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.
Weissmuller contrived an even more daring getaway, taking with him to the grave
a secret that might have changed Olympic history.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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