Saturday, 2 September 2017

Mad Dogs and Servicemen: Peter Freuchen

In which G.M. Norton introduces you to possibly the most extraordinary person ever.


As my little introduction suggests, I was recently alerted to an extraordinary human being who died on this very day 60 years ago. His name? Peter Freuchen.

I absolutely adore this photograph of Freuchen and his third wife, Dagmar Cohn, which was taken in 1947. If there’s one visual clue that could possibly hint at Freuchen being something of a staggering character, it’s this beguiling portrait of a mountain of a man wearing a coat made from polar bear fur. You don’t doubt that to acquire the fur, Freuchen personally wrestled with Mr. Polar Bear and won.

Standing at a towering 6ft 7 inches, Freuchen was a Danish arctic explorer, anthropologist, author and dabbler of the motion picture. 

Keen to see some of the most remote parts of the world, Freuchen embarked on his first expedition to Greenland in 1906 when he was just 20 years of age. After sailing thousands of miles, he then travelled a further 7,000 miles on dogsled.

It was during his frequent expeditions to Greenland that Freuchen discovered Inuit culture. Feeling at home, he decided to stay and make a life for himself where he learned the lingo and went on hunting trips to spear walruses, seals, polar bears (hence the coat) and no doubt lots more. In 1911, he married his first wife, an Inuit lady called Navarana and they had two children. Sadly, Navarana died of Spanish flu in 1921. Freuchen wanted her buried in an old church graveyard but the church refused as his wife wasn’t baptized. Undeterred, Freuchen buried her there himself.
Freuchen made his name writing more than 30 books, mainly about his exploits and Inuit culture.

After Freuchen’s wife died, he returned Denmark for a while, where he started writing the first of 30 books. Due to the success of his writing, Freuchen became the head of a film company specialising in Arctic releases. He even had a role in the 1933 Oscar-winning film, Eskimo, which was based on a book that he wrote.

Freuchen married again in 1924. The lucky lady was a heiress, Magda Lauridsen (her family ran a very profitable margarine business). Magda’s parents took an immediate liking to their giant of a son-in-law so when they launched a new magazine, Freuchen was made Editor-In-Chief.

Of course, Freuchen wasn’t content simply to live the millionaire lifestyle and write books. With an appetite for adventure, he continued to embark on expeditions into the unknown. It was during one trip to Greenland in 1926 where our bearded hero found himself buried under an avalanche. Trapped under solid ice, he recalled that the natives often made tools using frozen dog excrement. A quick bowel movement later, Freuchen crafted a chisel from his icy faeces which he used to dig his way free.

Unfortunately, his ordeal was not over. During his long trek back to camp after the chisel incident,  Freuchen suffered severe frostbite. With gangrene toes, he pulled them off himself with a pair of pliers. When he reached the safety of his camp, the rest of his leg had to be amputated, so he had a wooden leg fitted.

In 1938, Freuchen founded ‘The Adventurer’s Club’ in Denmark. You must wonder what drastic things a would-be member would need to do to be granted admittance into what I imagine would be a wood-panelled club house with animal heads mounted over fireplaces. Not to mention humidors aplenty.

During this time, Nazi Germany were busy attempting world domination, which the Jewish Freuchen was not too pleased about. When Germany invaded Denmark, Freuchen fought in the Danish Resistance where he caused as much trouble as he could for Hitler’s troops.
The Nazis eventually caught up with him and sentenced Freuchen to death. Of course, that’s not where the story ends as Freuchen escaped to neighbours, Sweden.

Following the collapse of his second marriage, in 1945, Freuchen moved to America. Perhaps in an effort to not feel quite so tall, he decided to call New York City his new home where he married his third wife, Vogue fashion illustrator Dagmar Cohn. Missing his Adventurer’s Club back in Denmark, Freuchen joined the New York Explorer’s Club which today has a huge portrait of this giant of a man hanging on their wall.

In 1956, Freuchen was invited to be a contestant on popular quiz, The $64,000 Question where he became the fifth person to walk away with the $64,000 prize.

A year after his appearance on the Idiot’s Lantern, the larger-than-life explorer, who had survived an icy coffin, cut off his own toes and escaped from a Nazi prison of war camp, had a heart attack and died. He was 71 years old. His ashes were scattered over Thule in Greenland.


G.M. Norton
Protagonist of 'Norton of Morton'

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2 comments:

  1. What an impressive chap! And a strange tip for digging out of avalanches...

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    Replies
    1. A very strange tip! But importantly, effective too.

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