Tarzan, King of Apes, still royalty
By Susana Hayward ~ Knight
Ridder Newspapers ~ August 18, 2004
ACAPULCO, Mexico — A flower
always lies on Tarzan's grave. Rumor is that a mystery woman places one
there every day. It's been more than 50 years since Johnny Weissmuller
starred in his last Tarzan movie and more than 20 since he died here. But
people still come to his simple grave and monument — with his name misspelled
"Weismuller" — to remember the record-breaking Olympic swimmer who became
a film hero before slipping into obscurity and poverty in this Pacific
even make the famous Tarzan bellow. "It's the first movie I saw," said
54-year-old Javier Monroy, recalling Weissmuller's first Tarzan film, "Tarzan,
The Ape Man," released in 1932, long before Monroy was born. "Going to
the movies was something special then." Weissmuller made 12 films based
on the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last one, "Tarzan
and the Mermaids," was filmed here in 1948 in the endless beaches and lagoons
along the Pacific. Weissmuller went on to become the protagonist of 16
Jungle Jim film and television epics.
While his film career is
widely remembered, it's just part of Weissmuller's legacy. An autographed
photograph of Johnny Weissmuller at La Perla restaurant in Acapulco. The
International Olympic Committee pays homage to him on its Web site, noting
that he won five Olympic gold medals and set 28 world records. As the Summer
Olympics are held in Athens, Greece, a documentary on Weissmuller's life
is being released in Europe. "Such was his margin of superiority over his
contemporaries that many authorities still rate him ahead of Mark Spitz
as the greatest swimmer of all time," the IOC writes. "The longevity of
his records is a testament to his greatness." Spitz won nine gold medals
from 1968 to 1972, when he set seven world records, but Spitz competed
in many more swimming events than existed when Weissmuller swam at Paris
in 1924 and Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1928.
Weissmuller was adored in
Acapulco, where he filmed many of his movies. He made it his home in 1955
when he bought the Los Flamingos Hotel with John Wayne, Red Skelton, Fred
MacMurray and manager Bo Roos. At the time, Acapulco was a sleepy city
of 20,000, but Weissmuller and the so-called "Hollywood Gang" helped transform
it into a tourist Mecca that's home to 2 million people today. "It was
a marvelous era," recalled Adolfo Santiago, who was a young boy selling
soft drinks to beachgoers when he befriended Weissmuller. In time he would
come to own the hotel. "All the movie stars came," he remembered. "It was
a private hotel, only for their friends, artists. Not just anybody could
get in here."
The hotel's walls are still
filled with photographs of Weissmuller; his Tarzan mate, Maureen O'Sullivan;
"Boy"; and his chimp, Cheetah. Among the visiting luminaries were Wayne,
Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Jayne Mansfield and Ann-Margret.
Born Janos Weissmuller on
June 2, 1904, in Freidorf, Hungary, he was 7 months old when his parents
migrated to the United States. He gave his birthplace as Pennsylvania and
used the birth date of a younger brother, Peter, so he could compete on
the U.S. Olympic team and get an American passport. He was married five
times, the final time in 1963 in Las Vegas to Gertrudis Maria Theresia
Brock, a German widow who had come to the United States after World War
II. While his healthy years were rewarding, his last ones were tragic.
Sick, broke, mostly alone, unable to speak and partially paralyzed, the
once-burly 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound "hunk" died in his sleep on Jan. 20,
1984, in a rented house that friends say he hadn't left in five years.
As his condition deteriorated, caretakers placed him on an inner tube so
he could splash with his one good arm. "It was pitiful to see him sitting
in an inner tube paddling the water. Just pitiful! This man was a machine
gun, a swimmer, a fish!" said Mike Oliver, Weissmuller's assistant as a
young man, then editor of the Acapulco News and a friend for 36 years.
Son John, who just wrote
a book, "Tarzan, My Father," said his undoing came with his last marriage.
Maria was a heavy drinker who would leave Weissmuller alone for days and
go bar-hopping. She sold all his assets to survive, friends and custodians
said. It's fitting that when she died at 81 earlier this year, some of
her ashes were buried at Weissmuller's grave — and mourners poured out
a bottle of rum. The final indignity, son John said, was where his father
was buried. "Maria buried him in a mud puddle! A garbage dump," he said
of the once run-down cemetery then called Valley of the Light. Now the
cemetery is well-tended, helped by the growth of the city. New owners changed
the name to Garden of Time. Marigolds and other flowers are everywhere.
People bring lawn chairs on Sundays to spend time with their dearly departed.
And Weissmuller's grave gets
special care. Julia de los Santos, a cemetery administrator, was a 16-year-old
waitress at Acapulco's Sao Paolo restaurant, where Weissmuller often dined
with Wayne. "He was so gorgeous. A hunk! I wanted to hug him," she recalled.
"And he was so gentle, sweet, a perfect gentleman. Oh, and the tips he
gave!" Asked if she's the flower woman, de los Santos coyly shrugged: "I