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In reel after reel, Johnny Weissmuller, filmdom's most famous Tarzan, outwitted hungry crocodiles, bloodthirsty pygmies and trigger-happy explorers, sending his inimitable victory call echoing through the treetops as he escaped.
Off screen, Weissmuller contrived an even more daring getaway, taking with him to the grave a secret that might have changed Olympic history.
Pursued by questions about his citizenship before the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, Weissmuller claimed an American birthplace for himself so he could represent the U.S. in swimming. The ploy worked, and Weissmuller brought three gold medals back to his adopted homeland.
From that time until his death this year few knew that Weissmuller was actually born in Europe, not the U.S., as he had claimed, and that the magnificent swimmer who won a grand total of five gold medals in the 1924 and '28 Olympics was in all probability a Romanian citizen when he did so.
The obituaries following Weissmuller's death on Jan. 20 listed Windber, Pa. as his birthplace, but he actually first saw the light of day nearer the Danube than the Susquehanna.
Official records reveal that he was born on June 2, 1904 in the small town of Freidorf, in the Banat region of Romania (part of Hungary before 1918 boundary changes). He was brought to the U.S. seven months later by his parents, Peter and Elizabeth Weissmuller. The family settled for a short time in Windber, where a second son, Peter Jr., was born.
In April 1924, as Weissmuller trained for the Olympics, stories questioning his birthplace made national headlines. The New York Times reported that Illinois Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone had publicly expressed doubts as to Weissmuller's citizenship. But Weissmuller and his father, who became a naturalized citizen in 1937, assured the public that "Johnny was born in Chicago, will be 20 years of age next June, and has no intention of being anything but an American citizen." The next day the Chicago Tribune ran the headline CAN'T BAR WEISS FROM OLYMPICS; WAS BORN HERE. But there's no record of Johnny's purported birth in Chicago.
In order to get an American passport. Weissmuller needed to produce legal proof of citizenship. No doubt that was the reason for switching "birthplaces" from Chicago to Windber. for there, in the baptismal records of St. John Cantius Catholic Church, was an entry for Johnny's brother, Peter. "Petrus Weissmuller" is written in one hand, with "John" inserted between the first and last names in distinctly different ink and penmanship. Church officials today aren't sure when or how the record was altered.
Weissmuller could have identified his brother's record as his own, a feat made easier because the brothers often traded names. In his adult life, Johnny claimed to be named Peter John, even though his Romanian birth records and the American immigration manifest list him as "Janos" and "Johann," respectively. Brother Peter, who died in the mid-'60s, had said his "real" name was John Peter even though he was always called Pete.
After satisfying Olympic and government officials of his American citizenship, Weissmuller joined the U.S. team and swam in Paris. He became an instant national hero. It seemed nobody now wanted to raise questions about his citizenship. Claiming Windber as his birthplace not only gave Weissmuller the opportunity to produce "proof" of his American birth but also provided him with a new hometown, which in later years would welcome him back as its most famous native son.