Lost Scion

Was Michael Rockefeller eaten by cannibals?

WINDING UP AS AN ENTRÉE was not what the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had in mind when he ventured to the far side of the globe to pursue an anthropology career and a brief escape from his silver straitjacket. On November 18, 1961, Rockefeller, who was traveling the southern coast of Dutch New Guinea (now Indonesian Irian Jaya) buying art from the primitive Asmat tribe, disappeared when his overloaded 40-foot dugout was swamped in the Arafura Sea near the mouth of the Eilanden River. Two native guides swam three miles to shore for help while Rockefeller and his travel partner, Dutch anthropologist René Wassing, clung to the drifting boat overnight.

Help was slow getting to the stranded Westerners, and the boat continued to drift toward the open ocean. Rockefeller, convinced that the guides had perished, decided to swim to shore. His last words to Wassing were, "I think I can make it." And just like that, he was gone. (Wassing was picked up by rescuers the next day.)

While the waters in which the boat overturned were known to be infested with sharks and saltwater crocs, it is possible that Rockefeller, like his guides, reached land. If he did, he'd have found himself in a cruel parody of Gilligan's Island, a region of thick mangrove swamps and tribes of headhunters and cannibals.

The Dutch colonial government and the Rockefeller family organized a massive search, with more than a thousand canoes probing the southern coast for ten days. They found nothing, and in 1964, Michael was declared legally dead. But in 1969, prompted by a story from an Australian smuggler who claimed to have seen Rockefeller on a tiny outlying island, American journalist Milt Machlin launched his own investigation. In the end, Machlin dismissed such sightings. "I don't believe he was alive elsewhere," says Machlin, whose 1972 book The Search for Michael Rockefeller chronicled his investigation. "I think he was killed almost immediately after making shore." Machlin holds that Rockefeller's murder was an act of revenge for the killing of several local villagers by a Dutch colonial patrol.

The more fanciful theories of Rockefeller's fate follow a Conradesque trajectory, placing the young heir, Kurtz-like, in a remote native village, held as a captive god, or living there of his own volition. Today, the closest you're likely to get to him is a visit to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you'll find some of the Asmat artifacts he sent home before he disappeared. Or perhaps you'll find reason to believe, as many still do, that one of America's most fortunate sons went looking for—and found—a new life elsewhere.

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