You never forget the rival who cast a shadow over your childhood, monopolizing your father’s 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, that’s 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 it’s her?
“How do I know you’re 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, Meshie’s demanding, grunting, Uuuh-wooo! uh-awooo! yelp. Mr. Raven has said that his father’s 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.
“I’ve 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 wife’s poor health prevented him from coming in from his home in Brick, N.J., until this week, when he arrived at the offices of The New York Times accompanied by his son-in-law, Andrew Haas, and his 10-year-old grandson, George.
Mr. Raven’s father, Henry Cushier Raven, a curator at the natural history museum, 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 chimp named Meshie and seemingly made her a member of his household in Baldwin, on Long Island, that made news, too.
He took photographs and home movies of Meshie snuggling 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 Jane pulling Meshie 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 articles 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 didn’t 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 can’t think of him ever giving anybody a hug, except Meshie,” Mr. Raven said this week during a visit to The Times with his son-in-law and grandson before visiting the natural history museum. “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 natural history museum and preserved. He died seven years later, at age 54. The Meshie story, as far as Harry Raven was concerned, was over.