Michael Rockefeller was born, along with his twin sister, Mary, in 1938. You might recognize his last name. In the United States, the Rockefeller name is synonymous with wealth, prominence and power. Michael was one of these impossibly wealthy and influential Rockefellers. Unfortunately, his money and his well-known name did not save him from disappearing in New Guinea in 1961.
Michael Rockefeller’s great-grandfather made an awful lot of money in the oil industry. This money trickled down to Michael, who never wanted for anything in the financial department. On top of this, Michael’s family was full of powerful people, one of which was his father, Nelson Rockefeller. Nelson Rockefeller served as the Governor of New York and the Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford. His Vice Presidency came years after his son’s disappearance and presumed death.
Nelson Rockefeller was fond of primitive art and he passed this on to his son, Michael. During his college years at Harvard, Michael began dreaming up a trip to South America to collect such art. However, his plans changed when he heard about a professor who was planning a research expedition to New Guinea. Rockefeller managed to procure a place on the expedition as a photographer and sound recorder. He graduated in 1960, spent 6 months in the U.S. Army Reserve and then he left for New Guinea.
Pictures of Rockefeller’s trips to New Guinea survive. In them, we see a happy, handsome, bespectacled young man, who is far from the luxuries he is used to and loves it. No one could argue that Michael was eager to go home. In fact, after his trip with the professor’s bunch, he was eager to return to the New Guinea.
While Michael Rockefeller was in New Guinea with the Harvard group, he took a little side trip to visit the native Asmat tribe of New Guinea. He traded them for pieces of art and began dreaming of setting up a museum dedicated to tribal and primitive art works. After his trip, he spent two weeks at home making plans for another trip and then he returned to New Guinea. At the time, New Guinea was still dotted with tribes that would just as soon kill you and eat you as sell you their art. Therefore, it is somewhat odd imagining a Harvard graduate with everything going for him marching into the New Guinea jungle in search of art, of all things. Nonetheless, Michael never mentioned having problems with the natives in any of his letters and there were no reports of such.
Michael had spent a few months gathering and commissioning artwork from the scantily clad natives when disaster struck. Michael, Rene Wassink (Michael’s guide), and two native teen boys, were in their catamaran when it began to sink and go adrift. Michael and Rene had been warned about the limitations of their craft, but Michael ignored them. He overloaded the vessel and took it out to sea. Now, he and his group were floating away from the shore and Rene could not swim. The boys swam for the shore and help, while Michael stayed with Rene. It would take the boys hours to reach the shore and alert rescuers.
Rene and Michael spent the night on their wayward catamaran and at 5 a.m., November 18, 1961, they saw land. The shore was at least four, as many as 11, miles away. Michael Rockefeller decided to swim for it, using two gasoline cans as flotation devices. Rene told him it was a bad idea, but Michael did not listen. The last thing he said to his guide was, “I think I can make it.” Rene was rescued a few hours later and Michael was never seen again.
When Nelson learned that Michael was missing, he and Mary flew to New Guinea and aided the search. They searched for ten days and turned up absolutely nothing, which led them to believe Michael died while trying to reach shore. Popular belief is that he was eaten by a shark or crocodile or that he drowned. This is the most likely scenario. Nonetheless, it has been postulated that he was eaten by natives, integrated into the native culture or that he was kept prisoner by the natives. This seems unlikely, given that nothing of his, no trace of him, has ever been found.
Most of the art that Michael collected during his trips to New Guinea are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Krajicek, David, Michael Rockefeller, retrieved 11/4/10, trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/celebrity/michael_rockefeller/index.html