Johnny Weissmuller swimming

There are sports heroes and there are true heroes.

Duke Kahanamoku was a three-time Olympian when he was in Los Angeles on June 14, 1925, saw a yacht overturn in the choppy waters, dove into the ocean and ended up saving 12 people, 8 solely on his own.

Two years later, Johnny Weissmuller, who took over Kahanamoku’s champion mantle a the 1924 Paris Olympics, was able to match the great Duke’s heroism on Lake Michigan in Chicago. On July 28, 1927, Weissmuller and his brother, Peter, were on the choppy waters of the lake training for an upcoming Chicago River Marathon race. Johnny was in the water while Peter was in a row boat following along, coaching and encouraging.

On this particular day, the winds were whipping up, and the bright and sunny day suddenly turned dark and stormy. Unfortunately, a double decker excursion boat called The Favorite was on the water carrying 71 passengers, and was unable to handle the sudden appearance of a “squall with cyclonic force, accompanied by heavy rain”, as Weissmuller biographer, David Fury noted.

Powerful winds quickly tossed passengers from the top deck into the roiling waters. As the boat rolled violently side to side, it took on so much water that the lower decks were plunged under the surface. The brother’s Weissmuller rowed to The Favorite as fast as they could. When they arrived, they were surprised to see the catatonic face of the captain, who sat in a chair on the top deck, holding the hand of a child, clearly in no state to do anything. The brothers in contrast, dove into the dark water to find passengers. They both brought up two children each. At that stage, Johnny barked out for his brother to start reviving the survivors, and that he would go in and bring up others.

According to Fury, Johnny repeatedly dove into the water in search of passengers, primarily women and children, eyes burning, lungs burning. In the end, the brothers pulled up and treated over 20 people. While 27 of the 71 passengers died in this calamity, the Weissmuller brothers alone saved eleven.

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
Maureen O’hara, John Sheffield, Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta

Heroes to the city of Chicago, the brothers viscerally understood this was nothing to celebrate. They received their recognition with solemn appreciation. But as is often the case when lives are saved, we often forget there are implications beyond time for such bravery.

Thirty five years later, Johnny Weissmuller received a letter from a woman he did not know.

I have seven children and one day, my seven children will have their young ones. This circle of life will continue forever or as long as God grants this earth to remain fertile within the atmosphere. But only you, Mr. Weissmuller, are responsible for this vast miracle that has come to touch my life, because it is you who rescued me from certain death, and enabled me o marry and have my children. I shall always impress upon the minds of my young ones to say a prayer of thanks on your behalf and, god willing, these prayers will last through a part of eternity.

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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.

 

Sgt Pepper cover

 

If you were on the eclectic cover of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you were likely a giant in your field. Carl Jung, Lenny Bruce, George Bernard Shah, Sonny Liston, Marilyn Monroe were among the 50+ people on that epic montage with the Beatles.

Just over the shoulders of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney was the downcast visage of Johnny Weissmuller, one of the most well-known people of the 20th century.

Not only did Weissmuller dominate the sprint races in the Olympics in the 1920s, he was the most enduring face of Tarzan on the silver screen, starring in 12 films featuring the beloved Edgar Rice Burrough’s creation. But Weissmuller as Tarzan would never have existed if not for Weissmuller as ultimate swimming machine. When Weissmuller arrived in Paris in June 1924 for the Olympics, the world had incredibly high expectations as Weissmuller held most of the world’s swimming records from 50 to 500 yards.

It was all so easy that at the 1923 AAU National Indoor Championships in Chicago, Weissmuller won the freestyle in the 50, 100, 220 and 500-yard competitions, as well as the 880-yard freestyle relay. But according to David Fury, author of Weissmuller’s biography entitled Twice the Hero, Weissmuller threw in a gimme. When told that there was only one more race – the 150-yard backstroke – which was not one of his events, he replied, “It is tonight.” Despite not actively competing in the backstroke, he set a world record.

In 1923, Weissmuller was in his prime and ready for the 1924 Paris Olympics. But when he was 15 years old, he was a tall, wiry youth who worked as a bellhop at a hotel in Chicago to help his family make ends meet, who also happened to enjoy swimming. He had a friend in the famed Illinois Athletic Club (IAC) who trained under Bill Bachrach, considered one of America’s best swimming coaches.

Thanks to his friend, Weissmuller eventually got a chance to show Bachrach what he could do in the pool. According to Twice the Hero, Weissmuller recalled, “as I look back now, my stroke was terrible. I plunged into the water and started to swim my head off. At the end of the 25 yards – 75 yards from my goal – I was completely exhausted. I was ashamed of myself. It was then that I received the most important lesson – in swimming or in life. 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.”

In the brilliant biography of Duke Kahanamoku, entitled Waterman, author David Davis wrote that Bachrach instantly saw the potential in young Weissmuller.

Johnny Weissmuller age 17_Twice the Hero
Johnny Weissmuller age 17, from the book, Twice the Hero

It didn’t take long for Bachrach to realize that he had found an unpolished gem. Johnny stood six feet three inches. He was lanky yet powerfully build, with impossibly wide shoulders. Beneath a mass of gleaming black hair, he sported a cocky, devil-may-care grin that concealed a Teutonic work ethic. Bachrach bemoaned Johnny’s horrible thrashing in the water but was impressed enough to present him with a golden ticket: membership to the IAC and access to the indoor pool inside the twelve-story clubhouse on Michigan Avenue.

For a year, Bachrach kept Weissmuller out of competition, working step by step, first on his arm movement, and then on his legs. Weissmuller was a devoted student, understanding and mastering the relaxed arm stroke, as well as the leg kick of the greatest sprinter of the time and Olympic champion, Duke Kahanamoku. He mastered the fast start of his teammate and Olympic champion Norman Ross, and mimicked the lane turn of another great swimming champion, Harry Hebner.

Weissmuller was such a good student, Bachrach asked his prodigy to take a leap. Quit the hotel bellhop job, and deal with short-term financial insecurity in exchange for the possibility of becoming the world’s greatest swimmer. Weissmuller had big dreams and they weren’t on the hotel lobby floor.

In January, 1921, only three months after Weissmuller was introduced to Bachrach, Weissmuller participated in a contest at the IAC pool. Apparently he was so nervous he false started three times, but still ended up second in this unsanctioned race. A couple of months later, Bachrach entered Weissmuller into a 500-year freestyle competition, in which he came in second to Ross. Bachrach wanted to see how his boy would react to the pressure, and on the whole, he handled it well. Bachrach kept Weissmuller under wraps for five more months until he thought he was ready for prime time.

Finally entered into an official AAU competition in August, 1921 at the Duluth Boat Club in Minnesota, the 17-year old was up against world-class competition. And on that one day on August 6, Weissmuller, seemingly out of nowhere, won the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 120-yard freestyle and 150-yard freestyle races.

A star was born. Because from that point on for another 7 years, Johnny Weissmuller would emerge victorious in every single competition he entered.

ohara shef weissmuller sheet
Maureen O’hara, John Sheffield, Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta

Johnny Weissmuller won five gold medals in swimming over two Olympics in Paris (1924) and Amsterdam (1928). But Weissmuller became globally famous after he was recruited by Hollywood to act out on film the iconic Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ character, Tarzan.

In 1958, Weissmuller had essentially retired from acting and was enjoying the life of renowned Hollywood celebrity, and was playing at a celebrity golf tournament in one of the hotspots for American celebrities – Havana, Cuba. As this article from The Smithsonian explains, “by the 1950s Cuba was playing host to celebrities like Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. But the advent of cheap flights and hotel deals made the once-exclusive hotspot accessible to American masses. For around $50—a few hundred dollars today—tourists could purchase round-trip tickets from Miami, including hotel, food and entertainment. Big-name acts, beach resorts, bordellos and buffets were all within reach.”

Havana 1950s
Havana, Cuba in the 1950s

The Smithsonian goes on to explain that “the sugar boom that had fueled much of Cuba’s economic life was waning, and by the mid-’50s it was clear that expectations had exceeded results. With no reliable economic replacement in sight, Cubans began to feel the squeeze. Poverty, particularly in the provinces, increased.” It was very Americanization of Cuba and the diminishing economic prospects in this impoverished Caribbean nation that was an offense to a growing band of revolutionaries, headed by Fidel Castro.

According to the son of Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Weissmuller Jr, in his book, My Father, Tarzan, the Olympian was headed to the golf tournament when he and his friends were stopped by Castro’s guerrilla troops. Foreigners were susceptible to being kidnapped by the Revolutionaries, so Weissmuller was at significant risk when his car was stopped and his guards disarmed. According to the now legendary story, Weissmuller decided to identify himself in the clearest manner possible – by beating his chest with his fists and letting rip his trademark Tarzan yell.

Suddenly the guerrillas realized they were in the midst of Hollywood royalty. They dropped their guns, shouted “”Es Tarzan! Es Tarzan de la Jungla! Bienvenido!”, shook the Ape-man’s hand, and got his autograph. Not only did Weissmuller make it to the golf tournament, he got a revolutionary escort to a golf course, the symbol of American capitalism.

Duke Kahanamoku and Henry Fonda
Duke Kahanamoku with film star Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) who is draped in leis. Fonda is in Hawaii for the filming of ‘Mister Roberts’.

Kahanamoku first achieved Olympic glory in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden, but because of the cancellation of the 1916 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku had to figure out how to remain an amateur for 8 years until he competed again at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Only a few months after the 1912 Stockholm Games, gold medalist pentathlete and decathlete, Jim Thorpe, was stripped of his medals and amateur status because he took home pocket change for playing semi-pro baseball in 1909 and 1910.

Kahanamoku, who considered Thorpe a friend, was crestfallen, and was reported to have said, “Jimmy Thorpe was the greatest athlete there ever was. He could do everything. And what happened to him was a bad break for sports and for everyone.”

When Thorpe was stripped of his medals, Kahanamoku and his backers had to be cautious. So, according to author David Davis, when the citizens of Hawaii raised money for Duke Kahanamoku after his gold-medal winning performance at the 1912 Stockholm Games, they weren’t sure how to provide it to him lest they risk Kahanamoku losing his amateur status. And if Kahanamoku lost his amateur status, and could no longer compete in AAU events or the Olympics, then Kahanamoku’s ability to draw tourists and opportunities to Hawaii, it was thought, would diminish. Eventually, a house was bought by a trust company, and Kahanamoku was able to move into a new home. The trust was set up so that he could never re-sell the home. The flip side of the deal is that the powers that be in Hawaii probably kept this transaction under the AAU radar.

While it is possible that Kahanamoku received cash very quietly for appearances at exhibitions all over the world, as well as for low-key advertising campaigns in a pre-television, pre-internet world, Kahanamoku did not financially benefit from his immense celebrity while he was an athlete. This was true even after Kahanamoku had surrendered his amateur status and tried to make it in the world of film. His Hawaiian “otherness”, however, got him typecast as the quiet pacific islander surfer, or native American Indian chief. He was never able to rise to the easy heights of fellow swimmers, Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films, or Buster Crabbe in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers films.

Anita Stewart and Duke Kahanamoku
Anita Stewart and Duke Kahanamoku in what I think is the 1927 film Isle of Sunken Gold

Kahanamoku is credited with appearances in 14 feature films, including the WWII naval classic, Mr Roberts, with Henry Fonda and James Cagney. But one film that is not mentioned is The Beachcomber, a film made shortly after Kahanamoku’s triumph in Stockholm. It never got distributed in the US, as it was seen as a threat to Kahanamoku’s amateur status. Here is how David Davis explains it in Kahanmoku’s biography, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku:

Before returning to Hawaii, Kahanamoku made his motion picture debut in The Beachcomber, shot on an unidentified beach in Southern California. The one-reel silent film was directed by its star, Hobart Bosworth, a pioneer in Hollywood’s nascent movie industry. (Bosworth also was a friend and business associate of the author Jack London.) Duke did not have to stretch much to play a native islander who swims out to rescue Bosworth’s character from drowning. Publicity shots showed him wearing nothing more than a sarong. Bosworth had to delay releasing the film, however, after it was discovered that “the champion might lose his right as an amateur if swimming for money,” according to Motion Picture News. It is unclear whether The Beachcomber was ever shown or distributed in the United States, although foreign audiences reportedly were able to view the stirring flick.