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Helen Twelvetrees—no? No idea? And that’s a name I once told myself no one would ever forget. Over the course of the thirties, Helen’s profile declined dramatically (though it was still a while before she’d be killed by a handful of sleeping pills) and she had to give up the house—to Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa
(The Bride of Frankenstein)
Lanchester. But with Elsa refusing to bear Charlie’s children on account of his homosexuality (though the inimitable Maureen O’Hara always claimed Elsa’s own litany of abortions was the real reason) Charlie was thrown into despair and the Laughtons moved on, leaving the Weissmullers to inherit this little slice of paradise, so richly steeped in Hollywood memories.

“Tarzan bring Cheeta! Meet real-life Jane!” Johnny shouted across the terrace, to where Beryl was sitting playing bridge (a sort of female variant of bluffing or packing) with other young females under a tasseled umbrella. I contributed a brief pant-hoot. Beryl waved an acknowledgment. “Go fix yourself a stinger, darling,” she said, though I was already on the linen-draped bar trying, essentially, to communicate the same thing. “I’ve met Cheeta, remember? The day it attacked Joan?” Well, hardly, I thought.

“Well, hardly,” said Johnny. “Joan frightened her, was all. Him, I mean. Hey—what’s the definition of a Jimmy Cagney love scene?”

“What?”

“When he lets the other guy live!” Johnny staggered gut-shot across the terrace toward the tight smiles of the bridge players. thought it was funny. “My wonderful wife,” he said, kissing her nothingy-brown macaquelike hair.

“My wonderful husband,” she said.

After a while he said, “I thought maybe I’d hit a few balls.”

“Well, we’ll watch you. Keep an eye on that left arm!”

“Left arm straight. Shoulders relaxed like a pendulum. Mmm, these stingers are good!”

“Yes, aren’t they heavenly? Rita’s specials. Keep that chest opened. Soft hands, hard wrists. Three hearts.”

“Okay, coach.” Johnny demonstrated a swing and held the follow-through.
“Aaaaahhheeyyeeeyyeeaahheeyeeyeeeaaaaaah”
he added apologetically, for my benefit, I think. I came running, anyway. Not because I particularly yearned to practice short irons with him, but because at that moment, for the first—though not the last—time, I felt that he needed me.

Did I ever mention that he loved Lupe Vélez? Whatever I thought of the adulterous canicidal bitch, I’d never doubted that he’d loved her, just as she, in her own tormented way, had loved him. It had never crossed my mind to be jealous or to wish her away, because she was capable of making him happy. But here with Beryl there wasn’t anything—there was just… nothing at all. I knew it after two minutes on the terrace, because I’m a chimp and I could smell it; and I can read the language of human bodies. I could, in the days when the humans I met were standing up rather than lying in hospital beds, read that bent left arm, those unrelaxed shoulders, those closed chests. I could read the sexlessness of Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck’s marriage in Barbara’s quick tense wrists, the pathological compulsion to deceive in Esther Williams’s laugh, the deep sense of intellectual inferiority that Kate Hepburn’s face was
continually, heroically, trying to conceal. Actually, what am I talking about? Anybody could read those things! But there was something stolid in Beryl’s movements that told an observant eye how dull she found her own body. It was like the cautiousness of age. He had married somebody he couldn’t play with. And that was all Johnny ever really wanted: someone he could play with. I knew how his hands itched to pick up ankles and wheelbarrow-race women or boys or even other adult males across the seventeenth green. I knew how his feet itched to creep up behind humans unaware of his presence, to lift ’em off their feet in a bear hug. He wanted someone to climb him while he held their shoes high above their head. He could sublimate it into sexual intercourse, but all he ever really wanted was to play.

Beryl liked to play bridge. Her other sports, I’d come to learn, were canasta and pinochle. The high point of their non-sexual play together would have come on a Pebble Beach fairway within the first ten minutes of their relationship, I guessed, and would have consisted of Johnny enfolding her from behind, reassuring and warm, demonstrating with his huge hands folding over hers certain aspects of a good swing. Looking at Beryl, you might suppose that’d be the high point of their non-non-sexual play too. She’d have giggled a lot during her tutorial, and Johnny would have mistaken her nervousness for a sense of humor, or at any rate, it would have done to cover up the fact that she had even less of a sense of humor than Chaplin or Red Skelton—some kind of absolute zero of humor.

I had never seen him look alone before. At full tilt I sprang off the bar and knuckled across the terrace, leaped to his waist and wriggled up into the violin-space under his chin. He lifted his stinger high above his head, playfully, where I couldn’t quite get at it, and with his left hand he smoothed my fur. “Ah, Cheets, Cheets,”
he said, switching his drink from right hand to left as I got close to it. “Ain’t I the luckiest guy in the world?”

From over the wall, as if to affirm this, came the voice of the tour guide—“Twelve after four! Bang on schedule!” said Beryl—gently enveloping us like the mist from a crop-spraying plane.

“… the Hunchback of Notre Dame himself and the Bride of Frankenstein: Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Today it does service as one heck of a luxury treehouse for Tarzan himself, Olympic gold medal-winning swim champ Johnny Weissmuller, and his very own real-life Jane.” All of us on the terrace held ourselves still to listen: we formed an idyllic tableau. “Johnny and his glamorous wife Beryl were blessed last summer with a little Boy of their own, and decided they needed a Jungle Hut big enough to…”

Yeah, that was just about right, I thought, as Johnny pitched a bucket of Top Flites toward me across the liquid lawn, which Beryl had already warned him not to allow me to defecate upon. “His very own real-life Jane” was just about right. At Rockingham Avenue we might as well have been back on the escarpment, bowed under Jane’s tyranny, with everything clenched and perfect and simply marvelous; where everything was in its right place and the two empty-eyed adults were so desperate to assure each other of what a paradise they had.

On the escarpment itself, where we might as well have been on Rockingham Avenue, I was seriously beginning to wonder whether Jane was having a breakdown of sorts.

“Jane like Tarzan?” he asked one afternoon, handing her a propitiatory orchid after another marathon lunch.

Cleverly she evaded the direct response he was craving. “What woman wouldn’t like a husband who brings her orchids?”

“There’s a whole valley of orchids just across the river,” the Boy jeeringly observed.

“I know, darling, but out in civilization they don’t grow that way,” she tinkled. “You have to be very rich to have them. You don’t realize what a very wealthy man your father is.”

“Who—Tarzan?”

“Yes. He has everything any man could want.
Everything.”

She just wouldn’t lay off with the propaganda—drip, drip, fucking drip, like she was trying to mesmerize him. And, silly me, there I was thinking that Miriam Hopkins had had a point up at Atwill’s when she had guided Fernando Lamas’s sexual organ into her anal tract and breathed, “That’s what you men really fucking want, don’t you?” In fact, I remember very well the list of the things Fernando went on to claim that he wanted, all of which he persuasively emphasized were “normal—what any man would want.” I’m prepared to bet my entire stash of cigarettes that Jane was not providing these up at the Treehouse of Tidiness. Dutifully, slightly behind the beat, he picked her up and swung her around.

“Tarzan have Jane.”

“Ooooh! Akhahahkhahka!” she said. Transcribing Jane’s laugh isn’t easy—it tinkled like base metal. “Ooooh! You have Jane, all right, and you’re going to have me in a thousand pieces in a minute if you’re not careful!”

!?, I was thinking. Like:
!?
The escarpment had stopped being a dream some while back; by
Secret Treasure
it had become a fullblown nightmare. I tried to keep my head down and show a bit of loyalty, but Jane’s ever-vigilant hostility toward me had now given birth to a new strategy—no matter how faithful or stoic I might act, she had me typed as a “naughty” chimp, a mischief-maker.

For example, I’m struggling toward the dining area with a couple of hard-boiled ostrich eggs still steaming from the hot spring. Because I can’t hold both of them at once I’ve got one on my head and I’m trying to nudge the other across the lawn with my feet.
“Now, Cheeta,” gesturing with a knife, “you bring those eggs over here and no monkey business! No monkey business, Cheeta! Now, come on, do you hear? Hurry up!” What the hell did she… what “monkey business”? You’ll have to watch it yourself, I guess. Or: I’m enjoying a grape during a brief break in my duties. “Cheeta! You’ve had enough grapes! Come on, help with the dishes!” The
unfairness
, the lack of logic, the drip, drip, fucking drip…. “Take the dishes down to the river and wash them. And don’t break them!”

The Boy picked up on it, too. In the year and a half since
Tarzan Finds a Son!
he had developed into a strolling braggart and lout, clattering with laughter as he beaned the occasional curious hyena or demoralized leopard with a stone from his sling. It wasn’t even
realistic.
What kind of human was deliberately cruel to innocent animals? You’re just not like that. “Got him, right on the nose!” he crowed, brushing aside my protests. “Aah, don’ worry, Cheedah, he had it comin’ ta him. He’s always makin’ trouble!” The elephant calf he’d enslaved he actually
called
Bully.

And there was an even greater worry, although it was uncommented upon by the rest of the zombified jungle family: Emma had disappeared. Exhausted, perhaps, by years of mindlessly tugging Jane’s elevator up and down. Or had Metro waited until it was expedient and canceled her contract because of the altercation with her trainer? The alphas never forgot. Whatever had happened, nobody
(except Johnny
, whom I’d heard asking) referred to her absence, because nobody liked to conjure up failure’s specter in Hollywood. Once you were out, to all intents and purposes you were dead: yet another pile of bleached tusks and ribs in the Graveyard.

It was all making me extremely nervous. No love; no fun; animals being bullied by a brat; whole reels devoted to lunch; swashbuckling washing-up sequences and a browbeaten serf-monkey suffering continual abuse. A dreamer such as myself, I like to think,
has a natural grasp of what his audience wants, and I didn’t believe that this was what the American public was after. I mean, who wants to see a noble human, the very image of a God, who has lived for an untold period at peace among the beasts of the forest, cast out of paradise because of his wife’s inability to resist the lure of “improvements”? A downer of a story like that—it’s not what people want to hear. Since the early thirties Johnny and Maureen’s fan mail had declined, I knew. I assumed mine was holding steady, or was at least still more than Rex the Wonder Dog’s cutoff point. But it was a serious situation:
Tarzan Finds a Son!
, with its tragic ending, had been released in certain dream-palaces as a
second feature.

Well, I have a motivational dream that still taps on the mesh of my consciousness once a year or so, a little more frequently recently, I’ve noticed. I’m working in the medical research center and my fellow interns are all sitting across from me: the hairless one, the one that can’t breathe, the white-eyed macaques, the dogs that Errol couldn’t save, Emma, Gary, Otto—and one of them will open its mouth and out’ll come the little voice:
Survive, survive, survive.
My pep-talk dream, as I like to think of it! At the time I was having that dream almost nightly. Because at the rate things were going I wasn’t going to be around much longer. “Oh, Tarzan,” she would say one day soon, “Cheeta’s broken the fondue set again. Every week it’s something else. Don’t you think it’s time that we, you know…
?” Survive, survive, survive

Fight back.

I found my inspiration when rummaging through the safari bag of one of our visitors, Mr. O’Doul (Barry Fitzgerald). It was a bottle of whiskey, the first alcohol the escarpment had ever seen. I thought, If I’m to be ridiculed as Jane’s “naughty” monkey then why shouldn’t I give ’em the
real
naughty Cheeta? The one Kay
Francis once fondly described as “the most fun I’ve had since my mother died. Thanks for a delightful evening, Johnny!” as she picked out the ice cubes I’d popped down her cleavage?
Cheeta, you’ve had enough grapes!
It couldn’t go on. Let Jane do her worst, let’s at least have a little fun around here. Let’s at least put some of the joy back into the jungle. Let’s have a laugh. I’d picked up a few giggles here and there before, but essentially I was a heroic figure: a noble rescuer, a saver of days with a humorous edge. Comedy-thriller work, with the emphasis on “thriller.” Fuck it, I thought—tossing the cap in the undergrowth, unaware that I was making one of the crucial artistic decisions of my career, I’ll just be myself.

Of course (you’re way ahead of me), I’m talking about
Tarzan’s Secret Treasure’s
seminal “Drunk/Postage-Stamps-On-Foot-Then-Hand” sequence. Opinion in the profession is divided as to whether you ought to
be
drunk in order to play drunk. Personally, I don’t think you can give of your best if you’re not sober—the bottle you see on screen was actually full of cold tea (I’d already finished the whiskey)—and so I was pleasantly surprised by how well the scene turned out, considering how unbelievably drunk I was. Four minutes and thirty-two seconds of pure magic, for which I’d like to thank my old teacher, Mr. Gately, who was tireless in helping me focus throughout an arduous day’s shooting.

It’s been argued that my work in this scene and in the dreams that followed was the single biggest cause of, or influence on, the boom in chimpanzee-related entertainment that adorned Western culture from the late forties through to the end of the century. J. Fred Muggs of the
Today
show, the Marquis Chimps and their marvelous swing band, Zippy the chimp from
Howdy Doody
, Liberchimpski, that amusing pianist,
Lancelot Link the Secret Chimp
, the special agent: I’m told that my pioneering mid-period comic work opened the doors for all these stars and many more. You can imagine
how proud that makes me feel. To have contributed, if only in a small way … it’s not something I like to talk about. Rather, I think I’ll take a leaf out of Henry Trefflich’s book. Here’s a man who, if you remember, was so dedicated to the Project that he personally helped rehabilitate nearly a million and a half macaque monkeys. Yet over the course of his whole autobiography he mentions it, glancingly, only once! That’s modesty. But I’m not quite a Trefflich and I don’t think I can resist quoting a few of my notices.

BOOK: Me Cheeta
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