Tarzan: My Father – Book Review

Book Review: Tarzan, My Father

A Review by Hyde Flippo


Tarzan, My Father

Tarzan, My Father
Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover – Feb. 1, 2008
by Johnny Weissmuller, Danton Burroughs (Foreword), William Reed (Contributor), W Craig Reed (Contributor)

The first and only “authorized biography” of Johnny Weissmuller was published in 1964 when he was still alive and vigorous. Unfortunately that early biography by Narda Onyx (Water, World & Weismuller) was more fiction than fact. In the very first chapter it perpetuates the lie that the Olympic swimming champ had been born in Windber, Pennsylvania – a secret that Johnny kept from his own family and the author. In one of its last chapters the Onyx book presents as fact the myth that Johnny’s last wife, Maria, was of noble German birth. In between there were more myths about the movie Tarzan’s marriages and many other aspects of his life.

Granted, Johnny Weissmuller himself was complicit in perpetuating many of the false stories about his life and career. But even after his death many so-called journalists, book editors, and most of his biographers failed to do any real research to verify the facts. For many years after his death, even reputable encyclopedias continued to list Windber as Weissmuller’s birthplace, when in fact he had been born in Europe in what was then Austria-Hungary.

When Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. began his own research into his father’s life he himself didn’t know the true birthplace. Not even his father’s wives knew that well-kept secret (although there were people in Romania and Europe who knew the truth). But as “Tarzan’s son,” Johnny Jr. had spent enough time with his dad and family to know that a lot of things written about his father simply were not true. He had a unique perspective that no one had tapped into, and he was unhappy about all the misinformation circulating about his father. After his father’s death in 1984 it became even worse.

But Johnny Weissmuller’s only son didn’t want to depend solely on his memory. He knew the hazards of doing that. In his book he writes of his father: “His memory was not always good about certain events… He was often wrong.” So Johnny Jr. and his wife Diane began collecting documents and photographs, and talking with people who had known his father.

Ripples, Waves, Whitecaps, Surges… and Ebbtide
The resulting book, co-written with William Reed and W. Craig Reed, offers a frank and revealing look into the life of a man who became a legend in his own time, and was virtually forgotten by the time he died. Tarzan’s son makes it crystal clear that his legendary father was also very human. While painting a loving portrait, Johnny junior at the same time is willing to expose many unflattering aspects of his father, even if it is “painful to remember, let alone write about.”

In a series of chapters named in a water theme progression (Ripples, Waves, Whitecaps, Surges…), we learn about Johnny Weissmuller’s European, Austrian Catholic heritage, how his parents brought him to America, his youth in Chicago, and how he came to be an outstanding swimming champion, and later a film star. In a flowing, well-written, easy-to-read style, the junior Weissmuller describes what it was like to live with his father, and how he and his two sisters were cruelly prevented from seeing their father for ten years. Only later did the children discover the truth. Their mother, Beryl Scott Weissmuller, had falsely made it seem as if their dad didn’t want to see them. In truth, after her divorce from Johnny, Beryl had obtained a restraining order to prevent him from doing what he so badly wanted to do: visit with his children. But she never let her children know that. Beryl apparently was more interested in her social life than her children. “Losing our father was bad enough. Losing our mother to her social circle was just about the last straw. It affected all of us.” Later the author writes of his own mother: “Strange woman. Strange mother.”


Diane Weissmuller and the host of the Romanian Triathlon hold up the poster for a 2004 exhibition in Ulm, Germany commemorating Johnny Weissmuller’s 100th birthday. PHOTO by Constantin Dumitra, courtesy Johnny Weissmuller Jr.

His mother is not the only person for whom Johnny junior has some harsh words. Although he points out the fact that his dad was a horrible businessman, he also questions the ethics of Weissmuller’s long-time business manager, Bö Roos. He asks how Roos could have allowed his father to go broke despite the considerable amount of money the actor had earned over the years. But he also balances that with comments by Roos’ daughter, who defends her father. (I’m not as forgiving as Johnny Jr. was. I personally think Roos was a crook and a swindler. A financial advisor is supposed to protect his clients, not take advantage of them.)

The author is far less kind to some other people, especially his father’s fifth and last wife, German-born Maria Gertrude Baumann (1921-2004). (As in all the other Weissmuller bios to date, Tarzan, My Father also misspells her German surname as Bauman. It should have two n’s.) In previous biographies and articles about Weissmuller, Maria has usually been portrayed as a near saint who in the face of financial hardship, helped make his last years happy ones. Weissmuller the son considers her quite the opposite of saintly. In his view Maria Baumann and her daughter Lisa were usually looking out for themselves. Although the “Black Widow” (as he calls Maria) managed to get good press, in the author’s opinion she rarely if ever acted in her husband’s best interests. Her fairy tale about being a member of the Bavarian house of Wittelsbach has never been confirmed. She was born in Germany, but in fact almost nothing is known about Maria’s real background, not even her birthplace. Most biographers have accepted her accounts at face value, but not Tarzan’s son.

On the other hand, Johnny junior paints wife number four in a much more favorable light. Weissmuller married Allene Gates on the same day his Reno divorce from Beryl became final. It was Allene who was Weissmuller’s wife during the “Jungle Jim” years, and it is Allene who became the mother Weissmuller’s son had always wanted. From the son’s perspective we gain new respect for Allene, who stuck with Johnny through hard times – until it all fell apart for the couple. When he wasn’t working, Weissmuller tended to be hard to live with.

The author writes about how his sister Heidi was killed in a car accident in 1962 when she was only 19 years old. The loss of Heidi and her unborn child was extremely hard on both her father and her brother. It was one of those family tragedies that may fade over the years, but never really goes away. “But Dad did come around to accepting Heidi’s death, slowly, and he and I became much closer for having shared that sad experience,” he writes.

In other chapters we get insights into Johnny junior’s school years and his misadventures with Jimmy Mitchum, the son of Robert Mitchum. (Although past bios have claimed that he attended college, his son points out that Weissmuller senior never made it past the eighth grade.) We also learn about the enjoyable days of sailing with his father and Humphrey Bogart, and other happy times. Johnny Jr. and his wife Diane were married aboard Bogart’s Santana. But as the elder Weissmuller grew older, the happy times came less often. A series of strokes in the 1970s soon dealt a serious blow to the happy times. Thanks to Maria, who had hustled her incapacitated husband off to Acapulco, Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller would end up dying in Mexico in 1984, far away from his adopted homeland and the family members who truly loved him. He rests in peace in a cemetery in Acapulco, contrary to the wishes of his son – yet another “gift” from Maria.

The Second “Authorized Biography”?
In a way this book could be considered the second “authorized biography” of Johnny Weissmuller, since it is written by a member of the family. But unlike most authorized biographies, Tarzan, My Father doesn’t sugarcoat its subject. It does reveal a man who, despite some serious flaws, actually lived up to his legend in many ways.

In a conversational style that makes you feel like you’re listening to the author tell you about “life with father,” you learn about the many ups and downs of Weissmuller’s life and career. While other biographies may go into much greater detail about his swimming achievements and all the movies he made, Tarzan, My Father mercifully leaves that to others and concentrates on Weissmuller the person, Weissmuller the father. “By design, this is not a long book…” says the author. But in its spare 229 pages, this book nevertheless allows us to gain a full picture of not only the father, but also his son.

Tarzan, My Father from Amazon.com

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