The artist, the fascists and the jungle: A Brazilian mystery

Artistic freedom and Brazil’s Man of the Monkey’

4 minute read
Deservedly or not, the 'Man of the Monkey' became an object of veneration.
Deservedly or not, the 'Man of the Monkey' became an object of veneration.
In the late 1960s and early '70s I was a young career diplomat on assignment as a cultural attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia. While working with Brazilians at the American cultural center in Sao Paulo, I often heard tales about police brutality, mutilations and murders committed by Brazil's right-wing dictatorship against so-called leftists.

My embassy colleagues rarely heard these stories; like most of the State Department establishment, they weren't yet aware— and preferred to remain unaware— that Brazil had begun to resemble Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Because Brazil was a U.S. ally, my colleagues hewed to the official song and dance: "There is no torture in Brazil." No doubt many of them sincerely believed it.

I managed to steer clear of this subject until the day my closest friend, a much respected American photographer, was arrested while taking pictures of a historic railroad station for a magazine cover. Later I learned that the police had intended to arrest a terrorist aboard the arriving train. When the terrorist failed to surface, the police needed to find a substitute, so they snatched my camera-carrying friend. Then he simply disappeared for several weeks.

Tales of torture

Ultimately, through my Brazilian military connections, I managed to extricate him. After I heard his firsthand account of the abominable conditions in his prison, as well as the torture inflicted daily on his seven cellmates, I was never quite the same again. Now I had a mission: I must open the eyes of my American superiors who blindly supported Brazil's fascist regime, no matter the cost to my career.

Of course I failed. I succeeded only in making myself exceptionally unpopular at the embassy in Brasilia. So I took a leave of absence in the early 1970s.

I left Brazil shortly before Osvaldo Romberg, an artist of international renown, took his whole family to Brazil, of all places, to escape political persecution in Argentina. Romberg found sanctuary on Ilha Grande, an undeveloped jungle island off Brazil's coast. Ironically, this island also housed a high-security prison for the Brazilian government's own political dissidents.

Spooky character

When Osvaldo's son David was a boy, his father regaled him with wondrous stories of survival in that mountainous rain forest. The most haunting of these was the legend of the Man of the Monkey. According to the island's inhabitants, a huge, scary, blond "monkey" man lived in isolation somewhere in Ilha Grande. David feared that this spooky character would snatch him from his bed in the middle of the night.

But who was the Man of the Monkey? Was he just a figment of local superstition, or of a great artist's imagination?

According to almost all accounts, the Man of the Monkey was a Nazi war fugitive hiding out in the jungle. By others, he was a genuine nature lover, fluent in multiple languages, an expert seaman, and a builder of radio towers that regularly transmitted across the world. Most incredibly, he was reputed to have saved the life of a famous Brazilian explorer.

But was any of this true?

Encounter in Philadelphia

Flash forward to the present. After leaving Brazil I ultimately wound up in Philadelphia, where I evolved into an academician, a historic preservationist and an interior designer. Osvaldo Romberg wound up in Philadelphia, too, as curator of the Slought Foundation at Penn. Some seven years ago I attended an art opening in the hope of meeting him. Subsequently he and I began to work together on Philadelphia community education projects. In this manner I came to know his whole remarkable family, including, of course, his son.

When David grew up, he returned to Brazil— now a democracy— to engage in a personal quest for the Man of the Monkey. After interviewing numerous residents of Ilha Grande, he discovered that such a man did in fact exist. (For a brief preview of his forthcoming film about his search, click here.)

Mystery and metaphor

Yet still the complete answer eluded David. Each mystery he solved, each relationship he uncovered, seemed to lead to another, and then another. Ultimately, he says, his search for the Man of the Monkey became more important than the Man of the Monkey himself, who evolved into a metaphor for David's own self-discovery.

I eagerly await David's film (he's still raising the necessary funds for its completion). Meanwhile, I can think of a few more mysteries he might address:

What is it about artists that dictators find so threatening? What sort of country provides refuge to Nazis but makes fugitives of artists? What sort of country reduces multi-talented people to shadowy "monkey men"? And how much creativity has been denied to the world because potentially great artists, unlike Osvaldo and David Romberg, never breathed the air of a free and civilized society even for one minute?♦

To read a response, click here.
To read a follow-up by Caroline Millett, click here.

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