The biography of a man who “competed for the last great prize in polar exploration.”
Readers who grew up devouring the Tom Swift adventure novels, with their flying boats and subocean geotrons, will find much to like in Maynard’s (The Unseen Anzac: How an Enigmatic Explorer Created Australia’s World War I Photographs, 2015, etc.) engrossing biography of Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951). He was something of a “mystery” to the author until he came upon a cache of Ellsworth’s papers, which “opened an intimate window into one of the strangest episodes in polar history.” The son of a domineering, ultrawealthy coal baron, Ellsworth was an insecure man in search of a purpose. A college dropout, he had the money to do whatever he wanted, so he became a professional adventurer. He prospected for gold and participated in a buffalo hunt (which he wrote a book about) and a geological survey in Peru. His life changed in 1924 when he met Roald Amundsen, the “world’s greatest polar explorer.” Ellsworth’s father provided the financing for the two of them to explore the Arctic by air, but the expedition failed. After Ellsworth’s father died, he inherited millions. He financed Amundsen’s semirigid airship expedition to be the first to reach the North Pole by air. But Richard Byrd did it first, although, as Maynard notes, he actually came up short. Ellsworth then financed explorer Hubert Wilkins’ expedition to travel in a submarine to the North Pole. It failed. After a series of harrowing, unsuccessful Arctic expeditions by air, finally, in 1935, using a reconditioned herring boat which Ellsworth named after one of his heroes, Wyatt Earp, and a specially modified airplane he named Polar Star, Ellsworth and his pilot were the first to cross Antarctica. “By guess or by God,” Maynard writes, it “remains an incredible achievement.”
Filled with a sumptuous cast of real-life adventurers, this is an engrossing and stirring tale.