First and Only Weekly Online Fanzine Devoted to the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Since 1996 ~ Over 10,000 Webpages and Webzines in Archive
The most popular fictional character of the twentieth century
grew out of the combined talents of three Chicagoans.
Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ James Allen St. John ~ Johnny Weissmuller
James Allen St. John was born on Chicago’s South Side in 1872. He probably received some of his earliest training in use of pencil, pen, and brush from his mother, the former Susan Hely, an accomplished artist who worked in the studio of G.P.A. Healy. It is likely that she applied her considerable and well-recognized talent to some of the portraits hanging in many Chicago manors and museums that carry Healy’s name. It was the custom for good technicians to paint backgrounds, draperies and other necessary detail while the famed artist did the main subject and put on the fine finishing touches. Dr. Josephus St. John, James’ father, a graduate of Rush Medical College in Chicago, studied in Europe, practiced in New York, and returned to Chicago in his final years. During his father’s last illness, James kept bedside vigil. In the long nights he wrote and illustrated The Face in the Pool, a tale of doughty knights and of damsels in distress. McClurg published the book in 1905. Its success convinced James he could make a better living at writing than at painting so he went to a secretarial school to learn shorthand and typing.
At school he met Ellen Munger. “He was a handsome man with the most beautiful hair I’d ever seen… red, with gold glints. I suppose it was a whirlwind courtship. When he asked me to marry him I gave up all ideas of a secretarial career and accepted. We lived in the little South Side house where James had lived with his family. It was on Twenty-Sixth Street near Prairie Avenue. In earlier days the St. Johns’ neighbors had been families such as the Marshall Fields, the Byron Smiths, and the Chatfield-Taylors. But the neighborhood had changed. Residences were giving way to industry, and when a high rise to our north cut off the good north light, we moved to the Tree Studio Building. James gave up the writing idea because he was too well-paid and too busy as an illustrator.”
Among the publishers that kept St. John at the drawing board and easel were McClurg (who gave him the most work); Rand McNally and Company (Kipling’s Boys’ Stories and King Arthur and His Knights); Reilly and Lee; Bellows, Reeve and Company; as well as the publishers of Red Book, Fantastic Adventure, and Weird Tales, among others.
Mrs. St. John remembers the many times that Edgar Rice Burroughs visited the Tree Studio apartment. The meetings were not social and Mrs. St. John absented herself after being sure that the men had whatever refreshment they required. “Mr. Burroughs was all business. He had to be, because he was writing so furiously. After he moved to California his correspondence dealt mainly with the drawings and sketches James did for the books. His letters were always friendly and complimentary.”
The artist and his wife in their studio were an illustration in themselves and could have posed for the ideal portrait of artist and wife. Both Dave Eisenberg and Stan Vinson remember the two-story studio and surrounding balcony with a Spanish shawl draped over the wrought iron railing. “I’d bring him galley proofs from a book by Burroughs or some other of our authors,” Eisenberg said, “he’d greet me as though I was the one person on earth he most wanted to see. There’d be wine handy. He’d offer me pipe tobacco, an import from Scotland. I learned to smoke a pipe just so I could accept. He had a huge phonograph playing chamber music. For a kid just out of the army it was opening a door to true worldliness and sophistication. I loved it.
Stan Vinson remembers St. John’s pleasure when admirers of Burroughs came calling. “He got a big charge out of the developing interest in Burroughs and the books that he, St. John, had illustrated. He didn’t look on the work he’d done in drawing jungle animals or creatures from Barsoom as beneath his dignity as an artist. He’d done the best he could with the illustrations, and he was delighted when people all over the world asked him about them.”
One of Burroughs’ letters to St. John epitomizes his appreciation of the artist’s contribution to the stories. Dated May 18, 1920 from Tarzana Ranch, Van Nuys, California, the letter reads in part: “…I think you visualize the characters and scenes precisely as I did. If I could do the sort of work you do I would not change a line in any of the drawings. I think your work for Tarzan the Untamed is the finest thing I have ever seen.” In “TU” as the book is known in the shorthand of the Burroughs fans, Tarzan, with an occasional assist from the British Army, wins German East Africa away from the enemy (World War I). TU is the only Tarzan book not translated into German. It may well have been the last book that Burroughs worked on in Oak Park, and he may have torn himself away from it to attend the White Paper Club banquet.
The speeches and menu for that banquet contain frequent references to pigs and goats. This puzzled me when first confronted by these mentions of domestic animals because none of the Tarzan or Carter stories made any particular reference to barnyard creatures. The mystery was solved when Paul Angle, who needs no introduction to readers of this publication, found in the Chicago Tribune of March 12, 1919, the following: “Edgar Rice Burroughs may go to Africa for ape heroes, but when he wants a practical man he goes to Oak Park. That’s why he chose Frank R. Onthank, a former Oak Park motorcycle policeman, as supervisor of his Angora goat and prize pig ranch at Tarzana, his estate in the San Fernando Valley, California, formerly known as Milflores. Onthank, who has considerable experience with the temperament of goats and peculiarities of pigs, will go west with his family next Friday.”
Goats and pigs were not the prime reason for the California move. Tarzan had made it in the movies and Burroughs wanted to be on the filming scene. Tarzan of the Apes had opened in New York in 1918, starring barrel-chested muscle-man Elmo Lincoln. It had been an immediate success (it was one of the first films to gross over a million dollars), and the second Tarzan movie, Tarzan’s Romance, was also setting box office records.
Several actors followed Lincoln as Tarzan. One of them was Jim Pierce, a former All-America center from Indiana University. Pierce was not a screaming success in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, but he won acclaim and the hand of Joan Burroughs, the author’s daughter. Joan and Jim became the stars of the Tarzan radio series, a sequence of 364 episodes of adventure written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and produced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. (By this time the author had incorporated himself and was involved in many enterprises.) Sold to broadcasters across the country, the series became the first packaged serial, another tribute to Burroughs’ good business sense.
Lincoln, Pierce, and several other Tarzans had faded from the screen by the time Johnny Weissmuller swung and swam into view. Weissmuller’s first film was a remake of Tarzan of the Apes, produced for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1933 by Irving K. Thalberg, who spent over a million dollars on the production. Weissmuller could not have fitted the role any better if he had actually studied and trained for it all of his life. Almost everything that Weissmuller had done since childhood pointed him to The role of the most satisfactory characterization of Tarzan, before or since. Weissmuller was Tarzan – he still is to millions who saw him. Even now audiences are making his acquaintance because the Weissmuller-Tarzan films are now permitted in Russia and China, where they were formerly forbidden.
The Weissmullers lived in Chicago, at 1921 North Cleveland Avenue, while Johnny was serving apprenticeship to the career as the world’s greatest swimmer and the role of the best film Tarzan. He was a scrawny kid, so sickly-looking that the bigger boys in his class at Saint Michael’s down the block picked on him all the time. Johnny had been christened Peter John and his younger brother John Peter, but the boys decided that this was confusing. When John Peter was old enough to make important decisions regarding personal nomenclature the boys switched names, and form then on Peter John was John P. Weissmuller. The brothers were good friends and went together to Fullerton beach where both discovered a great affinity to water and swimming. Johnny was so enamored of the sport that in order to have a place to swim during the cold weather he claimed to be fifteen when he was twelve so that he could swim in the pool at the Larrabee YMCA, just south of North Avenue. Johnny had a strange and different style of swimming. He did not like to put his head under water and swam with his back arched. Later, under the tutelage of Bill Bachrach, the swimming coach at the Illinois Athletic Club, he perfected this style which was largely responsible for his becoming the world’s best swimmer – and the Tarzan with tenure.
Bachrach explained the advantages of the head-high style, “It means that the upper torso offers less water resistance.” He told Johnny to use his arms and legs as if he were trying to climb out of the water as fast as he could. The method worked and Weissmuller was on his way to win more swimming records than any swimmer has ever claimed. Sixty-seven world records were his along with fifty-two national records and five Olympic medals. Weissmuller’s free-style stroke was his own and earned him the title of “human hydroplane” from sports writers. When cameramen and film directors saw Johnny swim they were delighted because interesting footage could be shot of Tarzan raising a bow wave racing to rescue someone, usually Jane, from crocodiles or vengeful tribesmen. Jane, Tarzan’s mate, was played by Maureen O’Sullivan in several subsequent Tarzan-Weissmuller movies.
Another kind of training helped Weissmuller to fill the character. His swimming gave him lungpower that he used in singing. The singing in turn led to yodeling at which his father was an expert. The elder Weissmuller kept a saloon near the Cleveland Avenue home and yodeled a lot for his customers. The reader might remember the street peddlers who made summertime in Chicago resound with cries of “wat-tee – wat-teemellooooh!” and “red, ripe tomatoooooh! Sweeeet corn!” There was such a peddler in Johnny’s neighborhood whose voice was inadequate to the necessary vocal advertising, so he hired Johnny to do it for him. This added even more muscle to the Weissmuller larynx. From this came the Weissmuller trademark, the Tarzan yell. Earlier Tarzans had to resort to recorded yells in which the cries of large animals in distress were mixed with operatic sopranos and violins, but Johnny’s yell was Johnny’s own, and one hell of a yell it was!
When the young Weissmuller was not hawking tomatoes and sweet corn during the summer he was usually in the water somewhere. In Lake Michigan at the Fullerton or Oak Street beach or at the YMCA pool. One day a neighborhood friend who was a member of the Illinois Athletic Club water polo team invited Johnny to the club as his guest. Johnny entered with vigor the water polo scrimmage. When Coach “Big Bill” Bachrach saw Johnny in action he knew that this boy had tremendous potential. Bachrach worked hard with Johnny and saw his labors rewarded when his pupil won three gold medals in Olympic competition in Paris in 1924.
Back in the United States Weissmuller continued to set national and international records. His speed in the 100-yard free-style, 51 seconds, stood as a record for 16 years, and then was only shaved by two-tenths of a second. In the 1928 Olympics Johnny won more gold medals and new acclaim. Back in Chicago he was offered a contract by the BVD Company of Piqua, Ohio, where the company was starting to manufacture a new line of swimming suits. What better promoter of the new line than the world’s most famous and greatest swimmer?
Johnny was hired. On the eve of leaving for Piqua he was feted at a banquet in the Illinois Athletic Club where Andrew McNally II, as master of ceremonies, lamented Johnny’s retirement from amateur competition, pointing out that the Chicago boy had almost single-handedly brought swimming to a new importance in the world of sports. The BVD Company made Johnny their travelling ambassador to pool and seaside resorts where in exhibitions and as guest swimming instructor he showed off the newest BVD swim suits. His travels took him to California where casting trials for the new version of Tarzan of the Apes were just about running out of candidates.
Cyril Hume, a famous screen writer, who had been engaged by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to do a new screen treatment of the old Tarzan, saw Johnny and recognized in the face, frame and swimming style the Tarzan he had been writing about. A screen test, and several legal wrangles over his BVD contract followed. (One of the concessions made by MGM was to permit BVD promotions to use photographs of all their contract players in BVD swim suits, and among MGM’s players were Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, and Greta Garbo.) This all resulted in a new Tarzan swinging across the screen jungle – a Tarzan eminently suited to battle or make friends with jungle beasts, an ape-man who scorned the trappings of civilization, who could call elephants to his aid or frighten lions with his battle cry. In short, a Tarzan that was everything a growing boy could wish to be – a hero. And you hardly find that kind anymore.
Irving K. Thalberg, the boy wonder of MGM, produced the film in Thalberg style, spending a lot of money. Herds of elephants, tribes of pygmies, villages of natives, and a few gorillas all added to the outdoorsy flavor of the new version of Tarzan of the Apes. In the Tarzan books, Jane’s role was always a minor one. When Tarzan went off adventuring she was often left home on the Range, the estate that Tarzan bought with some of the jewels and gold he was always finding. If she did enter the plot it was usually because she had been kidnapped or did some other stupid thing that got her into trouble from which she had to be rescued.
“Me Tarzan, you Jane” is widely quoted as Tarzan’s first and nearly complete vocabulary. Wrong. Even in the film the correct quote is “Tarzan! –Jane!” delivered with appropriate pokes of the finger. But in the Burroughs version Tarzan’s first words directly quoted were “Mais oui!” spoken with an authentic Parisian accent learned from Lieutenant D’Arnot, an officer in the French navy. D’Arnot had been rescued in the jungle by Tarzan, became a good friend, and appeared in several other Tarzan stories.
Burroughs never understood why screen writers refused to follow his characterization of the ape-man and his original plots of the tales, but would insist on making up their own. He did not think that the cinema treatments were any improvement. Tarzan as originally conceived was the son of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, an English gentleman sent on an un-named assignment to Africa. With him was his pregnant wife. The crew of their ship mutinied, and Lord Greystoke and his wife were marooned by the mutinous crew on the beach of a small cove on the west coast of Africa. Here the heir to wealth and position was born in a tiny cabin Clayton had built. The young mother died and Lord Greystoke was killed by the great apes of the tribe of Kerchak. Kala, a member of the tribe, had just lost her first born. She exchanged the dead baby for the live one, and Tarzan was raised as an ape, believing himself to be Kala’s child. Quite a bit later he discovered his true identity and claimed his heritage. However, although he was welcomed in London clubs and Paris theaters, he was at home only in Africa, in loincloth, armed with crude weapons and his own muscle. The screenwriters changed all that and Tarzan-Weissmuller was essentially a jungle man who spent a lot of time in the water.
I do not remember how the Tribe of Kerchak, Wilson Avenue branch, felt about the liberties screen writers took with the official version, but I do recall that there were un-apelike discussions about one of the movies in which Tarzan-Weissmuller in a playful mood tugged off the leather costume that Jane-Maureen was wearing as she plunged into the pool close by the treetop abode. “Gee, did you see?” Buddy Peters said. “When she hit that water she wan’t wearing anything. She was naked! How’d they film that?”
Sex, nudity, love, and marriage were always causing problems for Tarzan although sometimes the problems had fortunate results. The movies had to soft-pedal the fact that Tarzan and Jane never went through a wedding ceremony on camera, always glossing over the lack of wedding ring. When the writers gave Tarzan a son the lad was adopted. More recently, about ten years ago, a schoolteacher in Downey, California ordered all Tarzan books from the library shelves because, she said, Tarzan and Jane never got married. The case won attention from all the news media. Neither schoolteacher nor the new stories had the facts, which are these:
Tarzan and Jane were married. In Burroughs’ book The Return of Tarzan the two were united by Jane’s father, Archimedes Q. Porter, an ordained minister of an undisclosed sect. However the Johnny Weissmuller – Maureen O’Sullivan pair were never married on screen. The furore raised by the library ban and subsequent tempest in the journalistic teapot brought about a renaissance in Tarzan books and spawned a new publishing company whose sole purpose was to reprint books by Burroughs. Book dealers’ shelves were flooded with Burroughs’ titles and a new generation was made familiar with the old heroes: Tarzan, John Carter, Tars Tarkas, the Waziri, Jane Porter and all their friends and enemies. The new interest also produced a new Tarzan – this time for the television screen.
Several million middle-aged men must have been delighted, as I was, when a video Tarzan gave promise of bringing the ape-man’s adventures to yet another generation. Some may even have tried out stiffened larynxes in a sotto voce version of the victory cry of the bull ape, or started to leap for a branch over hanging the sidewalk only to find that it was a crack in the eyeglasses that they were about to reach for. But it must be faced, you cannot return again. We are not young who knew Tarzan as he swung fresh from Burroughs’ pen, the St. John brush, the Weissmuller’s sound-stage trees. The TV Tarzan just does not swing and swim like Johnny.
Burroughs died before the TV Tarzan came along. In California after leaving Chicago he had produced many new stories and organized the Edgar Rice Burroughs Corporation, which published some of the books and handled the spin-off business from the Tarzan image. He served as foreign correspondent during World War II, and died peacefully in bed while reading the Sunday papers on March 19, 1950. At the time of his death over a hundred Burroughs titles had been published, and the writer’s total income from all sources – books, magazines, newspapers, movies, radio, etc. was estimated to have been in the neighborhood of $15,000,000.
James Allen St. John survived Burroughs by seven years, living his last days in the Tree Studio Building that had for so long been his home and working place. Mrs. St. John still lives there.
Johnny Weissmuller after his long Tarzan career – seventeen years – became Jungle Jim in a series of African adventures that won little critical acclaim. When that string ran out he became a promoter for swimming pools for the General Swimming Pool Corporation of Addison, Illinois. He spends much of his time in Florida, where he is curator of the Fort Lauderdale Swimming Hall of Fame.
It is difficult to end this memorial to the three men who meant adventure and good entertainment to more people than any trio in history, but he article will have achieved its main purpose if it stakes a claim to new recognition of our city as the place where they grew up – Edgar Rice Burroughs, James St. John, and Johnny Weissmuller – three Chicago boys.
PHOTOS SOON TO BE ADDED:
A Potawatomi boy at a Prairie Band Pow Wow described in James A. Clifton’s article “Chicago Was Theirs.” From the author’s collection.
Chicagoan John Tucker has spent most of his life in newspaper work, advertising, and public relations. He has written radio and television features, and has published poems and short stories.
Edgar Rice Burroughs while on a visit to Chicago in 1933
(Chicago Historical Society)
Tarzan makes his first appearance in the October, 1912 issue of The All-Story magazine. Clinton Pettee made this first representation of the hero.
(Stanleigh B. Vinson Collection)
James Allen St. John in his Chicago studio in 1923, with his famous painting Tarzan and the Golden Lion in the Background.
(Courtesy of Mrs. James Allen St. John)
Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan in Sol Lesser’s Tarzan Triumphs. It is Francis Gifford with him, in the role of Zandra.
(Stanleigh B. Vinson Collection)