Page 5 of 5   <      

Lie of the Jungle: The Truth About Cheeta the Chimpanzee

That night, I paced my hotel room in Hollywood as I tried to convince Westfall and Cheeta's agent over the phone that, although Cheeta was essentially a fraud and a biography was no longer possible, I had an even better book now. The celebrity biography of a chimp might be commercial, but what I had in mind was far richer. A book that would touch on our curious but all-too-human need to believe in symbols, to keep alive our childhood through the immortality of its cherished icons, to help ensure our own longevity by imputing it to others. A book about a forgotten slice of Hollywood history and the terrible fate of most captive chimps (though not Cheeta, who did live a privileged life for a captive ape). About how, in Hollywood, even the animals lie about their age. All the agent had to do was convince her client -- Westfall was blameless, after all; he had inherited Gentry's lie.

The agent could not have been more complimentary about the thoroughness of my research and my commitment to the truth. "I knew we had chosen the right writer," she said. We agreed to pursue a solution to our predicament when I returned to New York.

Back home, I waited days to hear from her before receiving an e-mail that said in part:

I'm talking to Dan about the bigger issues the possible new direction your proposed book on Cheeta is taking, but you'll need to inform us, in writing, by way of email would be fine, the book you now intend to write and to what extent it might differ from the one you set out to write ...

To what extent it might differ? Had I not made it clear repeatedly on the phone that I no longer believed Cheeta was either 75 or a veteran of Tarzan movies? She went on:

To the extent the book hasn't changed in its direction but somewhat in its suggestion, ok, all the better, as upon further reflection the book we tapped you to write and the story you exclusively would be authorized to write, is still the book we want I should think and the book I believe I can still successfully sell ... I think a book that's too investigative in its approach to determine Cheeta's "real" age or exact film credits would also be a mistake and undermine the two biggest hooks we have to hang this book on: Cheeta being the world's oldest living chimp and his being the last surviving chimp to play Tarzan. If you believe neither of these are true and the book will reveal as much, I think we need to consider very carefully your sources for this and understand up front how and to what extent you think the book hinges on them being revealed.

The next day, I replied to her:

Because of the research I've done during the last two or three weeks, I've lost my remaining confidence in, as you put it, the "two biggest hooks we have to hang this book on." The evidence makes it impossible for me to be ambiguous about the issues of Cheeta's age and his actual movie appearances. And so it would be impossible for me to satisfy the ambition you and Westfall both have for this project.

I did not hear back from her -- ever again, in fact. A week after her last e-mail, the phone rang. It was Westfall in Palm Springs, sounding cheery.

"Hi, Dan," I said, pausing to carefully consider my next step. "Um, Dan, is it possible that you haven't heard from your agent in the last week?"

"No," he said. "I haven't heard from her in a long time."

"Well, I hate to be the one to give you the news . . ." And I did hate to be the one, since not only had I grown to like Westfall, but I knew that, in a world in which most captive chimps were mistreated and/or abandoned by their "loving" owners and trainers, not to mention their captors in medical laboratories, Westfall cherished Cheeta.

Westfall accepted my verdict with surprising equanimity, and without asking me what evidence I had amassed to bring me to my conclusion. He didn't even ask me how old I thought Cheeta actually was. It was as if Cheeta was not a specific animal living in his back yard, but an icon that existed on another plane, safe from prying empiricists.

He didn't even ask me about the file he had finally given me, the one containing the documentation on which Guinness had based its decision to certify Cheeta's age in 2001. If there were a document anywhere in the world that would make liars out of Hubert Wells, Stuart Raffill, Cheryl Shawver, and now me, this would be it. The most crucial document in the file was a two-page letter from the curator of vertebrate zoology at the World Museum of Natural History at Loma Linda University in Riverside, Calif. Its credibility was immediately damaged by its inclusion of the same old story of how Tony Gentry had brought Cheeta over from Liberia in 1932. Moreover, there was nothing in the report of his examination of Cheeta that proved he was 75, only a statement that his physical condition was consistent with that of "an ancient, aging animal" -- an apt description for most chimps over 45.

There was, however, one document in the file that could not be so easily explained away. It was a signed "statement of authentication" by Jan Giacinto, an old friend of Westfall's and "a licensed dealer and breeder of endangered wildlife for the past 45 years." Giacinto claimed to have known Tony Gentry and Cheeta in the summer of 1939, at which time, she wrote, Cheeta behaved like a typical 7-year-old chimp. Giacinto, too, retailed the story of the 1932 flight from Liberia, but, given that every chimp has a very distinctive physiognomy to the trained eye, it was curious that she could have mistaken Westfall and Gentry's Cheeta, assuming he was really born around 1960, for one she knew so well in 1939. I had to allow for the slim possibility -- I was grateful for it, in fact -- that Jan Giacinto was right, and Cheeta was 75, and everyone and everything else was wrong. But when I called her house to question her, her husband informed me she had just passed away. Rather than grill a widower, I quietly dropped Giacinto into the column of those whose belief simply overpowered both reason and the facts.

In a subsequent phone call from Westfall, he was troubled enough to ask me what he was supposed to do now about his Web site and brochure, which proclaimed Cheeta as 75. He was understandably concerned about being seen as having sold Cheeta's paintings under false pretenses. I made some suggestions, and almost immediately he edited his Web site to read: Very recently, Dan has been working with an author on Cheeta's biography. The author's research has revealed that Cheeta may not be quite as old as we'd thought, although he is clearly old. It has also been difficult to determine which movies our Cheeta may have been in. This will almost certainly remain a Hollywood mystery.

My determination to proceed with a Cheeta book anyway was strengthened by the news that a British writer had sold a humorous Hollywood "autobiography" by "Cheeta" to an American publisher for a substantial amount of money. The project, unrelated to Westfall or his agent, was the talk of the London Book Fair. The author had never bothered to speak to Westfall or visit his Cheeta in Palm Springs. While the autonomous author of "Me Cheeta" was reaping the many benefits of writing a racy humor book based on a falsehood, I, who had yet to see a penny for my project, tried in a series of phone calls to persuade Westfall directly to cooperate with a book that presented him as the conscientious animal lover and chimp parent that he was, but told the truth about Cheeta's identity.

A week later, Westfall e-mailed me to say he didn't want to proceed with the book. The news about Cheeta, he wrote, was too painful.

The story was hardly over for me, however. I wrote an extensive proposal for a book that combined an unauthorized biography of Cheeta, positioning him as an adorable exception to the widespread tragedy of chimps and orangutans in show business. Editors did not exactly flock to it. In the end, I was left holding a bag of truth that no one wanted.

This past June, seven months after I figured out that Cheeta was only in his 40s, I opened the New York Post and found a prominent story titled "TARZAN CHIMP A TOTAL PIMP," with a big color photo of Westfall's chimp in aviator sunglasses and a straw hat, sitting behind the wheel of a red sports car. It read: "Forty-one years after his last movie -- the 76-year-old chimp -- The Guinness Book of World Records says he's the world's oldest living simian -- has signed a record deal. He has also had a part in a new DVD, and 'Me Cheeta,' his memoirs . . . are coming out in February . . ."

The story went on to say, "Cheeta marked his 76th birthday party on April 9 with a big party and a diabetic-friendly cake. April 9 isn't his actual birthday -- the exact date is unknown because he was born in the wilds of Liberia -- but the day in 1932 when he arrived in the United States."

R. D. Rosen is the author of many books, including the recent "A Buffalo in the House" and the Edgar Award-winning mystery novel "Strike Three You're Dead" (and its four sequels). He can be reached at richarddeanrosen@gmail.com.


<                5

© 2008 The Washington Post Company