Somebody was knocking at the door, and for Johnny Weissmuller, nursing a headache in a Chattanooga motel room, it resounded like a hundred jungle drums thump-thumping at once. Weissmuller drew himself heavily from his chair and opened the door. Before him stood half a dozen children. "Are you really Tarzan?" demanded their spokesman, a gum-chomping boy who barely came to Weissmuller's belt buckle. Weissmuller nodded and the children began to chant, more or less together, "Tarzan, give us your elephant call, your elephant call."
Wincing, Weissmuller put a hand over his eyes and peered through his fingers at the children. The headache that bothered him was the legacy of a convivial time in Jacksonville, Fla., where earlier that same morning he had finished two hectic days of personal appearances. Now, besieged by children in a motel room in another strange city, Weissmuller was not at all looking forward to a weekend of signing more autographs, shaking more hands and exchanging more pleasantries, this time with the good people of Chattanooga.
He would, of course, somehow summon the strength. For on this warm, pleasant Tennessee day, exactly two months before his 64th birthday, after nearly 40 years as a national phenomenon, Johnny Weissmuller could still pride himself on his ability to withstand the most severe physical challenge, let alone a headache. Cut in the larger-than-life mold of his old Hollywood pal John Wayne, Weissmuller has always been the man of action, the nature boy, the noblest savage, the big bruiser. He was the athlete chosen by the Associated Press in 1950 as the greatest swimmer of the half century, the kind of superlative that nobody, least of all Weissmuller himself, ever wasted on his subsequent career as Hollywood's Tarzan. "The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete," he says. 'They know I wasn't make-believe, like a lot of actors."
Thus forgiven, Weissmuller survives today as a pop-culture hero, one worthy of having been included in such company as Aldous Huxley, Marlene Dietrich and Lawrence of Arabia in the famous montage adorning the jacket of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. As a symbol of high camp (a term whose meaning he recently admitted he did not know), he was a guest of honor last spring at a Tarzan film festival at Yale, an event that came to an abrupt and ignominious end when black students, taking exception to the movie's portrayal of wide-eyed African natives, blocked the showing of Weissmuller's first film, Tarzan, the Ape Man.
August 16, 1970
If Weissmuller remains inseparably identified with Tarzan today, it may be because he does nothing to discourage it. On the contrary, one of his favorite everyday expressions is "Umgawa," which he defines as Tarzanese for "Let's get the hell out of here," and at home in Fort Lauderdale he cannot so much as kill a spider without declaring, "The mighty hunter, that's me." To three generations of moviegoers, Weissmuller was the bare-chested guy who swooped through the trees performing good and difficult deeds, and he is universally thought of the same way today, even though, as he recently observed, "Most of my fans were kids when they first saw me, and they're people now."
As far as Weissmuller is concerned, the young fans who clamored for his elephant call outside the motel room will probably never qualify for the latter category. At first he tried to resist their demands by means of a diversionary action. He withdrew into his room, returning with a handful of 8 x 10 glossies of his younger self clad in a breechcloth. The kids grabbed the photos but, instead of departing, they stood their ground. "Your elephant call," they persisted. "Your elephant call." Finally, in partial surrender, Weissmuller issued a perfunctory little cry.
As calls of the wild go, it was sadly dispirited. But the children, delighted with themselves at having extracted even that much, pleaded for more. "Oh no, nothing doing," replied Weissmuller in his oddly high-pitched voice. "I've got to go to work now." He shooed the children into the hallway and shut the door.
Scarcely an hour later Weissmuller was in the Chattanooga Memorial Auditorium, true to his word, at work. Exhibits for the city's fourth annual Home Show, an exposition featuring such household objects as woodburning fireplaces, circular bathtubs and electric organs, were spread over two floors, and Weissmuller was appearing in a booth in a basement area that had been the garage back when the auditorium was built in 1922. That was about the same time Weissmuller burst into public view with the first of the 67 world swimming records he was to set, and over the years both the building and the man had undergone remodeling.
In Weissmuller's case, the biggest remodeling job involved his hair, which would be snow-white today except that, as he freely admits, he has long since taken to dyeing it, his current preference being a convincing henna. Something else that has come in for alteration is his waistline. In 1948, after 16 years as Tarzan, Weissmuller literally outgrew that part and began playing the role, fully clothed, of the white hunter Jungle Jim. Lately, diet pills have helped pare his weight from 250 to 220, but he remains sensitive about his girth.
Considering the smooth-muscled Adonis he once was, Weissmuller can be forgiven for being self-conscious today. It also happens, though, that he has nothing to be self-conscious about. Whatever he chooses to color it, the important thing is that he still has a full head of hair to work with. And though he swims only occasionally, he does so with sufficient strength and vigor to lend credibility to all those tales of bygone exploits. Indeed, appearing in the booth in the auditorium basement, shoulders squared under his blue blazer, his face somewhat jowlier but still set in that familiar deadpan expression, he had no cause to worry about anyone challenging the sign that hung overhead. It read: JOHNNY WEISSMULLER—OUTSTANDING EXAMPLE of PHYSICAL FITNESS and HEALTH.
Unfortunately, the turnout at the Home Show was disappointing the first day, and there were moments when Weissmuller, boredom gradually replacing his headache as his principal affliction, wished aloud he were somewhere else. When the day ended, it was with open relief that he headed for the auditorium exit, greeting other exhibitors as he walked along. "Hey, Johnny," called a bald-headed man in front of a booth featuring kitchen appliances. "Let's hear your Tarzan yell." Without breaking stride, Weissmuller obligingly emitted a cry a few decibels louder than the one he had made for the children.
That night Weissmuller sat in the gloom of a private club near Chattanooga, drinking Manhattans and dining on lamb chops. Despite the throbbing sounds of a rock group, his headache was now all gone. At one point the group stopped playing and its leader introduced the visiting celebrity to the Saturday-night crowd. Weissmuller stood and waved. As he sat down, a woman's voice sounded from across the room with what by now was a familiar demand. "Give us your jungle call, Johnny!"
This time Weissmuller cupped his hands over his mouth in the classic manner, which suggested that what was to follow would be no halfhearted call. Nor was it. The sound started somewhere in the stomach, seemed to rumble up the esophagus and finally came out in the general vicinity of Lookout Mountain. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAH-EEEEEEEEEEEE-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
As the crowd cheered, the band, its saxophone and electric guitars in full volume, broke into Up, Up and Away. Turning to a dinner companion, Weissmuller struggled to make himself heard over the clamor. "What a guy won't do with a little booze in him," he said.
If Saturday was too slow at the Home Show, Sunday turned out to be too busy. Still, Weissmuller carried on gamely. He laughed when yet another woman, bringing the total to at least a dozen, twitted by way of greeting, "Me Jane, you Tarzan." He patiently told still another questioner that Maureen O'Sullivan, who often played Tarzan's wife before rising to greater glory as Mia Farrow's mother, now lives in New York and, yes, he sees her from time to time. He confided to balloon-carrying children that Cheetah (there were many Cheetahs, actually) often scratched him; that the vines he swung on were outfitted with safety catches; that a mother in India once threatened to sue after her teen-age son, attempting to dispatch a tiger with a knife as Tarzan had done, wound up being devoured by the animal.
Few children had difficulty recognizing Weissmuller; his 18 Tarzan movies appear on television frequently, if not often enough to suit some people. "I sure wish they'd play more of your movies, Johnny," a middle-aged woman told him, "instead of all that psychiatry and psychology junk. My favorites are Roy Rogers, Andy Hardy and Johnny Weissmuller." Pleased, Weissmuller told her to write her TV station.
Occasionally, to be sure, some youngster remained at a distance, regarding Weissmuller suspiciously, as if trying to square him with the Lex Barkers, Ron Elys and the others whom TV has tried to pass off as Tarzan. In such cases, it usually remained for an elder to offer assurances to the effect that if all such claimants were contestants together on To Tell the Truth, it would be this man, Johnny Weissmuller, who would stand up at the end. "For my money, Johnny here's the one and only true Tarzan," said a woman in hair curlers, ushering her daughter of about 6 forward for an autograph. Ignoring the buildup, the little girl continued to stare at him blankly.
Despite Weissmuller's contention that the public forgave his acting because of his swimming achievements, many autograph-seekers seemed totally unaware that he had ever swum a lap. To remind them, there was a photographic display on a wall depicting five gold medals: the three he won in the 1924 Olympics and the two more he added in 1928. Still, the subject of swimming seldom came up except when Weissmuller himself, motioning toward one of the massage chairs in his booth, told visitors: "Between sitting in that chair and swimming every day, that's all I need to keep myself in perfect shape."
In plugging the massage chairs, Weissmuller was doing what he came to Chattanooga to do. The chairs, sold in the southeastern U.S. under the name Johnny Weissmuller's American Massage Products, are one of several product lines and services—others include health foods, swimming pools and mail-order vitamin pills—to which he lends his name. The idea behind Weissmuller's appearance at the Home Show was that he would draw visitors into the booth by his presence, while Lorne Cameron, the Florida-based entrepreneur who distributes the massage chairs, would handle the actual selling.
In his pitch to potential customers, Cameron emphasized that the massage chairs help increase circulation, which was no minor selling point since, as he assured them, "circulation is life and stagnation is death." Helping him get the message across was his sales force of one, a rotund man named Red Willever, a veteran carnival barker, weight guesser and pitchman whose selling experience hitherto had been pretty much confined to knife sharpeners, food sheers and ironing-board covers.
"Johnny's a beautiful guy," Willever had enthused on Saturday morning while munching the first of the half-dozen 3 Musketeers bars he consumes daily. "He's down to earth, and that's what makes him great." What diluted that endorsement was that Willever volunteered it while waiting for Weissmuller to arrive in Chattanooga, before the two men had ever met.
Under his arrangement with Cameron, Weissmuller gets a piece of the action. Since Cameron had gone into the massage-chair business just a few months before, there had been very little action so far. Weissmuller seemed aware of the need for patience, but his two colleagues, working the booth, were restless. For Willever, it was a case of adjusting from the low-cost "impulse items" he had previously dealt in to expensive furniture—the price tag on a typical massage chair was $579. "With furniture everybody's a lot slower to buy," he complained. "I can't stand it when people walk away with my money in their pockets."
What irked Cameron was one couple in particular who walked away, a young man in a shiny green suit and his red-haired wife. Trying to sell the couple a massage chair Saturday night, Cameron had brought them to that critical moment when the customer teeters tantalizingly on the verge of a decision to buy. Crouched between the two massage chairs in which they were sitting, Cameron, order book in hand, made an inspired move to push them over the brink.
"Ask Johnny what he thinks," he urged the couple. "Go ahead."
Weissmuller, signing autographs a few feet away, caught his cue. As Cameron waited, Weissmuller gave the green-suited man an embarrassed look. "Boy, you won't regret it," he said softly.
Whether those words were responsible is impossible to say, but the couple not only decided then and there to buy but, what is more, agreed to pay cash. Pity that the deal could not be closed on the spot. Since they did not have the necessary $500-plus on them, they told Cameron they would have to go home for the money and then return Sunday, which they never did.
Waiting for the plane at the Chattanooga airport, Weissmuller could not get his mind off the article that Saga magazine published five years ago. He had been so upset at the time that he filed a $2 million libel suit, but he dropped it later. The article, which dealt harshly with his personal life, was subtitled Fate, Fat and Too Many Janes Make a Monkey of the Greatest Ape Man.
Later, seated inside the first-class cabin, Weissmuller brought up the subject of the Saga piece to the reporter accompanying him, then issued an admonition that was half plea and half command: "Don't mess with my legend."
And just what was the legend he had in mind? "I'm supposed to be an idol for the kids," Weissmuller continued. "I'm supposed to be clean-cut and set a good example for them, if maybe their old man isn't so hot. That's why people always say to kids, 'Go see Tarzan, he's a great guy.' " He then lapsed into the first person he so often uses when discussing Tarzan. "You know, they're right, too. I took care of every animal in the jungle, the natives loved me and I always fought the heavy.
"I tried to play it like there really was a guy up in the trees. Remember the elephant that pulled the elevator up to my tree house? There are plenty of people in the world who'd like to get away from it all like that." Here his tenses became confused. "I know I would have."
His point made, Weissmuller settled back and began recounting the time that he sneaked out of a weight-reducing clinic near San Diego to attend a friend's wedding reception, got drunk on Dubonnet and seltzer, insulted the bride, came to blows with a couple of other guests and finally, after being carried out of the reception, had to beg the clinic to readmit him the next day. As an example for children, about all that can be said for it is that it beats fighting tigers with a knife.
The truth is that Weissmuller is probably too ingenuous to be a legend, or at least the kind of legend he talks about. On public appearances he loves to tell lusty tales of his Hollywood days, habitually cracking up listeners by saying, "I'm the original swinger." Another favorite line is, "If I'd married Cheetah, I'd be a millionaire today," which succeeds in a single stroke to call attention not only to the financial troubles he has had but also to the fact that he has been married, in best Hollywood tradition, five times.
It is with equal candor that his authorized biography. Water, World & Weissmuller, traces, as a blurb on the jacket puts it, "my victories in the water and the defeats I encountered on land." The book provides accounts of his marriages, particularly of his tumultuous life with Lupe Velez, the Mexican-born actress who told reporters when she and Johnny got divorced: "Marriage—eet steenks." There is an abundance of other Hollywood prattle, including an account of the time Tallulah Bankhead supposedly took a shine to Weissmuller.
"Dahling!" the book quotes Tallulah as saying. "You are the kind of man a woman like me must shanghai and keep under lock and key until both of us are entirely spent. Prepare a leave for 10 days!"
Older and presumably wiser, Weissmuller has managed since leaving Hollywood to tone down his personal life to a roar. He has been married for seven years to a high-spirited German-born woman named Maria, whose mother was said to be a countess with a castle in Bavaria. In a puckish moment, Johnny suggested to Maria, "Let's build a moat around the castle, put some crocodiles in it, then we'll build the place up as a Tarzan tourist attraction and pay off the mortgage."
Maria is a proud woman. "Oh, Zhonny," she protested in her thick German accent. "Ve do not have any mortgage."
"Never could take a joke," shrugged Johnny.
The Weissmullers live in a duplex apartment overlooking a Fort Lauderdale golf course. The apartment's four rooms are filled with furniture covered in artificial leopard skin, including two large couches, a couple of chairs, a footstool and half a dozen throw pillows. Ask Johnny about all that leopard skin, and he says, "Maria picked it out. I guess it's because of the Tarzan thing." Says Maria: "Oh, no, it has nossing to do with Tarzan. I like leopard skin because it doesn't show the cigarette burns." Such are the restrictions of apartment living that when Johnny and Maria occasionally articulate their differences too loudly at night, the neighbors register their annoyance by pounding on the walls. Maria typically replies by swearing at them in German while Johnny, who is more the diplomat, calls out that he is rehearsing a movie role, a ruse that might be more successful except that his most recent role of any consequence was his last Jungle Jim film 15 years ago. Next morning there are fences to be mended. "I apologize to the neighbors," Weissmuller says. "And I translate for them what Maria said the night before."
But now, in the airplane bound for Fort Lauderdale, Weissmuller was concerned less with German translations than with the English original of Water, World & Weissmuller, which he said he intended to revise to make it "more inspirational for the kids." The revisions would consist, in the main, of excising all but the most essential references to his various marriages.
"I think I'll just mention three of my wives and leave out the other two," Weissmuller said, "I'll have to mention the one I had my three kids by, and I'll mention Lupe, and of course I'll mention Maria, but that's all."
"Why Lupe?" he was asked.
Weissmuller fell silent, absorbed in thought. "You're right," he said at last. "I don't have to include Lupe. I'll only mention two of my wives."
On Monday, all but recovered from the weekend, Weissmuller stopped off before lunch at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a handsome building on a man-made peninsula on Fort Lauderdale's Intracoastal Waterway. Weissmuller is the Hall of Fame's honorary chairman (he is also commissioner of the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation), and one way to tell whether he is inside is to look for his car out front, a 1970 Buick with a leopard-skin roof. Weissmuller received the car from General Motors as partial payment for a TV commercial.
It was at the urging of Buck Dawson, the Hall of Fame's executive director, that Weissmuller moved to Fort Lauderdale five years ago with the intention of playing more golf (he shoots in the low 80s) and partaking of Florida's good life. As for the latter, he could do worse than follow the lead of Dawson, an enthusiastic man in a black eye patch who on nice days abandons his office (decorated with a picture of Moshe Dayan) to give dictation to his secretary Mary on the Hall of Fame's front lawn, he shirtless, she in a floral bikini.
Today, however, Dawson was not sunbathing out front, nor, as it turned out, was he inside. "Where's Buck?" Weissmuller asked, entering the building.
"He'll be back tomorrow, Johnny," replied the man at the door. "He's at the swimming meet in Cincinnati."
As Weissmuller passed through the turnstiles, it was almost as if he had suddenly stepped into his own past. Just inside the entrance stood a life-sized statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the world's premier swimmer until supplanted by Weissmuller. In the exhibit hall loomed a 12-foot-high blowup of Johnny in a tank suit at the 1924 Olympics. Everywhere there were photos of old friends and rivals, including Buster Crabbe, who competed against Weissmuller both as a swimmer and as an ersatz Tarzan in one movie, and Eleanor Holm, with whom Weissmuller swam in Billy Rose's Aquacades. There were photos, too, of a huge, red-mustachioed man named Bill Bachrach. He was Weissmuller's swimming coach, but he was also, even more than most coaches of prize athletes, his surrogate father.
Johnny's own father, a Vienna-born brewmaster on Chicago's Near North Side, died of tuberculosis when the boy was 14. Johnny, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, had learned to swim in Lake Michigan, and his passion for the sport led him to the Illinois Athletic Club, where the wily Bachrach was coach. The story has often been told that Weissmuller began swimming to build up his frail, sickly body, but Johnny, having tired of the yarn by now, refuses to perpetuate it further.
"That was something we put out to inspire the kids," he admits. "I was skinny, all right, but there was nothing sick about me. I would have filled out even without swimming."
Another story only partly true was that Weissmuller went undefeated as a swimmer. This conveniently ignores the losses he suffered during his early days with Bachrach, as well as an occasional second-place finish in the backstroke, in which he was never as strong as he was in the freestyle. The account also winks at the time in the mid-1920s when Johnny, who was essentially a sprinter, was outfoxed, if not technically out-swum, by Sweden's Arne Borg, an IAC teammate at the time. Before the meet Bachrach neatly divided up the spoils, decreeing that Borg, a powerful distance swimmer, would win the half-mile and mile, that Weissmuller would take the 100 and 220 yards and that he and Borg would finish one-two in the 400, all for the greater glory of the IAC. But Borg had been upset by the American in the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics, and he felt he had an account to settle. As the 400 began, he went for broke, and before Weissmuller realized it had built up a huge lead. Inches from sure victory, Borg stopped. Having proved his point he had no desire to further risk Bachrach's wrath by actually winning.
"C'mon, Yohnny," Borg called. "C'mon." Weissmuller finally caught up and won a rather hollow victory.
There was nothing fluky about Weissmuller's races against the stopwatch. At one time or another, he held virtually every world freestyle record from 50 yards to the half-mile. His 100-yard freestyle mark (51 fiat), which was set in 1927 without benefit of starting blocks, lane lines or flip turns, stood until 1944. And it may well be, as some oldtimers have contended, that he would have been credited with even faster times except for his coach's distinctive mode of operation on barnstorming trips.
Bachrach, it seems, had fallen into the practice of demanding $100 appearance money in return for a new world record by Weissmuller. Rather than risk putting any record out of reach with a single all-out effort, thereby spoiling his coach's game, Weissmuller learned to shave his times little by little. Sometimes Bachrach simply refrained from submitting a new record at all, and it was on several such occasions that Weissmuller is said to have dipped well below 51 seconds. This, at any rate, would help explain why those who remember seeing Weissmuller set one world record or another probably outnumber even the 350,000 or so who recall having been present in Wrigley Field the day Babe Ruth hit his called-shot homer.
As for the $100 in appearance money, some killjoys charged that such payments made Weissmuller a professional, but Bachrach always denied it. "Johnny's not the pro," he said. "I am." Indeed, Bachrach needed all the extra funds he could get to finance the 12-course meals, Havana cigars and private railroad cars he enjoyed. On their cross-country trips together, the sleeping car would fill up with Bachrach's cigar smoke, often making Weissmuller ill. "Holy mackerel, I'm sorry, John," the coach would apologize. Then he would open the door a few inches and resume puffing away.
Bachrach handled Weissmuller with great skill. Trying to negotiate one of San Francisco's steeper streets after a particularly heavy meal, he once offered 25¢ if Weissmuller would push him to the top of the hill. After Johnny did so, Bachrach paid up, then told the exhausted youth: "Holy mackerel, John, I don't think that pushing was good for your legs. You better go work out in the pool." Weissmuller tried, without success, to return the quarter.
To protect Weissmuller from hometown judges who tended to allow local boys to jump the gun in hopes of upsetting the famous swimmer, Bachrach advised Johnny: "Forget about the gun. When the other guy hits the water, you hit the water." But his idea of gamesmanship did not extend to bragging. When he overheard Weissmuller ask a group of rival swimmers before one race, "O.K., which of you guys gets second place?" Bachrach promptly ordered his swimmer to apologize. "None of the YMCA stuff, John," he said. "You're a world champion."
It was Bachrach who, figuring that Weissmuller had run out of watery worlds to conquer, told him in 1929 to turn professional by signing a $500-a-week contract to endorse swimwear. Three years later MGM cast Johnny in Tarzan, the Ape Man. He was the first Tarzan to talk in the movies, and the script had him do so sparingly, in monosyllables. "Tarzan was right up my alley," he says. "It was like stealing money." But Hollywood has its sharpshooters, and Tarzan was right up their alley, too. High living, costly divorce settlements and bad investments all took their toll, and Weissmuller's money slipped away.
Weissmuller saw Bill Bachrach now and then before he died in Chicago in 1959 at the age of 80. There were many times over the years that he wished he had Bachrach by his side to advise him. Now, pausing before his coach's photograph in the Hall of Fame, Weissmuller remembered something that made him smile. "I used to buy him cigars every Christmas," he said. "He smoked expensive cigars, that son of a gun."
From the Hall of Fame, Weissmuller went for lunch to a restaurant named Stan's, where he ordered a Bloody Mary and a Reuben sandwich, heavy on the sauerkraut. No sooner did the drink arrive than two men did, too, seating themselves at Weissmuller's table as if they were old friends. It turned out that Johnny had never met them before.
"Got something I'd like to talk to you about, Johnny," said the older and heavier man, whose initials were monogrammed on his apricot-colored shirt. In a slow, deliberate voice he proceeded to tell Weissmuller that he had been involved over the years in orange groves, insurance and many other business ventures—he had also been in "Uncle Sam's Navy"—and was now active in construction. By way of explaining his itinerant ways, he added: "I try to follow the trend of the market."
Lately, the trend of the market had taken the stranger into fiber-glass coated, lightweight concrete, a building material that had proved efficient in the construction of low-cost modular homes. Handing Weissmuller a stack of photographs to examine, he suggested that concrete cum fiber glass might prove feasible for building backyard swimming pools for as little as $400.
Weissmuller inspected the photos with great interest. "Only $400, you say?" he murmured. "Could be good."
The two men told him to think over their proposal, left phone numbers and excused themselves. "You know, he's talking sense," Weissmuller said when they had gone. "I like the idea."
In a moment the younger man reappeared with an additional phone number. "Say the word, we'll get the pool designed, price it and we're off to the races," he said.
"We'll go to town on it," said Weissmuller.
He tucked away the phone numbers to turn over to Allen Davis, his business manager. Despite the openness with which he had talked business with Strangers in a bar, Weissmuller professed to have learned a hard lesson from his past. "My trouble is that I believe everybody," he said. "They promise me a million dollars and I sign the paper where they tell me to."
"Johnny has been too eager, too easy to get to," agrees Davis, who has handled Weissmuller's business dealings for the past year. A handsome, well-mannered man who favors silver ties against white shirts and tools around in a milk-white 1964 Lincoln Continental, Davis transacts business with full awareness that Weissmuller, natural resource that he is, is threatened from all sides by depletion and exploitation.
As a kind of personal Secretary of the Interior, Davis has in recent months steered Weissmuller into the massage-chair deal, vetoed a proposed tie-in with a Jungle Hut fast-food chain, prepared to move him into a land-development scheme and a chain of family resort centers and, finally, canceled plans for a Tarzanland tourist attraction that had become bogged down in legal entanglements. In considering future commercial tie-ups, Davis expects to favor any that, like health food and vitamins, will "relate directly to Johnny's background as a physical-type man."
By no means is Weissmuller broke. He receives no income from his Tarzan movies, but residuals for Jungle Jim, product endorsements and personal appearances yield a substantial sum. However, his expenses also run high, swollen as they are by payments for back taxes and what he has to spend to maintain the image of the retired movie star. "When I'm in a hotel, I have to give the maid at least $5," Weissmuller says. "It's partly because she expects it of me. But it's also so she won't steal my tie as a souvenir."
There is no way that Davis or anybody else could possibly protect Weissmuller from all the would-be despoilers. Their ranks include motel owners who succeed in getting free newspaper publicity by fibbing that they discovered Weissmuller taking midnight dips in their swimming pools. On personal appearances, Weissmuller is forever being asked to pose in a loincloth, and he still shudders about the time somebody perched a monkey on his shoulder during ceremonies at the Swimming Hall of Fame, whereupon the animal proceeded to make itself very much at home at his expense.
Everything considered, Weissmuller holds up rather well under the indignities he is sometimes condemned to suffer. On the day he lunched at Stan's, he and Maria went out for the evening, ending up at a Polynesian restaurant for nightcaps. The Weissmullers were sitting at a small table listening to a ukulele player sing of grass shacks and little fishes when a man at the bar a few feet away suddenly began singing a very loud and off-key version of Granada.
"Hey, buddy," called Weissmuller good-naturedly. "I think you've got the wrong island."
"Well, at least I don't swing from trees," the man shot back.
With that, the fellow hoisted himself off the barstool and began dancing around the Weissmuller table, beating his chest and scratching under his arms in what he loudly proclaimed to be an imitation of Cheetah. As heads turned in the direction of the Weissmullers, the man stopped and glowered at Maria. His stomach bulged over his belt.
"And this is Jane, I s'pose?" he demanded.
The Hawaiian music continued, but it is doubtful that anybody in the bar was listening to it now. Leaning forward in his chair, Weissmuller eyed the stranger evenly. "I'd like you to meet my wife, Maria Weissmuller," he said with great dignity.
The man's voice went soft. "How do you do?" he replied awkwardly. As he backed away, he nearly bumped into a cocktail waitress, a well-tanned young woman molded into a red sarong. He grabbed her by the waist and began spinning her around the floor.
The following afternoon, a bright and balmy day, Weissmuller decided to go swimming. Shunning the tiny pool outside his apartment, one so shallow, he complains, that "every time I take a stroke I scrape my fingernails on the bottom," he went to the Olympic-size pool at the Hall of Fame. As word of his presence spread, the inevitable crowd of youngsters collected, and when Weissmuller paddled to one side of the pool they drew him into conversation.
"What's the highest you ever dived, Johnny?" one boy asked. He wore braces and appeared to be about 10.
"Seventy-six feet off a cliff, in a Jungle Jim movie," Weissmuller replied precisely. "It's harder off a cliff, because you can't see the water so good."
"Then why don't you jump off that high board for us?" The youngster pointed toward the 10-meter board in the adjacent diving pool.
"I'm older now," Weissmuller said. "I'd break my ass."
"That's nice talk," the boy scolded.
After an hour or so Weissmuller climbed out of the pool, and a delivery boy came forward and handed him a small leather pouch. The delivery boy had asked for Weissmuller at the Hall of Fame, and Buck Dawson, back now from Cincinnati, had directed him to the pool. As the crowd of children reappeared, Weissmuller opened the pouch and removed a small object. It was one of his gold medals from the 1928 Olympics, which he had sent out a couple of weeks before to have photographed for the gold-medal exhibit in the massage-chair booth in Chattanooga.
"I think I got this one for the 100 meters," said Weissmuller, displaying the medal in his wet palm. The younger children stood on their tiptoes, the better to see. "I worked four years for this. It takes a lot of hard work to do something like that." He paused, then added dramatically, "Try and duplicate it."
Weissmuller returned the medal to the pouch.
"Umgawa," he said, then he turned and headed for the dressing room to change into his street clothes. He was in a good mood. As he walked, refreshed by his swim, his feet made wet prints on the pavement, which formed a kind of trail between himself and the group of children for whom he had just set a good example.