CHAPTER I: YOUNG JOHNNY
A small boy with eager blue eyes stood at the edge of a beach
on the shore of Lake Michigan and watched the other children splashing
in the cool water.
"Come on in, Johnny," one of the boys called, waving a bare arm and
ducking a freckled face under the waves.
But Johnny didn't move. For a long time he stared at the noisy fun around
him. Then, slowly, he wiggled one bare toe in the surf at his feet.
"It's shallow down there, Johnny," his younger brother, Pete, suggested
pointing to the "Baby Beach," a sandy stretch set aside for youngsters,
"Let's try it."
So ten-year-old Johnny and Pete walked down the beach and waded into
the lake. Strong, husky Pete urged thin, long-legged Johnny farther and
farther into the water.
"Don't be afraid, Weissmuller," another boy shouted, blinking water
from his black eyes. "Just duck your head under and hold your breath. You'll
like it. I was scared, too, at first. Go on, try it."
Johnny tried it. He waded out, waist-deep, and ducked his sandy head.
He came up, gasping with the sting of the water in his nose and eyes. But
it wasn't as frightening as he had thought. He tried it again. And this
second time he liked it.
That was Johnny Weissmuller's first swim. Years later, when he had broken
swimming records at the Olympic Games, when he had won almost all the world's
swimming championships, he remembered that afternoon in Chicago when he
first felt the swish of water over his head.
And one day, not long ago, when he was making "Tarzan the Ape Man" for
motion pictures, he stood at the edge of a California lake, looking at
the water and dipping one brown toe into the little bubbling waves.
"I have always hated to go into the cold water ever since I was a boy,"
he laughed, "We swam in Lake Michigan and I always had to take a deep breath
and force myself to dive into that cold water. After I'm in, I don't mind
the chilliness. It's just that first plunge."
He grinned, drew a deep breath and dived into the water. It was a cool
day and Johnny was wearing only Tarzan's leopard skin, fastened around
his waist. He swam across the lake with the long, clean-cut strokes which
made Johnny Weissmuller famous and which carried Tarzan safely away from
the crocodiles and hippopotami while the picture was being made.
Johnny was born in the little town of Windber, Pennsylvania. His father
had been a captain in the Austrian army, but, after he married Johnny's
mother, they came to the United States to live. When Johnny was two years
old, he and his parents and his baby brother, Pete, went to Chicago to
make their home with Johnny's grandfather.
Pete was a strong, husky kid. But Johnny was thin and weak. He ate all
sorts of food to make him strong and healthy. He grew tall but his little
body was so thin that the other children called him "Skinny." Often he
fainted in school. He played games with the neighborhood boys but, if he
ran too hard or wrestled too strenuously, he fell to the ground from sheer
weakness and exhaustion.
His mother and father tried every possible way to make him stronger.
His grandfather took him for long rides in the country in a carriage behind
a prancing horse. That horse was the pride and joy of Johnny's life --
until he learned to swim. Then he carried only for the water.
Because he was not strong Johnny was sent to a private school near home.
Pete went with him and the two brothers were always together. One day,
when they were playing on the school grounds, an older boy knocked Pete
down. Johnny ran at once to his brother's rescue.
"Oh, you can't fight, Weissmuller," the other boy laughed at him. "You're
But Johnny clenched his fists and showed him that he could fight. Johnny
was winning the battle when a teacher walked into the schoolyard. He whipped
Johnny for fighting. That night Johnny and Pete told their mother and father
all about it.
"That boy said Johnny couldn't fight," Pete said proudly. "Why, he would
have given him the worst licking of his life, if the teacher hadn't stopped
him. Then the teacher wouldn't let us explain how it happened. He blamed
Johnny for the whole thing. But, gee, Dad, I'll bet none of the boys'll
ever say that Johnny is weak or sickly again."
CHAPTER II: JOHNNY LEARNS
The next day their father took the two boys away from the private school
and enrolled them in public school where they met new playmates and were
much happier. It was during his first year in the new school that Johnny
heard the boys talking about swimming in Lake Michigan.
"How do you get there?" he asked.
"Walk. It isn't far. And most of the way is through the park. If we
take our lunch, we can stay all day.
So, when the first warm Saturday arrived, Johnny, Pete, and a dozen
other boys started for the lake, sandwiches tucked in their pockets, money
to rent bathing suits clutched in their hands.
After that first day Johnny spent every Saturday at the beach. When
vacation time came, he and Pete trudged through the park every day to splash
in the waters of the "Baby Beach." They came home late in the afternoons,
tired and hungry and ready for bed as soon as it was dark.
Gradually Johnny began to grow huskier. His skin turned from pasty white
to a ruddy brown, almost the color of Tarzan's weather-stained body. His
eyes were brighter and his thin little arms and legs were rounder. He only
fainted two or three times during that entire summer.
Johnny was completely happy at the beach. When he grew tired of splashing
in the shallow water, he lay on the sand and watched the lifeguards dive
and swim. They were his heroes. One was a friendly young man, named Tom,
who played with the smaller boys and showed them how to do stunts in the
safety of their "Baby Beach." Johnny followed Tom wherever he went and
watched every move of his muscular body.
One morning on his way to the beach Johnny stopped at his father's store.
"I want some candy and apples, Dad, please. A lot of them."
"What in the world do you want them for?"
"To give to the life guard at the beach. Gee, Dad, he's teaching me
to swim. When I grow up I want to be just like Tom. I wish you could see
him dive. And he can beat every other guard on the beach when they race."
His father, happy because Johnny was happy and because he was growing
so strong and brown, gave the boy the candy and apples for Tom.
Every morning Johnny carried a present of some kind to his favorite
lifeguard. In return, Tom allowed Johnny to sit in the lifeboat and taught
him the Australian Crawl swimming stroke.
It was a long, happy summer. When cool weather came and the beach days
were over, Johnny and Pete counted the months until they could go back
to the water.
"I've decided what I'm going to be when I grow up, Pete," Johnny said
one snowy day when the two brothers were walking home from school.
"A life guard. I'll stay up here in Chicago in the summers. Then, when
winter comes, I'll go down south where it's warm and people can swim all
"You can't be a life guard," Pete said, "You have to be a big husky
guy like Tom to do that. You won't ever be big enough probably."
"Oh, yes, I will," Johnny promised himself and Pete, "You wait and see."
Johnny's words came true. Today he weighs one hundred and ninety pounds
and is six feet, three inches tall in his bare feet. He is larger and heavier
even than Pete, who was much huskier when they were boys.
The next summer Tom came back to the beach. Johnny brought him an armful
of presents and settled down to another fun-filled vacation. This time,
however, Johnny wasn't afraid of the water. He swam and floated and even
dived a little now and then. Sometimes, when the Big Beach wasn't crowed,
Tome allowed him to leave the shallow "Baby Beach" and swim in the deeper
"Let's see your muscle, Weissmuller," Tom said one day when he and Johnny
were sitting in the lifeboat. The guard was munching one of the apples
which Johnny had brought to him that morning.
Obediently the eleven-year-old flexed his strong, brown arm. He liked
to have Tom call him "Weissmuller." It made him feel grown up.
"Getting pretty tough, aren't you?" Tom asked, looking at the boy with
a twinkle in his eyes.
"Yep," Johnny answered proudly, "Dad says swimming has made a man of
me. Say, Tom, how old are you?"
"Twenty-one. Why?" the young man smiled.
"Oh, I was just thinking. Do you suppose that when I'm as old as you,
I can be a lifeguard? That is, if I keep up swimming all the time."
"Maybe. But you've go to learn to dive. And you can't smoke or drink
coffee. You'll have to keep in training, you know. You ought to make a
good swimmer, if you stick to it."
"Do you really think so, Tom? Pete says he doesn't think I'll ever be
big enough to be a lifeguard. Or that I'll ever learn to swim well enough.
But you do, don't you?"
"Sure." The guard grinned at the seriousness of the small boy.
When Johnny was Tom's age, twenty-one, he had won several worlds' swimming
records at the Olympic Games and he held a dozen national championships.
The little boy, sitting in the end of the life boat watching his hero,
the young guard didn't dream that some day he would be the world's greatest
swimmer. Or that some day he would be Tarzan, swinging through the forest
trees and riding high in the air on the trunks of elephants.
The next year, when he was twelve, Johnny discovered a swimming pool
in a park nearer home. It was a hot summer and the pool was crowded from
early morning until night with boys and girls and grown-ups. Each child
was allowed to swim for fifteen minutes, then sent out of the pool to make
room for the next group of eager youngsters. But it was more fun than the
"Baby Beach." The water was deep, the pool was long and Johnny could swim
with the strokes which Tom had taught him.
He missed Tom but he soon made friends with the guards at the pool.
Every day he brought them gifts from his father's store. In return they
gave him the job of handing out bathing suits to the boys and he was allowed
to swim as long as he wished without bothering about the fifteen-minute
Johnny learned a great deal that summer. He watched the guards with
eager eyes. Patiently he practiced their strokes and dives until he had
mastered them. Johnny didn't splash around and swim "any old way" as the
other boys did. He spent long, happy hours, trying the swimming tricks
of the guards, the movements which looked so easy when you watched them
but which proved to be much more difficult than they seemed.
One day, when Johnny had been swimming smoothly with a long, graceful
overhand stroke, a group of boys asked him to teach them how to do it.
Johnny almost burst with pride. At last, he had become such a good swimmer
that others were watching him and trying to imitate him. That was an even
greater thrill than winning a world's championship was years later.
And when Pete said, "Gosh, Johnny, you sure can swim like a fish," Johnny
made up his mind that he would be a great swimmer as well as a lifeguard.
The next year he was selected as a member of the park's swimming team.
He and a dozen other young swimmers raced against the best boys from other
Chicago pools. For the first time in his life Johnny heard cheers as he
plowed through the water, heard the thrilling sound of voices, calling,
"Thata boy, Weissmuller. Go ahead. Beat 'em."
No one would have dreamed that the tall, tanned boy, with the muscular
arms and legs which moved so gracefully through the water, was the pale
little Johnny who often dropped to the ground in an exhausted faint when
he ran too fast in a game of tag.
After that exciting summer, when his team won all its races, Johnny
couldn't give up swimming. He couldn't wait for warm weather to come again.
So he joined the Y.M.C.A. and swam every afternoon after school and as
long as possible on Saturdays. It was a rule of the institution that the
boys must work-out in the gymnasium before going into the pool. So Johnny
practiced high-jumping. When, years later, he sprang lightly through the
air in "Tarzan," he was remembering the high jumps which he had learned
in the Y.M.C.A. gym.
Johnny became a member of the Y.M.C.A. swimming team. That was much
more exciting than the park team had been. His teammates were older boys
and good swimmers. It was a touch job to keep up with them and to forge
ahead of them. That was real fun. When the instructors said, "Good work,
Johnny," he felt the same thrill that he had known when Tom, the life guard
at the "Baby Beach," had said, "You ought to make a good swimmer, Weissmuller."
CHAPTER III: A CHAMPION SWIMMER
The next summer Johnny swam every day. He and Pete usually went to Lake
Michigan. He had outgrown the baby beaches and could swim in the deep water.
The fame of his skill spread along the beach and people stopped to watch
him dive from the piers and swim gracefully, his narrow body scarcely making
a ripple in the blue of the lake.
One day when he was lying on the beach, resting for a few minutes after
a brisk race, a man sat down beside him.
"How old are you, Weissmuller?" he asked, after they had talked about
swimming and swimmers.
"Fifteen. Almost sixteen," Johnny answered, stretching his body in the
warmth of the sun.
"How long have you been swimming?" the man asked him then.
"Since I was ten. Why?"
"I've been watching you for a long time. You look like the best swimmer
around here. Did you ever think of taking it up as a profession?"
"What do you mean?" Johnny was interested.
"Well, the Illinois Athletic Club is always looking for good swimmers
for its team. It would be the best training in the world for you. William
Baccarat, the coach, is one of the finest in the country. Why don't you
go down now and talk to him?"
"What about school?" Johnny asked, sitting up straight because he was
"You can go to school just ht same and swim in the afternoons and on
Saturdays. If you want to get dressed, I'll take you down to see Baccarat
Johnny raced to the dressing rooms, put on his clothes and went down
to the Illinois Athletic Club. When he returned home that evening, excited
and happy, he was a member of the club's swimming corps. But the coach
would not let him swim with the team during the first year.
"How'd you like to be the world's champion some day, Johnny?" Coach
Bachrach asked the boy one afternoon when they had been swimming in the
Johnny swallowed a mouthful of water and choked. He had never dared
to dream of such glory.
"Fine," he gulped when he was able to speak.
"Well, if you do as I say and really practice, I think you can be. But
you'll have to start from the beginning. You must forget everything which
you've learned so far and study the real art of swimming. If you're ready
to do your share, I'll teach you all I know. How about it?"
"I'm ready," Johnny grinned. They shook hands to seal the agreement.
Then Johnny began real training. He ate only the foods which the coach
ordered, nourishing, body-building steaks and roasts and vegetables. He
drank milk instead of tea or coffee. Every morning his mother filled a
cup with warm milk and added a few drops of forbidden coffee to color it.
Then Johnny pretended that he was drinking the coffee which he liked so
well. He slept ten hours every night and swam three hours every day after
school. On Saturdays he stayed in the pool until the Coach ordered him
out of it. He didn't smoke and he worked-out regularly in the gymnasium
to keep his body and his muscles in perfect condition.
The Coach completely changed the strokes which Johnny had learned and
practiced at the beach and the park pools. Johnny was taught to swim all
over again, this time by a man who knew the value of every motion, who
instructed the boy in the secrets of wasting neither breath nor energy.
At the end of the year Johnny had broken five world's speed records, not
publicly, but privately with only his Coach as a witness.
When he was seventeen, the Coach called him into his office one afternoon.
"Well, Johnny, I guess that we're ready to go out and beat the world.
You've learned all that I can teach you. Now it's up to you."
So in 1921 Johnny and Coach Bachrach went with the Illinois Athletic
Club team to Johnny's first real swimming meet in Duluth, Minnesota. Johnny
broke the national one-hundred-yard record and won several other honors
for his team. That meet established him as one of the finest young amateur
swimmers in the country.
But the coach did not allow him to stop one minute of his training or
"Remember, Johnny," he said, "You're only beginning. You'll have to
work harder than ever to keep what you've won and to earn new honors. It's
a tough job to be a champion. But there's no use trying it, unless you're
willing to do it right."
Johnny was willing to do it right. He ate, slept, talked, and dreamed
nothing except swimming. He finished high school and entered the University
of Chicago. During vacations and on week-ends he travelled with the Athletic
Club team to various cities to bring back new shining, silver cups for
the trophy room. Every day he swam in the pool under the eagle-eyed direction
of Coach Bachrach.
His one dream was to go to the Olympic Games in Paris. He trained and
practiced more strenuously than ever before. And, finally, one thrilling
day, he learned that he had qualified as a member of the American swimming
But the University refused to permit him to leave school to go to the
Games. Johnny decided that swimming was worth more to him than college,
that the Olympic Games were more important than a diploma. So he withdrew
from the University and spent all his time preparing for the big event.
His family, the Coach and all of his friends were at the railroad station
to say good-by to Johnny and to wish him luck. Just before the train left,
carrying him on the first lap of his long journey to Paris and fame. Pete,
whispered to Johnny, "Do you remember the day I said you'd never be big
enough or strong enough to be a swimmer or a life guard? I sure was wrong,
Johnny smiled. And he smiled again a few years later, when he was made
an honorary Life Guard at Santa Monica Beach in California. Pete was with
him when he went through his first lifeguard drill in the waters of the
"I wish Tom could see me now," Johnny grinned as he and Pete walked
up the beach toward the bathhouse.
"I suppose the kids will be bringing you candy and apples, the way you
used to carry them to Tom," Pete laughed.
But to the boys of Santa Monica, Johnny wasn't Weissmuller, the swimming
champion or life guard. He was Tarzan, a living breathing Tarzan. They
didn't bring him gifts. They simply stood and stared in open-mouthed admiration
of their screen hero. Just as Johnny, himself, once stood and stared at
his life guard heroes.
At the Olympic Games in Paris Johnny won two world-championships, in
the one-hundred-meter and the four-hundred-meter swims. Then he came back
to the Illinois Athletic Club and a round of swimming meets, in all of
which he was the winner.
In 1926 Johnny was a real-life hero as well as a champion. One day he
was swimming in Lake Michigan training for a marathon race. Pete, in a
rowboat, was timing him. When they were a half-mile from shore, a sudden
squall came up over the lake. They heard a terrific explosion, followed
by terror-filled screams, and turned to see a ferryboat sinking beneath
the water. Johnny jumped into the rowboat, grabbed the other pair of oars.
He and Pete rowed as rapidly as possible to the scene of the accident.
When they arrived, only the rigging of the boat was above the angry water.
Eighty-five children and their mothers, picnic-bound, were pinned under
the waves in the wrecked boat.
Sick with fear and dread, Johnny and Pete dived again and again into
the lake, bringing up small, lifeless bodies and placing them on the decks
of rescue boats. Of the thirty women and children whom the brothers lifted
from the water, fifteen were brought back to life by pulmotors.
Only once since that tragic day has Johnny been a life-saver. He was
swimming with the lifeguards at Santa Monica one afternoon when he saw
a small boy struggling in the ocean's surf. The child sank from sight before
Johnny could reach him. But Johnny found the small, unconscious body and
carried it to shore. When the little boy opened his eyes and saw Johnny
bending over him, he gasped one word, "Tarzan." He will probably never
forget the day when he was saved by the man who was Tarzan, in spite of
the fact that he wore blue trunks and a white swimming shirt instead of
Tarzan's leopard skin.
In 1928 Johnny journeyed to Sweden to his second Olympic Games where
he made new records, won more honors. Before he returned to his home, he
spent two months in Japan, teaching Japanese swimmers the art of the Weissmuller
Crawl, the stroke which had gained him fame and glory. Then he toured the
United States, giving exhibitions and teaching excited boys the first rules
CHAPTER IV: THE MAKING OF
Johnny Weissmuller happened to be in Hollywood when the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
motion picture studios were hunting for a young man who looked like Tarzan.
One of the officials saw Johnny swimming in an athletic club pool and persuaded
him to go to the studio for a test.
"You're just the boy we're looking for," he told Johnny.
"But I'm a swimmer, not an actor," Johnny answered, "I wouldn't know
what to do in front of a camera."
"Try it, anyway," the man insisted, "It won't do any harm to take a
screen test. Then you'll find out whether you're an actor or not."
So Johnny, wearing a gray, turtle-necked sweater, went to the studio
to meet the director of the picture, W. S. Van Dyke.
"Will you take off your sweater, Weissmuller?" the director asked.
Johnny pulled it over his head and smiled Tarzan's flashing smile. When
Van Dyke saw his broad shoulders and the rippling muscles of his arms,
he said, "You're Tarzan. Come on. Let's see if you photograph as well as
Johnny, Van Dyke and a cameraman walked out to the park on the studio's
back lot where the grass was soft and the trees had low branches. While
the camera clicked, Johnny ran and jumped, climbed trees and swung his
lithe body from branch to branch. He discovered that he wasn't afraid of
the camera, that it was fun to be an actor.
The next day the studio executives looked at the pictures and said almost
in one voice, "There's the man we want."
So Johnny Weissmuller gave up swimming for a short time to become a
motion picture actor. He covered his body with brown grease paint to give
it the dark color of the skin of Tarzan. He let his hair grow long and
shaggy because, of course, Tarzan's hair was never cut or combed. His only
clothing was a leopard skin, fastened around his slim waist. His feet,
toughened by years of swimming, were bare.
The company travelled to a forest near Hollywood where they found thick
trees and a lake. There they built African villages and high stockades
to hold the wild animals which were used in the pictures. Crocodiles and
hippopotami were turned loose in the lake and guarded to prevent their
escape. It was so cold in the woods that huge bonfires were built to warm
Tarzan, the natives and the Pygmies, who wore no clothes except scanty
animal skins. At night they slept in tents heated by oil stoves.
Johnny made friends with the animals. He had no fear of them. He learned
to touch the elephants on their heads to tell them to wrap their trunks
around him and lift him to their backs. His bare arms and legs were scratched
in a thousand little gashes from the tough, rough hides of the huge animals.
But Johnny didn't care. He was having fun. Every day he found a new adventure.
The most exciting days were the ones when Johnny swam in the chilly
waters of the lake, escaping from the crocodiles and hippopotami which
pursued him. When the director asked him if he were afraid, he said, "No.
Of course, not. I won't let them catch me." Guards, with loaded guns in
their hands, rowed in boats beside him, ready to shoot the animals if they
should happen to draw too close to Johnny's flashing bare legs. But the
swift Weissmuller Crawl easily outdistanced the animals.
It was Johnny, himself, who invented the Tarzan call, that strange,
weird sound which echoed again and again through the jungle. He practiced
until the sound engineers told him that he had found just the right tones.
He stood in the silence of the woods by the lake and yelled until his voice
was hoarse and until the animals crept closer to him to listen.
Johnny and the troupe of apes carried on conversations in a queer language
which only they could understand. He called them by name and they answered
him. Little Chita, a small monkey with a friendly brown eyes, was his constant
companion during all his months in the woods. She ran to him and climbed
into his strong arms whenever she was frightened or lonely. She sat contentedly
beside him when he ate his meals, waiting for him to give her a bit of
bread or fruit.
All the animals seemed to know that Johnny was unafraid, to feel that
he belonged to the woods and to the lake and to the trees through which
he swung so gracefully. When he walked into their fenced enclosure, they
stood still and watched with calm, friendly eyes. On the back of one elephant,
a huge gray, wise, old animal, Johnny took long rides along the paths which
bordered the lake.
When Johnny left Hollywood to go into the forest, he was no longer Johnny
Weissmuller, the world's greatest swimmer. He became Tarzan himself, a
strong, fearless, sun-browned man whose home was in the green treetops
and in the gleaming waters of the lakes and rivers, whose language was
that of the birds and beasts.
Johnny Weissmuller liked being Tarzan. He didn't want to say goodbye
to little Chita, the apes, and the elephants. It was fun to dash through
the forest, to swing from limb to limb of the trees and to splash in the
clear waters of the lake. Because Johnny, like Tarzan, really belongs to
the woods and the sparkling waters which he has loved since he was a little,
ten-year-old boy, wading in the "Baby Beach" on the shores of Lake Michigan.