Why you should care
Because this story has gripped our imagination for five decades.
Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.
The two men clung to an overturned catamaran 10 miles off the south coast of New Guinea in November 1961. Bespectacled Michael Rockefeller, a 23-year-old aspiring anthropologist, turned to his companion, fellow explorer René Wassing. “I think I can make it,” he said. That’s not how it worked out, though.
Wassing was rescued a day later. But the son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — and the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, once the richest man on Earth — was never seen again, at least not by anyone who reported it reliably to authorities. He might not have even made it ashore; the earliest theory was that Rockefeller drowned while trying to swim for the mainland, but other, far less tasteful theories emerged later. Several years after Rockefeller went missing, investigative journalists began to suggest that the blue-blooded American had been killed … and eaten.
I believe Michael’s life and wonderful legacy are much bigger and more important than the ongoing mystery of his death.
Mary Rockefeller Morgan
Rockefeller sported a scruffy beard and had a young man’s fascination with a world completely different from anything he’d ever known. His résumé was impeccable — Phillips Exeter, Harvard (cum laude) — and his name could open any door. But New Guinea afforded him the chance to be just another white guy bartering for the elaborate native wood carvings known as bisj poles as he tried to crack open the mysteries of the primitive Asmat tribe. A tribe reputed to occasionally hunt heads and eat its enemies.
The Rockefeller family immediately launched an investigation into their son’s disappearance, but they never managed to get any definitive answers about his fate. The cannibalism theories started when journalist Milt Machlin received a visit from a mysterious stranger who claimed that he’d seen Rockefeller alive, and recently. Machlin went to New Guinea in 1969 to investigate; in the book he later wrote, he floated the theory, based on his interviews with Asmat tribespeople, that Rockefeller had been eaten as revenge for murders committed by some Dutch people. Several other documentarians and journalists have tried their luck at solving the mystery, and many have come away with similar stories. There’s just one problem: “If you just go sit down in that village and ask questions about Michael Rockefeller, you get nothing,” says Carl Hoffman, whose book Savage Harvest details his own investigation into Rockefeller’s disappearance.
Many have pondered the young man’s fate, some with hands-on investigations, others with metaphorical calls into the void. An off-Broadway play, The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller, portrayed Rockefeller as the oddity, focusing on the Asmat tribe’s reaction to a newcomer rather than his fascination with them. Filmmaker Fraser Heston discovered previously unseen footage of Machlin’s expedition and used it in the Netflix documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller. The Rockefeller story grips folks like only a good mystery can, but for those closer to the family, it was a stark reminder of how such disappearances throw human understanding about life and death into chaos. Grieving usually entails knowing that someone is dead, but a disappearance leaves desperate hope alive, making closure impossible. “These things have staying power, and they always will, for primal psychological reasons,” Hoffman says.
That staying power has even had positive effects, in unexpected ways. Michael’s twin sister, Mary Rockefeller Morgan, became a therapist specializing in twin bereavement and wrote a book about recovering from the loss of her brother, When Grief Calls Forth the Healing. “I believe Michael’s life and wonderful legacy are much bigger and more important than the ongoing mystery of his death,” she says. For her, the mystery’s endurance is exploitative, not just of her brother but also of the Asmat people, whom she visited with her father when they went looking for Michael shortly after he vanished.
We’ll probably never know what actually happened. In many ways, cannibalism seems absurd — the Asmat tribe were never known to have killed a white person, and yet almost everyone who has looked into Rockefeller’s disappearance has come away with the same conclusion: Michael Rockefeller was murdered and eaten after reaching shore in New Guinea. A Rockefeller-focused episode of In Search of … that aired in 1978 includes an interview with an Asmat chief claiming that “enemies” accused his village of killing the Westerner in an attempt to get them into trouble. But even the show seems to lean toward the cannibalism theory, perhaps because from a storytelling perspective the parable is unsettling yet irresistible.
Michael Rockefeller was too young to have made much impact as an anthropologist. But his story endures because of those primal forces, says Hoffman. He was “a representative of absolute wealth and power” who, if the theories are true, was made abjectly powerless in an almost unimaginable way “by tribesmen who live in mud.”