Graeme Wood

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A Vanished Heir

The last days of a missing Rockefeller

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Michael Rockefeller, heir to a fortune in the hundreds of millions and the son of the governor of New York, was last seen 50 years ago tying a pair of empty red gas cans to his back and swimming for the shore. “I think I can make it,” he said. Then he swam away from his capsized catamaran into the Arafura Sea, toward the coast of New Guinea, where cannibalism may still have been practiced.

When Michael’s great-grandfather, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, had died in 1937, he left behind a fortune worth more than twice that of Bill Gates in constant-dollar terms. He lived in a world of top hats and gold cuff links. But Michael Rockefeller preferred a world of pith helmets and dugout canoes, where men’s formal attire meant a gourd strategically placed over the crotch.

Until age 22, Michael led a life resembling that of other Rockefeller men — attending private schools in New York, receiving an Ivy League education, his future laid out before him like a country-club brunch. But after graduating from Harvard in 1960, Michael showed signs that luxury wasn’t for him. He served in the National Guard six months, then took a job as a soundman for an ethnographic movie. The film, “Dead Birds,” depicted ritualized violence among New Guineans, of men going to battle armed with neolithic weapons like spears and shields.

To Michael, these scenes were enchanting and the rugged fearsomeness of New Guinea’s tribes a welcome respite from the life he had left behind. Most of all, he loved the tribes’ distinctive wood carvings. He sent home samples and bartered for more. In photos from the time, he appears genuinely happy, with a long, bushy beard, wearing thick glasses and khakis.

On Nov. 18, 1961, he set out from Agats, a small settlement on a remote part of the southwest coast of New Guinea, with Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassink and two New Guinean guides to pick up carvings he had previously bought. His boat consisted of two 30-foot canoes bound together, propelled by just one engine and heavily weighted with supplies. That day, at the mouth of the Eilanden River, a wave washed over the vessel, capsizing it. The two New Guineans swam to shore for help; Michael and the anthropologist clung to the boat, waiting.

Overnight, they imagined that the New Guineans had become lost; they despaired that help would never come. They were only about 3 to 12 miles out at sea. Wassink stayed with the boat, but Michael strapped on the gas cans and swam.

The New Guineans had not been lost — merely delayed by the difficulty of hiking across swampy, dangerous terrain. Nine hours after Michael swam off, a search party found Wassink. Michael’s father, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, had flown to New Guinea to help search for his missing son. Thousands of people and many aircraft and boats were lined up to assist. But they found nothing, except for one of the red gas cans, floating at sea.

Michael probably drowned or maybe had been dragged under by a shark or crocodile. If he had reached shore, cannibals may have eaten him; a tribe had been feuding with Dutch colonial authorities. After two weeks, Nelson called off the search. In 1964, Michael was pronounced dead.

But when a Rockefeller goes missing, sometimes strange things happen: Shady characters emerge, claiming to know the fate of the disappeared. In 1968, John Donahue, a Tasmanian gun runner, showed up at a magazine editor’s office, claiming that 10 weeks earlier he met Michael, tall and bearded, on an island far from where he had last been seen. The island was so remote that it appeared on no maps, but Donahue provided its name, adding that the only other foreigners were two Japanese fishermen, possibly World War II deserters.

Michael was a prisoner, Donahue said. He had reached shore and spent three days wandering among the mangroves before falling from a tree and breaking both legs. A traveling group of Trobriand Islanders found him, and when they witnessed the massive search, assumed that for a person to have summoned so many planes he must have magical powers. Now they were keeping him captive as a living magic charm. His glasses were gone; his legs mangled. Michael had begged Donahue to bring help. After telling this tale, Donahue left, never to be heard from again.

In 1969, the editor, Milt Machlin, set out with a film crew to find Michael.The island existed in the Trobriands, as Donahue had described. But by the time Machlin arrived, no one was there — no Japanese fishermen, no permanent settlement and no white man kept as a mascot. Some locals suggested that Michael may have been killed, but no one confessed.

The expedition did, however, yield an enigmatic clue, noticed just in the last few years. Machlin, who died in 2004, had stashed much of his footage in a vault. A documentarian, Fraser Heston, found the footage and assembled it into a film, “The Search for Michael.” The footage included extended scenes of the daily life of New Guineans, their art and food — and dugout canoe races. They paddled at great speed, standing up — with more than a dozen naked men in each canoe, zooming through the sea.

In one shot, a canoeist appears unlike all the others. He paddles in perfect rhythm, with the grace and precision of someone who has done this all his life. But unlike the others, he has a dark beard concentrated around his neck; his skin is not black but lightly tanned, like that of a European on an extended holiday. Machlin left no explanation.

Michael would be in his 70s by now. Did he arrive on this land he loved, then decide to stay as a permanent guest? For those who admired Michael’s daring and laud his wish for a life somewhat different from the one fate had arranged, the sight of that pale, blurry frame is a flicker of hope.

 

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