The story behind the story of ‘Travis the Menace’

Travis and Sandy Herold. ()
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This week last January, New York magazine published "Travis the Menace," a 6,000-word feature by contributing editor Dan P. Lee.

Here, Lee told the tragic story of Sandy Herold. She was the Connecticut woman who had raised a chimpanzee named Travis, who infamously mauled Herold's friend Charla Nash in February of 2009, leaving her clinging to life and her face deformed beyond recognition.

The piece, which will be submitted for National Magazine Awards consideration this spring, was a big hit at the time, and it had something of a reprise when it resurfaced 11 months later as a ubiquitous entry on the various 2011 "best of" lists that were circulating on the social web and highlighting the year's most acclaimed long-form journalism.

"Travis the Menace" is the type of story a journalism-school professor might hand out during a lesson on reconstructed narratives. It paints a vivid portrait of Herold's life, and that of her husband, Jerry, while opening a window into some of the most intimate moments of their relationship with the primate they had raised since its infancy.

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"Travis had a distinct sense of humor," Lee wrote in one passage. "He’d become particularly impish when Sandy was on the phone talking. He’d change the channels of the remote furiously. He’d blast the volume on the TV. 'Cut it out, you little son of a bitch!' Sandy would yell, and then laugh. 'I’m gonna kill you, you little bastard!'”

The detail in the article is prodigious and painstakingly precise, a feat that begins to seem even more impressive when one considers the formidable challenge Lee faced while reporting it: By the time he hit the ground running with pen and notebook in hand, the Herolds and Travis, all three, were already dead.

"A lot of it was extremely fraught and scary for me," Lee said last night at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, "because I didn't know if I could deliver anything that would be new and interesting."

Lee, in a striped grey-and-black hoodie and a mop of dirty blonde hair that matched his five o'clock shadow, was participating in a panel discussion convened by the longform journalism aggregator Longreads. Sitting on a riser beside fellow New York writers Jessica Pressler and Wesley Yang, as well as the magazine's editor in chief, Adam Moss (Lee's story editor, David Haskell, was sipping a beer on the sidelines), the former newspaper reporter gave the hundred or so assembled Longreaders the story behind the story of "Travis the Menace."

It began when Lee saw the Nov. 11, 2009 episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," during which Nash revealed her disfigured face for the first time. 

Even though the story had already been widely covered in the press, "I felt like there was still something else there," he said. "It was the most compelling thing I had ever seen in my entire life."

A freelancer at the time, Lee began pitching. One "high-gloss magazine" turned him away because it had, believe it or not, already done a chimp attack story. (He did not say definitively that the rejection came from Esquire, but he did mention that the magazine had run such a piece.)  

Lee had better luck with New York, which had "been talking about doing a Travis story for several years," Moss later said.

The original idea was to profile Nash, but "her people were not inclined to cooperate," said Lee.

Plan B: Get the scoop on Sandy Herold and her life inside the house where she lived with Travis at 241 Rock Rimmon Road, Stamford, Conn. 

Herold had been crucified by the tabloids, which portrayed her as a freak who'd fallen in love with an ape. Even "The Today Show" did a bit of a hit job on her, Lee said. But despite the mountain of negative publicity, Sandy Herold's story had never been told.

"I concurred that it was a fascinating story," said Lee, "but Sandy Herold was dead, Travis was dead, everyone in the story was dead."

Nevertheless, Lee made the trip up to Stamford and started reporting, trying to find people who had been close to Sandy. One day, he got lucky.

Through "a web search that I could not replicate for all the money in the world," he said, "I ended up in a chat room and I posted a bizarre note and ended up connecting with someone I had never spoken with before, who I won't identify, but who was very close to Sandy and close to the story."

They met for the first time at a local Jamba Juice. It took about 40 minutes of loosening up before she was even willing to offer up her name. She cried and told him "just how close she had been to all of this."

Lee had found the type of source that makes a reporter look up and thank God for sending her. A source who would be willing to sit for roughly 40 hours of interviews and who had the kind of information to which only the deceased had been privy. The woman was but one of "many" sources that Lee cultivated and built "strong connections" with while reporting the piece, he said, but she was by far the best: "Incredible."

One day right before Christmas, on Lee's second trip to Stamford, after a grueling eight-hour interview, after his phone had died and he was running on nothing but "eight Diet Cokes," after he had finally decided it was time to get back to his hotel, a lightbulb went off: "You know, there's a box," his source had said.

One more Diet Coke later, Lee had struck gold: "The box was amazing," he said. Among its contents, he found a "heartbreaking" letter written by Sandy, after her husband had died but before Travis snapped, to the owner of a chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida. Sandy wanted to send Travis there. Lee quoted the last two paragraphs in his piece.

“I have no family, my only child, Suzan had gotten killed in an auto accident 4 years before Jerry died and who Travis also loved," Herold wrote. "My grand kids live in North Carolina and I don’t see them very often. I live alone with Travis, we eat and sleep together but I am worried that if something happens to me as suddenly as my husband what would happen to Travis, therefore I have to try to do something before that happens."

"There was just some amazing, amazing information that came out of [that box] and it was just stunning to have gotten it," said Lee.

After that, there was only one thing left to do: "I jumped over the fence at Rock Rimmon Road and tresspassed on the property and did all of the things you're supposed to do, and, you know, got lots of really good stuff."

One of the things Lee had obtained along the way was some home video footage, which accounts for the dialogue-heavy, you-had-to-be-there type of anecdote that Moss recited following Lee's talk:

Travis looked for a second before extending his long index finger. He placed the tip of it directly on Jerry’s left molar. Sandy and Jerry cheered: “That’s the one, Travis! That’s the one!” Travis’s lips curled open around his gleaming white teeth. He bounced in his chair and buried his face in Jerry’s chest.

“Show Daddy your teeth now,” Sandy told him. Travis looked at her, looked at Jerry, puckered his lips again, exposed his teeth, and tilted his head up toward Jerry. Jerry cheered.

“Show Daddy your big tongue now!” Sandy said. Travis opened his mouth and unfurled his giant pink tongue. Once again, they cheered. By now Travis could not contain himself: He smiled broadly and grunted, his shoulders shaking in silent laughter. He patted Jerry on the back. Finally he wrapped his long arm around him.

"Every time you write a piece," said Lee, "there's a moment in the reporting when things click, and you're like, 'Oh wow, something's happening. There's a story here.'

"For me, that moment was when I saw Sandy as something other than a monster."