Weissmuller was a five-time Olympic gold medalist with 67 world records in swimming when, in 1932, he turned in his swimsuit for a loincloth and became Tarzan, the Ape Man. He starred in 12 Tarzan films and created the memorable “Tarzan yell” before being replaced by a younger actor in 1948. He then went on to star in a series of Jungle Jim movies adapted from comic books. Afterward, he ran his own swimming pool company.
Weissmüller was born to Peter Weissmüller, who was an ethnic German and his wife Elisabeth Kersch, in the Szabadfalu (Freidorf) suburb of the city of Timişoara in Romania. The ship’s roster from his family’s arrival at Ellis Island lists his birthplace as Párdány (now Međa), village on teritory of today’s Serbia, not far from the Romanian border). It has been claimed that he was actually named Peter by his parents, but when he arrived in the US he used his brother’s name, Johnny, because it was more American. However, the records of St Rochus Church in Freidorf show that Johann, son of Peter Weissmüller and Elizabeth Kersch, was baptized there on 6 May 1904. The passenger manifest of the S.S. Rotterdam, which arrived in New York on 26 January 1905, lists Peter Weissmüller, a 29-year-old laborer, his 24-year-old wife Elisabeth, and seven-month-old Johann. The family is listed as Germans, last residence (Timişoara). They were going to join their brother-in-law Johann Ott of Windber, Pennsylvania. On November 5, 1905, Johann Peter Weissmüller was baptized at St John Cantius Catholic Church in Windber. In the 1910 census, Peter and Elizabeth Weisenmüller as well as John and Eva Ott were living at 1521 Cleveland Ave in the 22nd Ward of Chicago, with sons John, age six, born in Temesvár and Peter Jr., age five, born in Illinois. Peter Weissmüller and John Ott were both brewers, Ott immigrating in 1902, Weissmüller in 1904. The ethnic group known as Banat Swabians had lived for several centuries in that region and developed a distinctive dialect and cultural traits.
When Weissmüller was a small child, the family emigrated to the United States aboard theS.S. Rotterdam as steerage passengers. They left Rotterdam on January 14, 1905, and arrived at Ellis Island in New York harbor twelve days later as Peter, Elisabeth and Johann Weissmüller. The passenger list records them as ethnic Germans and citizens of Austria-Hungary. After a brief stay in Chicago, visiting relatives, they moved to the coal mining town ofWindber, Pennsylvania. (For most of Weissmüller’s career, show business biographies incorrectly listed him as having been born in Pennsylvania. Some sources state that Weissmüller lied about his birthplace to ensure his place on the US Olympic swimming team.) Peter Weissmuller worked as a miner, and his youngest son, Peter Weissmüller, Jr., was born in Windber on 3 September 1905. Peter Jr. is listed on one census as born in Illinois.
At age nine, Weissmüller contracted polio. At the suggestion of his doctor, he took up swimming to help battle the disease. After the family moved from Western Pennsylvania to Chicago, Weissmüller continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team. While living in Chicago, Weissmüller’s father owned a bar for a time and his mother became head cook at a famed restaurant. After Peter’s business failed, he began drinking heavily and abusing both his wife and children. Elizabeth Weissmüller eventually filed for, and was granted, a divorce (various biographies erroneously state that Weissmüller’s father died of tuberculosis leaving her a widow). According to draft registration records for World War I, Peter and Elizabeth were apparently still together as late as 1917. On his paperwork, Peter was listed as a brewer, working for the Elston and Fullerton Brewery. He and his family were living at 226 West North Avenue in Chicago. In his book, Tarzan, My Father, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. stated that although rumors of Peter Weissmüller living to “a ripe old age, remarrying along the way and spawning a large brood of little Weissmüllers” were reported, no one in the family was aware of his ultimate fate. Peter signed his consent for 19-year old John “Weissmuller”‘s passport application in 1924, preceding Johnny’s Olympic competition in France. In the 1930 federal census, Elizabeth Weissmüller, age 49, has listed with her, her sons John P. and Peter J., and Peter’s wife Dorothy. Elizabeth is listed as a widow.