The Search for Michael Rockefeller
"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.
Machlin’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.
Seven 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