[monkeywire] Reunion With a Childhood Bully, Taxidermied
kyablon at chicagoreader.com
Fri Jun 5 13:57:57 EDT 2009
(there's video taken in the 30s at this link too)
Reunion With a Childhood Bully, Taxidermied
Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
photo: Harry Raven, now 82, easily spots his old
bête noire, Meshie, in a glass case at the
American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
By JOYCE WADLER
Published: June 5, 2009
You never forget the rival who cast a shadow over
your childhood, monopolizing your fathers love
and attention, clearly preferred. This is
especially true if she has bitten your hand so
deeply that nearly 80 years later, a scar is still there.
Hers is a face you remember, and so it is that
Harry Raven, now 82, easily spots his old bête
noire, Meshie in a glass case at the American
Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, even if
her only identification is a sign that says
Chimpanzee troglodytes. There she is, thats
her, Mr. Raven says, walking as quickly as a guy
with an arthritic hip can toward a thoughtful
looking, taxidermied chimp, sitting with its legs
crossed, its handlike feet, large and leathery.
How does Mr. Raven know its her?
How do I know youre you? Mr. Raven says. I recognize the details.
He studies Meshie, recalling a previous exhibit
that included a picture of her playing with his
older sister, Jane; he imitates, with a bit of an
edge, Meshies demanding, grunting, Uuuh-wooo!
uh-awooo! yelp. Mr. Raven has said that his
fathers devotion to Meshie at the expense of his
family caused great heartache. But standing
beside the chimp, whom he has seen now and then
at the museum over the years, he shows none of
the emotion one might expect at the sight of an enemy vanquished.
Ive mellowed, he says.
The news stirs up memories. When a pet chimp
attacked a Connecticut woman early this year,
tearing off much of her face and leaving her
blind, Mr. Raven, who had never spoken to
reporters of his life with a chimp so famous that
she got an obituary, was compelled to write to a
reporter. His wifes poor health prevented him
from coming in from his home in Brick, N.J.,
until this week, when he arrived at The Times
accompanied by his son in law, Andrew Haas, and
his 10-year-old grandson, George.
Mr. Ravens father, Henry Cushier Raven, a
curator at the Museum of Natural History, was a
famous man whose life made headlines. Expedition
to Hunt Gorillas In Africa read one, in this
newspaper, when he set sail in May 1929.
Two years later, when Mr. Raven returned with an
orphaned female chimp named Meshie and seemingly
made it a member of his household in Baldwin on
Long Island, that made news, too. He took
photographs and home movies of Meshie as she
snuggled between the Raven children in bed;
having a tea party with them; even holding Mary,
the youngest, when she was a few months old. A
Christmas card showed Meshie, in boots, hauling
Jane and Harry on a sled through the snow.
Sometimes Henry Raven took Meshie to work at the
museum, where she had lunch with him. Magazine
stories of the time reported that the children considered Meshie a sibling.
All of this still drives Harry Raven, a polite,
mild-mannered man, a little crazy. Meshie was
never considered a sibling, he says. She was cute
and nonthreatening when his father first brought
her home he has a memory of her dozing in an
apple crate in the basement but as soon as she
grew up she was strong and unpredictable. She
never slept in a bed she was kept in a cage in
the basement or backyard. The only time she
played with him and his sister was when his
father was shooting movies. When something went
wrong like the time Meshie bit Harry on the
finger because he didnt give her an orange
quickly enough the scene was cut.
His father he remembers as a harsh, domineering
man, who punished his son with a razor strop,
left his family for long periods to go exploring,
and was affectionate only with the chimp.
I cant think of him ever giving anybody a hug,
except Meshie, Mr. Raven said this week during a
visit to The New York Times with his son in law
and grandson before visiting the Museum of
Natural History. I used to go down the street
and wait for him to get off the commuter bus. I
would run down to give him a hug, he would lean
down and I would kiss him on the cheek, but he would never kiss me.
As the chimp became older, she escaped more
often, Mr. Raven recalls. When his mother was
pregnant with her fourth child and his father
announced he was going to leave on yet another
expedition, his mother burst into tears and said she could no longer take it.
In 1934, Meshie was shipped to the Brookfield Zoo
in Chicago. After she died in 1937, after giving
birth, Henry Raven had her sent back to the
Museum of Natural History and preserved. He died
seven years later, at age 54. The Meshie story,
as far as Harry Raven was concerned, was over. He
kept no pictures of her in the house, although he
does say that after he married and was living in
Chicago he went to see Mike, the chimpanzee who impregnated Meshie.
Why did he do that?
Its time to visit the museum. Meshie means
nothing to him its just another museum
exhibit, Mr. Raven says. Still the museum
entrance, with the dinosaur bones of Barosaurus
defending her young, sets him remembering: His
fathers office in one of the great round towers;
a story about the way his father, facing a
charging gorilla, told the African bearers to
hold their spears, in order not to damage the
hide; the way, as a father of two daughters, he tried not to be his father.
There was cruelty my father inflicted not just
on me, on Meshie, Mr. Raven says. In the movie
it shows Meshie chained and there is a box. Hes
motioning her to go to the box and she senses
somethings wrong with that box she doesnt
want to have anything to do with it. Well, he was
kind of a strong personality; you had to do what
he wanted. So she went to the box and put the
cover up, and there was a snake, and he made her
go back. She was obviously frightened and he knew
that she was afraid, so why do that except to
show her anxiety? Does he think, now, that it
was Meshie who made his childhood unhappy, or was his father responsible?
Not so much Meshie, it was my father, says Mr.
Raven, who has survived all his siblings. Meshie
caused familial disruption. She was a presence.
It wasnt her fault. She didnt really do
anything. It was the fact that my father paid
attention to her at the expense of his family.
She was just a presence, but my father he was
just not a good father. He was not a good father.
Then, with a reporter and photographer trailing, he heads upstairs to the chimp.
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