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The Search for Michael Rockefeller

Story Synopsis

"If by the remotest flight of fancy, Donahue’s story should actually be true, Michael Rockefeller would have to be found. And I was determined to be the one to do it." Milt Machlin, The Search for Michael Rockefeller

The disappearance of Michael Clark Rockefeller is one of the enduring unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century. The Search For Michael Rockefeller, by best-selling author, journalist and Argosy Magazine editor Milt Machlin, tells the true story of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in the jungles of New Guinea in 1961, and Machlin’s epic search for him seven years later.

Michael RockefellerMachlin’s story is a gripping account of one of the most unsettling vanishings ever to have engaged the nation. In 1961, the 23-year-old son of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, led a small expedition along the treacherous cannibal coast of New Guinea. Michael, along with Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing, was collecting highly respected Asmat native art and carvings for the Rockefeller family’s Museum of Primitive Art, in New York. Far from the spoiled dilettante some might assume of the young scion, Michael had proven himself on previous expeditions to New Guinea to be a sensitive anthropologist, with a deep appreciation for Asmat art and an understanding of their complex and endangered culture. He was also an extraordinary photographer.

On November 11, Michael, Wassing, and two native boys left on a voyage down the coast from Agats to Amanamki and the Asmat villages of the interior, in a heavily laden double-hulled trading canoe. Several miles off shore, heavy seas swamped their top-heavy craft (driven by only a single under-powered outboard motor) in the Arafura Sea, off the mouth of the Eilanden River. After a night adrift clinging to the wreckage, Rockefeller set out to swim for the distant shore, leaving Wassing with the fateful words:

"I think I can make it…"

He was never seen again. Despite a massive air-sea search, headed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Dutch and Australian navies, no trace of young Rockefeller was ever found.

searchSeven years later, Milt Machlin was approached in his Argosy offices by a nefarious Australian smuggler known as “Donahue”, with the startling question:

"What would you say if I told you I saw Michael Rockefeller alive, not ten weeks ago?"

Donahue spun for the hard-bitten editor a tale of mystery and intrigue, which, if true, meant that Michael had somehow survived among the cannibals in the wilderness of New Guinea.

Donahue claimed that while on a trading venture in the Trobriand Islands, hundreds of miles from where Rockefeller disappeared, he visited a remote village on the island of "Kanapua". There, a white man with a long sandy beard hobbled out of a small hut on two badly-healed broken legs, squinting through myopic eyes, and croaked these words:

"My name’s Michael Rockefeller… Please, help me!"

Could it be that Rockefeller had somehow made it ashore, and was still alive, held captive by headhunting tribesmen? Before Machlin could press Donahue for more details, the Aussie smuggler slipped away into the night.

With the cryptic clues given him by Donahue, his reporter’s intuition, and the name of an island that wasn’t even on the map, Milt set off for New Guinea to discover the truth for himself, and to find Michael Rockefeller, dead or alive. Milt’s odyssey took him from the Trobriands to the Sepik and May rivers, the New Guinea highlands, the Asmat coast, and eventually as far as Holland, in his quest for the truth.

Fortunately for us, Machlin took a cinematographer on his expedition, along with two 16mm cameras and several rolls of film and sound tape. For unknown reasons, this color 16mm footage has lain dormant for forty years, gathering dust in a vault in New England, until it was unearthed in 2008 by film-maker Fraser Heston, while researching a screenplay on Milt Machlin. Contained in more than 15 dusty film cans were hours of largely unseen footage taken on Milt’s expedition. 

Combined with 9 rolls of ¼ inch reel-to-reel sound tapes, which Heston found with the help of Milt’s widow, Margaret Machlin, this previously unedited film constitutes a remarkable pictorial record, not only of Milt Machlin’s expedition in search of Michael Rockefeller, but of the vanishing way of life of the cannibal-artists of  New Guinea.

Milt’s expedition footage is complimented with previously unreleased on-camera and taped interviews, such as an in-depth interview with Father Cornelius Van Kessel, head of the Sacred Heart Mission in Agats in 1961, the last man to see Rockefeller alive before he left on his fateful voyage, who reveals what is perhaps the darkest and most closely held secret about Michael’s disappearance. Father Van Kessel sums it up succinctly:

“The truth is evil. He reached the shore and he fell just into the hands of death.”

Milt’s expedition across the hinterlands of the Trobriand Islands and New Guinea culminated in extraordinary footage of Asmat warrior-artists wearing nothing much more than human skulls, and include one remarkable shot of what is clearly a naked “white man” paddling in a canoe full of Asmat warriors, which asks more questions than it answers. Milt left no clue as to the nature of this shot in his notes, no speculation about who it was. A mixed race Asmat? A missionary or anthropologist “gone native”? Michael himself? It’s simply another layer of the onion which surrounds the truth about the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller.

In Roshomon-like fashion, THE SEARCH FOR MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER peels back the layers to reveal various versions of the deepening mystery, sometimes confirming, often conflicting with each other:

Why did Michael Rockefeller – privileged son of Nelson Rockefeller, heir to one of the world’s great fortunes, journey to the one place on earth where his name and wealth meant nothing - the Stone Age world of the Asmat cannibal, known as “The Land of Lapping Death”?

Did Michael drown in the Arafura Sea on his long swim to shore? Could he have been eaten by sharks or crocodiles which infested those waters?

Did Michael survive the swim only to fall victim to a headhunter’s "payback", possibly triggered by the Dutch Government? Was he an unwitting participant in the “revenge cycle” and offered up as a sacrifice in a cannibalistic ritual?

Most intriguing of all, did Michael Rockefeller choose to remain in the jungle, as some evidence suggests, living with the natives as a revered talisman and a respected icon of the Cargo Cult?

Director Fraser Heston and producers Alex Butler and Heather J. Thomas, along with editor Ted Hughes, will complete Milt Machlin’s true-to-life adventure documentary, shot long before the invention of “reality TV”. Now in post production, THE SEARCH FOR MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER, will be completed and released to the public by Agamemnon Films in the fall of 2009.





New Guinea native





Copyright 2002 Agamemnon Films