November 12, 2008
I want to make something very, very clear. This column’s review of the autobiography of Cheeta, Tarzan’s chimpanzee, has absolutely nothing to do with the man who just got elected to the White House last month. Cheeta’s opus was published in Britain two months ago (Fourth Estate, 336 pages) and has become a runaway best-seller. Is it a spoof? Obviously, but it’s a brilliant one, taking us back to the good old days of Hollywood when stars kept their mouths shut about politics, and their noses clean from cocaine—at least in public.
For any of you who have not heard of Cheeta, he is the longest living chimp, 76 as of this writing, whereas most of his kind live only up to 40-45 years in the wild. Which goes to show the Hollywood jungle may not be such a bad place after all. Cheeta ascribes his longevity to his daily injections against diabetes, and the benefits of a civilized society. “Me Cheeta” may well be among the finest tinseltown memoirs ever written, rivaling those of David Niven’s and Errol Flynn’s. He was shipped over from Africa as a baby, and hit the big time right away with “Tarzan and his Mate” in 1934. His co-stars were the great Johnny Weissmuller and the beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan, both of whom received top billing although it was Cheeta who stole the show.
Once in training by the Hollywood Sammy Glicks, who knew they had a money-spinner in their pay, the chimp became a star as soon as the first Tarzan movie was released. I remember seeing the film in Greece as a child—one of the few American movies allowed by the Germans to be shown—and the German officers laughing loudly when Cheeta would open his mouth and stick his tongue out and make fun of the strange Anglo-Saxons trying to capture his boss, Tarzan. Cheeta did not pull his punches back then, and does not pull them now, in print. His autobiography sticks very close to the facts. He did not like Charlie Chaplin, and calls him “a world-historically unfunny charlatan,” but in Chaplin’s case I tend to disagree with the chimp. I was among the last people to photograph Chaplin, for Paris Match magazine in 1969, and I found him to be extremely charming and rather conservative in his views of the Cold War. (The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had him hopping mad).
Otherwise, Cheeta is right on the money. Rex Harrison was among the most repellent of men, a conceited creep who was rude to underlings and people who couldn’t answer back—the great Noel Coward always pretended to kick a tire upon seeing him, as Harrison reminded him of a used car dealer—and Cheeta lets Harrison have it. The chimp’s last movie was with the ghastly Dr Dolittle, and Cheeta recounts how he had been deposited by the dastardly Harrison at the top of a monkey-puzzle tree. Harrison had a bet with his wife, Rachel Roberts: “If the monkey makes it down you can sleep with Richard Burton, if he’ll have you, and if it doesn’t, then I can divorce you…” Nice guy, this Harrison. Cheeta did not make it down the tree, much to the distress of animal lovers in the set. The chimp finally falls down, unhurt, and the overpaid creep Harrison loses his bet.
To my surprise, Cheeta is very rude about Esther Williams, the swimming beauty, as well as the fabulous Errol Flynn. The latter I met during my youth, and he was a much misunderstood man. Extremely well read, his parents were academics, he treated Hollywood’s world with the disdain of an aristocrat toward the great unwashed. Perhaps if Cheeta would have made a movie with him, and gotten to know him better, he would have changed his mind. Cheeta also disliked Mickey Rooney, which in my mind is like hating apple pie, the corner drug store, and cheer leaders on a Saturday afternoon. Never mind. At one moment, Cheeta is having dinner with Joan Crawford’s poodle Cliquot, a terribly boring evening, and then he is witness to a steamy lesbian scene between Marlene Dietrich and Mercedes de Acosta. “You can well imagine how bored I was watching them, and I scampered off to look for Johnny.”
And so it goes. I knew most of the stories, but, after all, I’ve been around since donkey’s years. Cheeta writes well, and has strong views on human beings and sex. When I called the publisher and asked for the identity of the ghost writer, the answer was that Cheeta wrote it himself. I do not doubt it. “How could I not envy humans,” asks the author. “They were so much more interesting than anything other species had come up with.” Hear, hear! My problem is that although I agree with Cheeta—we humans are more interesting than the rest of God’s creations—how come we have come to this? To have posturing peacocks like Joe Biden spouting gibberish that would have the hook working overtime in a beer hall, or egregious self-publicists like Christopher Hitchens preaching on prime TV about the evils of the Catholic church. Ours is a scene of Hogarthian squalor and retching, and you and I, dear readers, are responsible for it. We have allowed those beyond redemption, the utter scum of this world, the coarse, the greedy and the avaricious to lead us, and now it’s time to pay. Long live Cheeta.