FOR a century now, Tarzan has been beating his chest, swinging on a vine, his mighty yell heard throughout an African jungle teeming with lost tribes and cave dwellers.
In the books he is far more meat-rippingly savage than in the films. He is also a member of the House of Lords, the heir of the late Lord and Lady Greystoke who were marooned in the African jungle when their ship was seized in a mutiny. The orphaned boy was adopted by a tribe of great apes unknown to science.
But who exactly created this creature who speaks a dozen languages, several animal dialects (Dr Dolittle owes him a debt) and is besotted with his wife Jane – the daughter of Professor Archimedes Q Porter – with whom he gazes up contentedly to the stars through the tree canopy?
Tarzan’s inventor was an adventure-smitten American, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who never once visited Africa, which is perhaps why Tarzan wrestles tigers in a continent where there aren’t any. The author’s own story is, it turns out, as fantastical as any of Tarzan’s adventures.
When Chicago suffered a devastating flu epidemic, 15-year-old Edgar was put on a train for Idaho where he joined a cattle ranch. He helped with chores, delivered mail and supplies and witnessed a shoot-out at the local saloon. He rode a bronco named “Killer” bareback. To his father’s shock the lad arrived back in Chicago wearing boots, Levi’s, a Stetson hat and with a Colt .45 tucked in his belt.
The Wild West didn’t, however, offer much of a living. At 35, with two children to feed and a third on the way, Burroughs became a snake-oil salesman: he peddled Alcoa, “guaranteed” to cure baldness and alcoholism. When that flopped he got a job selling pencil sharpeners wholesale from a leased office in Chicago.
But instead of doing his rounds he put his feet up and soaked up the emerging craze for pulp fiction in dime magazines. “I remember thinking that if other people got paid for writing such stuff I might, too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs,” he recalled.
His early efforts included a sci-fi series called Under The Moons Of Mars for All-Story magazine. He used the pen-name Norman Bean. It earned him a hefty $400, the thrill of which he never forgot. Edgar Burroughs the writer was born. By the time the Mars stories came out he had written two novels. One was rejected. The other was Tarzan Of The Apes which had already appeared in magazine instalments. It was his first Tarzan book. It earned him $700 and 25 others would follow in a period book-ended by two world wars.
By 1918 the first silent film Tarzan Of The Apes, starring the handsome Elmo Lincoln, had come out, adding to the book’s sales. Edgar was soon rich enough to buy a ranch in California. As the millions poured in he became the Walt Disney or George Lucas of his era. He trademarked his own name and exploited all the extras – toys, comic strips, radio plays – which spun from his core brand, the books. He even expanded into property, calling his ranch Tarzana, which is today nine square miles of juicy Los Angeles real estate.
Tarzan took over his life and his family’s. His daughter Joan married the fourth actor to play the character on film. “Big” Jim Pierce was an American football star who had coached John Wayne at college and whose first film in the role was the largely forgotten Tarzan And The Golden Lion (1927).
To spruce him up he was sent to the Michigan Military Academy. He stayed five years, went AWOL twice but survived on his reputation as a fabulous trick rider and a crack shot. He ended up as a Gatling-gun instructor. More than anything, Edgar wanted action so he joined the Seventh United States Cavalry (General Custer’s old regiment) stationed at Fort Grant, in a new territory called Arizona.
Unfortunately Indians were in short supply and, as Burroughs put it, he “chased Apaches but never caught up with them”. Thanks to a heart murmur he was deemed ineligible for officer training. He got a discharge, joined his father’s company and in 1900 married his childhood sweetheart Emma Hulbert.