Did the Downey library really ban Tarzan books?

DOWNEY – In the early 1960's it was reported that the Downey City Library had banned all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” books because Tarzan wasn't married to Jane when they conceived Boy. This was widely believed throughout Southern California during the 1960’s and 1970’s and is still believed by many today. This rumor implied that the people of Downey were ignorant, intolerant, right-wing prigs.

This belief has surprising staying power. Over 45 years after this ban was supposed to have happened, the 2007 book "Tarzan: The Broadway Adventure" by Michael Lassell claimed that a national ban of Tarzan books started in Downey in 1962.

Almost 10 years after the “ban,” the Los Angeles Times still considered it newsworthy. In May 8, 1970, the popular Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith wrote “Downey Sends L.A. Back to the Bush League.” In it, he stated, “Wasn’t it Downey, a few years ago, that tried to get the Tarzan books out of the town library on the grounds that Tarzan and Jane were living together but weren’t married? Yes, it was Downey.”

Ray Loynd's September 8, 1971 Los Angeles Times article, “Stage Review: Downey Guild Offers ‘Evening of Theater’” (see p. H9) called Downey “a community that is capable of banning Tarzan from the public library.”

The rumor about Tarzan was, however, a wild exaggeration of what actually happened. According to a Dec. 28, 1961 Los Angeles Times article, "Zane Grey Also Safe: Tarzan’s Marital Status No Issue as Downey School Ban Is Denied,” a rumor spread that one of the Downey elementary schools had removed Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey books from its library because “1—There was no indication that Tarzan and his mate, Jane, were ever married before they took up housekeeping in the treetops,” and “2—Grey was known to put such expletives as ‘damn!’ and ‘hell’ in the mouths of his western cowhands.”

In a later article, ("Downey Furor Result: Schools Take Over Control of Libraries," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 6 1962) the Times explained that the superintendent of the Downey Unified School District heard this rumor and investigated the situation to find out what happened.

He discovered that there was no "ban." What had happened was that in one elementary school, a parent had put two Zane Grey books “out of site in a desk drawer." No Tarzan books were involved.

The Zane Grey books were subsequently put back on the shelves.

Donald W. McCormick is a retired business school professor at Cal State University Northridge. He grew up in Downey.