Story and photo by Jim Herrington
In 2006 I came across a news item – the chimpanzee that portrayed Cheeta in all of the Johnny Weismuller-era Tarzan movies from the 1930s was turning 74 years old, and not only that, the article stated that he was the world’s oldest living non-human primate as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. I found it incredible that he was still alive – he must have outlived everyone else involved with those movies, cast and crew. Not to mention the fact that he had lived more than 20 years longer than the average lifespan of a chimpanzee. This was one fantastic specimen of simianity and story-wise it was right down my alley. I immediately put a call through to Palm Springs, CA where Cheeta was living out his retirement years with Dan Westfall, the nephew of Tony Gentry, Cheeta’s original owner and trainer. I told him I wanted to fly to California as soon as possible to do a photographic portrait of Cheeta, which he agreed to, and two days later I was pulling my rental car up in front of the modest ranch-style house in a nondescript neighborhood on the edge of Palm Springs that Cheeta called home.
Westfall greeted me at the front door and gave me a tour of the house. First I was shown the refrigerator that Cheeta would open to help himself to ice cream and soft drinks, both of which he enjoyed. I was also led to the couch in the den where Cheeta would sit and smoke cigars, maybe even have a beer, while staring at his own face on the the TV screen where the old Tarzan movies were on frequent replay for him to watch. I was then taken into another room and shown numerous paintings that Cheeta had done, all abstract, non-representational, a style in which he seemed fluent. I kind of liked them. He would sign the paintings, fans would buy them, and the proceeds would go towards his own care and upkeep – in a way he was selling pictures to pay his rent and it was then that I felt on equal footing with the monkey.
Once I had my camera set up, Cheeta was brought out of the large enclosure in the backyard where he spends a lot of his time. He definitely looked his age as he loped towards me, moving slow but purposefully with grey streaks through his hair and a seen-it-all, rheumy-eyed countenance that I’d observed on more than one retired showbiz face, yet I was told not to be fooled by his seemingly resigned behavior – he still had the strength of 5 men and in the rare event that he made a move for me I was told to dive into the pool behind me. Cheeta hates the water. This was a few years before Charla Nash had her hands and face removed by Travis, the berserk Connecticut chimpanzee, otherwise I may have indeed kept one foot in the pool.
The shoot went fine, I got the photos that I wanted and I flew back home. The following year there was once again mention in the papers about his birthday, same angle – “Tarzan, cigars, OLDEST…”
Then, in December of 2008, an article appeared in the Washington Post by a man named R.D. Rosen. Rosen had been retained by Westfall to write the “authorized biography” of Cheeta. However, during his research for the book proposal that he and Westfall were going to present to publishers, Rosen started discovering some unsettling facts. For starters, there were many chimpanzees that portrayed Cheeta in those early Tarzan movies, sometimes different chimps within the same film even, each performing bits that they were especially suited for. There never was one Cheeta. But it got worse. After extensive research, Rosen discovered that “Cheeta” was only in his 40s and wasn’t even alive when the early Tarzan movies were made – he had, as it turned out, appeared in exactly none of them. Also, Westfall was Gentry’s distant cousin, not his nephew. It continued from there with the entire story of Cheeta – when and where he came from, what he did, various lies and embellishments either purposely created or lazily perpetuated – all unraveling. A telling moment from Rosen’s article is when the famed primatologist Jane Goodall paid a visit to the legendary chimpanzee in 2008 and remarked to Westfall, “Why, he doesn’t look any older than 45…” Rosen’s detailed article debunking the Cheeta story can be found online and is worth reading.
I was understandably disappointed to find out this news. Not so much for the time and money spent to get the photo or even for the vague feeling that I was duped, but mostly because it was a good bar story, the one about Cheeta anyway, one that got better each time I retold it, not unlike Gentry’s, perhaps. But by now mine had lapsed into a very short and dull telling of me flying across the country to photograph a nobody monkey.
Over time I started thinking more about “Cheeta,” this imposter ape upon who’s hairy back fame had been foisted, spending a life not of reamed out termite holes on damp jungle floors but one of cigar smoke and cold beer on poolside chaises, whiling away his well earned “retirement” in the Palm Springs sun when not crouched in his studio popping off another, I’m sure I can say this here, primitive abstract. And what must he have thought about being exposed to, for decades on end… “there he is again, that naked ape in a loincloth…” Johnny Weismuller’s face and Tarzanic caterwaul, replayed on the TV eternally… and on every publicity 8×10 that “Cheeta” would sign for fans. “If I continue to pretend to be a part of this narrative, the cigars will keep coming…” Most likely he didn’t know the difference… he’d lived this way so long he probably figured that opening the refrigerator and helping yourself to the strawberry ice cream is what every ape did. But I wonder if in the back of his mind he didn’t realize that he was getting away with a pretty good thing and just decided to sit back and stick to a simple mantra:
“I’m not saying a word.”