In the swim with Johnny and Esther
I became a fan of Johnny Weissmuller after I saw my first “Tarzan” film, when I was only 8 years old. He was the best Tarzan of them all—not as well-built as Gordon Scott nor as good-looking as Lex Barker, but he was a true-blue Olympic swimming champion!
Weissmuller played Tarzan in many films before he was replaced by Barker. Then, he became Jungle Jim. But, it was his movies as the jungle king that I was addicted to—I followed his adventures from Africa to New York!
Tarzan’s “wild” family was made up of Jane (played by Maureen O’Sullivan), their son, Boy (Johnny Sheffield), and a coterie of animals that included the mischievous monkey, Cheetah, and the obedient elephant, Simba. He fought ferocious lions and crocodiles, and had access to a treasure trove of gold and jewels—after all, he was King of the Jungle!
When I was learning to swim, I aped Weissmuller’s style. I would jump into a pool, pretending I was being thrown by Tarzan into a river. My teacher in college noted that I swam like Johnny. —I even learned to yodel like him!
Soon, however, I started channeling swimmer-actress Esther Williams, whose performance and swimming style were more glamorous and spectacular than Johnny’s. She starred in MGM’s lavish screen spectacles. She was such a box-office attraction that, even when she appeared in nonmusicals, producers found ways to make her swim onscreen!
I would holler every time she would dive from 40 feet high into the water—and surface smiling from ear to ear! She’s still alive at 93, the widow of Argentine swimmer-actor, Fernando Lamas. She drew my attention because she was androgynous.
Once, during a swim, my companions noted my unique style and asked where I learned it. I replied, “From the movies, which transformed me—from Johnny Weissmuller to Esther Williams!”