Tarzan is Born

Male Nude Sculpture by Dorothy Mary Venning, RA (LEO Design)

On this day in 1904, Peter Johann Weißmüller was born in Freidorf, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and now in Romania).  When he was seven months of age, his family moved to the U.S. and, after a period in Pennsylvania, settled in Chicago.  At nine, young Peter contracted polio, and, at the advice of his doctor, began to swim.  He proved to be a good swimmer and was soon on a competitive swim team, eventually winning the 1921 National Championships in two events.  He also worked on Lake Michigan as a lifeguard and in Chicago as an elevator operator and bell boy.   But it was his swimming talent that first made him famous.  Selected for the 1924 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, Peter needed a passport to travel to the Paris games.  Since he had not been born in The States, he filled-out the passport application with his brother’s name, John, and listed his birthplace as Windber, PA (where his younger brother had been born).  In Paris, “Johnny” won three gold medals for swimming and one bronze for water polo.  Four years later, in Amsterdam, he picked-up two more gold medals for swimming.

In 1929, Johnny signed a contract with BVD as an underwear and swimwear model, traveling the country and signing autographs at events.  He also filmed his first small role that year, as “Adonis,” in the movie “Glorifying the American Girl.”  He was dressed in a fig leaf.  In 1932, now under contract to MGM, Johnny was cast in the title role of “Tarzan the Ape Man”—the first of twelve Tarzan roles he would film.  He invented the infamous “Tarzan Yell” and became an overnight international sensation.  In 1939, he co-starred with Esther Williams at the 1939 World’s Fair “Aquacade.”

In 1974, Johnny broke his hip and leg and entered a decade of declining health.  Despite his athletic lifestyle, he had a serious heart ailment—perhaps the result of his early-life polio.  On 20 January 1984, after several strokes, 79 year old Johnny Weissmuller died in Acapulco, Mexico of pulmonary edema.  He was buried just outside of the city while a recorded Tarzan Yell played three times—as he had requested.

The sculpture above is not Weissmuller (or Tarzan) but it was sculpted in England by the sculptress Dorothy Mary Venning, RA.  It was crafted at the time when the actor was a  young man and swimming champion.