The Real King Kong

Here’s another story from my friend Joe Monninger. This time it’s a piece he cut from a book he’s working on, but I’m happy to take his tailings. The text that follows is his:

With the mega-release of King Kong swarming the country this week, it might be interesting to hear a true big ape story. I came across this story while doing research for a project, and I pass it along as it came to me. It goes like this:

In the mid 1930’s a freighter left West Africa bound for the United States with a lowland gorilla on board. The captain, a friend of African missionaries, had received the baby gorilla as a gift and the animal had become the shipboard darling. The crew adopted the gorilla and babied it, preparing special food for its dinner and teaching it to perform the work of a seaman. The crew named the gorilla Buddy and vied for the animal’s attention.

The captain had no immediate plan for the gorilla except to enjoy its novelty, but he knew museums and zoos traveled around the world acquiring specimens. America in the 1930’s was particularly fascinated by great apes. King Kong, the gigantic ape who climbed the Empire State Building in the immensely popular movie of the same name, had bridged the simian gap between humans and apes first delineated by Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. King Kong, released in 1933, embodied American themes reflective of the time: showman Carl Denham, destroyed by the Depression and looking for new attractions to exhibit, lures Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow to accompany him on an expedition to Skull Island, where outsized animals fight primitive battles in a romantic jungle habitat. The natives steal Ann Darrow and carry her to a great fortress wall where she is left as a sacrifice to Kong. Kong falls in love with Darrow and, famously, carries her up the Empire State Building where he fights off a squadron of WWI aircraft before succumbing to exhaustion and the insect buzz of the bullets. He falls spectacularly, clutching Ann Darrow in his monkey paw, sparing her life even as he loses his own. Beauty, of course, kills the beast, but so does the American concept of technology warring with animal nature.

In a somewhat parallel occurrence, a sailor on the African freighter, taking exception to the ship discipline and knowing how fond the captain was of the baby gorilla, threw acid, or emptied a fire extinguisher, into the animal’s face to revenge his perceived injustices. Then he skipped into a forgotten port. Buddy, nearly blinded, hid beneath rolled up canvases for the better part of a week, refusing food or comfort and attacking anyone who came near to soothe him. His shrieks drove the men crazy and sparked a debate about what should be done. Many of the crew suggested the captain euthanize the gorilla. Others wanted a better look at the great ape before they condemned it to death.

Fortunately the captain knew of a wealthy woman in New York who loved animals and often restored sick ones to health. Her name was Mrs. Gertrude Lintz, a forward thinking, and somewhat eccentric woman, who had won national attention by proposing to the scientific community that apes, specifically chimpanzees, needed proper mothering to survive and thrive. She dressed the chimps in human attire, taught them to eat at table, and allowed them to live as children might under similar circumstances. Her most famous protégé, Captain Jiggs, a highland chimpanzee of unusual intelligence and patience, became a well known national figure. Mrs. Lintz divided chimpanzees into three classes, depending on eye brightness, and anthropomorphized the animals to such a degree that she blurred the line between animal and human. She particularly enjoyed posing the animals in the car seat beside her, driving her roadster with an immaculately dressed chimp navigating from the passenger side.

Under Mrs. Lintz’s care, Buddy grew to astonishing proportions, topping out at six hundred pounds. Dr. Lintz, a plastic surgeon, repaired parts of Buddy’s face, but the ape’s mouth curled up in a pumpkin grin, too wide for symmetry with the other facial features. It lent the ape a terrifying expression, one not matched by his otherwise gentle nature.

In 1937, John Ringling, stationed in the New York Ritz, received a call from Mrs. Lintz asking if he would be interested in a full grown gorilla for his famous circus. Ringling, not sure if the call came from a kook, said he would be interested. Mrs. Lintz invited him to tea in Brooklyn. In Henry Ringling North’s 1960 memoir, John Ringling, also known, ironically as Buddy, met on the woman’s terms.

We drove to Brooklyn, winding through dismal streets of rubber-plant-decorated homes, down into a tenement district, and up again to a once elegant, water-front street. We mounted the brownstone stoop of a mansion of faded grandeur straight out of Charles Addams’ macabre cartoons. A small middle-aged lady let us in, and we sat down on rosewood and horsehair chairs to drink tea with her. We drank gallons of tea and talked….until we began to suspect we were the victims of an old lady’s fantasy.

But it was no fantasy. Eventually Ringling asked to see the gorilla and Mrs. Lintz took them to an old horse shed in the backyard where she introduced them to Dick Kroner, the animal’s keeper. Then she waved to a wooden crate, not much different from an oversized coffin, according to Ringling, reinforced on all sides by heavy timbers. The front of the box had a slatted sliding door and Kroner raised it.

“From behind the bars glowered the most fearful face I have ever looked upon,” said Ringling. “A tremendous hairy head, great dripping fangs, and the horrible sinister leer of the acid-twisted mouth.”

Ringling bought the gorilla on the spot, paying ten thousand dollars for the animal and renamed him, at his wife’s suggestion, “Gargantua the Great” after the hero of a satire of Rabelais, a giant king of prodigious proportions. To transport him and keep Gargantua in proper condition, Ringling contracted with Lemeul Bulware, founder of the nascent Carrier Corporation, one of the nation’s first air conditioning companies, in Syracuse, New York, and finagled a deal to bring publicity for both the circus and Carrier. A “jungle-conditioned” cage, matched to the temperature of the Congo, won them both the advertiser’s award for 1938.

In subsequent years Ringling exhibited Gargantua to millions of viewers, and even arranged a marriage to a female gorilla named M’Toto, which means “Little One” in Swahilli. M’Toto belonged to another opulent woman named Mrs. Stephen Hoyt, and during tea one afternoon the gorilla snapped both the woman’s wrists. Shortly afterward she sold the gorilla to Ringling, but the marriage with Gargantua didn’t take. When the screen opened to connect the two cages, Gargantua pelted his fiancée with half eaten vegetables. The press fell over itself finding in the rejection a statement about marriage and sexual warfare.

That’s the story. Parts of the tale formed the background for the 1997 film, Buddy, starring Rene Russo. The story first appeared in Animals Are My Hobby, by Gertrude Lintz, published by Robert McBride & Co. New York 1942.