About Johnny Weissmuller: Stories

Lou D’Elia, who is the custodian of the Estate of George Hurrell, recounted this story to me:

“I have curated and guest curated several museum exhibitions regarding the photography of George Hurrell and I always enjoy sharing some of the stories behind the photographs that are on exhibition. I was fortunate to know George Hurrell and one day George and I were reviewing photos in my collection together and George was telling me some of the stories behind the photographs. When we came to the series of Johnny Weissmuller photographs he told me that your grandfather was a wonderful guy, a gentleman, and that he very much enjoyed working with him. Indeed, he considered that shoot a true collaboration.

George had seen Johnny swimming the day before the scheduled photo shoot, and watched him as he pulled himself up and out of the water at the pool’s edge. He saw how the light caught the angles of his wet face, neck, shoulders and upper body as he emerged from the water. So George decided that when he photographed him that he would try to achieve that same 'glistening' masculine look similar to when he emerged from the water. For their photography session back at George’s private studio Johnny did not wear any make-up, and George had him apply a thin coat of baby oil to his face and body. The rest of the luminous skin effect was achieved by retouching the 8 x 10” camera negative and then further enhancing the work when printing the image in the darkroom. Hurrell and your grandfather - as well as the studio executives - loved the images.

George thought that the photos that he took of Johnny were among the best shots that he had ever taken featuring a male. Years later he would replicate the 'look and feel' of that shoot for Lindsey Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac) for his solo career “Law & Order” album cover. George told me that through the years several famous male clients requested that their photo be taken in the style of your grandfather. But as George Hurrell knew, and we all know and appreciate, there is only one Johnny Weissmuller.


Johnny and Cheetah

Johnny was always able to build a camaraderie with the many animals used in the Tarzan films, and he let them know he was not afraid. Especially difficult were the chimpanzees used to play Cheetah; they are notoriously vicious and unpredictable and get worse as they age. He actually worked with eight different chimps over the years.

Back in 1931 when he met the first Cheetah, the chimp challenged Weissmuller by baring his teeth in a prelude to attack. Johnny drew his hunting knife and held it closely to the Chimp’s face, and then knocked it hard against its head. After replacing the knife in its sheath, he offered Cheetah his hand. First the chimp glared at him, then grinned and took his hand. From that moment on there was a lasting bond between them, and Cheetah would snipe at anyone who came near Johnny. Maureen O’Sullivan many times has recounted how she ended up with lots of scrapes and bites from a jealous chimp!


Johnny in Japan

In October of 1928, Weissmuller was part of a special team of a few athletes that was invited to Japan to compete in exhibiton meets for swimming fan Crown Prince Chichibu’s wedding celebration. Swimmer Katsuo Takaishi, who had competed against him in the Olympics, warned Johnny and Bachrach that the Japanese intended to prevail by virtue of the fact that they were used to swimming in frigid water. So he and his teammates “trained” by taking twice daily baths in ice water in their hotel, and remained undefeated in their meets. Ironically, he was then asked to become the Olympic swimming coach for that country. This ice water training would serve him well later when making the Tarzan movies, as when performing on camera with live alligators and hippopotami, the water on set would be chilled so as to render the giant beasts sluggish.


Johnny in Cuba

Weissmuller was well known and loved in Cuba, both before and after that country’s communist revolution. To this day there remains a “Johnny Weissmuller Suite” at the historic Hotel Nacional in Havana. Early in the morning or after a night of hard partying, he would dive from the second story balcony outside his room to the pool down below.

One widely recounted story is from when he was there in 1958 for a pro celebrity golf tournament. At that time, Cuba was in the throes of revolution, with Castro’s rebels fighting a guerilla war against Batista’s regime. Weissmuller and some other golfers were commuting to and from the Villa Real golf course in an open touring car, accompanied by bodyguards assigned by President Batista. Suddenly they were surrounded by a band of Castro’s rebel soldiers, demanding the bodyguards throw down their weapons. Realizing the danger of the tense standoff, Johnny raised himself up in the car and gave his famous Tarzan yell. The rebels immediately recognized him and gathered around their cinema hero, crying “Tarzan, welcome to Cuba!” Far from being kidnapped, they were escorted by the rebels to and from the golf course.

This story was confirmed directly by Weissmuller’s granddaughter when she was working in Havana at the Hotel Nacional on a special project. She was introduced to a charming old man who everyone knew had hung out with Johnny as his local helper when he was a teenager. Unprompted, he himself told her this story, and knew it because he was there as part of the entourage when it happened!

JW is pictured on the center right of the large poster mural at the left of the photo, from the famed hallway gallery of the Hotel Nacional

The hotel pool outside the Weissmuller suite’s balcony

Menu from the main dining room at the hotel

Menu from the main dining room at the hotel

Stay tuned for a lot more great stories to come!

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