Betsy, The Picasso Of Simian Artists


December 16, 1990|By Carleton Jones

Like any decade, the '50s had its hallmarks. Some social theoreticians think that the crazes of an age are revealing social indicators, like flagpole sitting in the 1920s, marathon dances in the 1930s, and other divertissements of later decades, including panty raids, Frisbees, unisex clothes, etc.

If that is the case, then Betsy, the 1950s' most famous chimpanzee, was no chump.

She rode that decade's abstract-art boom to a fare-thee-well. It was a time when splashy New York painters could ride into Manhattan's Betty Parsons Gallery with their canvas splashes aflame and ride out millionaires. They were our first native American millionaire artists.

Betsy, an engaging, 50-pound simian of beguiling charm, was born in 1950. She arrived at the Baltimore Zoo after a widely publicized naming contest that offered a $500 prize and drew 10,000 entries. Then and in coming years, she seemed to have a big talent for publicity. Baltimore Zoo director Arthur Watson, no mean publicist himself, reported regularly on Betsy's progress as an artist. She had big, wrinkled, strong hands that made her a natural for finger-painting, a light-hearted chore that she seemed to enjoy.

Physically, Betsy had a winsome sort of face, with very alert eyes. Her large tummy complicated fitting her dresses, but a local store provided party and everyday housedresses in size 6X.

Betsy's talent was perfect for television, and soon, as her artistic fame took hold through the media, imitations sprang up. A New York TV chimp named Zippy challenged her to a painting contest, and another out-of-state chimp, Kokomo, claimed precedence over Betsy because he used brushes for his creations. But for Betsy, international rather than mere national fame was just around the corner.

International accolades came after her national TV debut in 1957 the "Garry Moore Show" (CBS) and "Tonight," an NBC evening feature. Soon after, Betsy accepted a challenge from Congo, a painting British chimp. A show was organized and heavily patronized at the British Institute of Contemporary Art.

The eminent Lord Winster, a London-based Sun columnist who saw the show, declared that Betsy "achieves now and again a design of considerable attraction." Salvador Dali took a look at mature Betsy works and said, "I would expect much better from a chimpanzee." The learned Adelyn Breeskin, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, chimed in that finger-painting was a worthless and messy thing for kids "but maybe it is all right for chimpanzees."

The Russian press covered Betsy's creations as an example of the decadence of Western capitalist democracy. Contemporary artists of abstract bent were predictably huffy about the whole thing.

They must have felt some jealousy, for at the peak of Betsy's fame, her original works were bringing $50 -- more like $200 today. Rejections of her work were few, but a genuine Betsy was roundly refused entry into the famed annual sidewalk art show in trendy Berkeley, Calif.

By midsummer of 1957 she had earned $3,000, and during her entire career she earned a lot more, enough to buy chimp playmates for her cage, including a youngster called Spunky.

Betsy would die of complications following emergency surgery on a broken leg in February of 1960.

Simians continue today to be first-class zoo pets, though chimps as artists seem to be played out as much of a media draw. They have still made news, though, in the years since Betsy. In the 1960s two chimpanzee favorites, Dandy and Wendy, arrived at the Baltimore Zoo, apparently hooked on cigarettes. It wasn't a bad case since they held it down to two or three a week. Dandy inhaled, but Wendy didn't.

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