The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The giant, bearded polar explorer who became a Hollywood celebrity

In ‘Wanderlust,’ Reid Mitenbuler recounts the rollicking life of Peter Freuchen, who spent nearly 20 years living with the Inuit

The explorer and writer Peter Freuchen. (Arktisk Institut)
6 min

At the turn of the 19th century, the northwest coast of Greenland was a kind of paradise. Not a classic one, most certainly. This was a stony, frigid place without tree or garden. Nine months of the year it was frozen solid, with winter temperatures well below zero. For three of those months the sun never rose. In the brief summer, even as the sun circled the horizon and never set, the thermometer seldom broke 40 degrees. Yet this apparent hell on Earth teemed with polar bear and walrus. Arctic fox and seal. Musk ox and auk. Among them were the polar Inuit, 300 or so of whom lived almost completely disconnected from the rest of Greenland — and the world — in near-perfect ecological adaptation. It was a world tough and spare and beautiful: high mountains, aqua-colored icebergs frozen in a snow-covered sea, laughter and mirth in warm stone and peat shelters as the wind and darkness raged outside.

Into this mesmerizing land stepped a 20-year-old Danish medical school dropout named Peter Freuchen. The year was 1906. Greenland had been a Danish colony since 1721, but sealers and whalers and Danish missionaries had been blocked from the polar Inuit by an ice-locked bay. As the race to the North and South poles became an international obsession, explorers penetrated ever farther, and Freuchen, desperate for adventure, signed on to a three-year Danish expedition hoping to map this unknown territory. He stood 6½ feet tall, and sported an unruly head of hair and beard — a look that became iconic throughout his life — and was immediately smitten by the world he found. Except for brief forays home to Denmark, he would spend nearly 20 years living with the Inuit, establishing the first trading post in the place named Thule (today the site of a massive U.S. military base that forcibly displaced the original village), marrying an Inuit woman and chronicling the culture of the high Arctic at a crucial moment in history. It was the opening chapter in a long and storied life that ultimately took him to Hollywood and the heights of New York glitterati, adventures of very different types that are all enthusiastically recounted in Reid Mitenbuler’s “Wanderlust: An Eccentric Explorer, an Epic Journey, a Lost Age.”

For decades Freuchen was a household name in Europe and America, thanks in part to his 30-odd novels and nonfiction bestsellers — two of them stood on my father’s bookshelves, which I first thumbed through at an early age, fuel for my own eventual journeys to the very places he roamed. Unlike so many polar explorers, men like Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, who seemed dark, driven egomaniacs, or Ernest Shackleton, the steely leader of men, the Freuchen whom Mitenbuler describes is a sort of golden retriever: a big, easygoing, indefatigable man always up for an adventure, always eager and sociable, remarkably untroubled and unreflective, despite occasional tragedy. Unusual during a time of colonialism and its righteous Christian proselytizing, Freuchen recognized the Inuit as complex humans with a deep culture perfectly adapted to their extraordinary environment, which he celebrated.

2 wonderful new books take armchair travelers to the Himalayas

Despite their vast cultural differences, he seems to have loved his first wife, Navarana, who was the gateway to his acceptance by the polar Inuit. She was 13 when they married, a fact that Mitenbuler is oddly never explicit about, perhaps trying to avoid the complexities of his protagonist marrying a child, and she died during the 1918 flu pandemic 10 years later, leaving Freuchen a single father of two children, who were largely raised by others. Severe frostbite to his left foot — he amputated his own toes with pliers in the wild, on what was known as the Fifth Thule Expedition — eventually led to its total amputation and ended his days as an explorer (but left him with a peg leg that enhanced his romantic appeal to the general public). He returned to Denmark, remarried, wrote books, bought a farm.

Bouncing between there and the United States, Freuchen cut a dashing, romantic figure through Hollywood, where he wrote screenplays and even appeared in a movie. He abetted the Danish resistance during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and was eventually arrested. Legend has it that he made a daring escape, though Mitenbuler makes clear that nothing of the kind occurred; he was simply released at the behest of Danish officials. After divorcing his second wife, he fell madly in love with a Vogue magazine illustrator, and thus began his last incarnation, hobnobbing with the actor Paul Robeson in Manhattan and trotted out by anyone needing a giant, bearded Arctic explorer with a peg leg. In that phase of his life, he won the American game show “The $64,000 Question” in 1956 before dying of a heart attack in Alaska en route to a televised overflight of the North Pole.

Wanderlust is at times a rollicking book about a remarkable life, but Mitenbuler runs into two problems. First, for all his adventures, Freuchen was mostly a supporting character. He opened the trading post in Thule as an employee of Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen and a host of wealthy Danish investors (who eventually fired Freuchen). It was Rasmussen, not Freuchen, who organized and led the famed Thule expeditions. Freuchen likewise neither directed, produced or spearheaded the various film projects he was involved in. His real accomplishment was his years among a remote and vibrant culture at a special time and, of course, the books he wrote about it. Much of “Wanderlust feels like the story of a celebrity living off his youthful Arctic sojourns but never quite able to equal them again.

A little-known French archaeologist, finally in the limelight

Second, Mitenbuler is often so caught up in Freuchen’s frenetic movements that he seldom pauses to make enough sense of them, or the “lost age” of early-20th-century exploration in which Freuchen moved. Freuchen’s marriage to Navarana and her death; his fatherhood to a son from another man; his daughter, raised by her grandparents; the quality of his books; his travels through South America and the Soviet Union — we see everything passing at high speed, but I kept wanting more stocktaking and introspection, both from Freuchen himself and from Mitenbuler.

Still, “Wanderlust made me envious of the time and the man, and searching my bookshelf, I found five Freuchens, three of which I’d never opened. They’re on my nightstand now.

Carl Hoffman is the author of five books, including “Savage Harvest,” “The Lunatic Express” and “Liar’s Circus.” He has traveled throughout Greenland and once walked across the frozen North Star Bay to the abandoned village of Thule, where Peter Freuchen lived.


An Eccentric Explorer, an Epic Journey, a Lost Age

By Reid Mitenbuler

HarperCollins. 512 pp. $45

More from Book World

Join Book Club: Delivered to your inbox on Fridays, a selection of book reviews and recommendations from Book World editor Ron Charles. Sign up for the newsletter.

Best books of 2022: See our picks for the 10 best books of 2022 or dive into your favorite genre. Look to the best thrillers and mysteries to keep you on the edge of your seat, get lost in the possibilities of the best sci-fi and fantasy, and spark some joy with these 14 feel-good reads.

There’s more: Those looking for love stories should check out the best romance novels of 2022. And for the young (and young at heart) in your life, see the best children’s and YA books and top graphic novels. Plus, six BookTok stars share their favorite reads of the year. Audiobooks more your thing? We’ve got you covered there, too.

Still need more reading inspiration? Check out reviews for the latest in fiction and nonfiction.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.