Seattle generally doesn’t give locals the tabloid treatment, but that wasn’t always so. In the 1950s and ’60s, the press was obsessed with Seattle’s answer to Brangelina, the gorillas Bobo and Fifi.
Bobo was the 500-pound local-celebrity primate, an ape raised by humans since infancy that became the number-one attraction at the Woodland Park Zoo. In the mid-1950s, Bobo’s love life became a fixation. He got a companion, and her story is often overlooked.
Mail-order brides are nothing new in Seattle; the Mercer Girls helped found the city. The idea was that you shipped in females to the frontier as a kind of civilizing force. The same was true with Fifi. Her job was to turn Bobo into a family man…er…gorilla.
Fifi was 3 and a half years old when she was purchased by the zoo for $3,700 from a South African dealer. Her name was Bula, but was changed to Fifi. She had lived among other gorillas; Bobo had not. He was found as a tiny tot in a tree after his mother was killed by hunters, and wound up in the hands of a family in Anacortes, which raised him like a son until he became too big to handle.
The papers referred to Fifi as Bobo’s “bride,” “prospective sweetheart,” and “mate.” When they first saw each other in separate enclosures at the zoo, The Seattle Times reported that Bobo “flinched, clamped his hands on his head and [ran] around like a browbeaten husband when Fifi made a pass at him.” When they were finally put in the same cage alone, Bobo threw a tire at Fifi, then pounded his chest.
Bobo’s showing off was seen as a good thing, but Fifi was also seen as holding her own. “Bobo Bossed by Gorilla Girlfriend,” a headline read.
Others saw the “beginning of a beautiful romance,” but that was like declaring the Titanic unsinkable. As Seattle watched, it became baffled. Bobo resisted Fifi’s romantic overtures. The zoo built them a new “honeymoon apartment” in 1957. Fifi checked out the new digs with a “woman’s discriminating taste.” The relationship seemed to have entered its Sunset magazine stage, in which the young couple gets a split-level and prepares to produce 2.5 kids.
But all was not right. Two years later, the couple had still not had sex. While zookeepers kept expecting Bobo to grow into the relationship, Fifi began to receive the blame: She “henpecked” Bobo, she was overweight, she was like a “nagging wife,” and the zoo’s director, Ed Johnson, reminded everyone that Fifi was “no Greer Garson.” After five years of no sizzle, Fifi gave up on Bobo.
Theories abounded. Was Bobo too human to want a female gorilla? This seemed to imply that Bobo might grab some blonde King Kong–style and run up the Smith Tower. Another theory was that Bobo was just an overgrown boy interested in sports and junk food. There were also whispers that he might be gay, or as columnist Erik Lacitis wrote, that he “might just as soon have shared his cage with a boy gorilla....”
Fifi was still a virgin when Bobo died in 1968 of a pulmonary embolism. Afterward, the public treated her like Bobo did: with little interest. She became ill a year later, and her consolation prize was to be shacked up with a diabetic orangutan named Elvis. There were unlikely rumors of sex between them.
In 1971, she was shipped off to Honolulu to live and mate with two gorillas there. A Seattle zoo employee who visited Fifi, Marguerite Trammel, observed that she had a negative personality and perhaps deserved her “spinsterhood.”
But Fifi did settle in. She didn’t produce any offspring, but when she died in 1978, her obituary reported that she had slimmed down and that her latest measurements were 45-72-21. Her two male gorilla companions, Congo and Cameroon, showed interest. “In November 1972, Cameroon and Fifi ‘at last found the joys of life,’ ” reported the Honolulu zoo director.
Not long after Fifi experienced her “joys,” Lacitis got the real scoop on Bobo’s lack of passion. It turned out he was suffering from Klinefelter syndrome, a condition in which the male carries an extra X chromosome. Symptoms can include infertility, low testosterone levels and lack of sex drive.
Turns out, all the theories about their romance were just as empty as their sex life. We also know that it wasn’t Fifi’s fault.
This story first appeared in the January issue of Seattle Magazine, where the author is a regular columnist.