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Authors: Cheeta

Me Cheeta

BOOK: Me Cheeta
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Me Cheeta

My Life in Hollywood

To D

“A movie star is not quite a human being.”

—MARLENE DIETRICH

Note to the Reader

Dearest humans,

So, it’s a perfect day in Palm Springs, California, and here I am—actor, artist, African, American, ape and now author—flat out on the chaise by the pool, looking back over this autobiography of mine. Flipping through it more than reading it, to be honest: the whole Lifetime Achievement idea of an autobiography makes me a little nervous. The—what’s the word?—the valedictory aspect to it. I’m in fine health, I’m producing some of the best paintings of my career, I’m in no obvious danger of being killed, but I’ve seen it happen too many times to too many of my fellow greats. The book comes out, and next thing you know, they’ve disappeared.

Or, as Johnny once told me, “Soon as they start calling you an Immortal, you start worrying about dying.”

I think
Sports Illustrated
had recently made Johnny one of their “Fifty Greatest Immortal Sportspersons” or something like that. This was an evening in the early eighties at his lovely home overlooking the Pacific in Playa Mimosa, Acapulco. He had health issues at the time and people couldn’t stop giving him Lifetime Achievement awards. They came at him like diagnoses. And even Johnny Weissmuller, who was so unfailingly upbeat and so reliably
delighted by trophies, who’d been inducted into so many Halls of Fame and festooned with so many honors over the years, was finding it difficult to feel any joy about his new Immortal status. After all, it wasn’t like it was any kind of a guarantee. He and I both knew for a fact that several “Immortals” we’d once palled around with were now dead. “Past a certain point in your life it’s all awards,” he added, “for things you can’t remember doing.”

Well, over the last few years I’ve started to notice similar, vaguely ominous, signs around me. I’m not a superstitious creature, but on the Palm Canyon Drive “Walk of Stars,” just around the corner from here, they’ve already got a star with my name on it, between two guys I’ve never heard of. There’s a campaign brewing to get me a proper star on the real Walk of Fame—at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard, no doubt, between Johnny and Maureen O’Sullivan. The ideal jungle family together again, and rid of the Boy at last. So any day now I expect the arrival of a slab of wet concrete and a delegation from Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater asking for my handprints, though they’ll have to live without a signature. (Roy Rogers, I’m pretty sure, signed Trigger’s name for him beside the pair of hoofprints that Trigs left, and I think it was the same arrangement with Gene Autry and Champion, the other Wonder Horse. But in truth, if Grauman’s does decide they want my handprints, I’d be pretty surprised if Johnny was there to do the same for me. Anyway. Most of the time I don’t even think about it.)

So it’s my hope, dear reader, that you’ll think of this book as more of a hello than a goodbye. If anything, my real worry is that it’s somewhat premature.

My original title was
My Story So Far
, as a sort of charm against the idea that it represented a final statement. But unfortunately Donny Osmond had already used that, along with a whole pack of athletes and childhood-abuse survivors. Then I decided that
My
Life So Far
would do equally well, but Jane Fonda had bagged it. And let’s face it, in the context of Jane’s life, the title sounds like a threat. So I figured that, what the hell, I’d plump for
My Life. Sim
ple and classic and modest—and, I came to realize, already taken dozens of times. As was
My Story.
Also
My Autobiography
, to my irritation by Charlie Chaplin, so that was out. It’s bad enough that people think any of my routines owe anything to the bewilderingly overrated Chaplin, shallowest of the great silent clowns.
(Motion Picture Herald
, March 1942: “The chimp Cheta [sic] is well handled and provides pic with some decent laughs via antics that almost make you think of Chaplin.” For that “almost,” a small round of ironic applause!) Furthermore,
The Story of My Life
also turned out to be gone. Similarly
My Life Story
and
In My Life.
And
My Lives.
And
My Lives and Loves.
Likewise, as I soon found when attempting to branch out,
My Life in Film, A Life in Film, My Life in Movies, A Life in Movies, My Life in Art
and
My Life in Pictures
(unbelievably that goddamned Chaplin had snaffled that one too).

Despairing somewhat, I thought it might be terrifically daring to begin something with
“American…”
or
“Hollywood…”
before discovering that
everything
begins
“American…”
or
“Hollywood….

Cheeta Speaks
came to me as a revelation while I was dozing in this very chair, as did the realization that another great clown, Harpo Marx, had used it up.

Switching tack, I cast around for something a little more descriptive of my story:
Wonderful Life
seemed just about perfect for the five minutes I thought it was mine. Ditto
Survivor, A Survivor’s Story, Memoirs of a Survivor
and the one I really wanted most,
From Tragedy to Triumph.
It turned out that there are whole libraries of books called
From Tragedy to Triumph.
And not a single one called
From Triumph to Tragedy
, I noticed, as if human life only ever proceeded in the one direction, at least in autobiography.

These were meant to be the first words of my literary career. Those humans who thought the very idea of my writing an autobiography was laughable would have been thoroughly confirmed by the sight of me struggling through a series of sleepless afternoons, incapable of producing so much as a single letter. Maybe they were right—actors should stick to acting. My respect for writers, whom I’d silently sneered at throughout my career when presented with another psychologically incoherent script for Tarzan or Jane or me, went through the roof.

Writing was
hard!
It seemed like there had just been too many human lives, and words were no longer capable of coping with them. Words were wearing thin with all those human lives using them up, and always the same lives, moving confidently away from tragedy toward triumph. Who could possibly, I thought, want another memoir by
anyone?
Let alone yet another ex-movie star’s reminiscences? How presumptuous to assume that a celebrity’s hoary old Hollywood war stories could be of interest to anyone but himself!

At this low ebb, my dear old friend the utterly inimitable Kate Hepburn came to the rescue. Kate had had no such difficulties with the title for her own autobiography. What was the subject? Me, Kate had decided. “A book all about me, by me. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be called Me. What d’you want me to call it,
You
?” Now, Kate has her Connecticutian sense of entitlement, which helps her march unblushingly up to anything she wants and take it, but I couldn’t accept that she had permanently vacuumed up the title Me. What about the rest of us? Enough—surely somebody else could call their book
Me
as well as Kate Hepburn, or “Katharine of Arrogance,” as she was rather unfairly known during the time we were closest. So, after nearly a month of work, I had my beginning.
Me.
I even had a perfect vision of the cover, which the publishers will mess with over my dead body: Me, and then my name in a different
font, and that terrific photo which… well, you’ve already seen it for yourself. Left to right—Barrymore, Gilbert, Bogie, Bacall with the ice creams, me, Garbo doing the rabbit ears behind my head and I think that’s Ethel Merman’s drink I’ve just knocked over. Don’t I look
young?

I was delighted with this breakthrough—who says chimpanzees have no business writing memoirs?—though keenly aware that unless I managed to up my rate from an average of one letter a fortnight, the whole project might turn out to be a bit of a long haul. In fact, the next two words—the dedication—represented a moderate acceleration in that they took only three weeks of agonized wrestling.

I took a break and returned to my painting—a series of nostalgic jungle-scapes that hardly stretched me. I wanted some time to reassess. What was I writing this book for? The ostensible reason was the one proposed by my dear friend and housemate Don, in partnership with Dr. Jane Goodall, the charming and still attractive (though frequently wrongheaded) English naturalist. That is, I would use the story of my life to help their campaign against the cruelties perpetrated on chimpanzees and other animals in the name of screen entertainment. Of course, I love Don and respect the eminent and attractive Dr. Goodall, and will certainly do what I can to assist No Reel Apes, as the campaign is snappily known. But it seemed to me that something about this conception of
Me
was still preventing me from getting at the story I really wanted to tell. The second ostensible reason—to make damn sure that the Internet Movie Database gets its facts right once and for all—ditto. So what was the story I
really
wanted to write?

Returning to my text, which remained stalled at a word count of three, I attempted to press on into the acknowledgments section, the part writers often refer to as “the hardest page of the book.” Or
actors do, anyway. And here I had my inspiration: I was lolling in my tire, where I do most of my best thinking, struggling with those tricky little questions of who to put in, who would have to be left out, how to make each message of gratitude sound personal and different, who ought to come first and, more importantly, last, when I realized that it was pointless trying to pick out individuals. Without Hollywood, without humanity as a whole, I wouldn’t be here to write these words. Without you I’d literally be nothing. The whole
book
ought be an acknowledgments section!

This
was the book I wanted to write. No matter how dark the subject or how painful the memories, no matter how tough times occasionally became, no matter how appalling and oafish the behavior of certain people—such as Esther Williams, Errol Flynn, “Red” Skelton, “Duke” Wayne, Maureen O’Sullivan, Brenda Joyce—I would write without bitterness, name-calling or score-settling. I would celebrate what has been a lucky, lucky life, and try to find the good in all those tremendous characters it has been my privilege to know. This would be a book written in gratitude to and with love for your whole species, and for everything you have done for animals and for me. A thank-you. A book of love.

And having made this decision I found that the whole thing just came tumbling out.
You
are my reason for writing this book, all of you, and Johnny, and of course the fact I’ve learned over seventy years of survival in movies and theater: that if your profile ever dips below a certain level in this industry, you’re as good as dead.

Humanity, I salute you!

BOOK: Me Cheeta
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