The last word: The truth about ‘Cheeta’

Supposedly the oldest chimp in the world, he had hung with Tarzan, mugged for Ronald Reagan, even spoken to Dr. Dolittle. Then R.D. Rosen, his would-be biographer, started asking questions.

Supposedly the oldest chimp in the world, he had hung with Tarzan, mugged for Ronald Reagan, even spoken to Dr. Dolittle. Then R.D. Rosen, his would-be biographer, started asking questions.

When an agent first approached me about writing an authorized biography of Cheeta, I was astonished to hear that Johnny Weissmuller’s sidekick in MGM’s Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ’40s—one of the most celebrated animals in movie history—was not only still alive, but retired in Palm Springs, Calif., and selling his paintings to thousands of far-flung admirers for $135 donations. Cheeta’s current owner, Dan Westfall, runs a nonprofit primate sanctuary. For the legend’s 75th birthday party, in April 2007, Westfall played a video of Jane Goodall attempting to sing “Happy Birthday” to the old movie star in the pant-hooting language of the wild chimps she had first observed in Tanzania in the early 1960s. Could there be higher tribute to a chimp than that?

At that time, I was too absorbed in the many fascinating aspects of my research—the history of captive chimps, the early days of Hollywood animal training—to indulge any incipient doubts about Cheeta’s true identity. To be honest, I was also too enchanted with what I had been told was the project’s potential lucrativeness to question its premise.

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But one oft-repeated fact about the chimp’s life nagged at me. It had been one of the standard stories in Cheeta’s biography—repeated in Newsweek and other magazines—that the first of his two owners, animal trainer Tony Gentry, had gotten him in Liberia as a baby and smuggled him under his overcoat aboard a Pan Am flight home in 1932. During the long flight, the diapered Cheeta escaped from under Gentry’s coat, scampered up and down the aisle, and had to be subdued by stewardesses with a bottle of warm milk.

Four months into my research, I decided to ask a question that, in retrospect, was so obvious that it was curious no journalist had asked it before: In 1932, were there any trans-Atlantic flights for Gentry to smuggle Cheeta onto?

I had raised the issue of documenting Cheeta’s age with Westfall. But doing so had seemed a formality, a matter of no urgency. Even though it was unclear if the late Gentry—who in 1993 had given Cheeta to his distant cousin Westfall—had left behind any papers, I assumed that Guinness World Records must have had some justification for certifying Cheeta as “the world’s oldest living primate” back in 2001.

The answer I found about the 1932 flight did give me pause: Trans-Atlantic commercial airline service wasn’t inaugurated until seven years later—in 1939. Even then, I reasoned that anyone could get a memory wrong. But my subconscious, already on notice, soon prompted me to verify another routine biographical “fact” about Cheeta’s life. Westfall had mentioned that Cheeta had come out of retirement in 1966 at the age of 34 to play “Chee-Chee” in 1967’s Doctor Dolittle. Even recent issues of People and Newsweek said so. So I watched a DVD of Doctor Dolittle, a movie in which Chee-Chee is played by a juvenile chimp no older than 7 or possibly 8; after that age, a chimp’s physical appearance changes dramatically. That was it. Cheeta was not in that film. Whatever Cheeta was doing in 1966, he wasn’t making a movie with Rex Harrison.

The same Newsweek also reported, “Only once did Cheeta walk off the set—reportedly when Ronald Reagan kept forgetting his lines in Bedtime for Bonzo.Bedtime for Bonzo! If Cheeta had actually been Reagan’s as well as Tarzan’s sidekick, that would make him the Zelig of primates, turning up wherever entertainment history was being made. I sent 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo to the head of my Netflix queue and wasn’t shocked to discover that Cheeta, by then a full-grown 19-year-old, is not in that movie, either. Bonzo was played by another juvenile or infant chimp.

As Cheeta’s claims to fame were springing leaks, I began spending hours in front of my television, freeze-framing on close-ups of various Cheetas in MGM Tarzan movies. Chimpanzees’ faces change quite a bit as they age, but the configuration of their ears changes very little. Holding a photo of Westfall’s Cheeta, I’d approach the screen and compare the two images. Turns out, in each Tarzan movie, the Cheeta role had been played by more than one chimp. Yet none of the movie chimps’ ears was an adequate match.

I called Westfall. When I told him that Cheeta wasn’t in Doctor Dolittle, he replied amiably, “Well, that’s what Tony told me.” When the agent also failed to respond with alarm about my discoveries, I even allowed myself again to be temporarily consoled. After all, I had already flown 3,000 miles to meet Cheeta in Palm Springs, and it was not the kind of experience that I wanted to waste.

On a hot, dry July afternoon—there is really no other kind in Palm Springs—I sat on a couch in Westfall’s single-story home on the fringes of town. Westfall, a Sonny Bono look-alike who was wearing a polo shirt, shorts, and cross-trainers, had instructed me to sit and wait for him to retrieve the subject of my biography from the large enclosure in the backyard sanctuary where he resides with several other primates.

“Are you sure I’ll be okay over here?” I asked. (No one gets very far in basic chimp research before learning that adult chimpanzees are five or six times more powerful than humans and can make pretty short work of putting people in the hospital.)

“You’ll be fine,” Westfall said. “The only sure way to antagonize Cheeta is to threaten or attack me.”

The screen door slammed shut, and I heard Westfall’s footsteps. Westfall’s eight indoor animals—three hyperactive Pomeranians, one Chihuahua, and four parrots living in a stack of cages by the kitchen table—suddenly fell very quiet. They apparently knew from experience that a respectful immobility was the best policy whenever Cheeta was about to enter the house. Then, turning the corner from the front hall into the living room, Westfall re-emerged hand in hand with America’s hairiest has-been. Imagine a nursing home attendant escorting a very hirsute, very short George Burns, and you’re halfway to picturing the scene.

“Say hello to our visitor,” Westfall said as they passed before me.

Cheeta glanced briefly at me with disturbingly indifferent eyes. He then looked at what awaited him on a small Formica table next to the parrots: a snack consisting of a diet soda, an apple, a bowl of tortilla chips, and an Italian hero donated by a local sandwich shop.

Sitting on the couch in a state of petrified wonder, I felt all at once acutely conscious of the trappings of civilization. Westfall’s white tile floors, leather furniture, and plastic plants suddenly seemed all so ... human.

Cheeta climbed onto the plastic chair at the table and squatted there. When Westfall immediately reminded him to “Stop monkeying around,” Cheeta sat properly, letting his withered-looking feet dangle over the edge of the seat.

Then it looked like all hell was going to break loose, as Cheeta plunged his face into the bowl of tortilla chips. I had visions of a one-chimp food fight, if not chaos on a grander scale. But Cheeta quickly dispelled my fears by gently picking up his plastic tumbler of Diet Coke and sipping with the finesse of a society matron at a charity tea. Sure, he then chose to press the sandwich against his face so that the two halves of its roll separated, giving him direct access to the mortadella and provolone. Even then, though, he chewed with his mouth closed.

Throughout this display, Westfall kept fussing, dabbing Cheeta’s chin with a napkin, patting him on the back, and delivering vaudeville asides, such as, “See, he has more class than I do!” Cheeta reciprocated by grooming Westfall’s forearm and lower leg, removing imaginary bugs or flakes of dead skin. Westfall asked him for kisses, which Cheeta provided, complete with appropriate sound effects. I’ve known marriages that included these corny intimacies—well, perhaps not the eating of dead skin—but, if anything, Westfall and Cheeta’s life together suggested a higher union than mere marriage.

I liked Westfall. How was I ever going to inform him of my suspicions that his beloved Cheeta was, in many respects, a figment of Tony Gentry’s imagination?

A few months later, I was turning into the Inspector Javert of simian mysteries, obsessed with my small cause.

In November 2007, I found myself driving literally down a path toward the truth—a serpentine road in the foothills south of Thousand Oaks, Calif., that led to the animal compound and home of retired animal trainer Hubert Wells, who, I had been told, used to know Gentry.

When I arrived, Wells introduced me to two other people sitting patiently at his kitchen table: his friend Stewart Raffill, a former trainer and now film director, and Cheryl Shawver, who had been a trainer in the 1960s. They not only had something to say about Cheeta, but they all had known Gentry. When I began by describing the book I was writing, the three of them shook their heads ruefully.

“It’s not true,” Wells said. “Tony got that chimp from Wally Ross. Wally was a premier chimp and elephant trainer. He was one of the managers of Pacific Ocean Park on the pier in Santa Monica. When Pacific Ocean Park closed [in 1967], he had a chimp he owned and trained, about 6 or 7, the turning point for a chimp. He said, ‘Here, Tony, do you want this chimp?’ Tony said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and he took it.”

“You’re sure about this?” I asked Wells. “That chimp was Dan Westfall’s Cheeta?”

“Absolutely, no doubt. I’d known Wally since ’66, and used him on God knows how many pictures. And that chimp was never in any picture, much less a Johnny Weissmuller picture. The big lie is that he was never in the Tarzan movies, never in Doctor Dolittle, never in any movie.”

When Gentry told stories, Shawver added, “Wally and everybody there, in private, would roll their eyes .... He just took credit for things he didn’t do. He just embellished his stories.”

“Unfortunately, it’s Hollywood,” said Raffill, “and people do exaggerate.”

The story was hardly over. That night, I paced my hotel room as I tried to convince Westfall and Cheeta’s agent over the phone that, although Cheeta was essentially a fraud, I had an even better book now—a book about how, in Hollywood, even animals lie about their age. Not surprisingly, Westfall declined to participate.

Several months later, I opened the June 30, 2008, New York Post and found a headline that read: “TARZAN CHIMP A TOTAL PIMP.” It was accompanied by a photo of Westfall’s chimp in aviator sunglasses, sitting behind the wheel of a sports car. The story reported that Cheeta had signed a multimedia deal. It went on to say: “Cheeta marked his 76th birthday on April 9 with a big party. April 9 isn’t his actual birthday—the exact date is unknown­—but the day in 1932 when he arrived in the United States.”

From a longer story published by The Washington Post. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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