He said he “was born under a lucky star”. Yet, Roy Chapman Andrews, that good ‘ole American chaser of bandits, dinosaur eggs and lost civilisations, was always the kind of man who made his own luck. He charmed a generation of daydreamers with his stories of the Gobi desert — and that hat —and while there’s been a lot of speculation as to who could’ve inspired George Lucas’ beloved Indiana Jones, no one fits the bill quite like Andrews. After all, he may not have battled Nazis, but who else charges into a pack of robbers head-on, just to shoot the hats off their heads?
Before the fame, he was just a Wisconsin boy who dabbled, as one does in the Midwest in the 1800s, in marksmanship and taxidermy. He set out to get his foot in the door at the American Museum of Natural History while pursuing a Masters in Mammalogy. Never one to turn down an opportunity, he started out as a Janitor at the storied institution, bringing in his own specimens to try to pique the staff’s interest.
That’s lesson numero uno from Andrews life: that behind the blockbuster backdrops of all those grand expeditions we saw on the silver screen, there’s a lot of unglamorous time spent holed up in the library. Not to mention, fundraising (even worse), but Andrews found clever ways to get the money needed for their trips, from publishing his personal “adventure stories” in a magazine for teens that took in $30,000. After a whirlwind Gobi Desert pitch to J.P. Morgan — himself a seeker of cultural treasures — the titan of industry proclaimed, “I’ll gamble with you,” and wrote a check for $50,000.
It paid off. One of his earliest assignments was to retrieve the skeleton of a dead whale from Long Island Beach for the Museum of Natural History. That complete skeleton is still on display at the museum’s department of mammology.
Andrews spent the next decade circling the globe, hitching rides aboard whaling ships, and generally skirting death in a fedora with the same cheeky wit as Dr. Jones. He fell off cliffs, was almost eaten by wild dogs, nearly drowned in a typhoon and had his ship “charged by a wounded whale” (a near-death experience we’re certainly hoping taught him a very good lesson about hanging around on whaling ships).
Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering, his wife — the real life version of Indy’s gal Marion, you could say — was Yvette Borup, a talented explorer and photographer in her own right. She accompanied Andrews on many of his travels, and liked to say their honeymoon was actually the Natural History Museum’s first Asiatic zoological expedition:
You might also recall that the one fear Indiana Jones does have is snakes, which might’v been inspired by Andrews’ run ins with garter snakes in Wisconsin as a boy, his near-strangulation by a python as an adult, his camp’s invasion by pit vipers — there was just no shortage of classic snake stuff, really. He put it all down in his 1943 autobiography, Under a Lucky Star, which immortalised not only his discoveries, but a unique breed of charm and audacity that’s so synonymous with Dr. Jones.
Take Andrews’ expeditions in the Gobi Desert in the 1920s. Heading to the harsh climate was exotic enough for folks back home in suburbia, and when they heard his crew was traveling in a fleet of automobiles as well as camel-back? For some, he came off as a crackpot eccentric.
But hey, in a world where there’s always been little funding for science, he knew how to work with big companies and sponsors to make exploring sexy, and get the financial support they needed:
One day, Andrews’ crew was about to drive down a steep slope in the desert when they saw four men with rifles, on horseback, waiting for them at the bottom. Turning around seemed logistically impossible, and rather than even try, Andrews slammed on the gas, high-tailing it straight at the bandits, whose horses bucked them off in fear. And of course, before driving off into the sunset, Andrews pulled right up to one of the men, and shot his hat right off his head. “It bobbed up and down,” he later said, shrugging off the moment, “it was too great a temptation to be resisted.”
But it was in the “Flaming Cliffs” of Mongolia that our cowboy-palaeontologist made the discovery of a lifetime: an entire preserved nest of dinosaur eggs. Remember, the world had never seen dinosaur eggs before — until then, the idea of a “dinosaur egg” was still just a theory.
When Chapman brought those babies home to the Big Apple, he was a hero. “I was born to be an explorer,” he said, “There was never any decision to make. I couldn’t do anything else and be happy.”
It’s fitting that his legacy lives on at the Explorer’s Club in New York City, where the worn, red flag he took to the Gobi Desert is framed upon the wall.
We were given a private peek at the society’s headquarters in Manhattan, whose castle-like facade hides some of the world’s rarest treasures, each carrying the weight of a different explorer’s story that’s more jaw-dropping than the next…
Buzz Aldrin, Elon Musk, and Neil Armstrong are all members, and some of their personal effects also adorn the walls. The first floor has a coffee table made out of a hatch cover for the USS Explorer, the only research vessel that survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the second floor is guarded by an old polar bear (don’t worry, they’re anti-poaching today), the balcony was actually imported from a 15th century French monastery in the Pyrenees, and the third floor? Well we won’t give that away. Head there for yourself, to walk in the footsteps of the real Indiana Jones for a day…
Special thanks to Michelle Fedder and the Explorer’s Club.