Queen Wilhemina
Queen Wilhemina

In a sprint, seconds count. And in sprints in the pool, swallowing water can cost seconds. “I had always dreaded swallowing a mouthful of water,” said legendary swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller, quoted in David Fury’s biography, Twice the Hero.

There he was, in his best event at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, perhaps singing his swan song as an amateur athlete. At the turn of the mid-way point in the 100-meter race, Wesismuller did what he feared – he gulped a mouthful of water. “I felt like blacking out. I swallowed the stuff and lost two valuable yards. Lucky for me, we still had some forty meters to go – with only ten or so, I’d never have made it.”

But make it he did, winning the gold medal in the 100 meters in Olympic record time. He added another gold in the 4×200 meter relay. The only reason he didn’t win three golds, as he did in 1924, was because his coach asked him to join the water polo team instead of the 400-meter race, a competition he would likely have won.

Still, Weissmuller won five gold medals over two Olympics, and was again, one of the great stars of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Queen Wilhelmenia of Holland was there to award Weissmuller his gold medals, as well as a special award for his overall athletic excellence.

Weissmuller went on to live a full life as one of the world’s most renowned figures. (Even rebel soldiers in Havana, Cuba recognized him.) He starred as Tarzan in 12 films, made a fortune in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, and married five times. His second wife of two years, the short and sultry Lupe Vélez played quite the contrast to the tall and easygoing Weissmuller.

In the book, Tarzan, My Father, the author, Johnny Jr told of an epic fight between the couple. They were staying in a suite at the Claridge Hotel in London. Vélez had gone to bed and Weissmuller retired to a quiet book. But according to Weissmuller, his wife awoke suddenly, grabbed a shoe and began hitting her husband repeatedly over the head with hit.

I leaped out of bed and tried to grab her and calm her down. She ran out of the room, into the hallway, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Socorro! Help mee! Murrder!” U was wearing only my pajama top and was naked as a jaybird from the waist down, but I ran down the hall hoping to catcher her and try to stop this uproar. Suddenly, to my right, a door opened, and a matronly lady in nightcap and gown stared at me in wonder. I nodded, mumbled an apology of some sort, and continued the chase. On the second turn around the corridor, the matronly lady shouted at me, “Faster Johnny! You’ll catch her the next time around, I’m sure!”

Johnny Weissmuller and Lupe Vélez _Twice a Hero
Johnny Weissmuller and Lupe Vélez, from the book, Twice a Hero

He did indeed catch her, reeled her back to the room, and went to sleep. Unfortunately, the next morning, they found an eviction notice slipped under their door. By that time, the couple had made up, laughed off the incident and the eviction, packed their bags and were about to leave their room to check out when they got a knock on their door. It was the manager, who explained somewhat sheepishly that there was a reverse in their decision and that they were welcome to stay in the hotel as long as they wished. What did the manager say?

It seems, sir, that last night you passed the door of Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, and she spoke with you. She informs me that she once presented you with two gold medals following the Olympic games, as well as one of her own. It appears that she has a great fondness for you, and she quite firmly stated that if you leave, she is leaving also. I do apologize again, sir, and I hope that you will do us the honor of remaining.

Weissmuller lived a charmed life, and apparenly always got the royal treatment.

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.