Tarzan's lady was no Englishwoman

Way Back When

Correction: In Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan" stories, the woman who captures the Ape-man's heart hails from Baltimore.

August 28, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When Disney's animated film "Tarzan" opened earlier this summer, it was Fred B. Shoken, a sharp-eyed collector of obscure and arcane Baltimore ephemera both historical and literary, who noted that Jane Porter, the heroine of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan stories, hailed from Baltimore and not England.

"This interest has led me to accumulate a great deal of rather useless information on Baltimore, including that a fictional character, Jane Porter, was written as a Baltimore native in the original book but was changed to a native of England when Hollywood adapted the book into a movie," Shoken said the other day.

"Alas, this version has stuck, while the original Baltimore connection has been largely forgotten," said the longtime Charles Village resident, who is a safety supervisor with the city Department of Public Works and Bureau of Transportation.

He suggests that perhaps England had a more appealing sophistication than the Queen City of the Patapsco River Drainage Basin, and that's the reason filmmakers switched the location.

On the matter of Burroughs setting Jane and her father's home in Baltimore in the first place, Shoken suggests that the city has "always had a reputation for beautiful women such as Betsy Patterson, who was briefly wed to Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother."

Shoken points out, though, that while Baltimore appears eight times in Burroughs' original story, not much is made of Jane Porter's life here.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his first Tarzan story in 1909 and in 1914 published "Tarzan of the Apes," the first of 25 books dealing with the adventures of the son of Lord and Lady Greystoke, who were shipwrecked on the coast of East Africa and later killed. Their son, who was an infant, was then taken into the jungle and subsequently reared by simians.

Tarzan is, of course, credited with uttering one of the great opening lines of all times when he lays eyes on the beautiful Jane Porter: "Me Tarzan; you Jane."

In the recent animated incarnation of the jungle love tale, the voice of Jane is that of actress Minnie Driver, who sounds veddy English with nary a trace of a Bawlmer accent.

Since "Tarzan of the Apes" was first made into a silent film starring Elmo Lincoln in 1918, more than a dozen other actors have portrayed the tree-swinging ape, including Johnny Weissmuller, perhaps the most popular, whose mate, Jane, was played by Maureen O'Sullivan.

A 1966 article in The Evening Sun said, "Jane was, moreover (perhaps still is) as contemptuous as a collegiate demonstrator of her dear old dad. He was absent-minded Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, also of Baltimore (Mr. Burroughs forgot to mention which Baltimore academy he graced). In the book Jane speaks of him as a fool, although he wants to plunge into the forest and die with his daughter after she has been kidnapped by a bull ape."

Though Tarzan saves her from an uncertain fate, the newspaper observed: "The ape would have been preferable to another alternative that faced her -- marriage to a rich and stuffy Baltimorean."

Shoken points to Philip Jose Farmer's 1972 book, "Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke," which created mini-biographies of the book's characters. According to Farmer, Archimedes Q. Porter, who was called "Ark" by his close friends, was "a history and theology teacher in the Women's College of Baltimore, Maryland, established by the Methodist Church in 1885 and now known as Goucher College. He came of ancient English stock. Thus, his earliest American ancestor was a New Englander who left to settle near Baltimore."

The professor was in his late 40s when he married Jane Carter Lee of Richmond, Va. (whose father was a cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee and descended from Light-Horse Harry Lee). She died shortly after the Jan. 1, 1890, birth of their daughter Jane Porter.

Farmer also says that the Porters were related to Cecil Calvert, second Baron of Baltimore, "who founded the colony of Maryland," and though the "relationship was somewhat thinned by time and distance," they kept in communication with their aristocratic antecedents.

He describes Jane as a "tomboy" who had traveled on her father's previous scientific expeditions and therefore was "tough and strong-minded." After arriving in Africa, Farmer writes of Jane: "The 19-year-old girl who stepped off the boat was Jane Porter. She was strikingly beautiful, had long yellow hair, which fell to her waist when unpinned (in contrast to brunette Maureen O'Sullivan); had bluish-grey eyes, and was left-handed. She wore a white pith helmet and a white ladies' waist of taffeta silk with a high standing collar and the front tucked over. This with the swelling-posterior skirt, gave her whole figure a peculiar broken appearance. Her white Melton-cloth walking skirt was ankle-length and flared out at the bottom with a graduated flounce."

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