The Magazine

A Chimp's Story

The ape between Tarzan and Jane.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By ZACK MUNSON
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Yes, Cheeta has known them all (some, he claims, biblically): Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard. One minute he's crashing Fairbanks's prized Rolls-Royce into a wall, with a lion, two midgets, and a drunken David Niven in tow; the next he's downing Brandy Alexanders with John Barrymore while witnessing a lesbian tryst between Marlene Dietrich and Mercedes de Acosta (whoever she might be).

His venomous jealousy is brought to bear against anyone he perceives to have slighted him: Maureen O'Sullivan, who robbed him of screen time; Mickey Rooney, who was better loved; Chaplin, who was simply better. He goes on at great length, and (actually) with great admiration, about Johnny Weissmuller. And yet, he can't resist revealing with unsettling giddiness, the sordid and grisly details of Weissmuller's many marriages. Me Cheeta reads like a simian Louella Parsons, an anthropoid Hedda Hopper. And like those two, Cheeta is of a different era, and he can't help but date himself. I mean, Constance Bennett? Nigel Bruce? His star registry begins to read less like Who's Who and more like Who Cares?

And who does care anymore? For like all "dreamers" (Cheeta's preferred designation for movie actors), one is eventually forced to wake up. Cheeta's decline is a well-worn tale. He goes unemployed for a long stretch. He finally lands a job, and gets fired almost immediately for being too old and too drunk. He ends up performing at zoos and parks with a Weissmuller knockoff named "Tarzo." He tries to put a smile on things, to coat his disappointing, forced retirement in cheer.

Today he helps protect movie animals from cruelty. And he paints. Hooray. But it's a bit sad. The truth is that Cheeta was forced from the spotlight long ago, and he never inhabited it as fully as he imagines. In fact, it is hard to imagine why anyone would even read this "tell-all." When was the last time you asked yourself: Gee, I wonder whatever happened to that monkey from those Depression-era Tarzan movies? When was the last time you wondered what happened to Tarzan himself?

If the answer is anything other than never, then perhaps you will enjoy Me Cheeta. If not, stay away. From its pompous introduction to its dreary conclusion, to all the outlandish and crass self-mythologizing in-between, Me Cheeta is a history absolutely worthy of its grinning, babbling, back-flipping, narcissist of a subject.

P. S. Please disregard this entire review since Me Cheeta is a work of fiction written by someone with entirely too much time on his hands.

Zachary Munson is a writer in Washington.