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."