18. A SCIENTIFIC OBSESSION

“It’s up to you, Jack,” Fawcett said.

The two were talking after Fawcett had come back from his 1921

expedition. While Fawcett had been away, Nina had moved the family from Jamaica to Los Angeles, where the Rimells had also gone and where Jack and Raleigh had been swept up in the romance of Hollywood, greasing their hair, growing Clark Gable mustaches, and hanging around Hollywood sets, in the hopes of landing roles. (Jack had met Mary Pickford and loaned her his cricket bat to use in the production of Little Lord Fauntleroy.) Fawcett had a proposition for his son. Colonel T. E. Lawrence-the celebrated desert spy and explorer better known as Lawrence of Arabia- had volunteered to go with Fawcett on his next journey in search of Z, but Fawcett was wary of choosing a companion with a powerful ego who was unaccustomed to the Amazon. As Fawcett wrote to a friend, “[Lawrence] may be keen upon S. American exploration but in the first place he probably requires a salary I cannot pay him and in the second place excellent work in the Near East does not infer the ability or willingness to hump a 60 lbs pack, live for a year upon the forest, suffer from legions of insects and accept the conditions which I would impose.” Fawcett told Jack that, instead of Lawrence, he could take part in the expedition. It would be one of the most difficult and dangerous expeditions in the history of exploration-the ultimate test, in Fawcett’s words, “of faith, courage, and determination.”

Jack didn’t hesitate. “I want to go with you,” he said.

Nina, who was present during these discussions, raised no objections. Partly, she was confident that Fawcett’s seemingly superhuman powers would protect their son, and, partly, she believed that Jack, as his father’s natural heir, would possess similar abilities. Yet her motivation seems to have gone deeper than that: to doubt her husband after so many years of sacrifice was to doubt her own life’s work. Indeed, she needed Z just as much as he did. And even though Jack had no exploring experience and the expedition entailed extraordinary danger, she never considered, as she later told a reporter, trying to “hold” her son back.

Of course, Raleigh had to come, too. Jack said that he could not do the most important thing in his life without him.

Raleigh’s mother, Elsie, was reluctant to permit her youngest son- her “boy,” as she called him-to join such a dangerous venture. But Raleigh was insistent. His movie aspirations had foundered, and he was toiling in menial jobs in the lumber industry. As he told his older brother, Roger, he felt “unsatisfied and unsettled.” This was his opportunity not only to earn a “pile of dough” but also to make good with his life.

Fawcett informed the RGS and others that he now had two ideal companions (“both strong as horses and keen as mustard”) and tried once more to secure funding. “I can only say I am a Founder’s Medallist… and therefore deserving of confidence,” he maintained. Yet the failure of his previous expedition-even though it was only the first in an illustrious career-had given his critics further ammunition. And with no backers, and after exhausting what little savings he had on his previous expedition, he soon found himself bankrupt, like his father. In September 1921, unable to sustain the cost of living in California, he was forced to uproot his family again and return to Stoke Canon, England, where he rented an old, ramshackle house without running water or electricity. “All water has to be pumped and huge logs have to be sawn into blocks-all additional labour,” Nina wrote to Large. The work was grueling. “I broke down utterly about 5 weeks ago and was very seriously ill,” Nina said. Part of her wanted to run away and escape all the sacrifices and burdens-but, she said, “the family needed me.”

“The situation is difficult,” Fawcett admitted to Large. “One learns little from a smooth life, but I do not like roping others into the difficulties which have dogged me so persistently… It is not that I want luxuries. I care little about such things-but I hate inactivity.”

He couldn’t afford to send Jack to university, and Brian and Joan stopped attending school, in order to help with chores and do odd jobs to make money. They hawked photographs and paintings, while Fawcett sold off family possessions and heirlooms. “My man actually suggested a few days ago that he thought it would be a wise thing to sell those old Spanish chairs, if… they would fetch a good price,” Nina wrote Large. By 1923, Fawcett had become so poor that he could not pay his annual three-pound membership dues to the RGS. “I wish you would give me the benefit of your advice as to whether I could resign… without something in the nature of a scandal for a Founder’s Medallist,” Fawcett wrote Keltie. “The fact is that the forced inertia and family… going to California have left me on the rocks. I had hoped to weather them, but such hopes seem to wilt away, and I do not think I can hang on.” He added, “It is rather a fall from dreams.”

Although he scraped up enough money to pay another year of dues, Nina was concerned about her husband. “P.H.F. was in the lowest depths of despair,” she confided to Large.

“My father’s impatience to start off on his last trip was tearing at him with ever increasing force,” Brian later recalled. “From reticent he became almost surly.”

Fawcett began to lash out at the scientific establishment, which he felt had turned its back on him. He told a friend, “Archeological and ethnological science is founded upon the sands of speculation, and we know what may happen to houses so constructed.” He denounced his enemies at the RGS and detected “treachery” everywhere. He complained about “the money wasted on these useless Antarctic expeditions,” about the “men of science” who had “in their day pooh-poohed the existence of the Americas-and, later, the idea of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Troy,” about how “all the skepticism in Christendom won’t budge me an inch” from believing in Z, about how he was “going to see it through somehow or other even if I have to wait another decade.”

He increasingly surrounded himself with spiritualists who not only confirmed but embroidered on his own vision of Z. One seer told him: “The valley and city are full of jewels, spiritual jewels, but also immense wealth of real jewels.” Fawcett published essays in journals, such as the Occult Review, in which he spoke of his spiritual quest and “the treasures of the invisible World.”

Another South American explorer and RGS fellow said that many people thought that Fawcett had become “a trifle unbalanced.” Some called him a “scientific maniac.”

In the spiritualist magazine Light, Fawcett contributed an essay titled “Obsession.” Without mentioning his own id?e fixe, he described how “mental storms” could consume a person with “fearful torture.” “Undoubtedly obsession is the diagnosis of many cases of madness,” he concluded.

Brooding day and night, Fawcett hatched various half-baked schemes- to mine nitrate in Brazil, to prospect for oil in California-in order to raise money for his expedition. “The Mining Syndicate fell through” because it was “a nest of crooks,” Fawcett wrote Large in October 1923.

Jack told another family friend, “It seemed as if some evil genius was trying to put every possible obstacle in our way.”

Still, Jack continued to train in case the money suddenly came through. Without Raleigh’s lighthearted influence, he adopted his father’s asceticism, shunning meat and liquor. “A short time ago I had the idea that I must set myself a certain immensely difficult trial requiring a tremendous spiritual effort,” he wrote Esther Windust, a family friend who was a Theosophist. “By great effort I have been successful and have already felt the benefit.” He added, “I enjoy immensely the life and teachings of Buddha [which] came somewhat as a surprise to me in their absolute adherence to my own ideas. You notice his dislike of creeds and dogma.” A visitor to the house was struck by Jack’s presence: “The capacity for love- and the slight ascetic restraint-makes one think of the knights of the Grail.”

Fawcett, meanwhile, tried to hold out faith that sooner or later “the Gods will accept me for service.” At one point, his friend Rider Haggard told Fawcett that he had something important he wanted to give the explorer. It was a stone idol, about ten inches tall with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Haggard, who had kept it by his desk while writing the 1919 book When the World Shook, said that he had received the statue from someone in Brazil who believed it came from the Indians in the interior. Fawcett took the idol with him and had it examined by several museum experts. Most suspected it was fake, but Fawcett, in his desperation, even showed it to a psychic, and concluded that it might be a relic of Z.

In the spring of 1924, Fawcett learned that Dr. Rice, drawing on his bottomless bank account, was mounting one of the more extraordinary expeditions ever assembled. He had compiled a team that reflected the new demand for specialization. It included experts in botany, zoology, topography, astronomy, geography, and medicine, as well as one of the world’s most distinguished anthropologists, Dr. Theodor Koch-Gr?nberg, and Silvino Santos, considered the first cinematographer of the Amazon. More breathtaking was the expedition’s arsenal of equipment. There was the Eleanor II, along with another elegant vessel; and a new wireless radio system, this one able not only to receive signals but also to send them. These objects, however, were not what had created the greatest stir. As the New York Times reported, the doctor had with him a 160-horsepower, six-cylinder, three-person oak-propeller hydroplane with a complete outfit of aerial cameras.

Fawcett believed that Dr. Rice’s equipment had limitations in the Amazon: existing radios were so bulky that they would confine the expedition to boats, and aerial observation and photography would not necessarily be able to penetrate the canopy. There was also the risk of landing a plane in hostile areas. The Times reported that the doctor’s hydroplane was loaded with “a supply of bombs” to be used in “scaring the cannibal Indians”-a tactic that horrified Fawcett.

Nevertheless, Fawcett knew that an airplane could carry even the most inept explorer to extreme places. Dr. Rice proclaimed that “the whole method of exploration and geographical mapping will be revolutionized.” The expedition-or at least the film that Santos planned to shoot-was called No rastro do Eldorado, or On the Trail of El Dorado. Although Fawcett believed that his rival was still searching too far north for Z, he was petrified.

That September, while Rice and his team were making their way into the Amazon, Fawcett met a swashbuckling British war correspondent and onetime member of the RGS named George Lynch. Well connected in both the United States and Europe, he frequented the Savage Club in London, where writers and artists would gather over drinks and cigars. Fawcett found Lynch, who was fifty-six, to be a “highly respectable man of unimpeachable character and excellent repute.” What’s more, Lynch was enthralled by the idea of finding Z.

In exchange for a percentage of the profits that would arise from the expedition, Lynch, who was a far more capable salesman than Fawcett, offered to help raise money. Fawcett had focused most of his fund-raising efforts on the financially strapped RGS. Now, with Lynch’s assistance, he would look for support from the United States, that bustling new empire which was constantly expanding into new frontiers and was awash in capital. On October 28, Jack wrote Windust to say that Lynch had left for America “to get into touch with millionaires.” Realizing the power of Fawcett’s legend and the commercial value of his story-“the finest exploration story that I think has ever been written in our time,” as Fawcett put it-Lynch initially mined his contacts in the media. Within days, he had secured thousands of dollars by selling the story rights for Fawcett’s expedition to the North American Newspaper Alliance, or NANA-a consortium of publications that had a presence in almost every major city in the United States and Canada. The consortium, which included the New York World, the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Times-Picayune, and the Toronto Star, was known for giving press credentials to nonprofessional reporters who could provide gripping dispatches from the most exotic and dangerous locales. (The consortium later enlisted Ernest Hemingway as a foreign correspondent during the Spanish civil war and funded expeditions like Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 crossing of the Pacific by raft.) While explorers had typically written about their adventures after the fact, Fawcett would send Indian runners out with dispatches during his journey-even, if possible, from “the forbidden city itself,” as one newspaper reported.

Lynch also sold the rights to Fawcett’s expedition to newspapers throughout the world, so that tens of millions of people on virtually every continent would read about his journey. Though Fawcett was wary of trivializing his scientific endeavors with “journalese,” as he called it, he was grateful for any funding, not to mention the assured burst of glory. What made him most happy, though, was a cable from Lynch informing him that his proposal was generating equal enthusiasm among prestigious American scientific institutions. Not only did these foundations have more money than many of their European counterparts, but they were also more open to Fawcett’s theory. The director of the American Geograph ical Society, Dr. Isaiah Bowman, had been a member of Hiram Bingham’s expedition that discovered Machu Picchu, which scientists at the time had never expected to be found. Dr. Bowman told a reporter, “We have known of Colonel Fawcett for many years as a man of soundest character and the highest integrity. We have the highest confidence, both in his capacity and his competence and reliability as a scientist.” The American Geographical Society offered the expedition a thousand-dollar grant; the Museum of the American Indian followed with another thousand dollars.

On November 4, 1924, Fawcett wrote Keltie, saying, “I judge from Lynch’s cable and letters that the whole affair… is catching the fancy of Americans. It is I suppose the romantic streak that has made and no doubt will make empires.” Warning that it was bound to come out that “a modern Columbus was turned down in England,” he offered the Society one last chance to support the mission. “The R.G.S. bred me as an explorer, and I don’t want them to be out of an expedition that was sure to make history, he said. Finally, with Keltie and other supporters lobbying on his behalf, and with scientists around the world gravitating toward the possibility of Z, the Society voted to support the expedition and help furnish it with equipment.

The total raised amounted to roughly five thousand dollars-less than the cost of one of Dr. Rice’s radios. This was not enough money for Fawcett, Jack, or Raleigh to draw a salary, and much of the financing from newspapers would be paid only upon completion of their journey. “If they don’t return there will be nothing” for the family to live on, Nina later wrote to Large.

“Not a sum which would inspire most explorers,” Fawcett told Keltie. But he added in another letter, “In some ways I am rather glad that not one of the three of us makes a red cent unless the journey is successful, for nobody can say we were after money in undertaking this rather perilous quest. It is an honest scientific research animated by its own exceptional interest and value.”

Fawcett and Jack paid a visit to the RGS, where all the ill feelings, all the frustrations, seemed to have evaporated. Everyone wished them luck. Reeves, the Society’s map curator, later recalled what “a fine young fellow” Jack was: “well built, tall and strong, very like his father.” Fawcett expressed his gratitude to Reeves and Keltie, who had never wavered in their support. “I shall rejoice in telling you the whole story in three years’ time,” he said.

Back at Stoke Canon, Fawcett, Jack, and the rest of the family were thrown into a whirl of packing and planning. It was decided that Nina and Joan, who was fourteen, would move to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where it was cheaper to live. Brian, who was devastated that his father had not chosen him for the expedition, had turned his attention to railroad engineering. With Fawcett’s help, he found work with a railroad company in Peru and was the first to depart for South America. The family accompanied Brian, who was only seventeen at the time, to the train station.

Fawcett told Brian that he would be responsible for Nina and his sister’s care during the expedition, and that any financial assistance he could give them would help them survive. The family made plans for the return of Fawcett and Jack as heroes. “In two years’ time they would be back, and, when my first home leave fell due, we would all meet again in England,” Brian later recalled. “After that we might make a family home in Brazil, where the work of the future years would undoubtedly lie.” Brian said farewell to his family and stepped onto the train. As the carriage pulled away, he stared out the window, watching as his father and brother slowly disappeared from view.

On December 3, 1924, Fawcett and Jack said goodbye to Joan and Nina and boarded the Aquitania for New York, where they were to meet Raleigh. The path to Z finally seemed secure. When they landed in New York a week later, however, Fawcett discovered that Lynch, his business partner of “unimpeachable character,” had sequestered himself, drunk and surrounded by prostitutes, in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “[He] succumbed to the lure of the ubiquitous bottle in this Prohibition City,” Fawcett wrote the RGS. He said that Lynch “must have suffered from alcoholic aberration. It may be more, for he was sexually disturbed.” The aberration had cost more than a thousand dollars of the expedition’s funds, and Fawcett feared that the mission was in danger of unraveling before it began. Yet the venture had already become an international sensation, prompting John D. Rockefeller Jr., the scion of the billionaire founder of Standard Oil and an ally of Dr. Bowman, to step forward with a check for forty-five hundred dollars, so that “the plan can be initiated at once.”

With his path to Z again clear, Fawcett could no longer even work up his notorious wrath toward Lynch, who had returned to London in disgrace. “He did precipitate this exploration, which is something to his credit, and The Gods select curious agents for their purposes sometimes,” Fawcett wrote the RGS. Plus, he said, “I am a great believer in the Law of Compensation.” He was sure that he had sacrificed all he had to give to reach Z. Now he hoped to receive what he called “the honour of immortality.”

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