Rin Tin Tin and I are into what we call "extreme romping." Once a week, we head for the back country, where we leap crags and ford rivers -- just like in the movies, except there are no bad guys. Last week, before beginning our trip home, he mentioned that Cheeta the Chimp had just written "Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood" and asked if I'd read it.
"It's on my Kindle," I said, "but I haven't got around to it. I'm not big on star autobios. I met Cheeta once, when I was starting 'Lassie Come Home.' He was pretty full of himself in those days."
"Don't we all?" I sighed.
Anyway, that night I dug into "Me Cheeta." I must say it's the best-written star autobio I've ever read. Obviously it was ghosted, but it carries no "as told to" credit. It's full of sexy gossip: There's stuff about Paulette Goddard and Ronald Colman (!), Miriam Hopkins and Fernando Lamas (!!), Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin (!!!) that'll curl your coat.
Cheeta claims the chapter about him and Esther Williams is the best thing in the book, but we'll never know. When you turn to it, you find this: "Chapter 8 has been removed on legal advice." Lawyers!
But Cheeta is almost poetic about his early life in the jungle, more than tolerant of his early days in captivity, childishly delighted about his rise to stardom and acceptant of his inevitable decline, first into a roadshow attraction and then a Palm Springs retirement, where he eked out a living selling "paintings" for $150 apiece.
This is not to say that he forgives the people who either snubbed him or whose egos he found intolerable. He's particularly hard on Charlie Chaplin for his intellectual pretenses and on Mickey Rooney for his manic qualities.
Of course, each was, in his way, a rival. Cheeta believes that he, not Chaplin, was the last great silent star -- an arguable point that, frankly, leaves me out of the picture. Sure, I barked, but come on, Cheeta: You left a rich repertory of chimpanzee chitterings on your soundtracks.
As for Rooney, he was a child star, which makes the ape think, possibly correctly, that that's all he was.
Nor were Cheeta's relationships with women always cheerful. He never liked his costar, Maureen O'Sullivan, whom he found entirely too la-dee-dah. And he leaves some bruises on the likes of Marlene Dietrich and others who did not take him seriously. Like many a comedian, he dreamed of playing Hamlet.
On the whole, he got along better with the guys -- David Niven, Errol Flynn and others of their hard-drinking ilk. There are hints that Cheeta had alcohol issues, which, true to the conventions of the genre, he overcame.
All of which leads me to the central, not openly discussed, subtext of this book: Cheeta's (there's no other way to put this) homoerotic relationship with Tarzan. As played by Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan was an amiable lunkhead -- "he had attained a hard-won shallowness where other humans never got beyond 'depth.' " But he was kindly and cuddly with Cheeta, and always up for some innocent Hollywood frolic.
There's no question in my mind that, for the ape, this was romantic -- although in the book it is presented as no more than a case of male bonding, much more intense and yearning on Cheeta's part.
Still, it must be recorded that the chimp played a significant, if sly, role in sundering two of Weissmuller's six marriages, particularly the one with "socialite" Beryl Scott, who was an O'Sullivan type, but with an even meaner spirit.
I stayed up well past my bedtime absorbing "Me Cheeta," which, despite its writerly and historical virtues, does have its flaws. Among other things, it shares with other books of its genre a certain ambiguity about celebrity life.
On the one hand, Cheeta wants to present himself as a regular, if very lucky, guy. On the other, he wants to be taken seriously as an artist.
In truth, he was more of a novelty act, walking that thin evolutionary line between ape and man. It's much easier -- less ambiguity-laden -- to be a dog.
The next morning, I said as much to Rin Tin Tin, who was preoccupied with his bone. He chewed for a while, then rolled over and wriggled around, giving his back a good scratch. Eventually, he stood up and asked: "You wanna take a walk?"
"Maybe later. I'm still pooped from all that reading. The truth is, that book is too long."
"All celebrity books are," he said. "See you later."
And off he trotted -- a very wise and blessedly non-literary dog.
Schickel is the author, most recently, of "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story."
'Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood' by Cheeta the Chimp
A tell-all about life on the backlot with Tarzan and the gang.
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