Resurrecting the Chimp

Published: March 14, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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About a third of the way into the memoir is one of those ‘40s, Hollywood pictures taken at some swanky restaurant like the Brown Derby by an eager, gossip columnist back in the days when people taking photos of stars had the “reasonably” good sense to snap them in reasonably good surroundings.

The caption reads:  “On the left, Dolores del Rio, a dear friend and nothing more.  A minor imbroglio involving Miss del Rio in 1942 is generally supposed to have cost me an Oscar nomination for my work on Tarzan’s New York Adventure, and Dolores her marriage.  On the right, close friend and one of Hollywood’s great scintillators, the irrepressible David Niven.”

“Funny‚ moving‚ searingly honest‚” the publisher writes, “Cheeta transports us back to a lost Hollywood. He is a real star‚ and this the greatest celebrity memoir of recent times.”

Me Cheeta, a fictionalized, Hollywood memoir has hit the bookstores, as well as the book review section of papers like the Wall Street Journal, with a BIG splash.  (Although, when I asked for the book at my local Borders, I was directed to the “Animal” section of the store.)

I talked about the Cheeta story (Dec. 8, ’08) when I synopsized a Washington Post story written by Richard D. Rosen in which he detailed how his research led him to the disappointing conclusion that Cheeta, the chimp from the Tarzan movies, now retired  in Palm Springs, California, was really a phony.

Rosen explained about his unsuccessful attempt to get the current owner and his agent to understand and accept this new truth and perhaps consider authorizing a book that talks about how people like to hold onto certain lies such as the Cheeta story like a kind of cultural, comfort food.

Never hearing back from either the agent or the owner, Rosen reads a front page story in the New York Post touting that Cheeta’s memoirs will be released in 2009.  The story seemed to suggest that regardless of the truth, the chimp’s owner and agent were going to plow ahead and get the book into print.

However, while the Journal review gives a lot of space in talking-up the book, it does make clear that the whole thing is both fictionalized and funny.  The conceit of the book is made clear as Cheeta is portrayed as a cigarette-smoking, booze-guzzling has-been who explains that he quite possibly was cheated out of an Oscar while he swears like sailor and freely name-drops the good, the bad and the disgusting of Hollywood elite.

The review also makes clear that “…journalist Rosen… [proved] that the Palm Springs chimp is simply not Cheeta – can’t be a septuagenarian, [and] never appeared in a Tarzan movie.”  The Journal also reveals that the real author is a British book editor by the name of James Lever who uses the chimp as a contrivance to have a little bit of fun.

National Public Radio ran an interview with Lever talking about the book. When asked if this is the real Cheeta and real events, Lever clearly admits, “I made him up.” He’s also quite frank about using Cheeta as a device to poke fun at all the “lost Hollywood” stereotypes and ridiculous tell-alls and take us for a somewhat pleasurable ride along the way.

But that’s not the end of the interview.  To their credit, NPR recaps journalist Rosen’s experience with the Palm Springs chimp.  It’s yet another example of setting the record straight (for any of those left believing all the hype and glory brought about by the agent and current owner).  On the Web page that lists the Me Cheeta interview, a sidebar story appears with a link to Rosen’s original Washington Post story.

Although we’re talking about a chimp here, it’s nice to know that some people in the media still believe that honesty with the public is still the best policy.

So, all’s well that ends well!

Not quite.

The photo above came from a story in the U.K. Telegraph(July 8, 2008).  The caption reads: “Cheeta with Johnny Weissmuller on the set of one of 12 Tarzan films the chimp star featured in Photo: GETTY IMAGES

But look closely, because that’s not Weissmuller at all!

A little research on Google (inspired by Rosen) will reveal that the Tarzan in the picture is really Lex Barker!


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