My Life in Hollywood
Ecco, 336 pp., $24.99
Every once in a long, long while a book comes along so large, so grand, that it defies all pedestrian attempts at classification, and yet bears significantly on our lives, as men, women, Americans-as human beings. Yes, once every so often we are blessed with such a book to enliven our sluggish dreams and stimulate our decrepit limbs to march on, a little lighter, a little happier, through this alternately grim and magical trek we call life.
It is safe to say that Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, a new memoir from Cheeta the chimpanzee, is most assuredly not that book.
It is hard to dispute that Cheeta, former costar in the old Tarzan movies and the oldest living chimp in captivity, has an impressive CV: actor, "artist," writer, blah blah blah. Yes, Cheeta, you are indeed a chimp of all trades: cad, narcissist, pretentious bore, shameless gossip, jealous mediocrity. Oh, and name-dropper: How many orgies did you attend with Paul Henreid and Hedy Lamarr? But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Like many a memoir, Cheeta's auto-hagiography treats us to a cloying portrayal of the author's childhood. Here's a vivid description of African jungle life:
Mama would take us across the stream to fish for termites. [My sister] Victoria would ride on [Mama's] back and I would cling underneath. The water was cold and flowing and pressed against me when we crossed, but I always felt safe.
And there's a stirring rendition of ritual rain dances:
From across the forest you'd hear the low coughs given out by the other tree climbers. No birds, no insects. Only our low, muffled coughs, echoless in the wet air.
The opening chapters are fully encrusted in such mundane saccharine. Could anything be more canned, more trite, more facile, more . . . simian?
Oh, and the writing. Now, I freely admit the writing is far better than what you might expect from a chimpanzee, let alone an actor. But Cheeta goes to great pains (and inflicts the same on the reader) to describe everything as a chimp would see it, mystified by the most basic human stuff-ships, buildings, a game of poker:
The humans sat around displaying fans, like male turacos in courtship, made up of pretty colored cards. The longest display, again like turacos, was rewarded with chips.
He eventually discards this excruciating device because, as he himself says in frustration, "this is gonna take forever." Even with that artifice removed there is still something so affected about it. What are we to make of this African chimp raised in Los Angeles when he's attacking the man he believes to be his great comic rival?
That's the tragedy at the heart of . . . my comedy, and a little more profound than anything in my esteemed colleague the Utopian dolt, satyromaniac . . . sentimentalist Charlie Chaplin's Weltanschauung, to use a term rather typical of Charlie's own self-consciously showy autodidact's vocabulary.
Ahem . . . pot paging kettle. And this is to say nothing of the jarringly pretentious babble he inflicts upon the reader when discussing himself. On acting: "I think most serious actors will tell you they learned nine-tenths of their craft from life and stole the other tenth." On fame:
If you want to know what being famous feels like, what it means . . . then picture a human and a chimpanzee facing each other in awkward silence, with nothing to be said, the faint inanity of the interaction stealing over both of them. That's what fame is.
As the inanity of this statement steals over the reader, Cheeta does not hesitate to inform us that he is speaking as "perhaps the most famous animal alive today." And, we can only assume, the most modest as well. He informs us that a trying upbringing is "the thread that links Van Gogh, Dickens, Herman Melville, Hitchcock, Frank McCourt, Dave Pelzer, Kirk Douglas, Margaret Seltzer and me." And he suggests that we leave the question of "Tarzan and his Mate's precise place in the Top Ten Greatest movies of all time" to other, less sophisticated individuals. After all, "comparisons are odious, anyway, in art."
Cheeta's preening self-importance knows no bounds. And yet, for such a great chimp, such a sensitive artist and deep thinker, this book is remarkably thin. Not short, mind you; it is utterly, interminably, and insufferably long. But once out of the jungle all you'll find (snaking between Cheeta's various descriptions of his own greatness) is tawdry and obscene Hollywood gossip.
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.