Interviews

Glad You Are a Monkey Woman: Jane Goodall Speaks

Image from “Jane,” by National Geographic (2017)

Editor's Note:

“Jane” continues to open in theaters nationwide, in advance of a television broadcast in the New Year. See National Geographic’s site for screening updates.

After a screening, lunch and on-stage interview, all executed with military precision, the handlers of Dr. Jane Goodall drop the ball. The event concludes, and instead of hustling her off to a blacked-out Range Rover idling at the curb or a green room stocked with an assortment of fizzy waters, they just sort of leave her up there, standing on the makeshift stage, like defenseless prey in her beloved Gombe forest.

The millennials gathered in a private room at New York’s members-only SoHo House sense the lapse in protocol and approach Dr. Goodall en masse. After decades in the African bush, the octogenarian is more than able to handle the impending scrum. She puts on a resigned but good-natured face as she is positioned, passed, and re-positioned for the umpteenth photograph in what’s devolved into an ad-hoc, free-for-all selfie sesh.

I patiently wait my turn, but when I am in Dr. Goodall’s orbit, I decide to forgo easily the best holiday card in a decade, using my marked time to at least try and connect with this wonderful woman. I compliment her on her husband’s super-saturated, 16mm footage of her time in Tanzania living amongst a troop of chimpanzees, but tell her it was the home movies of her romping with her dog at the ancestral home on the British seaside that I appreciated most.

“Rusty!” she intones, her face lighting up like Christmas. She takes my hand in her surprisingly strong one and begins patting it like a baby’s bottom while she draws me close. “None of this,” she whispers, pausing mid-spank to motion around the room, “would have been possible without old Rusty.” The sweep extends all the way to Africa, which dangles as a pendant from a delicate gold chain around her neck.

It was Rusty, with his love of dressing up in pajamas, only to skulk off if mocked, who taught her the individual personalities, emotional intelligence and mental capacity of all animals. And it was Rusty who convinced this enterprising 26-year-old with no university degree to trek off into the African jungle to study chimpanzees at the top of the Flower Power decade.

When the media did deign to refer to her as a scientist at all, it was always with the modifier girl. They might even throw in reference to her shapely legs, comely face and long blonde hair while they were at it, but it was Rusty who convinced this “girl scientist” to throw out everything science taught and approach the chimps as she would newfound friends.

“I was completely amazed,” Dr. Goodall remembers of the first time director Brett Morgen showed her a cut of the film fairly close to picture-lock, “It took me back into that time more vividly and more realistically than any of the other documentaries about me and it’s hard to say why.” She takes a moment, perhaps remembers Rusty and continues, “It was really living my relationship with those chimpanzees that I got to know so, so well. They were part of my life.”

“The relationship I had with them tended to be cut out of a lot of documentaries,” she adds, “because the big thing is that we interact with our subjects and it’s not scientific. You have to remember, they weren’t out there. Nobody had done this before. And chimpanzees were running away and running away, but gradually getting closer. The magic of actually being able to groom David Graybeard and play with little Flint, it was like some fairy story and it took me back into my childhood longing for Africa and living with wild animals.”

So yes, Dr. Goodall named her subjects whereas other scientists would have simply numbered them, but she stuck to a roughly scientific taxonomy, or at least an alpha-friendly one, whereby Old Flo begets not only baby Flint, but also Faben, Figan, Fifi and Flame. Also along for the ride? Goodall’s mother Margaret, a novelist who employed the pen name Vanne Morris-Goodall. “The reason that she came,” Dr. Goodall explains, “was at that time Tanzania was still part of the crumbling British empire and the British authorities said that they simply wouldn’t allow this ridiculous idea of a young girl straight from England with no university degree going into the forest on her own. No!”

Mom mitigated matters slightly. As did the Kenyan archaeologist Louis Leakey, who liked Goodall’s tabula rasa and hired her on as “secretary” before rapidly dispatching her into the wild. “Well, in the end,” Dr. Goodall remembers, “they said, ‘Okay, she can come, but not alone.’ So I think it was Leakey who twisted mom’s arm to volunteer. She signed on for four months. I had money for six months, that’s all.”

“And during those early weeks and months,” Goodall continues, “when the chimpanzees were running away, it was amazing to have mom there because she boosted my morale and she pointed out that I was learning more than I thought I was. She was the great one. She was left alone all day in the camp with the baboons. And baboons had been known to kill. They wanted food from the tent and they would sometimes invade. And there were snakes and scorpions and an old-fashioned tent with no sewn-in ground sheet.”

And though Dr. Goodall found her progress slow and the funding clock loudly ticking, she was able to rapid-fire disprove two suppositions, which was why Leakey wanted her there in the first place. The first, that chimpanzees didn’t eat meat, and the second, that they didn’t use tools, both came courtesy of David Graybeard in 1960. As Meg Greene recounts in her book Jane Goodall: A Biography, “David Greybeard pulled something pink out of his mouth. He then plucked some leaves and chewed for several minutes before spitting the mixture out and giving it to one of the females and the baby chimp sitting next to its mother. To her surprise, Goodall realized that the chimps were eating meat.”

“The second event,” Greene continues, “occurred two weeks later, in early November. During one visit to the Peak, she observed David Greybeard sitting on a termite hill. Through her binoculars, she watched as David repeatedly pushed a small blade of grass into the hill. Each time he pulled the stem up he picked something from it and put it into his mouth. After David left, Goodall approached the termite hill and repeated David’s actions. Each time she pulled up the stem it was covered with termites. David Greybeard had used a tool to collect food!”

These discoveries were a one-two punch that caused Leakey to crow, ‘We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!” He wasn’t being hyperbolic. And a publication, which Dr. Goodall refers to simply as Geographic, wanted to send a man to document. The idea rattled Dr. Goodall’s nerves. “I didn’t like the idea of somebody coming to film,” she admits, “I was afraid it would interrupt the study of the chimps, but Geographic came in because of the tool using.”

“They said they’d send a photographer,” she continues, “and for me that was very exciting because I was just young, I didn’t have a degree, I hadn’t been to college so none of the scientists wanted to believe that I’d seen tool using. So to have somebody come and actually document it so nobody could say that I was lying was very exhilarating. Then it was the Geographic that told Hugo, you must film Jane. We want Jane washing her hair, we want Jane walking on the lake, we want Jane looking through her binoculars. I thought this was ridiculous, but okay, it’s part of the deal so I had to put up with it.”

“Sixty years later and she’s still upset by the washing her hair footage!” her director Brett Morgen interrupts. He’s tackled notoriously difficult subjects on film like Kurt Cobain and producer Robert Evans, but he seems to have met his match in Goodall. “Well, no,” she replies calmly, “I’m not upset, but I don’t know why everybody loves me washing my hair.”

Could be some loved it more than others, as a few years later that noted Dutch wildlife photographer, Hugo van Lawick, turned Goodall into a Baroness after they married at Chelsea Old Church in London. Three years later, in 1967, she bore him a son who sits off in a corner at the SoHo House reception for his mom. Until writing this piece, I didn’t realize that his given name was not Grub, as he’s called in both the film and by Goodall when she points him out in the room.

The second great turning point for Goodall was not her divorce from Hugo in 1974 or the death of her second husband in 1980, but rather the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ 1986 Understanding Chimpanzees conference, which she refers to simply as “the big chimp conference.” Even with 140 hours of Hugo’s footage to sift through and brand-new interview footage shot gorgeously by Ellen Kuras, it was always this “second awakening” that Morgen knew was his end-beat.

“It was the first time we brought chimp scientists together,” Dr. Goodall recalls, “and it was just such a shock to see that everywhere chimpanzee numbers were dropping and forests were disappearing. I didn’t consciously make a decision to leave as a scientist, by then I had my PhD. Those were the best days of my life, unbelievably amazing, and more than I could ever have dreamed of, but I became an activist because I knew I had to try and do something even though I didn’t know what I could do.”

It has become Goodall’s raison d’être. It is why she endured the career-long battle against sexism and even today’s tugs and pulls to get the perfect selfie. One can easily see the bumper sticker “It’s part of the deal so I had to put up with it” on her car. It is the reason we’re even assembled here today. “It was an obvious point of departure to end the film when she got her second calling,” Morgen adds. “That was always something I knew I was leading to, that revelation that she needed to take her message out to the world. The movie is a love story, but it’s not a love story about a man and a woman, it’s a love story about a woman and her work.”

“When I first heard there was going to be another documentary,” Goodall confides, “I thought, Another one? Same old thing, same old chimps, same old Gombe, same old Jane. I thought, Oh, no, but I agreed to do it because we need every bit of PR we can get. It’s not so easy to get funding these days for all our Africa programs so I agreed to do it.”

One thing is clear, even now, as personable as she is, Goodall would much prefer to be back in the bush with her chimpanzees, to that childhood fairy story and longing for Africa. “For me, it was my dream,” she agrees. “Yes, there were leopards and there were buffalo back then, and they were very dangerous, but I just had this feeling that I was meant to be there and nothing would hurt me… People laugh and say that was stupid. Was it? They didn’t hurt me, so come on. I was right!”