The Last of the Hollywood High-Rollers

You might ask:  Why am I reviewing a novel/biography/kiss-and-tell story by a chimpanzee?  I’ll tell you.  This book (whatever its genre) was long-listed for the Man Booker Award, England’s most prestigious literary prize for fiction.  So that presumably means that the book was regarded by Man/Booker as a novel.  And the writer (not originally named and not identified on the cover or the title page of the American edition) who penned Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood is James Lever, recently outed by the English press.  In short, the context–memories of the 1930s and 40s Johnnie Weissmuller Tarzan movies–is intriguing enough to ask why?  Why this now?

One explanation is easy: the discovery a couple of years ago that Cheeta was living in a rest-home in Palm Springs, having apparently reached the age of 76.  But that may all be fiction, too.  More likely, the chimp in question is one of Cheeta’s descendants.   Lever must have concluded that it was time to write the final biography of a Hollywood star of the twentieth century and make it so tawdry, so gossipy, that no one would ever need to write another one.  And what could be better than to record what Cheeta–who couldn’t be questioned even if he were alive–observed as he was dragged along for several decades to the parties, orgies, marriages and divorces of Hollywood’s most famous personalities.  In short, it’s great fun, though the reader is required to believe that even if Cheeta can’t speak, he can think just like a human being.

Early on, while Cheeta is still describing his capture in Africa as a baby, it’s quite obvious that this speechless chimpanzee is much more human than almost everyone around him.  Too many of the people he encounters are cruel, vindictive, loveless, and just plain stupid.  As he remarks early in the narrative, “I had an immigrant’s resources.” He’s happy to leave Africa and once he’s been trained by a series of attendants to work in the movies, he quite literally falls in love with Johnnie Weissmuller, perhaps the only genuine human being in this narrative, though Johnnie is not the center of focus.

Weissmuller may not have been too smart (among other things, he was a terrible businessman) but he was clearly a wonderful person.  In the 1920s he won five Olympic gold metals for swimming.  He was a gorgeous hunk.  It’s easy to see why MGM signed him up for the Tarzan series, beginning in 1932.  Both on and off screen, he wasn’t very articulate, and in social situations he often relied on his two most frequent words: umgawa, which roughly meant “Let it be so,” and aaahhheeyeeyeeyeeaaaahheeyeeyeeyaaahhhh, which Cheeta says translates as “I am.”   Weissmuller was married five times, made a total of twelve Tarzan films.  Cheeta was in all of these except for the first one.  RKO/Lesser made the last six after MGM dropped the project because of declining box office popularity.  Cheeta, increasingly, got better reviews than the human beings in the series.  Weissmuller’s movie career waned after the last Tarzan film in 1947.  He died as a diabetic and in poverty in 1984.

If Lever humanizes Cheeta more often than necessary, the chimp’s humanity is always engaging.  Initially, he’s addicted to bananas; later, cigarettes and booze.  His frequent masturbation results in the same guilt that young men of his era suffered.  One curious fact is that although Cheeta was a male, he was always referred to on screen as female.  (I have no idea how his genitalia were disguised.)

A running motif in the story is Cheeta’s eternal hope that one year he will be recognized by the film academy and given an Academy Award in lifetime recognition of his work.  He bad-mouths just about every other Hollywood star (including Maureen O’Sullivan who played Jane in many of the Tarzan films) of the pre- and post-World War II days, but he never denigrates Johnny.  In one of many genuinely moving passages in this faux autobiography, Cheeta realizes that if his name were in the titles, the series’ poor ticket sales would improve: “They needed to title the next one Tarzan and Cheeta.  I was his brother, his son, his constant companion, you see.  I was there to save him from being alone.  That was the point of me, to stop him from dying of loneliness.”

For years, Johnnie carted Cheeta long with him to parties.  Cheeta claims that he knew everyone and admits with no lack of modesty that he had become the funniest animal in the world.  After the Tarzan films, he was in a couple more films (including Doctor Dolittle, in 1967) and subsequently endured nearly two of decades of road travel, as he was dragged from minor town to minor town in order that his stage antics could amuse the locals.  Finally, in 1975, he was rescued, and taken to an animal shelter that subsequently became an animal-rights foundation.

By the time I reached the final pages of Me Cheeta, I could understand why people have been amused by Cheeta’s anthropomorphized narrative.  Because of his observations of man’s fallibilities, Cheeta’s story is genuinely moving.  The book didn’t win the Man Booker award, but so what?  What is important is that Lesser gives Cheeta a human voice, lets him see and tell all.  Umgawa.

Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood
By Cheeta
Ecco, 320 pp., $24.99

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.