The Monkey Keepers

Cats and monkeys, monkeys and cats—all human life is there.


Unlike cats, monkeys demand active husbandry, deep pockets, and endless patience. No one keeps a monkey by accident. More people than you might imagine have taken on the job. As well as the eight mentioned in this chapter, other notable monkey keepers include Peter the Great, Lord Byron, Alexander von Humboldt, Francis Galton, Meher Baba, and Michael Jackson.

As Queen Victoria remarked after being introduced to Jenny the orangutan at the London Zoo, monkeys and apes are “frightfully and painfully and disagreeably human.” Monkeys are bonsai people: They remind us of ourselves.

The long and controversial career of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) almost didn’t happen. His parents were regular visitors to Hinchingbrooke, the country estate of his grandfather, Henry, and it was there, shortly after Oliver was born, that he was abducted by grandpa’s pet monkey. The creature grabbed the baby from his crib and made for the roof. Servants rushed to bring mattresses into the courtyard to soften his fall if the animal dropped him, but for several minutes the monkey ignored them, hopping from ridge to ridge with young Oliver clamped under his hairy arm. The assembled company at last enticed the beast down, and the future Lord Protector of England was returned unharmed. There is no record of how they did it—though modern monkey handlers recommend that a dish of jam usually does the trick.

As far as we know, Cromwell never kept a pet monkey himself—it would have been rather surprising if he had—but in the frontispiece of a 1664 satirical cookbook, purporting to be by his wife, Elizabeth, she appears with a monkey on her shoulder. The illustration portrays her as a plain-looking frump and the anonymous author refers to her throughout as “Joan” (the stock name for a scullery maid), mockingly remarking that Whitehall had been turned into a dairy and that her “sordid frugality and thrifty baseness” was “a hundred times fitter for a barn than a palace.” The monkey on her shoulder is there to make a monkey out of Mrs. Cromwell, letting everyone know she is a jumped-up country bumpkin and reminding readers of the old proverb, “the higher the monkey climbs, the more you can see of its arse.”

For several centuries, monkeys had been the favored pet of queens: “Joan” Cromwell’s monkey also implies that she was “aping” her royal betters. Monkeys that appear in portraits of actual queens are coded symbols for lust, childish exuberance, bad decision making, or a weakness for the occult. All these qualities were brought together in the most famous of all monkey-owning queens, Catherine de’ Medici (1519–89). Also known as the Black Queen, Madame La Serpente, and the Maggot from Italy’s Tomb, she was the most powerful woman in Europe for more than forty years.

Catherine was the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the man who bankrolled the Florentine Renaissance, but she didn’t have an easy start in life. As a merchant’s daughter, she was technically a commoner and, within weeks of her birth, an orphan, too. Things looked up a little in 1523, when her cousin was elected Pope Clement VII. Aged only four, she became a bargaining chip in the endless marital poker game of European royal politics. Then, in 1527, the Medicis were overthrown in Florence. Catherine was taken hostage and imprisoned in a series of convents.

By the time she was twelve, she had been made to ride through the streets on a donkey, had been jeered at by an angry crowd, and had survived a planned attempt on her life that would have seen her lowered naked in a basket outside the city wall in an attempt to trick members of her own family to shoot at her. (They were besieging “their” city at the time.) When Florence surrendered, Catherine was summoned to Rome by her papal cousin, who greeted her with tears in his eyes. Within months, he had wangled her engagement to Henry, Duke of Orleans, second in line to the French throne. Pope Clement was delighted. With the usual Medici gift for understatement, he proudly announced “the greatest match in the world.”

Henry’s father, Francis I, was also pleased and very keen to help. On the couple’s wedding night in 1533 he stayed in their bedchamber until he was sure “each had shown valour in the joust.” Despite this promising start, it was ten years before Catherine bore Henry a child. That she survived as his wife bears testimony to her strength of will and shrewd political instincts.

It certainly wasn’t her looks that did it. Although she was said to have “delicate features,” she was short with a “too large mouth” and the trademark bulging eyes of the Medici. Despite her trim figure and a beauty regime that involved applying a daily face mask of pigeon dung, the Venetian ambassador was moved to say that she looked good “only when her face is veiled.” Yet she had a definite sense of style, shocking the French court with her racy two-inch-high heels and her steel corsets, made by her husband’s armorer and the secret of her thirteen-inch waist. She was a game girl, too—she hunted enthusiastically until she was well into her sixties and introduced riding sidesaddle to the French (thus showing off her shapely calves, one of her few visual strong points).

Catherine’s other fashionable innovations were broccoli, artichokes, cauliflower, and the fork. She also pioneered the wearing of perfume, hair dye, and underwear; and despite never touching alcohol, she was an enthusiastic early adopter of tobacco. She was an avid collector, garlanding her palaces with imported china, minerals, dolls, stuffed crocodiles, and a host of live pets, including her favorite, a long-tailed monkey from the Indies. She fussed over it continually, calling it her lucky talisman.*

Catherine set a new European standard for opulent parties, masques, and balls. Her entertainments, which deployed the finest artists, dancers, architects, and musicians of the day, were known as les magnificences. One highly effective novelty was her “flying squadron,” a group of eighty ladies-in-waiting whose services added spice and intrigue to the conduct of international diplomacy. At one memorable magnificence in 1577, they served supper topless. These ladies also established the new fashion of not shaving or plucking their pubic hair, on Catherine’s strict orders (bald pubes might mean pox). Her rival, the straitlaced Jeanne, Protestant Queen of Navarre, wrote of Catherine’s court: “I knew it was bad, I find it even worse than I feared. Here women make advances to men rather than the other way around.”

During her barren years, Catherine’s position as queen was under constant threat, particularly when Henry proved his virility by fathering a child with a servant. Roused by this, he took Catherine’s famously beautiful cousin, Diane de Poitiers, as a mistress. Catherine refused to give up trying to conceive, downing large drafts of mule’s urine, wearing stags’ antlers, and dressings of cow dung, and consulting her friend Nostradamus for advice. She even bored a hole in the floor of her husband’s bedchamber so she could stand underneath to spy on Henry and Diane and pick up any practical tips. Some historians credit the royal physician, Jean Fernel, with the decisive breakthrough. He had noticed some “irregularities” in the couple’s organs of generation and suggested a way to solve the problem. Whatever it was, after her first child was born, Catherine had no further trouble conceiving. She produced nine more children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. Three of her sons became kings of France and two of her daughters married kings. She outlived all but two of them.

Her sole aim through her years as consort, and then as the guiding power through the reigns of her three sons, was to keep the Valois dynasty of her husband in the ascendant. To do so, she had to navigate her way through the French Wars of Religion, which threatened to tear the country apart between 1562 and 1598, by shrewdly playing off Catholic against Huguenot. In defense of political stability she was capable, when necessary, of acts of startling viciousness, even toward her own children. On discovering that her teenage daughter Marguerite was sleeping with the son of her archrival, the Duke of Guise, she dragged her out of bed, ripping her nightclothes and pulling out handfuls of her hair. Later, when Marguerite was caught again (this time being unfaithful to her husband, King Henry of Navarre), Catherine had the lover executed, cut Marguerite out of her will, and never spoke to her again.

Catherine’s last months were plagued by bouts of gout and colic (she was always a big eater and once nearly died after consuming a vat of chicken-gizzard stew). After her death, a chronicler observed that “no more notice was taken of her than of a dead goat.” Her bones were later thrown into a pit by the Revolutionary mob. Her lavish buildings have mostly been destroyed. Even her power broking and intrigue didn’t outlast her. Just eight months after her passing, three hundred years of Valois rule ended with the murder of her son, Henry III. Her long-suffering son-in-law, Marguerite’s husband, became Henry IV of France, founding the Bourbon dynasty. Despite having suffered serial humiliation at the hands of both Medici ladies, he was surprisingly generous about his former mother-in-law, commending her “wise conduct” and commenting, “I am surprised that she never did worse.” Perhaps the best epitaph for Catherine’s ambiguous legacy comes from a contemporary who wisely chose to remain anonymous: “She had too much wit for a woman, and too little honesty for a queen.”

If part of the appeal of monkeys for royalty was their rarity and peculiar miniature-human quality, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that real miniature humans also found themselves at court. Catherine de’ Medici practically farmed her troupe of dwarfs, keeping them dressed in finery and making sure they had a whole retinue of servants to look after them. She even arranged inter-dwarf marriages and encouraged them to breed. The strange fascination that dwarf sex exerted is another link with monkeys: Both were seen as helpless victims of animal lust. Getting monkeys and dwarfs to play together was even more fun. Here’s an account of a wrestling match between a dwarf and a monkey, arranged for the entertainment of Cosimo I de’ Medici not long after he became Duke of Florence in 1537:

The dwarf had two injuries, one in the shoulder and the other in the arm, while the monkey was left with his legs crippled. The monkey eventually gave up and begged the dwarf for mercy. The dwarf, however, didn’t understand the monkey’s language and having seized the monkey by the legs from behind kept beating his head on the ground. If My Lord the Duke hadn’t stepped in, the dwarf would have gone on to kill him. The dwarf fought naked, having nothing to protect him except a pair of undershorts that covered his private parts. Suffice it to say that the dwarf was the victor and he won ten scudi in gold.

Cosimo’s great-granddaughter, Henrietta Maria, Charles I of England’s queen, was another monkey and dwarf enthusiast. Her court favorite was the most celebrated of all English little people, Sir Jeffrey Hudson (1619–82), keeper of the royal monkey.

Jeffrey Hudson was born in Oakham, Rutland. He was the son of a bull-baiting butcher “of lusty stature” and no one could understand why he was so small. Local theories ranged from his mother’s choking on a gherkin while pregnant to dark rumors about his parents keeping him in a box. Actually, he suffered from growth-hormone deficiency, caused by a misfiring pituitary gland.

At the age of eight he had reached only eighteen inches in height. His father, sensing an opportunity for betterment, took him to his employer, the Duke of Buckingham. The duchess, Katherine, was entranced. Her husband was the king’s “favorite” at the time and very probably his lover, too. This did not please the queen, so the duchess decided to present Jeffrey to her as a gift: a peace offering from one wronged wife to another. She arranged for the little man to arrive at court inside a cold venison pie. Jeffrey then leaped out, bowed, and marched up and down the table in a full suit of armor. He was an instant hit. The queen invited him to enter her service, gave him a servant of his own, and put him in charge of her pet monkey, Pug.

Jeffrey soon found his niche as a court entertainer, making friends with a 7½-foot-tall porter called William Evans. They developed an act together where Evans would pull a loaf of bread out of one pocket and Hudson out of the other and proceed to make a sandwich. The two were often seen together in public and a number of London pubs were named in their honor. Together with a later arrival, Thomas Parr, who claimed to be 151 years old, they were known as the Three Wonders of the Age.

Jeffrey was more than just a curiosity: He was bright and audacious enough to act as a diplomat for the Stuart court. At the age of eleven, he was part of an embassy sent to France to bring back a midwife for the pregnant Queen Henrietta Maria. The ambassadors were granted an audience by Marie de’ Medici, the queen’s mother, who was so taken with Jeffrey that she presented him with $3,000 worth of jewelry. This was an enormous sum of money (equivalent to almost $20 million today). Jeffrey’s father, by comparison, probably earned around $15 a year as a butcher.

In the 1620s and 1630s, the French coastal town of Dunkirk was an independent Flemish state and a notorious pirate base. It was these “Dunkirkers” who intercepted the royal ship on its way back across the Channel, stealing Jeffrey’s newly acquired jewels and kidnapping all the members of the party. The group was a little too “hot” for the pirates, though, and they were quickly released. The incident inspired a mock epic, Jeffreidos (1638) by William Davenant, which featured an unnerving assault on the dwarfish hero by a hungry turkey cock.

As he grew older, Jeffrey began to excite attention from the ladies. Paintings show him to be attractive and properly proportioned (if small) with large blue eyes and a mane of blond curls. He was fond of boasting that as a young man, he had slept with at least fifteen court lovelies, and in 1641 he was the master of ceremonies at the “bedding” ceremony following Charles’s daughter Mary’s wedding to William of Orange. As she was just nine years old, “consummation” required the royal couple only to touch bare legs. However, much to the puzzlement of the Dutchman, she had been sewn into her nightdress—until Sir Jeffrey sauntered in, wielding a pair of shears.

During the Civil War, Jeffrey commanded a troop of horses in the king’s army, after which he always referred to himself as Captain Jeffrey Hudson. When the war was lost, he accompanied the queen to her court-in-exile in France. In this more informal atmosphere, Jeffrey found himself subjected to teasing by the cavaliers. To nip this in the bud, he issued a challenge to the brother of William Crofts, the captain of the queen’s guard, and a duel was arranged. Croft made the fatal error of turning up with a water pistol. Jeffrey wasn’t amused. He had used his idle hours well and was an accomplished marksman. He shot Croft clean through the forehead. The queen managed to get his death sentence commuted to exile, so Jeffrey set off for England. With singular bad luck, he once again fell victim to pirates—this time the rather more serious Barbary corsairs from North Africa—who sold him into slavery in Algiers. He remained there for the next twenty-five years.

No one is quite sure how or by whom Jeffrey was ransomed and returned to England, but in the intervening years, he had more than doubled in height, a growth spurt he put down to the trauma of being repeatedly buggered by his Turkish captors.

At just under four feet, he was decidedly tall for a working dwarf so he returned to Rutland. For a while he sat at home, like a real-life hobbit, smoking and drinking ale and telling tales of his exploits, but in 1678, poor and bored, he decided to move back down to London to see if the new king would employ him. It was unlucky timing. London was in the grip of the Popish Plot organized by his fellow Rutlander, Titus Oates. As a well-known Catholic and royalist, Jeffrey, even in his new taller incarnation, was instantly recognizable, and he found himself thrown into the Gatehouse prison. Later released, he received a small honorarium from the king for services rendered (though never specified), but it wasn’t enough to save him from penury. Captain Jeffrey Hudson, whom the playwright Thomas Heywood had called “the prettiest, neatest, and well-proportioned small man that Nature bred,” died in obscurity, his small body buried in a secret grave reserved for Catholic paupers.

Poverty also stalked the life of another famous monkey owner, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69). Rembrandt was an almost exact contemporary of Jeffrey Hudson and like the Englishman enjoyed the fruits of fame while still young. But unlike the randy little courtier, he had earned his preeminence through hard work. He toiled through his teens, denying himself the “the normal pleasures of young men” although he was fully aware of what he was missing. “I love those decadent wenches who do so trouble my dreams,” he later confessed.

By the time Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam in 1630, he was ready for success, money, and love. All three came quickly. In less than two years he had painted forty-six portraits of the great and the good of his adopted city, making himself wealthy in the process. Merchants, lawyers, local dignitaries, and their wives fought one another for the chance to sit for him. At the age of twenty-six Rembrandt was, as the filmmaker Peter Greenaway put it, “a cross between Mick Jagger and Bill Gates”: young, successful, good at business, and full of swagger. Like Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo before him, he signed his work with his first name, which is what we still call him. In 1633 he added a “d” to his signature, where previously he had just been “Rembrant.” No one knows why, but it obviously mattered to him because he kept it for the rest of his career.*

In the same year, he met and married Saskia van Ulenborch, the daughter of an extremely affluent Amsterdam family. As well as being attractive and fond of the high life, Saskia was an excellent financial manager and the couple were soon able to move into an expensive house in the Jewish quarter, which Rembrandt filled with the artworks and exotic bric-a-brac he loved to collect. As well as the amazing torrent of his own work—there are more than 2,300 paintings, sketches, and etchings that we know about—Rembrandt was also a gifted teacher; at least fifty of his pupils went on to establish themselves as working artists.

The van Rijns’ apparently unbeatable marriage of art and commerce was not to last long. Saskia gave birth to four children in as many years, but only one, Titus, survived beyond a few weeks. She herself succumbed to tuberculosis shortly afterward. Without his wife’s business acumen, Rembrandt’s mania for collecting meant that his debts begin to pile up. He didn’t appear to care, working even harder, producing a string of masterpieces: portraits, biblical scenes, self-portraits, and large commissions, the grandest of which was The Night Watch (1642). The painting should really be called The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh. It was a group commission from eighteen merchants who were also a part-time civic guard. The payment terms were simple: The more money each man put in, the more prominently Rembrandt would paint him. Unfortunately, like many of Rembrandt’s best works, it suffered from poor attempts at conservation, with thick layers of varnish being ladled all over it, darkening the scene to such an extent that when Sir Joshua Reynolds saw it a century and a half later, he referred to it as “The Night Watch” and the name stuck. As modern restoration has shown, it’s actually set in broad daylight.

Stories about Rembrandt always seem to come back to money. His greed was legendary: His students would paint coins on the floor and see how long it took before he stooped to pick them up. Others described how his clothes resembled filthy rags: He used them to wipe his brushes and “other things of a similar nature.” If he didn’t waste money on clothes, Saskia’s relatives were painfully conscious of his other extravagances. They made sure that if he remarried, he would inherit none of her estate. So though he became the lover of Titus’s nursemaid, the malodorous Geertje Dircx, he refused to marry her. When, seven years later, he turned his amorous attentions to his buxom young housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, Geertje sued him for breach of promise. He won the case but Geertje was awarded a lifetime annuity of 200 guilders a year, a sum the near-bankrupt Rembrandt couldn’t afford. He responded by getting her committed to a workhouse for moral delinquency and promiscuity.

Financially, things went from bad to worse. In the early 1650s, the Dutch economy, weakened by the Anglo-Dutch war, suffered a severe credit crunch. A Rembrandt portrait was expensive in both time and money: A subject might have to sit for three months and the artist refused to court fashion by using the cheaper, gaudy colors pioneered by the Flemish school of Anthony Van Dyck. The commissions dried up.

In a last-ditch attempt to save his home, Rembrandt transferred the deeds to his fifteen-year-old son. As soon as his creditors learned of this, they panicked and called in his debts. In July 1656 he was forced to apply for a cessio bonorum. This spared him the shame of bankruptcy, but required that all his possessions be sold to pay his debts. Years of collecting fell under the hammer—a giant’s helmet, a plaster cast of a negro’s head, crossbows, thirteen bamboo wind instruments, a sculpture of a child urinating, the skins of a lion and lioness, and scores of paintings. His art collection was so huge that the Artists’ Guild worried that the market would be swamped. They used their influence to speed up the sale; Rembrandt raised only a paltry 600 guilders and was forced to move to a small rented house in a poor part of the city.

Virtually bankrupt, Rembrandt’s housekeeper/lover and his son concocted a scheme to keep him solvent. They started an art business, buying and selling paintings under their own names, but employing Rembrandt as an “assistant.” The man who was once Amsterdam’s most popular artist was now an employee of his own staff. More tragedy followed. Plague claimed Hendrickje in 1662 and Titus in 1668. Rembrandt died the following year, “without a friend or a guilder, or even a good piece of herring.” He was buried in an unmarked grave.

In the years after Saskia’s death, his favorite companion had been his pet monkey, Puck, and their closeness reveals the side to Rembrandt that we now most appreciate. He cared little for money, as such. He liked what it bought but not what it did to people. He egged on the swanks and grandees who trooped into his studio to dress opulently, making themselves look even more ridiculous and vain. Rembrandt preferred to paint life in the raw: people urinating, wrinkled faces, dimpled thighs. Even in his biblical pictures, such as the The Preaching of Saint John, he couldn’t resist painting a pair of copulating dogs in the foreground. When Puck died, Rembrandt was heartbroken. Just as he had painted his beloved Saskia as she lay dying, he immortalized Puck’s memory by painting his corpse into the portrait of a family he was working on. The paterfamilias protested and threatened to withdraw the commission unless Rembrandt removed the offending item. Rembrandt refused, sacrificed the cash, and kept the painting, monkey included. Sadly, this masterpiece of simian portraiture has long been lost.

Another painter with a penchant for self-portraits and monkeys was the mustachioed, monobrowed Mexican Frida Kahlo (1907–54). She is often called a Surrealist, but she never felt comfortable with the label, referring to André Breton and his gang as “coo-coo lunatic sons of bitches.” “I never painted dreams,” she wrote, “I painted my own reality.” From the age of six, when she first contracted polio, this reality was more or less defined by pain.

On November 17, 1925, when she was only eighteen, Frida was traveling home from school on a bus when a streetcar hit it broadside. She broke her back, pelvis, collarbone, ribs, and right leg (in eleven places) and dislocated a foot and a shoulder. A piece of metal handrail also pierced her vagina. Although she was expected to die, after more than a year prostrate in bed, she recovered. Her father, a photographer (and an artist himself), rigged up a mirror and various contraptions over her bed so that she could see and draw objects in the room. It was this that led Frida to become an artist. In the remainder of her life, she underwent thirty-five surgical operations (as well as several abortions and miscarriages) and her art almost always revolved about her body, her pain, and her suffering, sometimes in shockingly realistic detail.

As if the physical pain wasn’t enough, Frida also managed to fall in love with one of Mexico’s most flamboyant and difficult men, the Marxist mural painter Diego Rivera. He was twenty-one years her senior (and twice her size) when they married in 1929, and while it was definitely a love match, it had more ups and downs than the most lurid Mexican soap opera. For all his talent and chutzpah, Diego had a violent temper and was compulsively unfaithful to Frida—even with her own sister, Cristina. He happily concurred with his doctor’s diagnosis that he was “unfit for monogamy” and it was said that for American women visiting Mexico, sleeping with Diego Rivera was as important a part of the tourist itinerary as visiting the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán.

Not that Frida was any slouch in this regard. She, too, had numerous affairs, with both men and women—most famously with Leon Trotsky, a liaison that started in 1937 while he and his wife, Natalia, were staying as houseguests of the Riveras. Frida called Trotsky her “Piochitas” or “little goat,” because of his beard. Later, she tired of el viejo (“the old man”) and broke off the affair, much to his disappointment. Trotsky’s ice-pick-wielding assassin, Ramón Mercader, was invited over to dinner at the Riveras shortly before his arrest for murder. Frida and Diego remained staunch communists and supporters of the Soviet Union all their lives, and Frida hung photographs of Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and Mao at the foot of her bed.

Their political views didn’t stop their enjoying themselves (or employing a team of servants). Supper at the Riveras’ was a riot of conversation, wine, and tequila with guests ranging from the president of Mexico to Nelson Rockefeller and George Gershwin. Though regularly encased in a steel-and-plaster corset to support her back, Frida dressed flamboyantly in the traditional dress of Tehuantapec (an area in southern Mexico she had never actually visited): vibrant floral prints in bright yellows, blues, and reds. She never appeared in public without makeup, but adamantly refused to remove her trademark mustache, often using a pencil to make it darker. A lover of gossip and dirty jokes, she had little time for the abstract theorizing of the European art houses:

I would rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with these “artistic” bitches of Paris. They sit for hours in cafés warming their precious behinds, and talk without stopping about “culture,” “art,” “revolution” and so on, thinking themselves the gods of the world, dreaming the most fantastic nonsense, and poisoning the air with theories that never come true.

Even allowing for her own extramarital dalliances, the strain of living with Diego became too much for Frida. She found his constant philandering deeply wounding. “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life,” she wrote, “one in which a streetcar ran me over; the other accident is Diego.” For a while, they tried living in separate houses linked by a footbridge. This didn’t work, and when Diego suggested a divorce in 1939, Frida accepted. She started drinking heavily, cut her hair short, and began wearing men’s clothes. They were remarried within a year, largely at the suggestion of her doctor, who was worried about Frida’s mental health. Diego described the deal they came to in his autobiography:

For her part, she asked for certain conditions: that she would provide for herself financially from the proceeds of her own work; that I would pay for one half of our household expenses—no more; and that we would have no sexual intercourse. In explaining this last stipulation, she said that, with the images of all the other women flashing through her mind, she couldn’t possibly make love to me, for a psychological barrier would spring up as soon as I made advances.

They never had children: Frida’s physical condition made it impossible. But she was desperately maternal: She even kept one of her aborted fetuses in a jar by her bedside. Her child substitutes were her pet monkeys, on whom she lavished her affection, particularly the spider monkey, Don Fulang Chang. Her beautiful self-portrait, Fulang Chang and I (1937), was bought for $1 million by Frida Kahlo’s number one fan, Madonna, in 1988. Monkeys appear in several of her other paintings. Instead of their usual symbolic baggage of lasciviousness or stupidity, Frida’s monkeys represent natural grace and childlike mischief. They kept her company during Diego’s long absences, along with the rest of her menagerie—Granizo the deer, Bonito the parrot, a miniature hairless dog called Señor Xolotl, and an eagle by the name of Gertrude Caca Blanca.

Frida’s work was not widely recognized while she was alive. Her commercial breakthrough came in 1938, when she accompanied Diego on a tour of the United States (or “Gringolandia” as she called it). She held her first solo exhibition in New York and her first significant sale was to the Hollywood tough-guy actor Edward G. Robinson, who bought four paintings for $200 each. In 1939 Frida went to Paris, becoming the first twentieth-century Mexican artist to have a work purchased by the Louvre. Only one Mexican show was organized in her lifetime, and that didn’t take place until 1953. Forbidden to attend by her doctors, Frida had herself transported to the gallery, still in bed, on a truck, and was wheeled triumphantly into the party.

Shortly afterward, her health began to deteriorate sharply, the decline being exacerbated by her drinking and overuse of sleeping pills. In August of that year her damaged right leg was amputated because of gangrene. A year later she was dead, seemingly of pneumonia, though some friends believed she may have taken an overdose. A few days before she died, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful—and I hope never to come back.”

Since then, she has never been away. Frida Kahlo is a one-woman international industry: Feted by feminist critics, her monobrowed, mustachioed visage is used to sell exhibitions, prints, tote bags, mouse mats, and watches all over the world. In 2001, she became the first Hispanic woman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp—surely the only America-loathing, unrepentant Stalinist to have been so honored. None of this would have surprised Diego. In comparison to Frida’s work, his own socialist realist murals now look rather old-fashioned and politically naive. For all his many sins, Diego understood better than anyone the quality of his wife’s astonishing paintings:

I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.

Cruelty and bitterness are more or less the whole story of Jiang Qing (pronounced “jang ching”), Madame Mao (1914–91), wife of Chairman Mao, poster girl for the Cultural Revolution and one of the infamous Gang of Four. So far, we have had monkeys as intimate companions, substitute children, artists’ muses, and living embodiments of royal wealth and privilege. Madame Mao’s monkey was far more sinister. Hers was the monkey as henchman and accomplice in crime.

Jiang Qing was born Li Jinhai, one of eight names she bore during her life. Her youth in Shandong province in eastern China was tarnished by poverty and neglect. She later blamed her persistent ill health on the fact that she spent most of her childhood hungry. Her mother was a concubine with little love to spare for her pretty daughter, but she didn’t subject her to the grisly ritual of foot binding, either. Jiang’s father was a violent and abusive alcoholic who drove mother and daughter out of the family home, though not before Jiang had demonstrated her fighting spirit, attacking him and biting him viciously on his arms. At the age of fourteen, after being expelled from school for spitting at a teacher, she ran away to Beijing and became an actress.

The details of this part of her life are hazy, not least because she rigorously repressed any mention of them when she came to power, but it seems she married and separated at least twice, became a communist, and was at some point arrested for terrorism. Her enemies always alleged she slept with her captors to ensure her escape. Under the stage name Lan Ping (“Blue Apple”), she landed some major roles, including Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, whose self-discovery and rejection of men seemed to resonate with the young actress’s own experience. Jiang developed a love for Hollywood films, copied Garbo in her dress, and wore makeup and high heels. She was also spiteful and had a long memory. Decades after being beaten to a leading role by a girl called Wang Ying (who went on to become a famous actress and performed at the White House for the Roosevelts) Jiang had her arrested and imprisoned, making sure she died in jail.

In 1937 she forsook the stage and volunteered for the revolution, at that time based in the Yunnan caves, the endpoint of the Long March, deep in central China. She soon made herself known to Mao, sitting in the front row of his lectures. Mao, in turn, came to see her perform in an opera organized for his troops. Appearing backstage after the show, he placed his coat around her shoulders. The next day, Jiang visited the Leader to return his coat and ended up staying the night.

The relationship was not a popular one with the Communist high command. Mao was technically still married to a senior party official and Jiang’s past was a heady mix of sex, deceit, and Western-style debauchery. She seemed an unnecessarily controversial addition to the Great Leader’s burgeoning cult, especially when rumors circulated that one of Jiang’s former lovers had tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of surgical spirit and crushed match heads. This didn’t bother Mao. He cut a deal with the party where he got to keep Jiang as his partner on condition that she would not be acknowledged publicly as his wife or hold any political office for twenty years.

The marriage does not seem to have been a particularly happy one. Mao soon lost interest in Jiang sexually (at twenty-three she was a little old for his taste: he had an insatiable preference for teenage virgins). At the same time, he saw that she was fanatically loyal and ruthless enough to be useful to him. As she later commented: “Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.” So it was that, in 1963, when the twenty-year “ban” had passed, Mao chose Jiang to head up his Ministry of Culture.

These were the years of her greatest influence. As the “Great Flag-carrier of the Proletarian Culture” she oversaw the Cultural Revolution, totally suppressing all traditional cultural activities and organizing mass rallies in which her enemies were humiliated and physically abused by the infamous Red Guards. She drew up the “Kill Culture” manifesto and in 1966 took over as head of the “Revolution Small Group,” responsible for ensuring that the only books, paintings, and films available in China were for propaganda purposes. Jiang herself had a hand in producing the handful of films available. The Revolution Small Group even banned the piano, denouncing it as the most dangerous of all Western instruments.

In her heyday, Jiang—or Madame Mao, as the Western media dubbed her—behaved like the Chairman’s empress-in-waiting: an unsavory combination of paranoia, excess, and hypochondria. She made sure that people who knew about her past were imprisoned or killed. While Chinese peasants struggled in appalling poverty, she would instruct warships to cruise up and down rivers so she could practice her hobby of photography, and roads were built specifically for her to visit beauty spots. Though the masses were fed a bland diet of Maoist propaganda, she busily imported Western films (The Sound of Music was her favorite).

Life with Madame was a nightmare. Her rooms had to be kept an exact 70.7°F in winter and exactly 78.8°F in summer. She had an intense fear of strangers and of unexpected sounds, and lived in constant terror of assassination. Servants were jailed for phantom indiscretions. Her nerves were so bad she took three doses of sleeping pills every night, ordering her staff to remove all birds and cicadas from around her house so they wouldn’t disturb her. Servants had to walk with arms aloft and legs apart in case she heard their clothes rustling. At one point, she heard of a technique for promoting youth and vigor that involved transfusions of the blood from healthy young men. She put dozens of guards through a physical checkup before choosing the best for her “new program.” Fortunately for them, Mao got wind of her plans and put a stop to them—on health grounds: She might be opening herself to infection.

In this grotesque atmosphere, where even her only child’s nurse was thrown into prison and tortured for attempting to poison her mistress (Jiang had succumbed to a nasty bout of diarrhea), the role of her pet monkey is clear. It was absolutely loyal, never answered back, and yet was capable of capricious acts of violence. Like Mrs. Coulter’s sinister golden monkey demon in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Jiang’s monkey was her constant companion, dressed in silk and fed the finest food. She took particular pleasure in setting it on people as they strolled through her orchid garden in Canton, laughing at their discomfort as it leaped onto their heads and shoulders and savagely punishing anyone who didn’t make a fuss of the beast. Men, she once remarked, contributed nothing more to history than “a drop of sperm.” Monkeys seemed preferable by far as companions.

For all her delusions of grandeur, it seems unlikely that Mao ever seriously considered this spoiled borderline psychotic as his successor. He had used her remorselessly to engineer a culture of fear, but toward the end of his life, she was reduced to asking his girlfriends to put in a good word for her. Within weeks of Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, Madame Mao and the rest of the Gang of Four were arrested in a bloodless coup. Her trial in 1980 was televised each night and attracted huge audiences. She was convicted of “counter revolutionary crimes” and sentenced to death, although this was later commuted to life imprisonment. Jiang hanged herself in a hospital bathroom in 1991.

Her passing went unmourned: Even her daughter refused to write to the authorities to request her release (this occasioned one of Jiang’s last outbursts, throwing a watermelon on the ground and accusing her daughter of being “heartless”). As the living personification of the brutal persecutions and mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, almost no one in China has ever been more despised. Mao himself captured her self-inflicted isolation: “Few people suit her taste—only one: she herself.” The fate of her monkey is not recorded.

The high-water mark for the monkey as domestic pet was reached in Victorian England. The spoils of empire included a regular stream of outlandish wildlife arriving to swell the households of the moneyed classes, and monkeys, despite (or maybe because of) Darwin’s efforts, became must-have accessories. Arthur Henry Patterson’s 1888 Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them captures the mood:

Where a fancier is not addicted to balancing the matter of pet-purchase and pet-keeping upon the snap of his purse, a series of monkeys, in a properly-arranged domicile, not only affords himself considerable interest and entertainment, but gives unlimited fun to a large circle of ever-ready-to-be-amused acquaintances.

One of the most complete accounts of monkey stewardship is to be found in the work of Frank Buckland (1826–80), the David Attenborough of the mid-nineteenth century. He was the son of William Buckland (1784–1856), dean of Westminster, the man who made geology and paleontology respectable academic disciplines and was the first to describe a dinosaur, twenty years before the word “dinosaur” itself was coined. (Buckland called his find “the Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield.”)

The Bucklands’ domestic arrangements were idiosyncratic even by Victorian standards. Part museum, part zoological garden, live and dead animals jostled for space with geological samples. Owls and jackdaws flew free, snakes and toads were scattered through the rooms in cages, and the children were allowed to ride their ponies inside the house. Raised in this atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that young Frank decided his vocation was to become “a high priest of nature and a benefactor of mankind.” Even at the age of four, asked to identify an ancient fossil by his father, he piped up at once: “They are the vertebway of an icthyosawus.” At his university, he impressed his peers by climbing into the fountain of Christ Church, Oxford, and by riding astride first a large turtle and then an ailing crocodile.

Both of these were destined for the table. Zoophagy, the eating of unusual animals, was another passion Frank Buckland shared with his father. The dean set the bar high; he claimed to have eaten through the whole of creation from mouse to bison. Hedgehog, rat, puppy, potted ostrich, tortoise, and pickled horse tongue were regulars on the menu at home, with roast or battered mouse a house speciality. John Ruskin was an eager dinner guest:

I have always regretted a day of unlucky engagement on which I missed a delicate toast of mice; and remembered, with delight, being waited upon one hot summer morning by two graceful and polite little Carolina lizards, who kept off the flies.

Buckland senior confessed himself gastronomically defeated on only two occasions—by boiled mole and a ragout of bluebottles. Young Frank pushed it even further, making pies from rhinos (“like very tough beef”), frying earwigs (“horribly bitter”), stewing the head of a porpoise (“like broiled lamp wick”), and consuming chops from a panther that had been buried for several days (“not very good”). He did favorably surprise guests, though, with his accidentally roasted giraffe (the happy result of a zoo fire), raw sea slugs, and kangaroo ham (at least, until he told his guests what they were eating). There was a serious purpose to his hobby. In 1859, Frank founded the Society for the Acclimatization of Animals to the United Kingdom, which set out to import exotic species as alternative, high-yielding food sources. We owe the contemporary fashion for farming ostrich, water buffalo, and bison to Frank Buckland’s manic enthusiasm.

The most bizarre comestible that ever found its way into a Buckland stomach was the heart of Louis XIV. Although the consumption of this withered and leathery object is often attributed to Frank, the only firsthand account occurs in the autobiography of the English raconteur and travel writer Augustus Hare (1834–1903). He makes it clear that William was the one guilty of royal cardiophagy:

Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French King preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, while looking at it, exclaimed, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever.

Not that this proves it actually happened, and certainly the various colorful embroideries to the tale—that it was sautéed and roasted; that it was served with a side helping of French beans; that Buckland considered its flavor would have been improved with a gravy made from marmoset’s blood; that he ate it for Christmas dinner—really don’t stand up to scrutiny. But the incident may explain Charles Darwin’s “strong prejudice” toward the older Buckland. He disliked his “coarse joking manner” and “undignified buffoonery.” The Bucklands, in turn, both rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution, maintaining a creationist line despite having been personally responsible for putting back the geological age of the earth by millions of years.

Eccentricity and good humor characterized the son’s life every bit as much as his father’s. Frank shared his rooms at Christ Church with marmots; guinea pigs; a chameleon; several snakes; a jackal; an eagle; his monkey, Jacko; and a bear called Tiglath-Pileser, named after an ancient Assyrian king. After the bear made several appearances in a scholar’s cap and gown at college drinks parties, the dean of Christ Church gave Frank the ultimatum to remove either “Tig” or himself from the college. The bear was duly rusticated; the expulsion of Jacko and the increasingly bad-tempered eagle followed in quick succession.

Frank graduated in medicine and in 1854 became assistant surgeon to the 2nd Life Guards. He served with the regiment for ten years but failed to gain promotion, probably because his real interests lay elsewhere, writing racy, readable accounts of his adventures for The Field magazine. The many reminiscences of Frank at this time make him seem thoroughly likable: He was a 4½-foot-tall, barrel-chested, cigar-smoking, ginger-haired ball of energy, the self-appointed curator of all that was odd, grotesque, or inexplicable. He was also a walking zoo. Wherever he appeared, he might be expected to produce a writhing ball of slow worms from inside his coat or a matchbox full of baby toads. Once, arriving at Southampton docks, he was charged five shillings for trying to smuggle his monkey onto a train. The clerk insisted on treating it as a dog, and issued it with a dog ticket. Buckland rallied by producing a tortoise from his pocket. “Perhaps you’ll call that a dog, too?” he asked. “No,” said the clerk, “we make no charge for them, they’re insects.”

As well as curiosities of natural history, Frank wrote up reports of mummies preserved in guano, fossilized mermaids, singing Siamese twins, unnaturally fat babies, impossibly tiny babies, the “Human Frog” (who could smoke underwater), and the man who walked on his head. His journalism is marked by a very un-Victorian sense of sympathy for his subjects. Observing the poor mummified corpse of Julia Pastrana, the Mexican bearded lady, he wrote:

Her features were simply hideous on account of the profusion of hair growing on her forehead, and her black beard; but her figure was exceedingly good and graceful, and her tiny foot and well-turned ankle, bien chaussée, perfection itself.

Unlike his father the dean, Frank Buckland can’t be counted a great scientist, but he was certainly a great popularizer of science: In his endless enthusiasm for the new and hitherto unnoticed he often reads like a one-man Fortean Times.

In 1867 his life changed. A Royal Commission appointed him inspector of salmon fisheries. This was a proper grown-up job, and within a very short time, Buckland had made himself into the UK’s “Mr. Salmon,” mastering all the intricacies of his subject, pioneering new techniques and technology for fish hatcheries, and using his great charm and energy to lead the first nationwide campaign against river pollution. He wasn’t exactly an ecologist, but he did commission firsthand research into the effect of ocean temperatures on the shoaling of fish and the importance of net mesh size in keeping fish stocks at optimum levels. He was also single-handedly responsible for the stocking of the rivers and lakes of India, Australia, and New Zealand with salmon and trout. This proved a rather more successful venture than his earlier scheme to manufacture shoes and gloves from the skin of rats.

Home life for the Bucklands always involved at least two monkeys. Frank’s study, where the monkeys lived, was called the Monkey Room and no writer has better captured the topsy-turvy madness of keeping them as pets. He considered them much superior to all other animals in terms of intelligence: “almost fit to go up for a competitive examination,” as he put it. The monkeys graced all the Bucklands’ social occasions, with outfits to match: Frank particularly liked them in green velvet dresses, trimmed with gold lace. He described them as sometimes having the appearance of well-behaved children (his only child, Frank junior, died at age five); sometimes like snoozing club bores (they loved a fire and had a taste for port and grog—one of them even smoked a pipe); but mostly they were the source of barely containable chaos. He describes his favorite pair, Tiny and “the Hag”—West African guenon monkeys—launching themselves around the house “with the velocity of a swallow.” The Hag took an irrational dislike to Mrs. Buckland’s sister and “very nearly had the dress off her back.” Food was stolen, visitors tweaked, ornaments shattered, other pets terrorized. Given ten minutes in a bedroom by themselves, wrote Frank, “the bill will rival that for the Abyssinian expedition.” Their vast cheek pouches swelled with booty (Frank estimated that the Hag could secrete twenty pieces of candy in each pouch). One afternoon he got them to disgorge “a steel thimble, my own gold finger ring, a pair of pearl sleeve links, a farthing, a button, a shilling and a bit of sweet-stuff.”

But Buckland was not averse to a little anarchy:

Although my monkeys do considerable mischief, yet I let them do it. I am amply rewarded by their funny and affectionate ways … nothing whatever would induce me to part with them. My monkeys love me, and I love my monkeys.

With the Hag, in particular, he developed a close understanding. “I could tell from her look what she wanted; and I am pretty sure she could read my thoughts in her own way.” There are, as he said, “monkeys and monkeys; no two are alike.” She was his constant companion for twelve years and “if ever an animal thought, it was the old Hag.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Buckland didn’t sentimentalize his relationship with animals; after all, this was the same man who had enjoyed roasting field mice while still a schoolboy. But he had a close affinity for monkeys that bordered on the inspirational: “Many an idea I have had looking into the dear Hag’s brilliant eyes.” Perhaps this explains why, given all the roasted, boiled, stewed, and puréed animals he had consumed over the years, there is no record of Frank Buckland ever eating a monkey.

Should you be tempted to keep a monkey yourself, consider this last cautionary tale. King Alexander I of Greece (1893–1920), of the house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, was the second son of King Constantine I and first cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh. As he looked unlikely ever to become king, Alexander lived his role as crown prince to the full: going to Oxford, playing inordinate amounts of football and tennis, and driving racing cars as fast he could. He was an extremely popular and agreeable young man, though somewhat accident-prone. In 1917 he narrowly averted death in a train bombing. On other occasions, he broke a leg while “practicing jumping” and was seriously injured in a car crash after swerving to avoid a stray goat.

His accession to the throne in 1917 came about as a result of his father’s opting to keep Greece neutral during World War I (they were, after all, a mostly German family). The Allies were annoyed by this, and the governments of the UK, France, and Russia issued an ultimatum: Either Constantine leave the country with his pro-German eldest son, or the alliance would recognize the revolutionary Eleuthérios Venizélos as the legal ruler of Greece. This left Alexander in the rather irregular position of inheriting the Greek crown while the two rightful heirs were still alive. Shortly after Alexander’s coronation, Venizélos became prime minister of Greece in any case. He dominated the new king and, though there were reports of clashes, in reality Alexander I was the puppet of the new democratic government.

Not that the regime had long to enjoy his services. Three years into his reign his dog (not very tactfully named Fritz) was attacked by two of his father’s pet monkeys. In defending the dog, Alexander received a severe mauling from the monkeys and died shortly afterward of blood-poisoning.

It is perhaps the only example of a simian-led coup in modern European history, but its effects were far-reaching. Constantine regained the throne and plunged Greece into a disastrous war with Turkey, the effects of which are still felt today. As Churchill observed: “A monkey bite cost the death of 250,000 people.” In 1922, the Greek monarchy fell and the royal family was sent permanently into exile. One of their number was Prince Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, later Philip Mountbatten, born the year before on the dining room table of the Villa Mon Repos, the family home in Corfu. He was carried off to safety in an orange crate.

As any of the subjects of this chapter could have told you, when you keep a monkey you take on their dark feral side as well as their capacity for friendship, intimacy, and joy. Older cultures dealt with this dual nature by according them divine status. The ancient Egyptians worshipped monkeys as cleverer than their own children. They believed that baboon-headed Thoth, their god of wisdom and creativity, was the inventor of writing. India had the noble and ingenious Monkey God, Hanuman, and in medieval China, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, was powerful enough to cover more than thirty thousand miles in a single somersault.

Human beings, apes, and monkeys all spring from the same evolutionary source. Some of us have tails, some do not, but it often seems that we have more in common than a common ancestor. It’s tempting to wonder, as Descartes did, whether monkeys might be a lot wiser than they’re letting on. That actually, our older cousins are perfectly capable of talking, but are smart enough not to do so in front of us, in case they get asked to do some work.

* It’s possible that she inherited the monkey from her father-in-law: A long-tailed monkey appears in a miniature portrait of Francis I and his courtiers.

* His contemporaries found it difficult to agree on how to spell his name—probably because his fame spread by word of mouth. Here are some of the many versions recorded: Rhembrant, Rheinbrand, Reijnbrand, Rhaerbrant, Rimbrantt, Rembrand, Remblant, Reijnbrant, Rembrando, Rheimbrand, Rijnbrandt, Rimbrandt, Rem Brant, Reijmbrant, Renbrant, Reynbrant, Rymbrandt, Rheinbrandt, Rhijnbrandt, Reimbrant, Rhinbrant, Rinebrant, Rynbrant, Rijnbrant, Reinbrand, Rimbram, Rhinbrand, Rhimbrant.

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