promoting
American Olympic teams as international advertisements for American ways
of life", athletic success and correspondence with stereotypical
"American ways of life" were dependent upon successful young American
athletes—like rowers Benjamin Spock and James Stillman Rockefeller,
swimmer Gertrude Ederle, tennis players Helen Mills and Helen Wightman,
and swimmers Duke and Sam Kahanamoku—and of course, Johnny
Weissmuller. Their excellence provided the linchpin that held together
the more overt capitalist motives of the State and Commerce Departments
and the American Olympic Committee.
At the same time, the eighth summer (modern) Olympiad "testified to the
growing worldwide appeal of the Olympic Games. These were the first
Olympic Games to use an Olympic motto and to conclude with a closing
ceremony and the raising of three flags, those of the International
Olympic Committee (IOC), the host country, and the next host
Author and former sportswriter for the New York Daily News Paul
Gallico called the 1920s the "Golden Decade," and included Weissmuller
in his list of thirteen "Golden People" within this period. He wrote
that "The era alone would have to be set down as unique, since it was
practically the last time we believed in anything or anyone, including
the happy ending."
It was the sense of this affective feeling, the deliberate and
determined sense of hope after the First World War on which the State
and Commerce Departments—and the American Olympic Committee—meant to
capitalize. As Dyreson puts it, "Johnny Weissmuller represented the
best-selling brand produced by the American Olympic industry. He
promoted American civilization as the embodiment of the common belief
that sport produced social capital." Weissmuller, of course, was
more in the right place at the right time: but his Olympic success
served to demonstrate what the State Department was pushing.
His actual Olympic successes, the deliberate and intentional push for
synergies between sport and promotion of "the American brand" by the
federal government, and his non-plussed personality helped to shape
Weissmuller into a sporting cultural icon—in the jargon of the age,
the "bee's knees," the "cat's meow," the "eel's hip"—representing the
United States. But the linkages between sporting success and the
cultural industry of Hollywood cinema, deliberately connected early in
the decade of the 1920s, continued unabated through the Great Depression
and early war years. Olympians Duke Kahanamoku and Buster Crabbe also
worked in film.
It is interesting to note that General Douglas MacArthur became the head
of the American Olympic Association (AOA, earlier the American Olympic
Committee, later the United States Olympic Committee) after
then-president William Christopher Prout suddenly died a year out from
the 1928 Olympics. MacArthur told the United States Olympic Team in
Amsterdam about individual and the country's manifest destiny:
"We have not come so far just to lose gracefully, but rather to win, and win decisively. I rode them hard all along the line. Athletes are among the most temperamental of all persons, but I stormed and pleaded and cajoled. We have not come 3,000 miles just to lose gracefully."
Of course, this approach, by an up-and-coming general of the Army who
had aspirations to the Presidency, fell right in line with the State and
Commerce Departments' edicts. According to Lucas (1994), "the general's
approach to these Olympian Games was to treat them as a national crisis,
a patriotic 'war without weapons'."
Weissmuller's victories in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics propelled him into
the European and American public consciousness, but they only formed a
segue into what would turn out to be his most celebrated recognition of
his life. As a 24-year old five-time Olympic gold medalist, Johnny
Weissmuller began to look around to what he might do to earn a living.
The "rules" for amateurism (particularly for the Amateur Athletic Union,
the Illinois Athletic Club, and the Olympics) precluded him from
directly earning any income from his notoriety. Like many athletes of
the time period, Weissmuller was "unofficially" sponsored by the members
of the Illinois Athletic Club: the membership in the club elevated his
status, in a socio-economic sense, yet his livelihood was all contingent
upon his health and continued success in the water: it was precarious
"His spending money, the clothes he wore, every meal that he ate in a restaurant, were paid for by William Bachrach and the I.A.C. Wealthy financial supporters of the IAC donated money to the club; because of Johnny's immense popularity, there was enough money flowing into the club to take care of the athletes."
The system of wealthy benefactors providing patronage for talented
athletes was a common method of circumventing the letter, if not the
spirit, of the ethos of amateurism.
When he officially "retired" as an amateur swimmer, the IAC gave him a
farewell dinner, which included speeches by C. F. Biggert, president of
the club; Coach Bill Bachrach; Athletic Committee Chairman George T.
Donoghue; former Athletic Committee Chairman William Gibbons Uffendell;
local Otters President John Banghart, who gave Weissmuller a
"substantial present inscribed upon a slip of paper that will make him
welcome at any bank teller's window"; Frank W. Blankley, Chairman
of the Bath Committee; and Andrew McNally II (of Rand-McNally map-making
fame), who sang Weissmuller's praises. Johnny, McNally said, "has always
conducted himself as a gentleman, always been a good fellow in the
highest meaning of that term. He complimented Weissmuller upon his
discipline, his strict obedience".
It was a typical male club send-off, with promises of futures sewn into
the social capital Weissmuller had earned through his Olympic
achievements. Somehow, the son of an abandoned family—his father left
his mother in 1916—and the boy who was born in Romania (his
citizenship wasn't questioned for the Olympics, as he took on the papers
of his brother), parlayed his deficits into one of the most
world-recognized names in international swimming.
After the 1928 Amsterdam Olympiad, and through Coach Bachrach, he
"dabbled briefly in vaudeville-inspired water shows." In 1929, he
became a spokesperson, model, and representative for BVD underwear and
swimwear. The elision from international sports star to Hollywood
star had already begun, in some ways, when he cameoed as "Adonis" in
Paramount's Glorifying the American Girl (1929); he also appeared in
"Crystal Champions, a series of short films profiling American Olympic
champions," produced by Grantland Rice. These preliminary efforts
were to form the basis for his even-greater worldwide recognition as
Tarzan in the Tarzan films.
the roar and
the mighty muscles
—Noel Rico, "On hearing of the ailing Johnny Weissmuller," 1981.
The story goes that Weissmuller was swimming laps in the Hollywood
Athletic Club (HAC) when screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was coincidentally
working for MGM on a Tarzan movie script, "discovered" him. What made
Hume think this swimming and diving man could play Tarzan? It is said
that "when he saw Weissmuller's powerful athletic build and
still-blazing speed through the water," Hume was certain he had
found his Tarzan. Largely, his intuition was based on Weissmuller's
body: he embodied the stereotypical visual of what Hume (and, it turned
out, many others) thought was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan. As a
swimmer, Weissmuller had what was seen as a classical physicality: he
had played Adonis (really, posed as) in Glorifying the American Girl,
and, even though "talkies" were the most recent mode of filmmaking,
visual embodiment for characterization was still the dominant way of
bringing the written word to film. As with actresses of the
increasingly-glamorized era of filmmaking, Weissmuller's primary
attraction to Hollywood was his visual: for studio photographs, he was
portrayed as somewhat androgynous, with a glamorized face and body.
All told, he made twelve Tarzan films: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932),
Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Tarzan Escapes (1936), Tarzan Finds a
Son (1939), Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941), Tarzan's New York
Adventure (1942), Tarzan Triumphs (1943), Tarzan's Desert Mystery
(1943), Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), Tarzan and the Leopard Woman
(1946), Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), Tarzan and the Mermaids
(1948). The first six films were produced by MGM, the second (and more
cheaply-produced titles) six by RKO. His Tarzan persona was strictly
controlled by MGM: he was "loaned out" to Billy Rose for three
"Aquacades". He made sixteen more films, this time in the Jungle Jim
series, and some assorted cameo appearances.
After the first, highly-praised film (Tarzan the Ape Man) achieved
resounding financial success for MGM, a second was planned. Weissmuller
received great reviews, but his "acting" was rather constrained, and, as
Tarzan, his dialogue was minimalist. He was, admittedly, not an actor
with great range, but the films were meant to be action films, and the
simple plot lines were balanced with romantic interest between Tarzan
and Jane, played by Maureen O'Sullivan.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Spaghetti Western and the
"classically-inflected action films [which] constitute a major
cinematic form" based in Greco-Roman cultural norms reflected some
of the traditions, industry standards, and strategies of Tarzan films.
Producer Sol Lesser (who later produced the lesser-admired RKO Tarzan
films) expressed one key element to his Tarzan-produced films:
"Tarzan is an international character and about 75 per cent of the film grosses came from foreign countries during the period I was producing the films. Their demands were for action, not words. Too much dialogue would only serve to slow up a Tarzan picture and weaken its strongest appeal to the foreign theatregoer—the universal understanding of action and pantomime."
Much like the Spaghetti Westerns, the Greco-Roman peplum genre
(aka, "sword and sandal" films), and the "action" cartoons that were
easily dubbed in (like, more recently, Power Rangers), the Tarzan
films relied on a formulaic emphasis on action, not dialogue. Dubbing in
from English would reduce long speeches to comedic effect (as in the
However, the resounding success of the MGM Tarzan enterprises ensured
that Weissmuller would be typecast throughout his whole career. MGM
would not release him to do any other films: they wanted to protect the
almost-mythical relationship of Weissmuller to Tarzan. Even when rights
for the cycle of the so-called "MGM Series" of six films, characterized
by the 1932-1942 Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, and eventually
Johnny Sheffield, were sold to Sol Lesser, this tight control confining
Weissmuller to action/cartoon, children's B movies. In fact, Cheatwood
"Within the [MGM] studio the Tarzan movies were progressively seen as children's fare and non-characteristic of the tone or maturity of the earlier films. Externally, World War II caused the loss of foreign markets which made up around 50% of the market for these films."
One of Cheatwood's main points—that the Tarzan series itself is
remarkable in its singularity of product, longevity, and adaptations to
market demands—could also be applied to Johnny Weissmuller's own
career in Hollywood.
As he became world-famous to generations of sporting enthusiasts through
the 1920s, he unselfconsciously reshaped his image during the 1930s and
1940s. But even within his Tarzan film-six, making (12 films), the first
were viewed as somewhat more complex characterizations than the latter
six, which were more formulaic and where the Tarzan character became
more uni-dimensional, more cartoonish.
This trend, according to Cheatwood, reflects MGM and RKO's financial
concerns more than any artistic or aesthetic concerns. RKO sought out a
family and youth-oriented, more cheaply-produced, product, meant to
create income streams by engaging an action-hungry, youthful market. MGM
felt that the Tarzan cycle was at an end: RKO saw the films as an
opportunity to produce films cheaply, and made a profit. Having played
Tarzan for six films, frustrated with little dialogue in many of the
films, Weissmuller was, nevertheless, a willing accomplice to
RKO's—and Sol Lesser's—plans.
Simultaneous to this shift from adult to youthful Tarzan incarnations
was a cultural shift (as evidenced by the tightening "moral" codes
surrounding Hollywood films) which worked to restrict the way males were
portrayed on film. In a compelling work examining Hollywood photographic
studio shots (as well as other "publicity" photos), Willis-Tropea makes
the case that Weissmuller was caught on the cusp of filmic, strategic
transitions from a more fluid masculinity to portrayals of more rigid
For example, the earlier MGM Series' Tarzan films, coming
Post-Depression, "began offering models of more defined, traditional
gender roles" where "strength, virility, and power [were] the highest
standards for manliness". In films of this time, reflecting
"America's economic, political, and social discontent, formerly upheld
values of honesty, hard work, chastity, and unquestioned patriotism were
trumped by the individual's physical and psychic survival at any
cost". Thus, the transition from softer-imaged—and arguably more
complex—leading man roles (dominant in the 1920s) to
clearly-discriminated masculinities was reflected in Hollywood film
Much of Weissmuller's image was "constructed" by his studio management.
Just as he listened to Coach Bachrach while a competitive swimmer, he
remained highly "coachable". Thus, it was not surprising that, in order
to be Tarzan—a leading man—the focus on his body and physical image
(including voice lessons to "deepen" his voice) were paramount:
"The bodily focus, rhinoplasty, make-up skills, and fashion spread all attest to the precarious balance of gendered characterization that surrounded Weissmuller over the course of his Hollywood career. Sexualized, objectified, and celebrated as a body in a manner typically reserved for actresses, Weissmuller encountered the experience of being 'glamorized' just as he served as an icon of white male masculinity."
Later, as the cultural codes shifted and the Tarzan films morphed
towards family and juvenile vehicles, Weissmuller, Willis-Tropea argues,
portrayed two forms of idealized masculinity: "the 'active, virile
warrior type' and 'the graceful and more or less feminized ephebe'",
which "provid[ed] the possibility of both a 'masculinized' and a
'feminized' masculinity". The framing of Weissmuller, Willis-Tropea
contends, is a cinematic representation of these two types:
Weissmuller's lack of dialogue reinforced the impression that he was
both active agent (powerful, virile, carrying a knife, dominant in the
jungle) and passive innocent (representative of idealized nature).
He continued playing Tarzan until 1948 (Tarzan and the Mermaids), and
appeared in a cameo role in Stage Door Canteen (1943), and in a
Paramount film (with Buster Crabbe), Swamp Fire (1946). He then
married Allene Gates, his fourth wife, and they honeymooned in London,
where he combined performing in a "new British 'Aquashow' from February
23rd through March 27th ."
Weissmuller had arranged a production partnership with Sam Katzman and
William Berke to make "Jungle Jim" low-budget films for Columbia
Pictures, with Weissmuller starring in the title role. Weissmuller
starred in sixteen "Jungle Jim" films: Jungle Jim (1948), The Lost
Tribe (1949), Captive Girl (1950), Mark of the Gorilla 1950),
Pygmy Island (1950), Fury of the Congo (1951), Jungle Manhunt
(1951), Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land (1952), Voodoo Tiger
(1952), Savage Mutiny (1953), Valley of the Headhunters (1953),
Killer Ape (1953), Jungle Man-Eaters (1954), Cannibal Attack
(1954), Jungle Moon Men (1955), and Devil Goddess (1955). The last
three films Weissmuller starred as "Jungle Johnny," as the rights to the
Jungle Jim series had been sold to Screen Gems for a television series
of that name. He starred in the television series during 1955-1956, in
26 half-hour episodes. In 1950, he wrote, "I'm not trying to throw rocks
at Tarzan by picking Jungle Jim as my top role in pictures". He
enjoyed having actual lines to say.
Weissmuller continued to endorse swimwear, like goggles and fins for
swimmers; perform in various water shows; and take on assorted guest
appearances on television and cameos in several films. He had accrued
little retirement funds, and pretty much spent what he earned. In 1948,
Sol Lesser, re-released two Tarzan films: though twice as profitable
as when they were first released, sadly Weissmuller did not receive any
income from them. This pattern of others capitalizing on Weissmuller's
fame continued through the 1950s, as reruns of Tarzan made enormous
profits, continuing to influence, primarily, a new generation of young
boys as his primary audience.
Internationally, Johnny Weissmuller was first recognized as the premier
Olympic swimmer of his era. He was renowned in the United States, but
also in Europe—his Olympiads were in Paris and Amsterdam—where his
resounding victories created his sporting celebrity. In swimming
circles, of course, Weissmuller is viewed as the premier swimmer of his
age: in fact, in 1950, the Sports Writers of America voted him the
World's Greatest Swimmer of the First Half Century, 1900-1950.
The trajectory of his life, however, propelled him beyond aquatic feats:
he was recognized throughout the world during the 1930s and 1940s (and,
with re-releases, easily up into the 1960s) as Tarzan. He epitomized
Tarzan, especially to children and youth during their formative years:
for example, Edward Said conflates Weissmuller and Tarzan, ultimately
deciding that Johnny Weissmuller embodies the "hero diverted from
worldly success and with no hope of rehabilitation, in permanent exile".
Said further states: "Weissmuller's face tells a story of stoic
deprivation. In a world full of danger this orphan without upward
mobility or social advancement as alternatives is, I've always felt, a
Said, born in 1935, was influenced by both Edgar Rice Burroughs'
Tarzan books, but also by Johnny Weissmuller's portrayal of Tarzan
(there were other actors before and since Weissmuller took the role) to
the extent that he wrote, "The fact, however, is that anyone who saw
Weissmuller in his prime can associate Tarzan only with his
He touched a generation of young men, who modelled Tarzan as an integral
part of their playtime activities. The histrionic Tarzan yell,
breath-holding under water while pretend-fighting a crocodile, swinging
from "vines": all these were imitative behaviors of Weissmuller's young
audience (including his own co-star, Johnny Sheffield as Boy). With
Weissmuller, fans could imitate a sports star as well as a Hollywood
star—at the same time.
But the deeply-felt belief system that truly made Weissmuller an
international cultural icon may have been the fact that Johnny
Weissmuller the man was deeply conflated with Tarzan the character. The
doctrine of "Manifest Destiny," long inbred in American self-belief,
included certainty of their "rightness". The Edgar Rice Burroughs'
version of Tarzan followed four admirable tenets:
"1) Tarzan must not kill, except in self-defense or for food;
(2) he must never drink or smoke, and must always remain pure in mind and body;
(3) he must never fight except in defense of the oppressed;
(4) and Tarzan, pure at heart, must never cast a romantic eye towards any woman but his Jane."
It was a much simpler time. The belief systems that brought this
fervent, stereotypically-American surety would not last through the
decade of the 1960s, but during Weissmuller's era, his image embodied
American hope, generosity, freshness, naiveté, and innocence.
Weissmuller's connections to Europe and to the modernist project of
globalization are several-fold. First, he was born in Romania/Germany,
and with his family emigrated to the United States in the early part of
the 20th century. Second, he made his "swimming" name at the Paris and
Amsterdam Olympiads, drawing cultural notice to his easy-going good
looks and humility. He was yet another positive representation,
post-World War I, of the "good Yank".
There are several contestable "facts" about Johnny Weissmuller's life.
His place of birth, his real nationality: these were both pieces of his
biography that he disguised, or played with, depending upon the
situation. As well, he may have been married a fifth time (before his
first certified marriage). But his swimming records—"52 National
Championships, 67 World Records, and over 100 American
Records"—are not arguable. His playing Tarzan and subsequently
Jungle Jim are also factual. What is also apparent is that Weissmuller
gained a worldwide audience (of 1930s adults, and 40s and 50s younger
people) for his stoic, imitable portrayals, and these put him into the
realm of imagined cultural icon for literally millions of young boys and
viewing audiences throughout the world. As Depauw and Biltereyst wrote,
"these international blockbusters (together with the novel, comics, radio shows and many other forms of popular culture) helped to construct a powerful emblem of Western imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy. The MGM series occupies a special place in pre-war audience's imaginative encounters with the unknown wilderness."
Initially through his unquestionable swimming prowess, and then through
the careful crafting of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan character for a
Hollywoodized action series, Weissmuller rose to world-wide recognition
for four decades in the mid-twentieth century.
The interpretations of what Tarzan means change over time. Scholarly
interpretations of Weissmuller's place in that specific place and time
may vary as well, but they are not "false news"; they are simply
fascinated scholars mining the intricacies of meaning that may surround
Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984). To contextualize many of his career
decisions, and, more specifically, the attraction of his particular
Tarzan characterization, Weissmuller was quoted as saying, "I have an
idea it was the freedom thing. People say, 'Boy I wish I could live in a
treehouse without any problems and have all the animals in the world as
pets. And no worries. Gee, that'd be great!'"
His death, after a stroke in 1977 and various hospitalizations, came in
Acapulco, Mexico, and the listed cause of death is pulmonary edema.
Weissmuller's last seven years were not happy-go-lucky: after his
stroke, he was moved into the Motion Picture and Television Country Home
and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, where he was resident for
almost two years. He and Maria moved to Acapulco in late 1979, where
they resided until his death. His personal physician, Dr. Eustasio Ordaz
Parades, however, believed the cause was due to a cerebral thrombosis,
or "blood clotting of vessels in the brain". When he died, mainland
China's state-run television devoted nearly four minutes to Weissmuller.
He is buried—with his wife Maria and step-daughter Lisa—in the
Valley of the Light Cemetery, Acapulco, Mexico.