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Reviews of "Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero"

Booklist (American Library Association) Reviewed by Mike Tribby (June 2000)

Johnny Weissmuller was a bona fide big star in the era of big stars, and Fury's sympathetic biography treats him suitably, with a certain gush that evokes old-Hollywood glamour and grandeur. Meanwhile, the many illustrations display a beaming, tanned, frequently scantily clad man who was every inch the Olympic swimming champ as well as movie star. Weissmuller liked "good-looking women, flashy clothes and toys," says Johnny Sheffield, (who played Boy to the man's Tarzan), freeing Fury to attend to the lurid details so important in a Hollywood life. Fury's handling of Weissmuller's relationship with Lupe Velez is exemplary. Now a historical footnote, the liaison was then the stuff of scandal sheets. Fury mentions Velez's penchant for raising her skirts when in high reverie, which revealed her habitual innocence of lingerie, but discreetly turns from the Mexican Spitfire's spicy antics to Weissmuller s career for chapters at a time. So this is a traditional big starstruck bio that includes just enough dirt to spice the myth. Well worth the reading.


Classic Images #303 Reviewed by Anthony Slide (September, 2000)

David Fury and his Artist's Press have already provided us with first-rate studies of Burt Lancaster and Chuck Connors. David Fury's latest effort is Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero, an exhaustive biography of the five-time Olympic gold medal winner, who was not only the greatest swimmer of all time but also the screen's most enduring Tarzan.
A good third of the narrative is concerned with Weissmuller's pre-Hollywood career, his birth in what is now Romania, his upbringing in Chicago, his 1921 debut in competitive swimming, and his promotion of B.V.D. swimming attire. David Fury's research is exhaustive, and he corrects many errors in previous biographical studies. For example, he notes that Weissmuller claimed to be born in Pennsylvania because when he entered the 1924 Olympic Games, the swimmer was not technically an American citizen.
     Johnny Weissmuller began his film career in 1929 posed as Adonis in a tableau sequence from Glorifying the American Girl, wearing even less than the loincloth he was later to adopt. B.V.D. was not particularly happy with his initial film work. The company compromised with the swimmer and M-G-M in 1931, permitting him to sign a contract as the screen's new Tarzan.
     The rest is history, as David Fury documents in detail Weissmuller's career not only as Tarzan but also, of course, as Jungle Jim. Nor does he neglect Weissmuller's somewhat dismal final films: The Phynx and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. There is also much here about Weissmuller's first marriage to showgirl Bobbe Arnst and to actress Lupe Velez. Weissmuller's daughter Lisa and last wife, Maria, are prominent in helping David Fury discuss the swimmer's later life.
Weissmuller's Jane, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Johnny Sheffield also contributed much to the book, which is enlivened by a lengthy foreword from Sheffield. A complete filmography rounds out the volume, together with a record of Weissmuller's swimming records and medals.
     Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero is an impressive book, professionally researched and written. No fault is to be found, least of all in the volume's production values that are exceedingly high. It should find a wide audience not only among those interested in film history and the history of American swimming, but also with those who appreciate books that display a quality of style and production missing from most trade publications.


Big Reel #315 "Matinee at the Bookshelf" Reviewed by Paul Holbrook (Aug 2000)

Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero. One of the opportunities most coveted by film actors in the golden age of Hollywood was to be signed to an exclusive contract with MGM. It meant that the best roles in the business would be handed to them. But only one actor on the lot was prohibited from appearing in any role other than the one he was ideally suited to play. Johnny Weissmuller was so well known to moviegoers as the jungle lord Tarzan that any other role would have lessened his credibility. Few people will give Weissmuller much credit for his acting skills. Yet his portrayal of Tarzan remains one of the most memorable portrayals in movie history.
     Weissmuller's entire life (1904-1984) was just as unique. Despite some personal problems, he was easily on his way to becoming an American idol as soon as his athletic prowess brought him to the public's attention. In August 1921, he officially debuted in competitive swimming in the 50-yard freestyle and never lost a competition. He retired in 1929 after winning five Gold Medals in the Olympics (1924 and 1928). At 6' 3", his physique and super-human swimming skills made him a natural for the 12 Tarzan films (1932-1948) and the 16 Jungle Jim movies (1948-1955) and television series (1955-1956). Although the subtitle is Twice the Hero, he was actually [a hero] a third time. That happened in 1927 when he was credited with saving the lives of 11 people after a Lake Michigan excursion boat capsized.
     Along the way were several marriages, feuds with contemporaries, years of failing health and many private incidents no one has heard about until now. David Fury's book is the first full-length biography. He had unprecedented access to Weissmuller's personal records and the help of his survivors. The book reflects the author's love of his subject, yet he doesn't shy away from revealing the sad sides of Weissmuller's private life. The photos are a rich treasure of scenes from his private moments to behind-the-scenes shots of his films during production.
     The parts I enjoyed most were the stories behind the filming of all the Tarzan films. Johnny Sheffield's amusing foreword should be read for further insights into the making of these films. Fury seems to have found every incident that's ever been recorded. (That famous nude swim by Maureen O Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate [1934]: It wasn't her. It was a petite Olympic swimmer named Josephine McKim who doubled for her.)


Burroughs Bibliophiles Reviewed by David Adams (June 12, 2000)

Being in the generation of kids who grew up in the 1940s, Johnny Weissmuller was always the real Tarzan for me. We saw all of his movies at the Saturday matinees, then went home to practice our Tarzan yells and swing from ropes hung up in the neighborhood trees. It was a national phenomenon.
     Reading David Fury's excellent, definitive book on Johnny Weissmuller made another thing clear to me. More than anything else in our young lives, we wanted to swim, swim, swim.
     Johnny Weissmuller was the Tarzan of the water. He seemed to always be dripping wet, a tall, bronzed god come up from some jungle pool bidding us to enter this aqueous, primordial womb, sealing all of our youthful desires in a Baptism that would make us one with him, our hero from the watery depths.
     David Fury's book has the power to awaken long-forgotten memories. I can't stop talking about this book with everyone I meet. It seems I find a way of slipping it into the conversation because it is so much on my mind.
     Weissmuller s swimming records are impressive; more than this, they are simply astounding. I ve become convinced that he was the greatest swimmer who ever lived. Between 1921 and 1929—when he "retired" from competition at the age of 24—Weissmuller set some 67 world records. Yet, as imposing as this sounds, it does not tell half the story. Fury inundates us with the facts and figures, almost making us dizzy with the details, but his account is a human one, putting us in the stands at the many races, making us gasp for air with this unprecedented hero.
     We cheer Johnny on to victory after victory. (He was an unbeaten athlete throughout his entire career.) We come to realize that this man came to the role of Tarzan in the movies to enlarge the legend of ERB's greatest creation in a way no other man could have possibly done.
     The reason Weissmuller's Tarzan was the quintessential Tarzan of course hinged upon his swimming ability. One of the the triumphs of Fury's book is the fact that we come to see clearly that his personal stature expanded a fictional legend into a real one. We cannot imagine Tarzan without Weissmuller. He truly set the mark by which all other Tarzans pale in the shadow of this great, heroic American.
     Fury's skill as a biographer improves with every book he writes. The depth of detail and understanding displayed in this Weissmuller book is overwhelming. Fury leaves no stone unturned. By the time you are finished reading "Twice a Hero" you feel you have lived next to this man from childhood to the grave, and that is the goal every biographer wishes to attain. Old fans of Big John come to love him more—new fans become impressed enough to become believers in the legend.
     Johnny moved into his Tarzan role as smoothly as he cleaved the water. He hydroplaned over the critics despite his lack of training as an actor because he was a natural for the role. His cat-like grace of movement made everyone else seem stiff and formal, which acting still largely was in the 1930s. He could stand almost naked with comfort amongst a group of people in clothing because as a swimmer he had done this most of his life. He had the relaxed attitude of a champion because he was an unbeaten champion in real life, and the look in his eyes (a thing that cannot be faked) was that of a man who was completely aware of his own powers. Now we can see Johnny's movie career with the added perspective of his many marriages and other triumphs and failures in his life.
     For me, the swimming chapters were the real eye-openers, but as in Weissmuller's career they always serve to inform and explain his success as the greatest movie Tarzan. In a way, as a child of the 1940s, I feel I am a part of that extended family of Weissmuller, O'Sullivan, and Sheffield because I grew up with them picture by picture. (Johnny Sheffield wrote the Foreword to this book.) Due in part to this Tarzan family, I too can declare with Sheffield, "I was BLESSED with an extraordinary and wonderful childhood."
     Fury gives us an honest and balanced account of Johnny Weissmuller's life. He is not afraid to show us all the wrinkles and scars of his difficult marriages, especially the tumultuous five-year relationship with Lupe Velez, the "Mexican Spitfire." It gives us some idea of what a marriage between Tarzan and La might have been like.
     Fury approaches Weissmuller with great enthusiasm, yet his account does not slip into hagiography. The fact of the matter is, this man WAS larger than life. His heroic acts on-screen and off need not be exaggerated.

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Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero

The name, Johnny Weissmuller, has a magic ring to it. Many people around the world think of the tall young man who couldn’t be defeated in a swimming contest, including winning five gold medals in the Olympics of 1924 and 1928. Millions of movie fans are reminded of the jungle king Tarzan, who Johnny portrayed on the big screen for seventeen years (1932-1948). We all remember the handsome man with the high-pitched voice and infectious laugh, who loved people and made friends wherever he went on his journey through life.

     Johnny Weissmuller was an undefeated swimming champion and American hero as a five-time Olympic gold medal winner, and then continued his own brand of heroism on the silver screen — first as Tarzan and then later as Jungle Jim. He was even a true-life hero in 1927, and was credited with saving the lives of eleven people after the tragic capsize of the Lake Michigan excursion boat, Favorite.

     Johnny was also an exemplary role model to his adoring fans, who spent more than three decades worshiping his every move in the pool and on the screen. Johnny’s squeaky clean image resulted in his being chosen as a central figure in the first Wheaties ad campaigns in 1933, along with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. His adoring public — men and women alike — would always forgive any minor sins he might commit in his lifetime because of his genuine purity of heart and kindness of soul.

     Chicago during the “Roaring ‘20s” had two of the most talked about and written about “celebrities” in America. Johnny Weissmuller was a hero for his swimming exploits, while gangster Al Capone was infamous for his mob rule of Chicago. Johnny was Chicago’s champion of the 1920s — all of America, really. Meanwhile, Al Capone was America’s shame. And these two diametrically opposed people, one good and one evil, both called Chicago “home.”

     The city of Chicago after the turn of the century was a slice of Americana — this was where the American dream was coming true for many immigrants. Millions of people had lost all hope of happiness in their homelands, and braved the arduous journey by boat to the United States for the opportunity to be part of the greatest country in the world. Johnny Weissmuller was one of these myriad immigrants — coming to the United States as an infant and becoming one of America’s most beloved and enduring celebrities and heroes.

     The “Roaring ‘20s” represented an era of giants in American sports, and home run slugger Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees was perhaps the biggest “giant” of them all. Some of the other sports heroes of the decade included Jack Dempsey, heavyweight boxing champion from 1919 to 1926; former Olympic decathlon winner Jim Thorpe, a pioneer in the early days of football; Bobby Jones, the world’s greatest amateur golfer; and Bill Tilden, seven-time winner of the U.S. Open in tennis. In the swimming world, the name of Gertrude Ederle would be etched in sports history in 1926 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel — in a time that was two hours faster than the men’s record.

     And then there was the six-foot three-inch Adonis of swimming, Johnny Weissmuller. An American legend before his 20th birthday, Johnny was the darling of the printed media in the 1920s — the young man earned nicknames like “Human Hydroplane,” “Prince of the Waves,” “Flying Fish,” “Aquatic Wonder,” “King of Swimmers,” “America’s Greatest Waterman,” and “the Illinois Flash.”

     Chicago has always been one of the greatest sports towns, and this was the beginning of an era of sports history in the “City by the Lake.” Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, came into existence in 1910, and Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, opened in 1916. The Chicago Staleys, coached by George Halas, became the Bears in 1922 and also played their home games at Wrigley Field. In 1927 heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey fought for the championship at Soldier Field — a crowd of 105,000 people cheered and jeered as Dempsey failed to recapture his crown from Tunney.

     The “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 made an indelible black mark on the city of Chicago and the sport of baseball itself, when eight White Sox ballplayers, including “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, were bribed by gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. A year later, Jackson departed the courthouse in Chicago after admitting his guilt in the bloody affair, his eyes downcast and unable to return the disbelieving gaze of his fans. Legend recalls that a small boy with tears in his eyes, tugged at his sleeve and pleaded of his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

     In the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, Johnny Weissmuller was a breath of fresh air to a shell-shocked Chicago. But it was more than a breath. It was more like a hurricane of vitality, competitive energy, and an unequaled level of skill in swimming pools across the country in which he competed against America’s best swimmers. This young teenaged phenom had all of America opening their collective eyes, and marveling at the phenomenal skills that would make him a legend.

     Through it all, the good and the bad of sports history in Chicago during the 1920s, one thing and one person could be counted on: Johnny would give his best in each and every race he entered and would win them all. Few athletes in the history of sports can lay claim that they retired undefeated, as was the case with Johnny, who never lost a freestyle race in his amateur swimming career. From his official debut in competitive swimming in August of 1921, when he won his first A.A.U. championship in the 50-yard freestyle, Weissmuller was the winner in every freestyle race he ever entered through 1929 — when he retired from competitive swimming.

     As difficult as it is to achieve fame and reach the pinnacle of success in a particular field, Johnny Weissmuller did it twice: He was the greatest swimmer of all-time, and then became eternally famous and internationally loved and remembered as “Tarzan” on the silver screen.  As an undefeated swimming and Olympic champion, he was a hero to millions of Americans. His fan adulation eventually spread around the world, and knew no boundaries by country or creed. As Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle god in twelve Tarzan adventures, he was the ultimate screen hero. Tarzan didn’t use guns to fight his enemies; instead, he used his cunning, guile, and superior physical prowess to send his enemies to their ultimate demise. Weissmuller continued to wear the mantle of heroism with his role of “Jungle Jim,” another pulp fiction character brought to the big screen for sixteen thrilling adventures (and one TV season) during an eight-year run from 1948 through 1956.

     Johnny was in the right place at the right time for the screen role of Tarzan — it was simply a matter of fate. Those closely entwined cousins, serendipity and fortuity, certainly helped guide Johnny through his magical life. You could also say that Johnny got lucky when Maureen O’Sullivan was cast as “Jane” in the first MGM Tarzan picture in 1932, Tarzan, the Ape Man. This turned out to be a brilliant stroke of casting, as the duo enjoyed unequaled popularity during the decade that they shared top billing in the treetops in six Tarzan films.

     As the guest of honor at the 1971 Edgar Rice Burroughs’ convention, Johnny recalled that an MGM executive wanted to change his name when he was being considered for the role of Tarzan. “Weissmuller,” advised the producer “is too long for the marquee. You’ve got to have a shorter name.” When the gentleman was informed and enlightened to the fact that Johnny’s name was known around the world for his swimming heroics and Olympic gold medals, the producer relented. “Okay, we’ll lengthen the marquee...” If the movie people had foolishly changed his name to the contemplated “Jon Weis,” it just never would have been the same.

     Johnny lived and enjoyed life to the maximum, during all of his nearly eighty years here on Planet Earth. He loved swimming and athletic competition, which was his first love. Swimming made him a star to an adoring public, which was captivated by the feats of the young man who couldn’t be defeated in his watery domain. He reveled in the role of Tarzan, which kept him in the limelight for more than two decades as a silver screen hero and matinee idol. He appreciated the beauty of women, and was married five times to five different women who each brought something special to his life. (The pressures of Hollywood broke up each of his first four marriages, but his loving union to Maria Weissmuller lasted for more than twenty years until his death.) Johnny loved a good joke, and he possessed a wonderful sense of humor and a marvelous laugh that rang out and filled others with their own laughter.

     Johnny Weissmuller was and still is remembered as one of America’s legendary heroes — one of sports’ greatest undefeated champions, and one of the movies’ most memorable screen legends, Tarzan. But knowing these facts, what pertinent information must we know about Johnny that we don’t already know? Better still, what inaccuracies, falsehoods, and distortions of the truth can we correct at the beginning of this biography? When we have accomplished this mission with the initial pages of this volume, we can then continue on with the thrilling story of one of America’s most beloved heroes.

     This is the Johnny Weissmuller story: Twice the Hero.