Original publish date: June 10, 2013
Last week, I pondered the parenting skills of our sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln. Coming to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t want to sit next to Abe and Mary’s kids on an airplane. Witnesses, acquaintances and close friends often remarked, sometimes frankly, other times temperately, that the Lincoln boys were “active.” I ended part one with a great quote from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy about parenting: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
Like many a late stage baby-boomer, I realize that I have a fascination with historical celebrity nurtured by mass media that began at a young age. Part of that fascination revolves around the children of famous or noteworthy people, especially when it goes bad. I suppose there is comfort in knowing that rain also falls on the child of privilege as equally as it falls in our own lives. Regardless, there is a morbid fascination with parenting gone bad.
As a kid in Indianapolis, the Vietnam war was very real to me. I had neighbors, family members and school chums touched by the rigors brought on during that useless Southeast Asia debacle. Of course there were the outlandish rumors that passed through the school halls (Leave it to Beaver star Jerry Mathers dying in Vietnam prominent among them) but one rumor I can vividly recall was that Sean Flynn was missing. The son of famous swashbuckling actor and legendary playboy, Erroll Flynn, Sean was an actor turned freelance photojournalist who disappeared on April 16, 1970 while on assignment for Time magazine in Vietnam.
Sean Leslie Flynn, born May 31, 1971, made some forgettable films during his short movie career including the regrettable remake of his father’s classic “Captain Blood” featuring the predictable title “Son of Captain Blood”. When he “retired” from acting, Flynn signed a contract with Time Magazine. In a search for exceptional images, he attached himself to Special Forces units and even irregulars operating in remote areas.
On April 6, 1970, while traveling by motorcycle in Cambodia, Flynn and Dana Stone (on assignment for Time magazine and CBS News respectively) were captured by communist guerrillas at a roadblock on Highway One. They were never seen again and their bodies have never been found. Although it is known that they were captured by Vietnamese Communist forces, it is believed that they died in the hands of rogue “hostile” forces. Citing various government sources, the current consensus is that he (or they) were held captive for over a year before they were killed by Khmer Rouge in June 1971.
Sean Flynn’s plight has often been sited as the inspiration for the “Russian Roulette” sequences in the 1978 film, “The Deer Hunter” with Christopher Walken winning an Oscar for portraying the character based on Flynn. Flynn’s mother, actress Lili Damita, spent an enormous amount of money searching for her son, with no success. In 1984 she had him declared legally dead. By this time, Sean’s dad, Erroll Flynn, had been dead for 25 years. Erroll Flynn’s life was the stuff of legend and his son’s mysterious disappearance brought the war home to young men all over the country in a way that olive clad casualty statistics just couldn’t convey.
One other disappearance that I wasn’t around to hear about firsthand, but do remember hearing about for years afterward, was the strange case of Michael Rockefeller. The youngest son of New York Governor, U.S. Vice-President & multi-time Republican Presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, Michael Clark Rockefeller, was a fourth generation member of the Rockefeller family who had only recently graduated from college. After attending The Buckley School in New York, Rockefeller graduated from Harvard University cum laude in 1960, served for six months as a private in the U.S. Army, then went on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of western New Guinea.
The expedition produced Dead Birds, a documentary film, 3,500 photographs, and many anthropological artifacts that are now part of the Michael C. Rockefeller collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Peabody Museum exhibits the pictures taken by Rockefeller during that first New Guinea expedition. After returning home with the Peabody expedition, Rockefeller returned to New Guinea to study the Asmat tribe and collect primitive art. “It’s the desire to do something adventurous,” he explained, “at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.” There was one tiny detail that Michael should have taken into consideration though. The Asmats were known headhunters.
On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing were in a 40-foot dugout canoe about three miles from shore when their double pontoon boat was swamped and overturned into the Arafura Sea. Their two local guides swam for help and told the Anglos to stay put, for obvious reasons. After drifting for some time in the rolling waters off the coast of New Guinea, Rockefeller said to Wassing “I think I can make it”. Michael estimated that the catamaran boat was five miles from the shore. The current was against him, and he risked a confrontation with a shark or crocodile, but perhaps because he was a Rockefeller, the fabled family of industrialists, philanthropists and politicians, he decided to swim for it. Later it was determined that the capsized boat was closer to twelve miles off shore when Michael pushed off.
Wassing, a poor swimmer, had decided to stay with the overturned boat, and he tried to persuade the stubborn Rockefeller against his plan. Rockefeller “Jerry-rigged” a life preserver by lashing together two empty gas cans. He stripped down to his underwear and tied his eyeglasses to his head with twine. He took a few deep breaths before paddling toward the forbidding mangrove swamps that lined the southwest coast of the world’s second-largest island. Wassing watched the swimming figure slowly disappear into the watery horizon. The Dutchman was rescued just nine hours later.
Michael Rockefeller was never seen or heard from again. The news that the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co., was big news around the world. Upon hearing the news, Governor Rockefeller and Michael’s twin sister Mary rushed to New Guinea followed closely by a hoard of over 100 journalists. They searched frantically for 10 days at what the press called “the end of the earth, where Stone Age cultures had survived”. Finally, Nelson Rockefeller held a press conference to say that he had reached the conclusion that his son had died at sea before reaching shore.
In time, news of the disappearance of the youngest Rockefeller faded from the newspaper headlines and Michael joined the pantheon of missing persons that included Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and D.B. Cooper. As with each of the other lost luminaries, various theories about Michael Rockefeller’s fate have surfaced over the years. Did he die from exposure, exhaustion or drowning? Did he decide to go native and lose himself in the jungles of New Guinea? Was he eaten by a shark or a saltwater crocodile? Or, in the most sensational speculative twist, was he a pale human trophy for New Guinean headhunters?
Headhunting and cannibalism were still present in some areas of Asmat in 1961. The Asmats MOA included stripping their trophy heads to the bone, bleaching them in the sun, and covering the skulls with painted depictions of the battle at which the victim fell. The size and climate of the huge island, slightly larger than Texas, did not aid Michael’s rescue efforts. A tropical rain forest, it has relentless heat and humidity and swarming insects. The coast is lined with swamps that are nearly impossible to navigate, and the interior jungles are dark and largely impassable. The island, due north of Australia and known as Dutch New Guinea, got its name from a Spanish explorer who saw a resemblance between the natives there and those of the Guinea, West Africa.
To support the death by cannibalism theory, researchers note that several leaders of Otsjanep village, where Rockefeller likely would have arrived had he made it to shore, were killed by a Dutch patrol in 1958, and thus would have been seeking revenge against someone from the “white tribe.” Cannibalism and headhunting in Asmat culture was viewed as an eye-for-an-eye revenge cycle, and it is possible that Rockefeller found himself the unlucky victim of such a cycle started by the Dutch patrol. The Rockefeller family believes that Michael either drowned or was attacked by a shark or crocodile. Rockefeller’s body was never found. He was declared legally dead in 1964.
Regardless, the Michael Rockefeller and Sean Flynn sagas are just a couple examples of the many tragic aspects of parenting that all parents must consider at the end of the day. The internet is full of accounts of missing children and adults. The news of these tragedies often gets lost in the headlines of the day. The best that we can hope for is to never be visited by such an unanswerable parental dilemma in our lifetimes. But for most of us, stories like this are always in the back of our minds. Regardless of our level of parental aptitude.