See also Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate.
[WARNING: Unusually for Spectacular Attractions this post contains strong language.]
When my book was nominated for a prize recently (the beauty of blogging is that you can neither see nor slap my smug face), and it came down to a shortlist of three, I was surprised to learn that a fourth tome had only at the last minute been cut from the competition on grounds of ineligibility. Good thing, too, because I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have stood a chance against Me Cheeta, the autobiography of Weissmuller-era Tarzan’s chimpanzee costar, who still lives the life of a painter and raconteur in Hollywood. As it happened, I was much happier to lose out to David Campany, saving us all the potential indignity of being out-written by an ape. It turns out that Cheeta didn’t really write his own memoir, although speculation that Martin Amis or Will Self had ghostwritten it proved to be unfounded. The real culprit is book editor James Lever who has revealed a finely tuned ear for the mock-humble, thespianic bitchery of the celebrity lifestory. He is also pretty eloquent in describing the motivation for the book, which was commissioned by Fourth Estate’s Nick Pearson:
He said it would be a terrific idea to do an autobiography of Cheeta. He wanted to see the book among all these other books on the shelves to expose the idea of the modern celebrity autobiography. Almost all of them are ghost-written, bland and anodyne. […] Often these are astonishing, score-settling memoirs from an era before stars had people to massage the reality. The most heartbreaking is one written by Weissmuller’s son about his father, who never had an enemy but ended up a destitute and broken man. It is a filial love song and it stimulated my book. […] Memoirs in aggregate don’t tell a lie and nobody has a bad word to say about him. That’s why Me Cheeta is really an unrequited love story between Cheeta and Johnny Weissmuller. […] When I was a kid it seemed like Tarzan and Jane were for ever on the escarpment and would live there for ever. They had a paradise in their grasp. Every day it seemed there was a film on television and it added to the beauty of it.
There is a real chimpanzee at the centre of this story, and he’s purported to be one of the apes appearing in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films (from Tarzan and his Mate onwards) in the 1930s, and now celebrated as the oldest chimp in the world; there’s even a campaign to get him his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – if you’d like to add your name to petition, or watch a video of Cheeta and see his abstract paintings, go here. However, Cheeta’s claims have been disproven by some spoilsport at the Washington Post, so he’s probably not even who he’s pretending to pretend to be. Damn those journalists and their pesky facts.
“Cheeta” tells the moving (yes, really) story of his capture from the African jungle, his deference to the human species rarely tempered by his dispassionate observations of movie-star sexual shenanigans and hypocrisy. If it makes the barely original, hardly cutting satirical point that celebrity culture is no more civilised than a chimp who eventually casts a wry and superior eye over its excesses, it at least does so with wit, charm, and a wealth of truly scandalous asides about well known slebs. By way of recommendation, I thought I’d give you the first page. See if you like it:
On my last day in motion pictures I found myself at the top of a monkey-puzzle tree in England, helping to settle a wager between that marvelous light comedian and wit Rex Harrison and his wife, the actress Rachel Roberts, and thinking, This is gonna look great in the obituaries, isn’t it? Fell out of a fucking tree.
This was in ’66, during a day off from filming my supposed comeback picture, Fox’s disastrous megaflop Doctor Dolittle, with Dickie Attenborough and Rex. We were in the grounds of some stately home in the charming village of Castle Combe in County Wiltshire, some time after a heavy lunch.
Rex was convinced that the tree would puzzle me. Rachel thought I’d be able to work it out. Arriving at the terms of the bet had not been easy. How exactly was I to demonstrate my mastery of this cryptic plant?
“You ought to let it start at the top, and then it’s got an incentive to climb down,” said Lady Combe. Servants were ordered to fetch a ladder. She was delighted at the success of her party. “This is exciting. Is it always so much fun with you film folk?”
“Now then, Cheeta,” said Rachel, holding a pack of cigarettes very close to my face. “You see these Player’s? They’ll be waiting at the bottom for you. You understand? Yummy cigarettes. Don’t you dare let me down.”
“Darling, I’ve just had rather a splendid idea,” said Rex. “Why don’t we forget the money? If the monkey makes it you can sleep with Burton, if he’ll have you, and if it doesn’t, then I can divorce you but you have to promise not to kill yourself.”
“Getting windy, Rex?”
“Au contraire, my sweet. Let’s call it two thousand.”
“Oh dear,” said Lady Combe. “Is something the matter?”
“Yes,” said Rex. “Your cellar is atrocious.”
Rex and I had had a number of differences on set, but nothing you wouldn’t expect to see between a couple of stars pushing a script in different directions. Far from being the coward and sadist Rachel frequently described him as, Rex was, somewhere beneath the caustic exterior he had designed to conceal his vulnerabilities, a good man and a very special human being. Nonetheless I’d been upset to have every on of my off-the-cuff contributions vetoed. This interminable ‘Talk to the Animals’ song had already taken us a week. Perhaps I was a little rusty – I’d not worked in pictures for almost twenty years – but Rex had nixed every one of the backflips or handstands I’d been trying to liven it up with. So I was pretty keen to get this tree climbed. Plus I wanted the cigarettes – and, anyway, I wasn’t about to be outwitted by a tree.
But the French called them “monkey’s despair”. From a distance, each limb had appeared invitingly fuzzy, furred like a pipecleaner, or Rex’s arteries, but as soon as I grasped it I discovered that the thing was made entirely out of horrible spiky triangular leaves, more like scales. Unfortunately, Rachel had already ordered the ladder to be removed and I could do nothingbut cling to the crown of the tree, slapping my head with one hand and communicating via some screaming, which required little translation, that I was perfectly happy to let Rex have the money.
“Don’t make such a fuss, Cheeta! It’s just getting adjusted,” Rachel assured the little crowd, as I tried cautiously to inch down that torture-chamber of a tree for her. But it really was impossible. The French were right. The English name had led me to believe that the tree would be no more than some mildly diverting brain-teaser, the chimpanzee equivalent of the Sunday crossword – but was a ‘puzzle’ only in the sense that being violently assaulted by a plant is, yeah, a somewhat puzzling experience. Fucking typical English understatement.
In this and other anecdotes, Me Cheeta explores the gulf between human self-importance and the bemused observations of a patronised insider. In the process, it mocks the tone of Hollywood memoirs that purport to stand outside the hedonism they tacitly celebrate and participate in. You probably didn’t need encouragement to take the piss out of retired movie stars, but it’s at least fun to have it done from an original angle and with some verve. And if nothing else, it settles the age-old question of what the MGM lion was really saying when he roared his way through the famous logo:
“Get the fuck out of my fucking territory now or I’ll fucking rip you to fucking pieces.”
You can read another extract from the book at The Guardian website.
Want to see one of Cheeta’s paintings? Of course you do. You’re only human:
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actually there is more than one cheeta still alive. I am a volunteer at the all volunteer primate sanctuary in Palm Harbor FL seesuncoastprimate.org. where we have a cheeta that was purchased from the Johnny Weisuller estate. Our Cheeta was also in the Tarzan movies. Our place claims to have one of the oldest living chimps but that is hard to proove since records are not availaboe to prove it.
Thanks for the info, Ron. Do you know which films your Cheeta was in? Is it possible to tell chimps apart from footage shot so long ago? I’d love to get a definitive answer about the identity of the various Cheetas, but the mystique is fun, too. This might sound obvious, and maybe I’m wrong, but from where I was sitting it looked like the Cheetas in the Weismuller movies were females, while the chimp still working is an abstract painter and claiming to be the original movie star is a dude.