Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
This is a tale familiar to my fellow Yale graduates, which is why I neglected to tell it when I visited Machu Picchu some months ago. But it’s worth telling, nonetheless. It is the story of the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones.
In 1907, Yale University sought a replacement for its resident expert on Latin American history, Edward Gaylord Bourne, who would soon die an early death in his 40s. Yale wound up appointing one Hiram Bingham III. Bingham was the son of missionaries and had grown up in Hawaii, where his grandfather Hiram I founded the Punahou School, which he attended and from which both Barack Obama and Sun Yatsen, the father of modern China, also graduated.
Bingham had done his undergrad work at Yale and his doctorate at Harvard. But he was not trained as an archaeologist, merely a general historian of Latin America. Nevertheless, in 1911 he led an expedition to Peru, where he discovered, or rather rediscovered, the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. A number of others claimed to have located the city before he did, and in any event local people had guided him to the site. Additionally, many of Bingham’s theories about Machu Picchu have not stood the test of time. Even so, it is indisputable that it was Bingham who put Machu Picchu on the map for the Western general public.
Bingham brought thousands of artifacts that he found in Machu Picchu back to the United States, where they were housed at a Yale museum. For decades the Peruvian government sought the return of the artifacts until in 2007 the country and the university finally reached an agreement providing for the repatriation of Bingham’s finds. Many of these are now in a museum in Cusco.
Bingham went on to a career in politics — and here was where his life diverged with Indy’s. He became a U.S. senator for the State of Connecticut, and, for one day, its governor. In the Senate he would end up on the receiving end of a censure resolution for a scandal involving an “irregular arrangement” with a lobbyist.
The story picks up with Bingham’s son, Hiram IV, who usually gets short shrift when people tell the story of the real-life Indiana Jones. You know how Indy was an archaeologist who fought the Nazis? Well, Hiram III lived too early to have had much to do with them. But Hiram IV was a U.S. diplomat posted in Marseilles in 1939. When France fell to Nazi forces in 1940, Hiram IV, ignoring U.S. policy that discouraged Jewish immigration, began handing out papers freely to help Jews get to the United States. He is credited as having helped some 2,500 Jews escape the Nazi and Vichy regimes, including painter Marc Chagall and political philosopher Hannah Arendt. For his troubles, Hiram IV was abruptly transferred to Argentina and passed over for promotion.
To me, then, Indiana Jones will always be an amalgam of father and son, the professor-explorer and the man of moral courage who stood up to Fascism, the man who might have said, as Indy does in “The Last Crusade”: “Nazis, I hate these guys.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."