The port city of Acapulco on the Mexican Pacific coast in the state of Guerrero was Johnny Weissmuller’s favorite place to relax and get away from everything. He was known to visit the Mexican resort as often as four or five times a year. Johnny’s attraction to Acapulco only grew while filming his last Tarzan picture there in early 1948 (Tarzan and the Mermaids). According to the Mexican actress Linda Christian (1923-2011), who played “Mara, a lovely maiden from the forbidden island of Aquatania” in the film, Johnny “fell in love with Acapulco.”
Johnny Marries the German Lady
After a string of four unsuccessful marriages, Johnny married for the fifth and last time. His marriage to the German-born Maria Gertrude Baumann (1921-2004) would last over 21 years, until his death. He and Maria were wed in a civil ceremony at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas on April 23, 1963. In attendance at the Las Vegas nuptials were the bride’s daughter, Lisa, who had flown in from Indianapolis, and actor Forrest Tucker, who was the groom’s best man.
As soon as the news got out, wedding congratulations poured in from Johnny’s many friends. Even Howard Hughes sent a card to the Weissmullers’ Los Angeles residence on Lorenzo Drive, signing it “Your Fine Pals, Bow Wow & Howard Hughes.” The envelope was postmarked April 24, 1963.
Not long after their marriage in Nevada, the couple decided to move from California to Florida. While living in southern Florida Johnny tried to make a living through various business ventures, but most ended in failure. For a time the still-famous actor and Olympian was paid to lend his name and remaining prestige to a swimmers’ “hall of fame” in Fort Lauderdale. The Weissmullers remained in Florida until 1973.
Despite business and money problems, the couple still managed to travel abroad. In 1971 Johnny went to Munich to promote the upcoming 1972 Olympic Games to be held in that city. During that trip he and Maria were interviewed on German television. (See photo.) That same year they also spent time on the Spanish island of Mallorca, a place they also visited in 1972 and 1973. Johnny had first visited Mallorca in 1969 at the invitation of actor Errol Flynn. Whenever Flynn visited the island on his 127-foot yacht Zaca (actually a two-masted schooner), he would invite some of his friends, including Weissmuller, Ava Gardner, Orson Welles, and others.
In 1973 the aging Weissmuller began working as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, a job he had gotten through a son-in-law. His terrible financial situation had forced him to take a position in Nevada that he otherwise would have refused. And it was in Las Vegas that a long series of health problems began for Weissmuller. By now Johnny was no longer a youngster. He was close to 70 years old when he fell and broke his hip in Las Vegas. After that, he suffered from various maladies, including a stroke in 1977 during a visit to Los Angeles. Soon, with Johnny Jr.’s help, he was admitted to the Motion Picture and Televison Country Home and Hospital for Actors in Los Angeles.
In 1979 Jack Skaggs, the executive director of the Country Home and Hospital, claimed that his patient was causing problems there, and he filed for conservatorship over Johnny in order to have him committed to a mental institution. The family was very upset about that, and soon Johnny’s friend John Wayne was asking Skaggs to drop his action. In June 1979 a judge denied Skaggs’ motion and awarded custody to Maria. In October, over the objections of Johnny’s biological children, Maria decided it would be best to take her ailing husband to Mexico, to the city he was so fond of: Acapulco.
Never popular with Weissmuller’s son Johnny Jr. and daughter Wendy Anne, Maria had now made herself even more disliked by taking off for Mexico with their father. In their opinion Maria was not doing the best thing for her husband. He could receive better care in California and not be over 1600 miles away, where it was difficult to visit him. But Maria was Johnny’s wife, and they had no legal way of preventing the move. In October 1979 Johnny and Maria Weissmuller arrived in Acapulco, staying temporarily at the Los Flamingos Hotel where Johnny used to hang out with his Hollywood pals.
Filming in Mexico
Weissmuller had pleasant memories of filming one of his Tarzan movies in Acapulco in 1947-1948. The RKO production Tarzan and the Mermaids, Weissmuller’s last screen appearance as Tarzan, was filmed in Mexico. Interior and underwater tank shots for Mermaids were filmed at the Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. Exterior scenes were shot at Teotihuacán (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon) and at several locations in and around Acapulco, most notably along the Pie de la Cuesta coast just northwest of the city.
Producer Sol Lesser intended to make Tarzan and the Mermaids rise above the generally mediocre quality of most previous Tarzan movies. Lesser even hired the distinguished Hollywood film composer Dmitri Tiomkin to do the music. Instead of being filmed in the usual RKO back-lot jungle, Mermaids would be shot on location – if not in Africa, at least in a real jungle faraway from Hollywood. But not even an unusually high budget (for a Tarzan picture) of just over a million dollars could overcome an idiotic script, shooting beautiful Acapulco in black-and-white, a hurricane that destroyed some sets, poor acting, and the many other failings of this production. But such problems were of little concern to Johnny, who was just happy to be in Acapulco once again.
The Death of Tarzan
In 1981 newspapers in Spain, Mexico and elsewhere were already running stories about the declining health of “Tarzan” in Acapulco. Following more than three years of being bedridden and suffering from dementia, Johnny Weissmuller died at his home in Acapulco on January 20, 1984. The cause of death is uncertain. Accounts vary: a stroke, heart failure, pulmonary edema (water in the lungs), or a combination of these. For whatever reason, Weissmuller’s once athletic body had run out of time.
The man who had been the “King of the Jungle” to most of the world was laid to rest on January 22 near the filming locations of his last Tarzan movie, some 37 years before. But even after his death the decades-long deception about his true birthplace lived on. Johnny had kept even close family members in the dark, taking the secret to his grave. Only many years later would his own son, Johnny Weissmuller Jr., discover that his famous father had not been born in Pennsylvania but in Austria-Hungary. To this day, many references continue to incorrectly list the Olympic swimmer’s birthplace as Windber, Pennsylvania rather than Freidorf, Austria-Hungary. (Today Freidorf is a district in the Romanian city of Timisoara.) All of his 1984 obituaries, even in The New York Times, listed the false birthplace.
One of his co-stars in Tarzan and the Mermaids was the young MGM contract player Linda Christian (born Blanca Rosa Welter to a Dutch father and a German mother in Tampico, Mexico in 1923). Christian played Mara, “a lovely maiden from the forbidden island of Aquatania.” Although Christian’s life and career later took her all over the world, she would be one of only a couple of people from Johnny’s Hollywood days to attend his funeral in Acapulco. Former actor John Gavin (Psycho, Spartacus) was there in his official capacity as the US Ambassador to Mexico.
Although he had not been seen on movie screens as Tarzan for decades, Johnny Weissmuller was still notable and respected enough in 1984 to draw some other prominent people to his funeral in Acapulco. (There were also later memorial services in Los Angeles and Chicago.) Both the governor of the state of Guerrero, Alejandro Cervantes Delgado, and the mayor (alcalde/presidente municipal) of Acapulco, Alfonso Argudín Alcaraz, spoke during the service before Johnny was laid to rest at what was then still known as the Jardines del Tiempo (Gardens of Time) cemetery.
Maria made sure a recording of Weissmuller’s famous Tarzan cry was played as his coffin was lowered into the ground. His grave lies in the grass-covered Cementerio Valle de la Luz (Valley of Light Cemetery, formerly known as Jardines del Tiempo, Gardens of Time) that lies next to the highway to Mexico City, in the Renacimiento district north of the hills that cut across the Mexican resort city. It is only fitting that the American athlete and actor who was born in a foreign land should lie buried in another foreign land. A white marble plaque near his grave (see photo below) bears this touching inscription in Spanish:
Johnny Weismuller [sic]
An homage to him who chose to live and rest
in his beautiful port of Acapulco.
2 June 1904 – 20 Jan. 1984
Footnotes for “Tarzan in Acapulco”
1. Baumann: Many Weissmuller articles and biographies misspell Maria Baumann’s maiden name as Bauman (with only one n). The German surname Baumann is usually spelled with two n’s. (The Onyx and Fury bios, and even Johnny Junior’s Tarzan, My Father make that error.) German publications usually claim that Maria Gertrude Baumann was born in Berlin. Some articles also mention Bavaria. It seems that she was indeed born in Germany, but without documentation no one knows for sure if her birthplace was Berlin. We welcome any help with that.
2. Lisa: Maria’s daughter, Lisa Baumann (1940-2007), was married to journalist Edward Gallagher at the time of her death in Los Angeles on May 14, 2007. She died of complications of a broken hip. Lisa and her mother always claimed that Johnny Weissmuller had legally adopted Lisa. (One claim says it was in 1971, some eight years after Johnny and Maria were married.) However, no one has ever produced any documented proof of that. Nevertheless, the name on her gravestone reads: Lisa Weissmuller Gallagher. According to a somewhat fictional article by David Fury (June 2007), her cremains were supposed to be buried in the same grave as her mother and Johnny Weissmuller in Acapulco. But her grave is actually located in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
3. John A. Gavin (“Jack,” b. 1931) served as the US Ambassador to Mexico from 1981 to 1986. Appointed by Ronald Reagan, Gavin speaks fluent Spanish (and other languages). Born John Anthony Golenor, Gavin is of Mexican and Irish descent. His father, Herald Ray Golenor, was of Irish origin, and his ancestors were early landowners in California when it was still under Spanish rule. Gavin’s mother, Delia Diana Pablos, came from the influential Pablos family of Sonora, Mexico.
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