The Effortless and Legendary Life of Johnny Weissmuller Part 3: Weissmuller’s Own Birther Conspiracy

Johnn Weissmuller En route to Paris aboard the S.S. America
Johnn Weissmuller en route to Paris aboard the S.S. America

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, Johnny Weissmuller was the star of stars. He finally stared down his only perceived rival, Duke Kahanamoku by swimming to an Olympic record and winning gold in the 100-meter race. Weissmuller added gold medals in the 400-meter freestyle and the 4×200 freestyle relay, and aa bronze medal on the American water polo team.

Adding to Weissmuller’s already growing fame, he was afforded an opportunity that modern-day athletes would never even contemplate. Perhaps foreshadowing his Hollywood roles as Tarzan in 12 feature films, Weissmuller partnered with teammate diver Harold Stubby Kruger in a vaudeville-like show they would perform between races or events.

According to Weissmuller’s autobiographer, David Fury, in the book Twice the Hero, the two athletes performed comedy diving routine, where Weissmuller would perform dives in the proper form, and Kruger, in clown make up, would follow with horribly, but apparently hilarious versions of those dives.

As Fury wrote, “these exhibitions were so popular with the fans and had so many encores that they were banned at all future Olympic Games!”

After these 1924 Paris Olympics, Weissmuller was world famous, a brilliant future assured. But to Family Weissmuller, this may never have happened, if not for a secret well kept.

For the all American Johnny Weissmuller was not, technically, an American.

Rumors that Weissmuller was not born in American were in the air as he prepared for the 1924 Olympics, so much so that Olympic officials requested legal proof of Weissmuller’s citizenship, according to the book, Tarzan, My Father, written by Weissmuller’s son, Johnny Jr.

In fact, Johann Weissmuller was born in Freidorf, a town in Eastern Europe which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is now in Romania. Since Weissmuller was not an American citizen, the family believed they had to do something to ensure their boy wonder would fulfill his destiny in Paris. And so a secret plot was hatched. Here’s how Johnny Jr told the story:

Johnny Weissmuller with brother Peter, ages 3 and 2
Johnny Weissmuller with brother Peter, ages 3 and 2

But as the Paris Games drew nearer, Olympic officials told Dad that he needed to produce legal proof of his citizenship (his mother’s sworn statement was not enough) in order to obtain an American passport. My father and Grandmother Elizabeth (with the full concurrence and connivance of Uncle Pete) then hatched a plot to switch his official birthplace from Chicago to Windber, Pennsylvania.

Back then, in the baptismal records of Windber’s St. John Cantius Catholic Church, there was an entry for my father’s younger brother, Petrus. Today, that entry records the baptism of my father. “Petrus Weissmuller” is written in one hand, but “John” has been inserted between “Petrus” and “Weissmuller” in a distinctly different ink and penmanship. Church officials, to this day, aren’t sure when or how the record was altered.

The brothers, in order to solidify the deception, switched names and birth certificates: Peter, though always called Pete, claimed form the late 1920s until his death in 1966 that his “real” name was John Peter Weissmuller and that he was a Romanian born in 1904. My father alleged from 1924 onward that his true name was Peter John Weissmuller and that he was born in Pennsylvania in 1905. I have in my possession Uncle Peter’s certificate of U.S. citizenship, which lists his former nationality as Romanian. Peter, of course, was born a U.S. citizen in Windber in 1905, but – having switched birthplaces with my father in 1924 – he became the foreigner and, of necessity, the “older” brother.

As Fury explained, if Weissmuller had known years earlier, he could have easily attained American citizenship. All he would have needed to do at that time was take a citizenship test and recite an oath. But Weissmuller’s son admitted that hiding this falsity was a burden to the lighthearted Olympic champion his entire life.

Dad was very happy and very proud, but he was also very nervous. Thoughts about the possible results of the scam that he and his mother had perpetrated haunted him his entire adult life. He worried that they would take away his medals, prohibit him from ever competing in the Olympics again, publicly disgrace him, and possibly destroy his personal and professional lives.

Weissmuller took his secret to this grave. But neither his secret, or his legend died with him. Like more recent birther controversies in US history, Johnny Weissmuller’s was, in the end, a non issue.