The Foxhole: Carl Hoffman on a Rockefeller mystery

For more than fifty years, a mystery has gripped the elite worlds of high art and New York society: What really happened to Michael Rockefeller?

In November 1961, the twenty-three-year-old son of then-New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, travelled to New Guinea to obtain primitive art for a museum that his father had established four years earlier. Skinny, bearded and bespectacled, Michael had traveled widely and had made a previous trip to New Guinea for art collection; but this time, his luck ran out.

Crossing a river near the southwest coast with an expedition partner, Michael was plunged into the water when their catamaran capsized. The partner wisely stayed with the vessel, and was rescued – and provided the last sighting of Michael, who swam with two gasoline cans around his shoulders towards the coast, declaring “I think I can make it” as he vanished forever.

Despite a massive manhunt conducted via air, land, and sea, Michael’s body was never found, and the Dutch government, which then controlled New Guinea, ruled his death a drowning. But as veteran travel writer Carl Hoffman relates in Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (William Morrow), the tale began circulating almost immediately that Michael had indeed made it to shore, only to be consumed by the primitive Asmat tribesmen inhabiting the region.

An award-winning contributor to National Geographic Traveler who has visited seventy countries on six continents, Hoffman spent three years researching the Rockefeller mystery, working with survivors from the era and unseen documents from the Dutch archives, poring over Michael’s old journals, and immersing himself in the still remote villages of New Guinea.

Hoffman claims he has solved the mystery once and for all, and that while Michael fell prey to unrelated tensions roiling the region – several of the village’s top elders had been shot to death by members of a Dutch patrol in 1958; “The whole place,” Hoffman says, “was on fire” – the young Rockefeller, with his intense wanderlust and unlimited funding, may also have contributed to his own demise.

“He was very naïve in a lot of ways,” Hoffman said during a recent visit to “The Foxhole.”  “If you read his journals and if you talk to people and you go there yourself, a picture emerges. And that is of somebody who was a little bit naïve and moving a little bit too fast. He was capable of moving so fast and buying so much stuff because he was really unfettered and he had money. You know, had he had more limitations and had to move more slowly he might have been alive today.”