My mother, Liv Coucheron Torp, was married to Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian scientist and explorer whose Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947 became one of the great enduring adventure stories of all time. That tale, published in 1950, came to the big screen first as a documentary and is now an Oscar-nominated drama scheduled to open here on Friday. I attended the movie’s premiere in Oslo last summer, which was in many ways the culmination of a journey that took root in my family even before “Kon-Tiki” was conceived.
Liv and Thor met as college students at the University of Oslo and were married when she was just 20 and he was 22. They had an audacious plan for their new life together, which is depicted briefly on film. Drawing from Thor’s studies of zoology and primitive man and his desire to step away from the modern world, they set out on a grand experiment: Could modern man truly go back to nature? Could this contemporary Adam and Eve travel not only geographically to the end of the world but also step back into the Stone Age and live like ancient man?
After having extracted nervous consent and expedition funding from their parents, the young couple were married on Christmas Eve 1936 and the next morning they left for the most remote and untouched place they could find. The South Pacific island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas lies 1,000 miles from Tahiti and is reached only by an annual visit from a schooner plying the coconut trade. The newlyweds landed on this sub-equatorial shore with no provisions, weapons, or radio. They had been named Mr. and Mrs. Blue Sky while pausing en route in Tahiti, where everyone advised them they may as well be dropping off the planet. Only under duress did they agree to take with them a machete and cooking pot. The natives were as advertised — sullen, unfriendly, and plagued by diseases from the outside world, including leprosy and elephantiasis, introduced by the rare visitors since the days of Captain Cook. Cannibalism had only recently fallen out of fashion on the island. The last living cannibal made the uncomfortable observation while looking at my mother that a woman’s forearm was the most delectable as far as human flesh was concerned.
Settling into paradise proved to be daunting on many levels — think tropical heat, disease-carrying mosquitoes, venomous insects and snakes, dangerously hostile native people, biblically destructive rain, and life-threatening skin disease — but they did manage to build a traditional hut and live off the land, as well as collect and study zoological and botanical specimens. They also discovered surprising artifacts and stories from the local oral history coupled with observations on prevailing winds and currents that led them to hypothesize that ancient human migration could have come from South America in the East. The accepted theory was that ancient man came exclusively from Asia in the West. This time spent in far-flung Polynesia provided the ideas behind the Kon-Tiki expedition. Thor Heyerdahl’s lifetime study of ancient man coupled with extraordinary expeditions to help prove his theories would also bring attention to his concerns about man’s degradation of the world’s great natural resources. He was a pioneering environmentalist. After a year, Liv and Thor were forced to abandon the island and return to the modern world which would quickly include the birth of my two half brothers, Thor and Bamse, and World War II. They wrote a book about their audacious adventure called “Fatu Hiva.”
Charismatic explorers make challenging spouses, and so Liv and Thor divorced shortly before the Kon-Tiki expedition, which my mother had helped organize. In fact, she had collaborated closely with her husband, not only on “Fatu Hiva” but also the many papers and talks he gave, yet her name is conspicuously absent. I think she could see the writing on the wall: Thor gone for long stretches in dangerous circumstances that she could not join because she had to be at home with her young sons. In addition, the international spotlight shining on their family was an uncomfortable fit for her. After the war, they were featured in a popular poster image as the new face of Norway, followed by the promotion of the Kon-Tiki expedition. She did not want to stand in the way of his destiny, nor in his shadow. She had talents and charisma of her own, and she raised my two brothers in a simple cabin in the snowy mountains of Lillehammer, largely by herself.
Several years later she fell in love with another adventurer and writer. My father, James S. Rockefeller Jr., had been sailing in the South Pacific for three years and had just finished following the reindeer migration with the Sami people of Arctic Norway while working on a documentary film. They were soon married and I was born in that same Nordic cabin and named after my mother. Our family moved to an old blueberry farm on the coast of Maine when I was 6. The rugged northern landscape reminded Liv of her native country and we returned to Norway frequently to see family and friends. In 1969, when I was 11, my extraordinary mother died of melanoma. We speculate that perhaps it was a result of her time in the equatorial sun of Fatu Hiva and the nearly fatal skin disease and infection she suffered there. She was 52.
I had never met Thor Heyerdahl until a stroke of serendipity brought him to speak at the University of Maine 15 years ago. He was in his 80s but seemingly years younger and doing archeological work in northern Peru in conjunction with the university. He gave a spellbinding lecture to a sold-out audience. Afterward I stood in line with the rest of the ardent crowd to have books signed. When it was my turn, I placed my well-read copy of “Fatu Hiva” in front of him, looked into his blue eyes, and said “I am Liv’s daughter.” Silence. Stillness. We gazed at each other in wonder. He invited me to dinner that night and shared things about my mother I had never heard. Stories of how tough and brave and intelligent she was. Stories I hungered for. He told me that their time in the Marquesas, despite the many difficulties, was one of the happiest of his life and by far the greatest adventure of his long, illustrious career. He said that in stepping out of technological civilization and the world of “progress” and into their mythic Garden of Eden, what they both discovered was that the only place to find paradise was within themselves.
We met again a year later and made promises to organize a longer visit, perhaps in the Canary Islands where he then lived. That plan was thwarted by his sudden death in 2002. I attended his state funeral in Oslo, joining my brothers, their children, and grandchildren. It was so touching to see my mother’s sparkling eyes, elegant spirit, and sense of adventure written in the faces of her progeny who live scattered across the globe.
This past August, we all gathered again in Oslo for the premiere of the movie “Kon-Tiki.” It was held at the spectacular new opera house on the harbor, with the red carpet rolled out for a guest list that included the king and queen. It was an extravagant, exciting event, not only for my family but for all of Norway. My brother, Thor Heyerdahl Jr., was sitting beside Queen Sonja, and he remarked that she was moved to tears at the end of the film. The collective emotion in the theater was palpable. Heyerdahl is a beloved national hero who embodies the Viking spirit of exploration and adventure. Pal Hagen, who plays Heyerdahl in the film, bears a strong physical resemblance to the young Thor. He also captures Heyerdahl’s particular combination of soft boyish innocence and iron-strength determination. There was some license taken by the directors in dramatizing the conflicts between crew members, when in fact relations were uncinematically harmonious. In particular, the sometimes unflattering portrayal of Herman Watzinger created a scandal in the Norwegian press.
Meeting Agnes Kittelsen, the actress who plays my mother, was a strange and endearing moment. She did a masterful job, but it was the smallest detail of her onscreen portrayal that made my heart squeeze and eyes fill. My mother had a magnificent head of wild, unruly hair that she tamed with a scarf folded in a wide band and tied around her head, with big curls escaping at will throughout the day. It was a fashion quirk born of necessity that I have never seen on anyone else, until I saw Kittelsen in her final moving scene. She is walking in the tall grass toward the cabin and the life I would be born into 15 years later, and there it is, my mother’s scarf wrapped just so, barely containing the wildness within.