Thursday, 6 July 2017

Komodo Dragons in the 1930s: a zoo quest before ‘Zoo Quest’ with links to Adolf Hitler, nazi spy scares, the FBI, a cuckolded husband and John F Kennedy

I was mystified when I came across an article in the June 1939 edition of Animal and Zoo Magazine. I have read a fair bit both scientific and popular on the natural history and history of the Komodo Dragon. Some of the popular books and articles I found to contain misprints, incorrect references and misinterpretations and none that I had found covered the story in that article from 1939.



Reading the article, entitled ‘Island of Dragons’ was the start of a search for more information but one which seemed at first attempt to lead nowhere. The article was written by Dr Paul Fejas (note the spelling ‘Fejas') and describes his attempts to capture Komodo Dragons and, under licence from the Dutch colonial government, to ship one to Stockholm Zoo and another to Copenhagen. He caught nineteen, chose two of moderate size that he thought would withstand the long journey, and released the rest. He noted that the two reached their destinations.

But who was the writer? Google searches revealed nothing but came back suggesting I meant ‘Fejos’ not ‘Fejas’. Eventually I realised that the magazine article was by Dr Paul Fejos (1897-1963). A typographical error had led me on a wild goose chase. I should not have been surprised because in the same article ‘Paranus’ instead of ‘Varanus’ is used a couple of times.

from Dodds (1973)

It was Dr Paul Fejos who collected the dragons while on Komodo to film them, thereby predating the BBC’s Zoo Quest and its same objectives by nearly twenty years. His own remarkable history is exceeded by that of Inga Arvad (1913-1973) his then wife—the subject of a recent book—a Scandinavian beauty queen, journalist and actress who interviewed Adolf Hitler and other leading nazis, who was suspected of being a German spy by the paranoid but thorough F.B.I., who became, while married to Fejos and being bugged by the F.B.I., the yet-to-be President John F. Kennedy’s lover and who, later, became a leading British politician’s short-term fiancée. 

Paul Fejos rewrote his own history so there are a number of alt-facts, i.e. lies, myths and legends, out there. His version appears in a biography that verges on a hagiography published shortly after his death; even the author of that—a friend of Fejos—did not not know what was truth and what was self-made myth. The truth seems more prosaic but nonetheless remarkable. 

Paul Fejos was born in Hungary in 1897. According to a Wikipedia biography which seems to sort the myths from reality in his early life, he served as a medical orderly in the Austrian Army on the Italian Front in the First Word War while a medical student. He graduated from the Royal Hungarian Medical University in Budapest (now Semmelweis University) in 1921 but developed a fascination for cinema and theatre, directing films, plays and operas. He never practised medicine. He left Hungary in 1923 and reached the U.S.A. via Vienna, Paris and Berlin. After manual work in a piano factory he found a job as technician at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York working for Jacques Jacob Bronfenbrenner (1883-1953) on bacteriophages. He left there for California and the hope of getting to Hollywood. The story of how he got started as a director there involves being picked up while hitchhiking by a rich man who wanted to be a film producer.

The cinema buffs’ websites describe Fejos’s successful career as a Hollywood director. But he tired of the place and returned to Europe to make early sound films. By 1934 he was in Denmark working for Nordisk (now making some of the Scandi series shown on BBC4 on Saturday nights).. It was during this time that he married, as his third wife, Inga Arvad, whom he recruited to star in one of his films. But he was tiring of fiction and while trying to get out of his contract with Nordisk persuaded them to send him to Madagascar with a cameraman but without Inga to make a documentary. Although unsuitable for a full-length feature film, the footage was used to make a series of documentaries which, by being factual rather than staged stories, earned the respect of anthropologists.

Fejos was hooked by his new interest in anthropology. He was commissioned by the Swedish Svensk Filmindistri to make a whole series of ethnographic films in Asia. In 1937 and 1938 he and Inga travelled in much of the Far East and made films in Indonesia, the Philippines, New Guinea, Ceylon and Thailand during 1937 and 1938, including the 13-minute The Komodo Dragon (Draken på Komodo). Although Inga was supposed to be radio operator and ‘script girl’ she was left at the Helena May Institute in Hong Kong when the film crew set off for Komodo. But the first landing on Komodo was a disaster—allegedly. Fejos’s motor boat lowered from a freighter into a strong current hit a reef and split in two. The three men (Fejos, camera and radio operators) swam ashore and managed only to retrieve rope and torches. They could find no water and felt doomed. But the ship that that dropped them appeared on the horizon during the night. It had gone round the island because of the state of the tide rather than sail away through the strait between Komodo and Sumbawa. Using a torch from the top of the tree they managed to signal SOS and the ship’s boat picked them up the next day. Another—this time successful—landing was made a few weeks later, with Inga being left on the neighbouring island of Sumbawa. I will return to the filming and capture of the dragons later.

Whilst in Singapore, the film party was invited on board the yacht Southern Cross by her owners, Axel and Marguerite Wenner-Gren. According to Inga’s biography, the meeting was engineered by Fejos’s sound recordist who contacted the Wenner-Grens to say that fellow Scandinavians were in Singapore making films about the East. That meeting set Fejos off in a completely new direction.

Axel Wenner-Gren was said to be one of the wealthiest men in the world. He owned Electrolux, early manufacturers of washing machines and refrigerators, and was one of the founders of Saab. Fejos and Wenner-Gren became great friends and the latter decided to finance a filming expedition to Peru in 1939. It started in Maldonado (yup, been there, tick) in the Peruvian amazon and went badly. Peruvian soldiers accompanying part of the large expedition were inveigled into helping one tribe involved in a tribal war. At least one death resulted. But while in Cusco Fejos heard reports of buried cities and obtained further funding from Wenner-Gren to explore the area along the trail to Machu Picchua and beyond. Here the expedition uncovered, mapped and photographed large and small Incan cities and roads. He also continued, between phases of the main expedition, his ethnographic filming.

While all this was going on Inga had been left in the U.S.A. Her links as a budding journalist with Hitler and other leading nazis and Wenner-Gren’s suspected support for nazi Germany (including using his vast South American holdings to advance German infiltration in South America) created the perfect storm. The F.B.I. kept a close and paranoid eye on both of them as well as on Fejos’s expedition.

It was while Fejos was in South America that Inga began her affair with John F. Kennedy. He was serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. The F.B.I. bugged there every action and it is thought the head of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover, used the material to remind the then President Kennedy that he had it and that he wished to remain in post; he did.

Fejos and Inga Arvad were divorced in 1942. In the meantime, Wenner-Gren in dispute with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, set up the Viking Fund in New York to support anthropology. He endowed the fund with $2.5 million worth of shares in Electrolux and Servel (fridges and air conditioners) and appointed Paul Fejos to run it.

Eventually it was realised that neither Inga Arvad and Wenner-Gren (who had his assets frozen by the U.S. and British governments) were nazi sympathisers. The Viking Fund was re-named the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in 1951, Fejos remained as its head until his death in 1963. The Foundation continues to support research in anthropology.

I do not know how history has treated Paul Fejos’s reputation in his final career in ethnology and anthropology. The fact that he supported the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and his crazy notions on human evolution I could not fail to hold against him.

But back to Komodo. The article in Animal and Zoo Magazine describes how he caught the dragons and in notes published in his biography, Fejos wrote of his second landing:

     A little later I went back to the blasted island, because I decided that I wouldn't allow it to lick me. But I went back with two native sailboats and many fresh coconuts. We drank coconut water during the whole time and were able to work. Also, I brought some extra coolies with me, and we trapped the dragons in traps which we constructed on the island. They were box, gravity-fall traps; a skeleton of a box was made with wood, and then chicken wire nailed on it all around. We put a dead goat inside, and about three days later when the goat smelled to high heaven, then the dragons came down, one after the other.
     The Komodo dragon was even then a protected animal; nobody was allowed to catch or shoot one. But when I told the Java officials what we had seen, they asked me please to try to catch one for the zoo in Java, if I went back. They gave me permission to capture or kill two animals for myself and to capture one for them, which I did. When I came back, they asked me how many were on the island, and I said, “I haven't the slightest idea, but from what I saw and the frequency of the encounter, maybe three or four hundred, maybe more.

'Having slipped a noose around your dragon's neck your difficulties
are only just starting, as the picture below shows'
Animal and Zoo Magazine
'Though equipped with formidable teeth the dragon's most powerful weapon
is his scaly tail'
'The wire trap is set with its inviting bait of goat or deer, and when caught,
the dragon still needs careful watching, for it is very cunning.

     Of the two we captured and kept, one went to the Zoological Gardens in Stockholm, and one went to the Zoological Gardens in Copenhagen, where in due course they died, not from illness or climate, but from visitors. Some stupid visitor threw beer caps into the place and they ate them. One of them had a perforated intestine; we performed an autopsy on him later. The one which went to Stockholm was 14½ feet long, the Copenhagen one 13 feet.

There is a photograph of the one sent to Copenhagen but by this time stuffed and on display in the museum. 


from Dodds (1973)

Fejos’s collecting activities are not mentioned in The Living Dragon by Dick and Marie Lutz. The authors suggest that the Stockholm and Copenhagen specimens were obtained by de Jong in 1937 who collected on Flores and possibly Komodo and who supplied a number of zoos with specimens. Clearly we now know the ones in Stockholm and Copenhagen came from Fejos.

Readers in Britain of a certain age will be puzzled to learn which well-known politician was Inga briefly affianced. It was Robert Boothby, later Lord Boothby, the ambisexual ‘bounder but not a cad’ who was the long-term lover of the Prime Minister’s wife, Dorothy Macmillan, and acquaintance—at least—of the notorious Kray twins.

So having had a celebrity magazine tour of the 1930s and 40s, I found that having searched fruitlessly for the misprinted name above the main article, Animal and Zoo Magazine had go it right, as Fejos, in the list of contents on the first page!


Paul Fejos in 1962
by Robert Fuchs (in oils)
(reproduced in Dodds, 1963)


Dodds JW. 1973. The Several Lives of Paul Fejos. Wnnner-Gren Foundation. (John Wendell Dodds 1902-1989, Stanford University)*

Dodds JW. 1963. Eulogy for Paul Fejos. Current Anthropology 4, 405-406*

Farris, S. Inga. Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect. Guilford, Connecticut: LP

Fejas [sic] P. 1939. Island of Dragons. Animal and Zoo Magazine 4 (1, June 1939) 4-6

Lutz D, Lutz JM. 1997. The Living Dragon. 2nd edition. Salem, Oregon: DIMI Press

*When I bought the biography for a song from a bookseller, the eulogy was found folded inside together with a letter which began:

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is pleased to send you with its compliments this copy of The Several Lives of Paul Fejos. This limited edition is being distributed to many of the Foundation’s past and current grantees, to those who have helped the Foundation over the years in the design and execution of its programs, and to others who will want to gain insight into the traditions of the Foundation’s philosophy, style and approach.
Unfortunately, the book bears no signature or plate so I do not know who the recipient was.