In 2007, author Richard Rosen had a Hollywood dream job – to write an authorized biography of Cheeta, the chimp used by MGM in the Tarzan movies of the ’30s and ’40s.
According to Rosen’s own account in the Washington Post (Dec. 7), “When the agent for Cheeta and his owner, Dan Westfall, had first approached me about writing the biography, I was astonished that… 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.”
However, what Rosen did not count on was where his story would take him and the dark secret he would finally uncover.
“…one oft-repeated fact about the chimp’s life nagged at me,” Rosen writes. “It was one of the standard stories in Cheeta’s biography… 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.
“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.”
This was just the beginning of many doubts and contradictory evidence that Rosen would uncover.
In 1966, People magazine reported that Cheeta came out of retirement to play “Che-Che” the chimp in Dr. Doolittle, the Rex Harrison film. If People says it’s true, it must be true! Wrong. “Whatever Cheeta was doing in 1966,” Rosen writes, “he wasn’t making a movie with Rex Harrison.”
Newsweek magazine “…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.”
It gets worse.
Rosen digs up a 1985 Los Angeles Times story about Cheeta in which his original owner, Tony Gentry details how and where he first obtained the movie icon.
“I bought him from a dealer when they closed down the old Santa Monica Pier,” Gentry says. “Lemme see, when was that? Late ’30s sometime. Mebbe 1938. Anyway, he was about 2 or 3 years old… so this Cheeta did one [movie] with Lex Barker. Or was it two with Weissmuller and one with Barker? Which ones? I dunno . . .”
In another story, “…Gentry is described as having ‘fed, pampered and trained the 4-foot, 158-pound star for 38 years.’ Since we know Gentry got Cheeta when he was a baby, that would mean Cheeta was born in 1947 (1985 minus 38 years), or 15 years after the year in which he usually claimed he got him. It would mean that, at a time when Gentry was telling Westfall [the current owner] and many other people that Cheeta was 53, he was only in his late 30s.”
By now, Rosen realizes that Cheeta’s bio is, frankly, a cheat!
More research revealed that, “‘…Gentry bought him for $300 on the old Santa Monica Pier in the late 1940s.’ In another folder was an article from the same period in the Los Angeles Daily News – ‘Tarzan’s famed chimp is alive and well at 53’ — which states that Gentry ‘found him in a Belgian Congo jungle more than half a century ago.’”
Then Rosen tracks down Hubert Wells, not only a Hollywood animal trainer, but knew Gentry. Wells had a couple of friends with him at the time of Rosen’s interview, Stewart Raffill, a former animal trainer and Cheryl Shawver, a trainer atJungleland, a long-forgotten L.A. entertainment zoo for kids. They all knew Gentry.
“When I began by describing the book I was writing, the three of them shook their heads ruefully.
“It’s not true,’ Wells said. “Tony got that chimp from Wally Ross. Wally was a premier chimp and elephant trainer. He was one of the managers of Pacific Ocean Park on the pier in Santa Monica. When Pacific Ocean Park closed [in 1967], he had a chimp he owned and trained, about 6 or 7, the turning point for a chimp. He said, ‘Here, Tony, do you want this chimp?’ Tony said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and he took it.”
“If Cheeta was 6 or 7 when Pacific Ocean Park closed,” Rosen calculates, “he was born in 1960 or 61.
“You’re sure about this?” Rosen asked Wells. “That chimp was Dan Westfall’s Cheeta?”
“Absolutely, no doubt,” said Wells.
“Unfortunately, it’s Hollywood, and people do exaggerate,” said Raffill.
In the face of a mountain of evidence that strongly suggested that the Palm Springs Cheeta was not THE Cheeta, what was Rosen to do with his truth? How would he approach Westfall, Cheeta’s current owner, and what would he tell the agent who brought him the book deal?
“That night,” Rosen says, “I paced my hotel room… 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… 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… All the agent had to do was convince her client — Westfall was blameless, after all; he had inherited Gentry’s lie.”
Although complimentary in Rosen’s fact-finding, at the end of the day, his speaking-truth-to-power-with-a twist-of-a-different-book-deal, didn’t fly.
And what happened to Cheeta’s owner Dan Westfall, the agent and Cheeta?
“This past June,” Rosen writes, “seven months after I figured out that Cheeta was only in his ’40s, I opened the New York Post and found… 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…”
“…in Hollywood,” Rosen writes, “even the animals lie about their age.”
Except… Cheeta didn’t lie. His owners and agent did!