Carl Hoffman, author of ‘Savage Harvest,’ on the mysterious 1961 death of Michael Rockefeller

What happened to Michael Rockefeller? After a pair of intense trips to New Guinea, 'Savage Harvest' author Carl Hoffman believes he knows.

Liz Lynch/HarperCollins
'The truth is always important,' says author Carl Hoffman of his drive to unravel the 53-year-old mystery behind the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller.

It was one of the great mysteries of its time: What happened to Michael Rockefeller?

The 23-year-old son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller disappeared in 1961 while collecting art in New Guinea just months after graduating from Harvard University. Journalist Carl Hoffman claims to have solved the mystery, and his new book Savage Harvest unfolds a story that is horrific and yet also an intelligent and significant piece of journalism.

Hoffman recently corresponded by e-mail with Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe. Here are excerpts of their exchange.

Q: What drew you to this dormant mystery?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael. In my 20s I saw “Dead Birds,” the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me. Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place. His death took on the quality of myth – Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners.

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren’t alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.

And there was enough about Michael’s disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn’t a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.

Q: In many ways, this is a horrible story. What value do you see in bringing it to light decades later? 

It’s a complex, rich story about important things: our obsession with “primitive” cultures and our need to collect and appropriate their art; about what happens when you remove sacred objects from their context; about a remote and remarkable people’s transformation at the hands of the West and our own values; and ultimately about the human heart, its yearnings and passions.

It is also a story that the Dutch government and elements of the [Roman] Catholic Church kept hidden from Michael’s family and the world for years. The problem is that when you cover things up they fester, become more powerful as rumor, and no one gets any closure. The truth is always important and in a certain way I couldn’t help feeling that I was helping put a spirit to rest, as the Asmat would say.

Q: How different might this story have been had Michael not been a Rockefeller?

The story and Michael as a Rockefeller are inseparable. If it had been someone else, a non-Rockefeller, it would never have happened: He wouldn’t have been there, wouldn’t have had the resources to range so far and collect so much, wouldn’t have had a Dutch government anthropologist assigned to him, wouldn’t have been a 23-year-old kid right out of college wandering through one of the remotest places on earth. It was his youth that probably killed him more than anything else – the rash and impulsive decision to abandon the boat and swim for shore.

Q: What do you think Michael was like? Is he someone you would have enjoyed knowing? 

Strangely, of all the characters in the book, he remains the one I know the least. I had access to his journals and his letters to various officials in Asmat and at the Museum of Primitive Art, which are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I spoke to some of the members of the Harvard-Peabody expedition, with whom he worked and traveled in the Baliem Valley. I talked to the girlfriend of his best friend at Harvard (who knew him) and to the man who sold him the catamaran on which he capsized in Papua, but I never was able to speak to his family or see his personal letters, so he remains a little distant.

And he was so young; he hadn’t yet had enough time to make a mark as an adult.  But, yes, I think I’d like his curiosity and sense of wonder and I think we could have had a great night elbows up on a bar, talking about the mud and the spirits of Asmat, and our mutual desire to plunge in deep and to see, smell, taste for ourselves.

Q: Your trips to New Guinea seemed both grueling and intense. What kind of impact did they have on you?

I think they showed me how complex human beings can be, and how we can have so much in common with people, be able to communicate with them, share food and stories and smiles, and yet not know them at all, not know their world, not be able to see or experience what they see and experience. The Asmat live in a world of spirits and secrets that we outsiders simply aren’t privy to. The longer you’re there the more you know and grasp, but the less, too – the more you learn you don’t know. To be an Asmat, especially then, in 1961 at the time of Michael’s death, is unfathomable to me – their worldview, their kinship ties, the violence and power and sense of self they possessed, within this very isolated realm, is mind-boggling.

I feel profoundly lucky to have seen and experienced a tiny part of it, and it makes me look at my social relationships here in a more anthropological way – the way family and reciprocity play such important roles in our lives. I feel profoundly lucky to have seen and experienced a tiny part of it, and it makes me look at my social relationships here in a more anthropological way – the way family and reciprocity play such important roles in our lives.

Q: What do you most hope that readers will take away from this book?

An appreciation for the Asmat and what they’ve gone through, through no choice of their own. And an understanding of how limited the word primitive is.  

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