Today I’ve got a first for Rosco’s Reading Room and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with you: video. It’s a video in which my guest blogger, author and illustrator Nathaniel Gold, discusses and illustrates on screen, the story behind his series, The Diary of Henry Chimpman. Hit Play on the video below and prepare to be fascinated.
Spoiler alert: if you read to the bottom, you’ll find out how you can win a free limited edition art print of Henry:)
My Meeting With Henry Chimpman
By Nathaniel Gold
I did not set out to be a writer. I grew up loving to draw. My influences were the cartoonists that drew in the newspaper and the creators of shows like Bullwinkle and Popeye.
I first became aware of Henry Chimpman the summer before my freshman year of college. I had been accepted to an internationally recognized art school in New York City, with the hope of becoming an animator. My dream was to work for the Walt Disney Company. In fact I had only applied to the schools from which Disney recruited. I had visited Disney in Florida with my family and spoken with an animator in person; his recommendation was to draw movement, the same advice I had received from the universities. It was recommended to me that I draw animals, so after getting tired of drawing my parents’ three cats I began to draw at the City Zoo.
By the summer of 1996 I had already been accepted to art school. I ended up in a fine art program as opposed to an animation program, because, based on the advice I’d been given, if I wanted to animate I should draw, draw, draw. I spent most of the summer drawing all different animals: penguins, bears, seals, and birds but I quickly became infatuated with the chimpanzees.
I spent a few days drawing the chimps before I even noticed Henry. All of the other chimps – Lawrence, Jake, Sofia, and Benjamin loved the attention – but Henry was reclusive and stayed in the back alone. When I tried to draw him he would hide, so one day I just asked him why. I assumed he was just shy or defiant, but I soon came to find he was truly extraordinary.
Henry was 57 years old when I met him, and he was hunched over and slightly grey around the chin. Quiet and alone, he rarely spoke to the other chimps, and never to humans. The zoo’s veterinarian could not get him to cooperate for medical attention and he ignored the zookeepers entirely, even during feeding times.
I made it my mission to get to know this introverted chimp whose cage I had spent the better part of the summer in front of. Eventually I won his trust but it was not easy. I spoke to him for days before he ever responded, and when he did all he said was “Why should I talk to you? You’re a human and I can’t trust humans. Humans put me in here.” When I asked him to elaborate, he just turned his back toward me and walked to the back of the cage, where he was swallowed by the dark.
One day I brought a peace offering, some banana-flavored pellets that I had gotten from the grocery store. I offered them to Henry. He looked down at my hand and then up at my face several times, slowly, over the course of a few minutes. There we were – Henry, submerged by the darkness of his cage, and me, outside the bars bathed in the sunshine.
“Are those banana pellets? I have not had banana pellets in…” Henry grabbed them out of my hand walked on all fours to the back of his cage. I stayed there for the rest of the day sketching the other chimps. Henry consumed all of the banana pellets but never uttered a word to me.
I got to the zoo early the next morning. I sat on the same bench I had been sitting on the entire summer and continued to draw the chimps. Henry ignored me until around noon when he walked right up to the bars that separated us and asked “What have you been writing all this time?” I told him I was not writing, I was drawing. He asked to see my work, basically grabbing my sketchbook out of my hand. Again he turned his back and walked toward the back of the cage, using his left arm to push along while holding my book with his right. I was sure that I would not see my sketchbook again. I yelled, “HEY Whats your problem?!” and the four other chimps screamed in a primal fashion. “I gave you banana pellets. I have been nothing but nice to you! Forget this, if I want this type of disrespect, I can go draw the penguins.”
But then I heard Henry say in a quite calm but commanding tone of voice, “These are very good.” He was referring to my sketches.
“Thank you” I said surprised as he walked toward the front of the cage and handed me back my book.
“If you want, you can draw me.”
I was shocked but I quickly took Henry up on his offer. Then I spent an hour or two sketching Henry before I had to leave.
I ripped a drawing out of my sketchbook and gave it to him. “Come back tomorrow,” Henry said.
I nodded at him. I had been there every day for two months. Obviously I was coming back, and I had broken ground with Henry. I later found out that I was the first human Henry had trusted in over twenty years.
I spent my entire four years of school in front of Henry’s cage. He would talk for hours about his life as I drew. I received a much better education there at the zoo than I did in school, but I became cynical. Listening to the stories of Henry’s life, I learned that trust was something that you had to earn and not something to be taken for granted.
Halfway into my freshman year I gave up my dream of being an animator. I decided I didn’t want to go to work every day and draw little cartoon mice. The world is not filled with fairy godmothers, nor with fulfilled wishes. If it was, Henry would be free. I decided to dedicate my life to documenting what was real.
In 1959, when Henry Chimpman was nineteen years old, the United States Army recruited him into the Mercury Space Program. He was an instant star, quickly jumping to the head of the class. For all his hard work and dedication, he was awarded the most banana pellets and received the fewest amount of electric shocks to his feet. It was not long before Henry could see the negative effects on the other chimps there, due to the inconsistency in the training exercises given by the US Government. Henry realized that the chimps were not being trained; they were being experimented upon.
As time moved on, Henry began to speak out, stating that the chimps were not going to survive the training. After a dishonorable discharge from the space program, Henry went on to fight the US Government for ten years. Eventually he ended up in the zoo. Henry was supposed to have been the first chimpanzee in space, but instead he was thrown out of the program dishonorably, as part of a larger conspiracy.
By the time that I graduated from art school, Henry had been locked away for almost thirty years and the world had forgotten all about him. Henry was just another chimp in the zoo to be pointed and stared at. He had gone from rising star in the space program to side show attraction. During his long life Henry had toured Europe and played Carnegie Hall with his jazz trio. He had been a minor league pitcher and had even run for Mayor. When I met him, he had been reduced to eating and sleeping in a cage.
On the day I graduated college I stopped by the zoo to see Henry. Wearing my cap and gown, coming directly from the commencement ceremony, I wanted to speak with him. Henry had become my best friend during our four years together and there really was no one that I would have rather spent this moment with. Henry told me he was proud of me, and wanted to give me a gift. I could not imagine what kind of gift he could have possibly had for me given the limitations of his incarceration.
Henry handed me a stack of paper that I quickly realized was a manuscript. “What’s this?” I asked.
Quietly he said, “That, my friend, is my memoir.”
I almost cried as Henry explained to me that he had written it in the mid 1970s, shortly after he had been incarcerated. He had tried for a decade to have it published. No publisher was willing to print it, either due to fear of the United States Government, or because they simply did not believe the material. The United States Government had done a great job of erasing him from history.
It took almost forty years, but now with my help and illustrations, Henry Chimpman’s memoir has finally been published. Meeting Henry changed my life. He was a freedom fighter in a time when chimpanzees had none and even now he will not be silenced. Now that whole world can know his story.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and thank you, Shana, for giving me the opportunity to talk about Henry. If you want to learn more about Henry, please go to www.jessianpress.com. As a special gift to Shana’s blog readers, please take advantage of this 55% discount on the complete Henry Chimpman Diary. Just go to https://www.jessianpress.com/shop/the-diary-of-henry-chimpman-the-complete-saga-boxset/ to order. As an additional bonus, the first ten Rosco’s Reading Room blog readers to order using this link in the next 24 hours, will receive a free, signed, limited edition print of the drawing below of Henry. Just be sure to include your email at check out.
About: Nathaniel Gold is an Illustrator, Author, and Educator with an MFA in Illustration. His work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The LA Times, The New York Press. His work was recognized by the Society of Illustrators in 2008 and in 2009 he published his first book The Chimpanzee Manifesto which went on to win a Gold Medal for outstanding book of the year in the 2010 Independent Publishing Awards (IPPY).
Nathaniel is an adjunct professor at FIT in NYC where he teaches a survey course on art styles and the influences of popular culture on the development of American illustration. he lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, two children, and dog Thelonious.