Lie of the Jungle: The Truth About Cheeta the Chimpanzee
In the fall of 2007, I had been working for several months on a proposal for the authorized biography of Cheeta, Johnny Weissmuller's sidekick in MGM's Tarzan movies of the 1930s and '40s. Against all odds, Cheeta was still alive at the age of 75, 20 years older than a captive chimp's normal life span. When the agent for Cheeta and his owner, Dan Westfall, had first approached me about writing the biography, I was astonished that a fixture of not just my own childhood, but my parents', as well, one of the most celebrated animals in movie history, was retired in Palm Springs, Calif., selling his paintings for $135 donations to thousands of far-flung admirers. His birthday parties were now covered by national, and even international, media. At Cheeta's 75th birthday party, his owner, who runs a non-profit primate sanctuary, had played a video of Jane Goodall attempting to sing "Happy Birthday" to him in the pant-hooting language of the wild chimps she had first observed in Tanzania in the early 1960s. Could there be higher tribute to a chimp than that?
I was too absorbed in the many fascinating aspects of my research -- the history of men and their captive chimps, the early days of Hollywood animal training, the evolution of the Tarzan franchise, newspaper clips about Cheeta, not to mention a meeting with the fading star himself -- to indulge any incipient doubts about Cheeta's true identity. To be honest, I was also too enchanted with what I had been told was the project's potential lucrativeness to question its premise; the agent's casual claim that she "never gets out of bed for less than a quarter of a million dollars" had worked its magic on me.
But one oft-repeated fact about the chimp's life nagged at me. It was one of the standard stories in Cheeta's biography -- repeated in Newsweek and other magazines, recited by Cheeta's current owner and many Cheeta admirers -- that the first of his two owners, animal trainer Tony Gentry, had gotten him in Liberia as a baby and smuggled him under his overcoat aboard a Pan Am flight home in 1932. During the long flight, the diapered Cheeta escaped from under Gentry's coat, mischievously scampered up and down the aisle, and had to be subdued by hysterical stewardesses with a bottle of warm milk.
After four months of research and writing, I decided to ask a question that, in retrospect, was so obvious that it was curious that no journalist before me had bothered to ask it: In 1932, were there any transatlantic flights for Gentry to smuggle Cheeta onto? The answer, I wasn't surprised to learn, was no. Transatlantic commercial airline service wasn't inaugurated until 1939.
Early on, I had raised the issue of documenting Cheeta's age. Obviously, I had to be protected against the possibility that, if I published a biography of the world's oldest chimpanzee, someone would make a fool out of me, my reputation, my publisher, Cheeta, his owner, and the agent by proving he was not 75. But at that early stage, it seemed a mere formality, and I had no idea even what such documentation would consist of. It was unclear if Tony Gentry, who had given Cheeta to his distant cousin Dan Westfall two years before his death in 1993, had left any papers. I'd questioned both Westfall, and his agent about the file of documents that persuaded Guinness World Records in 2001 to award Cheeta a certificate for being "the world's oldest living primate, aged 69 years and one month." But it didn't seem urgent, and it certainly wasn't desirable, to question the entire premise of the book I had just agreed to write.
The falsehood about 1932 gave me pause, but I reasoned that anyone can get a memory wrong. In the first of what were to be several acts of denial, I simply ignored my discovery and proceeded with my research. But my subconscious, already on notice, soon prompted me to verify another routine biographical "fact" about Cheeta's life. Westfall had mentioned that Cheeta had come out of retirement in 1966 at the age of 34 to play the role of Chee-Chee the chimp in 1967's "Doctor Dolittle" with Rex Harrison. Even People magazine (Cheeta's "last film hurrah was 1967's 'Doctor Dolittle' ") and Newsweek ("You laughed at him in 'Doctor Doolittle' ") said so. Numerous Web sites concurred. So I watched a DVD of "Dr. Doolittle," a movie in which Chee-Chee is played by a juvenile chimp no older than 7 or possibly 8; after that age, a chimp's physical appearance changes dramatically. That was it. Cheeta was not in that film. Whatever Cheeta was doing in 1966, he wasn't making a movie with Rex Harrison.
The same Newsweek also reported, "Only once did Cheeta walk off the set -- reportedly when Ronald Reagan kept forgetting his lines in 'Bedtime for Bonzo.' " "Bedtime for Bonzo!" If Cheeta had actually been Reagan's as well as Tarzan's sidekick, that would make him the Zelig of primates, turning up wherever entertainment history was being made. I sent 1951s "Bedtime for Bonzo" to the head of my Netflix queue and wasn't shocked to discover that Cheeta, by then a full-grown 19-year-old, is not in that movie, either. Bonzo was played by another, infant or juvenile chimp.
As Cheeta's claims to fame were springing leaks, I began spending hours in front of my television, freeze-framing on close-ups of various Cheetas in MGM Tarzan movies I had rented. I would take an 8-by-10 glossy of Westfall's Palm Springs Cheeta, approach the television and compare the two images. Chimpanzees' faces change quite a bit as they age, not unlike most human ones, but the contours and configuration of an ear change very little. I would freeze on a frame of Cheeta in three-quarters or full profile and try to find a match. In each Tarzan movie, the Cheeta role had been played by more than one chimp, depending on what talents the scene called for. (In fact, there was another, less well publicized Cheeta in Palm Harbor, Fla., who was also said to be in his 70s and a veteran of Weissmuller movies. But that's another story.) The trick was to look at all the scenes and positively identify Westfall's Cheeta in at least one. But none of the movie chimps' ears was an adequate match for the Palm Springs Cheeta's.
Things appeared to be falling apart. I was now in the awkward, if not ridiculous, position of having to verify a claim -- that Cheeta was 75 -- whose accuracy was of limited interest to anyone outside the community of Cheeta and Tarzan fanatics. How fanatical? On one end of the spectrum were the tour buses and the casual fans who occasionally stopped in front of Westfall's house, which had by the front door a cast-metal sculpture of a young chimp and a discreet sign that said "Casa de Cheeta." If Westfall happened to be outside, the middle-age driver might stick his head out the window and ask, "Is this where Cheeta lives?" and, "Is it really true he's still alive?" On the other end of the spectrum, though, were true believers, for whom getting Cheeta the elusive star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame had been, and still was, a high priority. In 1985, two brothers named David and Dan Linck, intrigued by a Los Angeles Times feature article, befriended Cheeta and his frail first owner, Gentry. On their first of several visits to Gentry's modest home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Cheeta sat at the picnic table with them, wearing a leash and consuming eggs, toast and a Budweiser before smoking a cigar also provided by his owner. Gentry told the brothers how badly he wanted a star for Cheeta on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After all, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin had theirs. Sympathetic, the Lincks that summer organized a "Cheetathon" at the Park Plaza Hotel to raise money for the cause. Unfortunately, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which decides these matters, rejected Cheeta's application.
In 2002, after Cheeta had been rejected for a star several more times -- the deliberations are famously secretive and sometimes baffling -- a middle-age independent film producer named Matthew Devlen was working on a still-unreleased documentary about Johnny Weissmuller when he learned that Cheeta was still alive. Although he didn't consider himself a rabid Tarzan or Cheeta fan, the news of Cheeta's improbable retirement had jarred loose a profound and forgotten affection. When Devlen met Westfall and Cheeta in 2004, he was shocked to discover that Cheeta did not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Devlen launched a serious campaign on his behalf in 2007 and established a Web site, www.gocheeta.com, which needled the committee by featuring photos of many non-human celebrities -- among them Winnie the Pooh, Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, the Rugrats and Godzilla -- who already had their stars. Devlen claimed to be in discussions with Guinness World Records Museum near Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for a wax figure of Cheeta. But perhaps his most ambitious and optimistic project was recruiting a Nascar Craftsman Truck Team owner from Dallas to draft plans for a Chimpmobile, described as a cross between the Popemobile and a safari vehicle, to transport Cheeta from Palm Springs to Hollywood Boulevard when the time came. (When Cheeta was denied his star again this past June, the celebrity Web site TMZ.com used the headline: "It's Hard Out Here For A Chimp.")
Was it out of sensitivity to the feelings of people such as the Lincks and Devlen, to say nothing of the feelings of Westfall and his agent, that I still withheld the extent of my doubts about Cheeta's age? Not really. In fact, I called Westfall to ask if he had seen "Doctor Dolittle." When he said he hadn't, I told him that Cheeta wasn't in it, to which he replied amiably, "Well, that's what Tony told me." He had nothing further to say on the matter. With the agent, I had a couple of conversations in which I reported the Pan Am Clipper and "Doctor Dolittle" discoveries and Tony Gentry's obvious muddling of chimps. She didn't respond with any alarm, and, allowing myself to be momentarily consoled, I stopped well short of arguing that the emerging pattern of inconsistencies demanded that we sit down and revisit the premise of the book. It was as if I had fulfilled my obligation to the truth merely by reporting my doubts to them.
In the mid-1950s, the social psychologist Leon Festinger devised the term "cognitive dissonance" for a psychological phenomenon that is so universal and commonplace that it's remarkable no suitably scientific-sounding term had been invented before then. Cognitive dissonance applies to the conflict between what a person believes and what he knows or learns is true. Strangely, Festinger discovered, the believer usually resolves the conflict by intensifying his discredited belief. Festinger cited five conditions that need to be met for someone to become even more committed to a belief after it is discredited. One of them definitely applied to me: "The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo." Indeed, I had committed myself to a project that, considering the elusiveness of good book ideas and my substantial investment of time and effort, I was not in the least eager to give up. Besides which, I had already flown 3,000 miles to meet Cheeta in Palm Springs, and it was not the kind of experience that I wanted to waste.