I went on down to the Audubon Zoo
And they all axed for you.
The monkeys axed, the tigers axed
and the elephants axed me, too.
—The Meters (based on a traditional New Orleans nursery rhyme)
Eighteen months after my father died, I was surprised to receive a call expressing condolences for the loss of—how to describe it?—my adopted brother. A simian branch of the Fertel family tree? Dan Maloney, general curator of the Audubon Zoo, conveyed the sad news: Scotty the Gorilla, a gift from my father in 1970, had died. Dan made a point of explaining that the great silverback died in his sleep, in his favorite plastic tub. He’d spent the previous day as any red-blooded gorilla might wish, in the company of the she-gorillas. In a story about his fellow primates, “The Times-Picayune” had called his life “a triumph of preservation.”
Odd phone calls about simian siblings aren’t the only effect my father’s obsession with gorillas has had on my life. Odd looks come my way, too. When I’m introduced in New Orleans, people sometimes hang on the last name.
The body language tells me which way their thoughts tend.
If they lean in with looks bright and eager, as if a mouthwatering steak has just appeared before them, then I know I’ll hear, “Are you Ruth Fertel’s son?”Or, better, as if I were the offspring of a restaurant: “Are you Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s son?”
If they take a decidedly wary turn, then I’m sure to hear, “Are you related to Rodney Fertel?” Or, worse, “Are you the Gorilla Man’s son?”
In 1969, New Orleans was famous for potholes, poor schools, a failing economy, ongoing civil rights struggles and official corruption of a high order. But the sole plank in my father’s mayoral campaign platform bypassed such minor issues and went to the heart of what ailed the city: Our zoo lacked a gorilla.
Dad campaigned for mayor in safari gear, complete with pith helmet. Invited to ride in a parade during the campaign, he tracked down a man whose gorilla suit he had admired during Mardi Gras. They rode together in a convertible, and every few blocks, Dad sent the gorilla to the sidewalk to make a show, sniffing some unfortunate Fay Wray and beating his chest.
Some appreciated Dad’s mayoral campaign for what they saw as his sense of fun. Certainly our politicians were sorely in need of a sendup. Dad’s campaign slogan sent a shot across their bow: “Don’t settle for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a gorilla.”
You might think a racist element lurked in this rhetoric. After all, a century earlier, during Reconstruction, members of the White Citizen Council rode in the Carnival Krewe of Comus on floats that demeaned the principal figures of Reconstruction as “The Missing Links in Darwin’s Origin of the Species.” A grinning gorilla on one float represented Louisiana’s black lieutenant governor, P.B.S. Pinchback. Nonetheless, and incredibly, Dad’s gorilla campaign did not read as racist—at least, not to my knowledge. He even had plastic gorillas manufactured by the gross in Hong Kong and, at the corner of Rampart and Canal, handed out black ones to black passersby and white ones to whites—to show, in his telling, that he wasn’t racist. It helped that there were no blacks in power at that point—though Moon Landrieu, who defeated the Gorilla Man, was about to change all of that. As mayor, he integrated the city’s power structure, and New Orleans’ first black mayor, Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial, followed. Today, his widow, Sybil Haydel Morial, remembers no hint of racism in Dad’s campaign.
If, as some say, one test of a good city is how it treats its eccentrics, Dad helped New Orleans set its benchmark. Heir to a real estate fortune cobbled together by his grandparents, Dad had the mixed blessing of never working a day in his life. That eccentricity—all the money he needed—enabled the others. He grew up around the family pawnshop on South Rampart Street, the orthodox Jewish enclave where, as a kid, Louis Armstrong played in spasm bands for nickels and dimes. Maybe, like Pops, Dad got a taste there for the sporting life. For a time, in his 20s, he owned a riding stable in Baton Rouge, where he met my mother, a tomboy from Happy Jack, La., who loved to ride. They owned thoroughbred racehorses, which others cared for and which Mom, the first licensed woman trainer in Louisiana, trained. Latter & Blum managed Dad’s real estate. His days were his own. He drifted through the day in the worldly, leisured manner of mobsters and Hollywood idols.
I longed for a father who was reasonable, caring and “there.” Instead, Dad was odd, self-centered and “gone.” My schoolmates’ buttoned-down dads commuted to the office from suburban New Orleans, examples of normality and sanity who served to highlight Dad’s oddness. I longed to attain “normal,” but I feared some gene might prevent it. It took awhile to realize that “normal” might not be the goal I should seek.
And yet, even then, I had to admit that abnormality wasn’t entirely bad. Free to take long trips and needing a companion, Dad opened the world to me—his greatest gift. He took me to Europe when I was 15. It was 1965. Mom had just bought Chris Steak House.
Dad was a well-seasoned though difficult travel companion. He had a penchant for carrying oddball props. A golf club was one of his favorites. “You don’t want to lose your swing,” he would say as he stroked imaginary balls in airport concourses. Then there was the garlic. As we drove through the Flemish countryside, the first day after the ferry from Dover to Ostend, he made me pull over at the first farm-stand. “Garlic, fresh garlic,” he rejoiced and then delivered the inevitable lecture—“Garlic is good for you, Son”—as he peeled the cloves and popped toe after toe in his mouth. I opened the window to fill my lungs with the countryside’s sweet air and my ears with the sound of the road.
Our first stop, Antwerp, was where he discovered gorillas, and he was thunderstruck by their massive presence and apparent intelligence. While I explored the sights in the medieval city, Dad spent long hours at the zoo, contemplating the eastern lowland gorillas from the former Belgian Congo.
And yet, neither Dad’s delight in gorillas nor his desire to have a bit of fun with the electorate fully explains the gorilla campaign that followed. Personal vendetta is the missing link that explains the rest.
In 1968, just before the mayor’s race, I was preparing to go to college. David Gertler, the judge for my parents’ divorce proceedings, ordered my father to pay my tuition. “You can afford it, Rodney,” he announced from the bench. Heir to that real estate fortune, Dad was in a position to fund my education. We had visited colleges together that spring. But Dad was playing both ends against the middle. While preaching the importance of higher education—“Stay in school as long as you can, Son. Best years of your life.”—he was fighting in court to avoid paying for it. Still angry with my mother, he loved a good grudge, one that generated lots of righteous anger, preferably combined with lots of court appearances. If that meant legal fees, well, he could afford them far better than she could at the time. Besides, it gave him something to do. But then he’d taken Mom to court and lost.
Hearing the verdict, my father shook his fist in open court.
“I’ll get you! I’ll get you!” Judge Gertler had him escorted from the courtroom.A year later, Gertler’s run for mayor provided the opportunity Dad sought. Gertler took it personally. He had entered the race proud to be the first Jew to run for mayor, and to his dismay, another Jew mounted the hustings with something less than the gravitas Gertler wanted to project. His 1996 memoir, “Man in a Hurry,”describes Dad as “a fringe candidate” who “joined the race as part of his demented pledge”:
Holding press conferences in a khaki safari outfit, Fertel made a mockery of the political process. It was an expensive form of revenge but he was rich and hateful with nothing better to do. Throughout the race he never missed an opportunity to rail against me.
In the end, Gertler finished fifth in the primary. The Gorilla Man finished 10th, but not last, with 308 votes. Dad’s campaign manager, Allen “Black Cat” LaCombe, quipped, “I didn’t know they had that many gorillas in New Orleans.” A racetrack tout, LaCombe got his nickname during a stint as the States-Item sports page handicapper when he recommended nine winners one day in his column—quite a feat, except he actually bet against each of them. He’d gone with hot tips on “steamers”—“sure things”—that went cold. The nickname stuck.
The Black Cat did overcome his hex enough to win for Dad a straw poll at the University of New Orleans. Kids recognize a good joke on their elders. It was the ’60s, and maybe they thought this was more of that street theater they’d heard about. Maybe the Gorilla Man was related to Abbie Hoffman, that other latter-day surrealist. You know: “Steal This Campaign.”
Having lost, Dad was free to pursue his favorite occupation after gambling and lawsuits: travel. He heard about two baby gorillas for sale, and he and the Black Cat traipsed across the globe to pick them up.
“Singapore? Sure, Rodney, I’ll go. Where’s Singapore?”
“Black Cat, I think you go to Hong Kong and take a left.”
They brought back two baby lowland gorillas. Dad named them Red Beans and Rice. In his telling, he was the only candidate in history who kept all his campaign promises, even though he’d lost.
Dad’s gift earned him entrée to the uptown ladies who met on Audubon Place to discuss the refurbishment of the zoo—at that time among the nation’s worst. The oldest gated community in the nation, Audubon Place is the kind of enclave that sent for Blackwater security forces when Katrina struck. My mind reels at the thought of my father in his pith helmet, having his name checked off at the massive Green and Green stone gate, and the former queens of Comus listening to his soapbox discourses in the hush of their elegant homes. Did they really give him a hearing? Certainly, I didn’t. And yet, in part because of him, the gorillas’ bars melted into moats, their cages into habitats. The Audubon Zoo is now among the nation’s best.
According to the zoo’s general curator, Dan Maloney, Dad’s purchase of Red Beans and Rice was one of last importations of exotic wild animals to American zoos. Zoos began to place pressure on wild animal populations around the globe just at the moment when globalization, or the many forces that now go by that name, began to put pressure upon their habitats. In response, zoo leaders agreed to restrict importation. My father not only inspired the zoo’s renovation but also helped mark the end of an era.
Red Beans and Rice—he never understood the zoo’s decision to rename them Scotty and Molly—became Dad’s nonresident pets. He brought them footballs, a Christmas tree and a TV because they were bored. He noticed that Johnny Carson was their favorite. Ed McMahon’s jovial “Heeeeeere’s Johnny” brought howls and chest-beatings; its absence, melancholy. So Dad bought a VCR and asked the zookeepers to play “The Tonight Show”often. When he learned Scotty and Molly weren’t mating because, captured as infants, they had never seen gorillas couple, Dad bought porno tapes, hoping the apes would, well, ape us. “I’m all for letting nature take its course,” he announced, “but sometimes you can help it along a little.” He held court before their cage, always in his pith helmet and always ready to charm the kids and flirt with their moms.
Missing his gorillas, Dad would climb the fence of the Audubon Zoo in the dead of night.
“Why?” I once asked.
“To feed them. Potato chips. Not bananas. They don’t eat bananas, people don’t realize.”States-Item reporter Rosemary James, who made her name debunking Jim Garrison’s effort to pin John Kennedy’s assassination on Clay Shaw, jumped a fence herself while covering the Gorilla Man. Charmed, she wrote about him so often that she was known at the paper as “the Gorilla Man’s publicist.” Dad often came to the newsroom in safari gear and, once, when Rosemary wanted to ask his gorilla some questions, in full regalia.
“Well, he’s smart enough to do the interview,” he’d replied, and was there to prove it.
“Sit here, Rodney,” Rosemary told him, pointing to a chair near her desk.
And he did so as meekly as a man in a gorilla suit can manage.
Rosemary wasn’t alone in loving my dad. His virtues—his good humor, spontaneity and devil-may-care outlook on life—were real. But for me, the mercurial shadow of his craziness obscured them. It wasn’t just my self-righteous adolescent eye that made Dad’s playfulness seem inappropriate and uncouth. Playfulness deserves a different name when poisoned by motives like anger, scorn and revenge.
A man of ideas, Dad liked to preach. He was happy to tell you what was good for you—and believe me, he knew. “Use this soap,” he told everyone. “Neutrogena. It’s so pure you can wash your hair with it, then your teeth.” He was a snake-oil salesman with the unique angle of not being in it for the money. Perhaps that was one of the sources of his charm.
And yet money dominated his sermons. “It’s expensive to keep a horse,” so not only should you steal the oats to feed your racehorses, but you had a right and duty “to do whatever you could to win.” Dad loved gorillas, but he didn’t carry a PETA card. He made it a point to hire trainers who knew which drugs couldn’t be detected in the “spit barn”; which jockeys were willing to use “machines,” like a hand buzzer hidden in their palms”; and which horses—the “machine horses”—responded to them in the stretch, leaping ahead to the finish line. More than once before a race, I watched as Dad and his trainer jazzed horses with illegal electric cattle prods, the trainer taking his life in his hands as the horses reared and kicked. Dad would send me to serve as lookout at the corner of the barn. These lessons he offered as important knowledge in the ways of the world: “You’ll thank me some day.”
I used to get embroiled in ridiculous arguments with him mostly because he took these stands with an air convinced, unassailable and impregnable. Of course, I had to puncture his bubble. He talked long and often about how much you could learn, just from watching gorillas. “Gorillas have their own language,” he often lectured in interviews. “If we could understand what they’re saying, we might solve all the problems of the earth,” my father mused, a latter-day Whitman becoming one with oxen:
[W]hat is that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.
That he wasn’t kidding did little to reconcile me to ideas I took to be hollow. I did my best to underscore that, unlike Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, he wasn’t talking about anything concrete, empirical and scientific. To him, just because we hadn’t learned their language didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot we could learn. He thought that standing near their cages or habitats and watching them, you’d learn a lot.
Dad had something of the mythic Trickster in him, always ready to stir things up, to puncture the self-important. Like Trickster—who takes many animal forms: Coyote, Crow, Hare and, of course, Monkey—Dad was an inveterate thief, sometimes just for fun. But where Trickster’s thieving means to dissolve morality’s high-minded boundaries, Dad relished crossing them. His version of the Signifying Monkey was, of course, more like a 600-pound gorilla, prepared not only to stir things up but also to do you harm. Dad’s con games weren’t just for fun. He believed he was entitled to their proceeds. If his cons hurt people, that was their problem. Anyway, he meant to hurt because his target, no doubt the object of some grudge, deserved what he got. Spite stole from Dad his natural sprightliness. He had no sense of community in which he was not the center and beneficiary.
Thanks to Dad—or Judge Gertler—I had the good fortune not to have to work my way through college. But I’ve been paying for it ever since as “the Gorilla Man’s son.” Dad sent letters emblazoned “Gorilla Mail” and addressed “c/o Harvard English Department.” Retrieving these envelopes from the departmental office was an exercise in humiliation; the secretaries handed them to me as if with 3-foot tongs. “Here, I think this is for you.” After the very first class I taught as a graduate teaching Assistant, a student approached me. “I’m from Cleveland,” she explained, “and I’m related to some Fertels in New Orleans. Are you related to the Gorilla Man?” William Blake, the visionary poet I had just been teaching, who saw angels in trees and set a place at table for the Archangel Michael, suddenly seemed perfectly sane by comparison.
Later, doctorate in hand, I was excited to learn of a job opening in my hometown. At the interview, the Tulane University English Department popped its first question.
“Are you really related to the Gorilla Man?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. In a last ditch effort to woo them, I added, “But my mother is Ruth’s Chris.”
Susan Orlean writes in “The Orchid Thief ” about “those people who are enthralled by non-human living things and pursue them like lovers.” My father’s passion for gorillas was like that. He longed for a totem, some piece of the natural world that expressed what he belonged to, who he was. It was something to possess and to be enthralled by. Possessing and possessed, he felt enlarged. Certainly it set him apart—which he loved.
“The image of a wild animal becomes a starting point for a daydream,” writes the great art critic John Berger in an essay that asks, “Why Look at Animals?” Where did my father’s daydreams lead as he stood for hours before the gorillas of Antwerp and New Orleans? Was he pursuing a dream or running from one when he climbed the fence in the dead of night to visit Red Beans and Rice?Like the menageries of emperors and kings that preceded them, civic zoos and their captive animals brought imperial prestige. Their foundings mark not only the birth of industry but also the march of empire: Paris, 1793; London, 1828; Berlin, 1844; Washington, D.C., 1889. John James Audubon, for whom New Orleans’ park and zoo are named, flourished at a time—the 1820s and ’30s—when America’s manifest destiny, our colonizing of Native lands, began to possess us. “Birds of America” was a kind of dead zoo—between boards rather than in cages. Audubon shot the birds in order to capture their likenesses. Nearly 150 years later, my father’s gift of the gorillas was a similarly imperial display, a tribute to the fact that he could do it, a display of noblesse oblige even after the lèse majesté of the lost election.
I speak, of course, only of subtext. Overtly, in their origins, zoos were museums that sought to further knowledge and public enlightenment, and this was surely my father’s own purpose, as well. In the ’80s, he asked me to write a letter to “that Ron Forman,”deputy director of the Audubon Zoo. He wanted the zoo to restore the plaque acknowledging his gift. The first had been removed in anger after Dad complained ceaselessly about the gorillas’ broken TV. Ron Forman agreed to a new plaque, even though he’d dealt with Dad’s late night forays and angry letters about the gorillas’ care. He, too, got Gorilla Mail. “Your father was part of the history of this zoo,” Forman graciously said to me in the mid-’90s, “and his gift came just at a time when we began to see the need for renovation.” Forman allowed me to write the copy on the plaque that now adorns the habitat:
On November 1, 1970
gave the gift of wonder
to the children of new Orleans:
two lowland gorillas named
Molly and Scotty.
We spoke of holding a dedication the next time Dad was in town, but I never pushed it through.
“If I saw Red Beans and Rice today,” Dad told me on his deathbed, his dementia finally official, “they would remember me. They loved me. They would come right up to me.” That’s why he always wore his pith helmet: so they would recognize him.
And yet, what can we learn from the lethargy of caged animals who need Johnny Carson to get through the day? In the same essay that asks why we look at animals, Berger sees with great accuracy what we have all glimpsed out of the corners of our eyes but prefer not to acknowledge: Zoo animals’ lethargy is endemic. Berger offers the keen “aperçu” that “[a]s frequent as the calls of animals in the zoo, are the cries of children demanding: Where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?” Zoo animals behave as they do, not just to our disappointment when we are watching, but all the time. It is not a personal affront but a general comment, perhaps the Rosetta Stone that finally unravels their language.
Zoos, Berger adds, mark the turning point in human history when we lost “the universal use of animal signs for charting the experience of the world.” Animals were the vehicles for our first metaphors and the subjects of our first art. As Berger explains: “Everywhere animals offered explanation or, more precisely, lent their name and character to a quality, which, like all qualities, was, in its essence, mysterious.” Animals are windows—or mirrors—through which we peer into our mysteries. And yet animals are not only like but also unlike us. They are familiar and yet unfamiliar. They speak volumes to us and yet remain silent. “If only we could learn their language,” my father mused. But they speak only through our projections, always anthropomorphic and always unsatisfying. No origin can ever be known, and no innocence can ever be regained.
Inhabiting an artificial space and fed by the clock that marginalizes their once cyclic instinctual rhythms, zoo animals look at us with an indifference we prefer not to notice. This is what the poet Rilke saw while observing the panther pacing in his cage in the “Jardin des Plantes”:
It seems to him there are a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
(trans. Stephen Mitchell)
The Times-Picayune once called attention to the impasse zoo animals and their keepers face. On the one hand, threatened by extinction in the wild, primates are served and preserved by captivity. On the other, they are so bored by their artificial habitats that the keepers come up with absurd activities like finger painting. “They need stimulation,” one keeper explained, “otherwise you get those typical boredom behaviors—pacing and pulling hair.” In the article, “Going Ape over Art,” primate keeper Marsha Fernandez called baby primates born in captivity “a triumph of preservation.” But the triumph is ours, not theirs, a human projection just like the finger painting, a daydream on a tabula rasa that is not at all blank—we just can’t read it. Meanwhile, they are doomed to a life of blankness so we can fill our lives.
I wonder, is this what my father learned from all those hours on the human side of cages and moats? Did his gaze take in the pathos before him? Or did he manage only to project his longing for wildness, for innocence, for a nurturing mother nature, for origins? Did his gaze miss the nature of their returning gazes, their indifference, their hostility? Was the indifference invisible because it was all too familiar to a lad brought up on inhospitable South Rampart Street?
And, yet, there is the innocent rapture I see in a picture I took of Dad with Red Beans and Rice. Soon after his safari to fetch them, I joined him for a day at the Tulane Primate Center, their home while their cage at Audubon Zoo was being readied. It shows them well before they’ve been renamed, less than 2 feet tall, still innocent of the zoo’s bureaucracy and cold steel bars. My Nikon F, which Dad handed down to me in high school when he tired of it, captured a moment that’s a bit goofy: Dad, sporting a ball cap and a silly grin, sits on the floor, the baby gorillas before him, holding hands as if playing Ring Around the Rosie or imitating Colin Clout and the three Graces (though one, no doubt Charity, was missing). But who could begrudge him such happiness?
How many of the idle rich manage to purchase such apparently unadulterated joy and, in the bargain, get their native city’s bemused thanks?