Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
“I guess I do,” he finally said. ”I’m torn between my loyalty to my grandfather, which has been a central part of my life since I was born, and my mature status as a naval historian. I’m torn between having my grandfather’s accomplishments doubted and having the truth on the record, no matter what it is. So it’s a hard call. If I had to do it over again, I might not.”
Robert Peary, Jr., says he isn’t sorry the papers were opened. “It would have happened sooner or later,” he pointed out. “And whenever it happened, somebody would be ready to pounce. No, I don’t feel any remorse about that. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out, there is nothing there that gives absolute proof. These observations could be faked, they could be juggled. It doesn’t mean anything. You have to interpret them by the man who wrote them. And as far as I’m concerned, my father was impeccable.”
The son of the explorer sat in the parlor of his Victorian house in Maine, surrounded by mementos of his father’s career. Six-foot-long narwhal horns leaned casually against a wall near a pair of walrus tusks, and chunks of rock from Cape Columbia, Peary’s jumping-off point for the dash across the Arctic Sea ice, lay on a side table. The explorer’s pianola, along with its original paper music rolls (an eclectic collection, ranging from Gounod’s “Faust” to Peary’s personal favorite, the “Smoky Mokes Cakewalk”) sat in one corner.
Bob, as he chooses to be called, was not quite five years old in July of 1908, when his father sailed away on the specially constructed exploration ship Theodore Roosevelt. “Come back soon, Dad,” the little boy said, a heart-tugging detail that was widely reported at the time and shows up in most of the explorer’s biographies.
“I don’t remember much about the departure,” Bob says now. “The ship’s mascot was a cat, and I was much more interested in that.”
He’s not much interested in the Peary Cook controversy, or any other controversy, and has steadfastly refused to be drawn into it. Partly that’s because few know he is still alive — “Sometimes I wonder myself,” he chuckled — but mostly it is because he has made his own life, outside of his father’s giant shadow.
“I don’t recall that it had any influence on me,” he says of his father’s fame. “I just took it as it came. I didn’t capitalize on it. I didn’t denigrate it.” Like his father, he was a civil engineer. Unlike his father, he has stayed close to home and his wife Inez, and his own son, Robert Peary III. “I never was one to push out in public,” says Bob. “I live a quiet life. I have a loving wife and a happy home, and I don’t know how anybody can be more successful than that.”
The Pearys have many anecdotes that show a gentle, loving side to the great explorer — how he helped young Bob build a pier at Eagle Island and patiently sewed live roses onto a white dress that Jo was to wear to a White House reception. “He was a rare combination of a doer and a dreamer,” Bob said.
I asked him what was the most important lesson his father taught him, and he answered: “Straight, strong, and honest! He used to din that into me. Morally straight, physically strong, and honest!”
Dr. Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin, is sick to death of answering questions about who reached the Pole first. “We say, ‘We don’t know, and we don’t think we’ll ever know.’ But we try to use that interest to educate people about the Arctic. There is so much at stake, there are stories just as fascinating, full of ethical dilemmas. Take the question of whether Inuit hunters should be allowed to kill bowhead whales. There you have the survival of an endangered species versus the survival of an endangered culture. If someone wants to become famous by conquering something today, I wish he’d conquer that one.”