Reunion With a Childhood Bully, Taxidermied

Harry Raven, now 82, easily spots his old bête noire, Meshie, in a glass case at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
Harry Raven, now 82, easily spots his old bête noire, Meshie, in a glass case at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

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.

Harry Raven as a boy playing with Meshie.
Harry Raven as a boy playing with Meshie.

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, it’s 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 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 Museum of Natural History, 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 female chimp named Meshie and seemingly made it a member of his household in Baldwin on Long Island, that made news, too. He took photographs and home movies of Meshie as she snuggled 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 Meshie, in boots, hauling Jane 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 stories 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 New York Times with his son in law and grandson before visiting the Museum of Natural History. “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. 2age break by

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 Museum of Natural History and preserved. He died seven years later, at age 54. The Meshie story, as far as Harry Raven was concerned, was over. He kept no pictures of her in the house, although he does say that after he married and was living in Chicago he went to see Mike, the chimpanzee who impregnated Meshie.  

Why did he do that?

“Just curious.”

It’s time to visit the museum. Meshie means nothing to him — it’s just another museum exhibit, Mr. Raven says. Still the museum entrance, with the dinosaur bones of Barosaurus defending her young, sets him remembering: His father’s office in one of the great round towers; a story about the way his father, facing a charging gorilla, told the African bearers to hold their spears, in order not to damage the hide; the way, as a father of two daughters, he tried not to be his father.

“There was cruelty my father inflicted not just on me, on Meshie,” Mr. Raven says. “In the movie it shows Meshie chained and there is a box. He’s motioning her to go to the box and she senses something’s wrong with that box — she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. Well, he was kind of a strong personality; you had to do what he wanted. So she went to the box and put the cover up, and there was a snake, and he made her go back. She was obviously frightened and he knew that she was afraid, so why do that except to show her anxiety?” Does he think, now, that it was Meshie who made his childhood unhappy, or was his father responsible?

“Not so much Meshie, it was my father,” says Mr. Raven, who has survived all his siblings. “Meshie caused familial disruption. She was a presence. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t really do anything. It was the fact that my father paid attention to her at the expense of his family. She was just a presence, but my father — he was just not a good father. He was not a good father.”

Then, with a reporter and photographer trailing, he heads upstairs to the chimp.

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