What Really Happened To Michael Rockefeller, Heir To A Fortune?

Does money buy happiness? Well, that depends on you talk to and, probably, how much money they have. But can it buy you a long life? Not always. Case in point, there's the saga of Michael Rockefeller.

Sure, you know the name "Rockefeller," as it belongs to one of the wealthiest families in the United States. Michael's great-grandfather, John D., founded Standard Oil and became the world's first billionaire. Michael's father, Nelson, was governor of New York, and he would go on to serve as vice president of the United States. And Michael was just 18 when Nelson unveiled a massive undertaking — the Museum of Primitive Art, just around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art, which the family also had helped establish.

It might have lit the fire in Michael. His father had collected art, but Michael wanted to actually bring a major collection to New York.

Michael Rockefeller disappeared after a fateful journey

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller worked on a documentary film about a remote area of New Guinea, and when shooting was finished, he wanted to go back to see the Asmat tribe — for art, for exploration, to collect, and learn. He returned in October 1961, and after leaving for supplies, he returned once again in November with three others, two of them native to the area and the third a Dutchman named Wassing. But as the group entered the Betsj River, their boat overturned. The two locals easily swam to shore. Rockefeller and Wassing stayed with the overturned boat, but the next morning, fearful that they would be swept out to sea, Rockefeller — an accomplished athlete in his own right — swam for shore and possible help. Wassing was spotted from the air that afternoon and rescued. Rockefeller was never seen again.

The family initiated a search, but they gave up after about three weeks. And so the rumors multiplied. Had he gone all Apocalypse Now and taken up residence in the jungle? Had he somehow survived as a captive? Had he been killed? Did he drown during the swim? Well, according to Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (via Smithsonian), Rockefeller was met by local tribesman in a canoe who brought him to shore and killed him ... and ate him. At least part of this crime was attributed to revenge for killings three years before committed by Dutch colonial officials.

Rockefeller's body has never been found. He was declared legally dead in 1964. He was 23 years old.