Author James Lever has written an spoof autobiography of the star of the Tarzan movies but the real life story is stranger
Listen to James Lever, the raffish English author of Me Cheeta, expound on the “natural Barthesian tools” of OK! magazine readers, or “the loss of quiddity” in the star system, or the “Flaubertian view of the calling of the artist”, and you might think he had written Ulysses, rather than a spoof chimp memoir. But Me Cheeta is not your average spoof chimp memoir, and its author is anything but a monkey on a typewriter.
Lever’s first book is a “ghosted” autobiography of a real-life primate – the co-star of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the 1930s and 1940s, who, at 77, is claimed to be the oldest chimpanzee in the world. From this gentle premise, a brutal, beautiful, hilarious skewering of Hollywood and celebrity emerges. Like Brass Eye with more heart, or Gulliver’s Travels with more orgies, Me Cheeta’s satire explodes in every direction.
The Sunday Times unveiled Lever as the author of Me Cheeta last October, three weeks after publication. Until then, the identity of the “ghostwriter” had been concealed with some guile by his publisher, Fourth Estate, prompting a parlour game among journalists to guess the author.
Well-known figures including Martin Amis and Will Self were suggested. Nobody picked Lever, 37, an Oxford-educated freelance book editor with a scant record of published writing.
What rock has he been hiding under?
“Well, um, I came down to London after Oxford, and spent my twenties writing a very long novel called News, Sport, Weather, which was just too colossal and eventually collapsed under its own weight,” he says, cradling a pint outside an Irish pub in northwest London. “It was an enormous Conradian book, post-Conrad, a piss-take of Conrad, about an Arnold Palmer-era golfer, now course designer… It became a big pile of paper.
“I was a very serious young man, I had no money, I lived an incredibly hieratic existence,” he continues. “I don’t know about you, but when I was 19, 20, 21, there were conceptions of modernism, or late Romanticism, that strike you very strongly, and I… I had the call of the artist. I got a bit carried away with it, and slugged along for ages. And, eventually, I had a very slow thawing of that clenched certainty. It’s a standard story.”
He abandoned News, Sport, Weather, never to return to it, and became a freelance book editor, doing “bits and pieces jobs” around the publishing industry. During one such engagement, he brought a book idea from another author, about the 2012 Olympics, to Nick Pearson at Fourth Estate – “I was acting as an agent, sort of” – which Pearson dismissed before offering Lever another idea.
“He’d seen that this chimp, Cheeta, was 75 years old, and was the oldest in the world,” Lever recalls. “That was his light-bulb moment. His compulsion was to satirise the celebrity memoir. His idea was that a monkey could have written Jordan’s autobiography – that kind of thing. And I thought this idea was just amazing. Not to minimise Nick’s idea, but I thought it was a fantastic story outside of that original idea. I was thinking of that Borges thing, ‘to be immortal is commonplace’, and that we had a lovely starting point for the story – that this animal is completely unaware it’s going to die.”
Me Cheeta was born. We find the famous chimpanzee, a diabetic septuagenarian, ex-actor, ex-drinker, ex-fornicator, sometime smoker and frustrated abstract painter, writing his memoirs from his retirement home in Palm Springs. Cheeta’s story is, at its heart, about his love for Johnny Weissmuller, the former Olympic swimming hero and star of Tarzan. The comedic juice, though, comes from his merciless pulping of every other celebrity he ever meets. Cheeta’s putdowns can poleaxe three victims in one languorous sentence, as in this choice passage:
“I was aware there was some kind of groundswell of acclamation going on for ‘my work’, but to be absolutely honest, the garnering of critical acclaim has never meant much to me – quite unlike the role it played in Charlie [Chaplin]’s life, which was pretty similar to the role morphine played in Bela Lugosi’s, or the erect male sexual organ in dear, sweet Mary Astor’s, which is to say, he was hopelessly dependent on it.”
Where did Lever find Cheeta’s inner bitch? “I wanted him to be very sarcastic, so that you are encouraged to underestimate him,” he says. “Because you discover that he knows everything. I also wanted him to be a bit Shylockian – I wanted people to feel his Uncle Tom cringe, like he was a scab for the animal kingdom. I wanted someone who’s completely wrong at times in the book, who thinks he knows the score about death, or the business that he’s in. And I wanted someone who could be a sensible narrator at times, and a genuinely blind fool at others – someone who reads his own reviews.
“One of the better aspects of the book, although I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved this completely, is that it continually slips. Cheeta knows some things and doesn’t know others, so you have to stay alert as the reader. It can be dull to read a book you read underneath and, once you’ve solved it, it just lies flat. I think you can read Me Cheeta again and see that the prose has become so anaesthetic, you’ve missed a number of cruelties.”
The cruelties exist all right. In the opening chapter, Cheeta complains that all Hollywood memoirs follow the same pattern, from tragedy to triumph, “as if human life only ever proceeded in the one direction, at least in autobiography”. Yet neither Cheeta’s nor Johnny’s life develops in an autobiographically friendly way, and the results are, says Lever, “absolutely heart-rending”.
“I wanted to write about the sadness in all these people’s lives, particularly Johnny’s, because he is the perfect American myth,” he says. “This guy happens to be so much like Rabbit, and so much like Swede Levov. And it’s not a coincidence that those two great 20th-century American novels [Rabbit, Run by John Updike and American Pastoral by Philip Roth] pick these innocent sportsmen, these happy young men, for whom everything is possible. I hope you can tell in the book that I have a greater level of seriousness about Johnny Weissmuller.”
Lever’s seriousness extends to agonising over every biographical detail of Weissmuller’s life, a courtesy he does not extend to the book’s peripheral figures. “Yeah, I made up a few people,” he says. “Film stars like Juanita del Pablo. Also, I made up things like Harold Lloyd’s mirage golf hole, which turns out to be a pond. A lot of the things in the book are like that. The point is that Hollywood is a myth, a collage, a spectre of beautiful names and beautiful images. It really doesn’t matter what’s real or what’s not.”
What does matter is one salient fact, omitted from the book, but widely reported after publication: Cheeta is a fake. Or, more precisely, his owner, Dan Westfall, has overlooked some key details of his prize primate’s life. These inconvenient truths came to light when Westfall commissioned a Cheeta biography to rival Lever’s “unofficial” autobiography. Having researched the received facts about Cheeta’s life, the journalist withdrew, before publishing an exposé of the inconsistencies in Westfall’s claims.
“It’s completely f***ing obvious that this one chimpanzee cannot have been the same animal who starred in the Weissmuller films, and that a number of different animals played those parts,” Lever says. “I wanted to finish Me Cheeta with the chimpanzee realising he doesn’t actually exist, and to have a lot more about the basic dishonesty of the whole enterprise, but I thought Westfall might sue me. If I’d known, as I do now, that it is provably bollocks, I would have really opened up on this guy.”
Lever’s anger is palpable. Having spent an afternoon in his company, it is easy to see why. He discusses novels, particularly the two he is now writing – “a short, fabular one and a longer, more realistic one, called The Slow Artist” – with a most un-English reverence for the form. Me Cheeta may be a comedy, but it was written with a priestly seriousness. The author’s anxiety, however, is misplaced. Perversely, Me Cheeta’s worth swells when you know the real story. What could be a more apposite and pathetic narrative for these times than the autobiography of a scabrous, addicted, Chaplin-loathing chimpanzee whose main claim to fame – his role in one of the most treasured franchises from Hollywood’s golden era – is a lie?
Me Cheeta is published in paperback by Fourth Estate at £7.99