December 25, 2023 • © 2023 The New York Times Company NYTCo
OPINION | GUEST ESSAY
A Hero For Our Times
By Allegra Rosenberg
We don’t have national heroes anymore. When we put public figures up on pedestals today, it’s not always about their honor and bravery. And it may not even be for their beauty or wealth — scammers and criminals are seemingly as likely to become icons as any. We love those who put on a show.
We don’t need to mourn the age of the upright, brave hero — but maybe we should look back in time for the cranks, weirdos and oddballs who missed the 21st-century audience who could have appreciated them. One man who fell through the cracks of history was Frederick A. Cook. Explorer, inventor, liar, felon, victim of an establishment plot — 83 years after his death, he deserves to be recognized as an American icon.
Cook is a hero for our current American age — one in which scammers like Anna Delvey and con men-cum-congressmen like George Santos are idolized — not despite his obfuscations and sly dodges, his schemes and scams, but because of them. In his own time, he certainly became a celebrity — but only through infamy and widespread condemnation. Today, thanks to our post-ironic posture, he could become beloved.
When Cook announced to the world in 1909 that he had become the first man to reach the North Pole, he was met with jubilation: lectures, medals, fancy dinners and at least one audience with a king. Back in Brooklyn, a ticker-tape parade came down Bushwick Avenue to his stately mansion on the corner of Willoughby and Bushwick. (Today, the house — without even a plaque, let alone a commemorative bust — is endangered by allegedly neglectful landlords.)
But Cook almost certainly hadn’t reached the North Pole. A native New Yorker and natural showman, he possessed an outsize imagination and storyteller’s gift. When he had to turn back short of the pole, he didn’t succumb to the cold and go down in history as a noble failure like so many others. Instead, he spent the winter in an ice cave with his Inuit traveling companions and spun a story about his own success so inspiring that eventually he seemed to have believed it himself. (Cook insisted he had reached the pole until his death in 1940.)
A week after Cook’s triumphant announcement, headlines began to appear about a man named Robert Peary who claimed that he had reached the pole and that Cook was a liar who had “simply handed the public a gold brick.” The glory didn’t die down — at least, not at first.
The Cook-versus-Peary showdown was one of the first modern media battles, captivating the world during 1909 through partisan papers — known, naturally, as “Cook-books” and “Peary-odicals.” Peary, a high-ranking U.S. Navy officer, had powerful supporters in the upper echelons of American politics and culture. Cook was a humble Brooklyn doctor. He didn’t stand a chance. Cook’s popularity with the public — thanks to his genial, kindly brand of showmanship — was no match for the rigid Peary’s armament of institutional support, from president Teddy Roosevelt to the headlines of this paper. Soon, Peary’s victory was entered into the history books, and Cook was sent into a tailspin of permanent disgrace. “Cook is a gentleman and a liar, and Peary is neither,” went a pro-Peary refrain.
But Peary’s claim was every bit as unfounded as Cook’s. He might not even have gotten as close to the pole as Cook had. You may have learned in school that Peary was the first man at the North Pole. It’s less likely that you learned that his claim to have been first to the pole in 1909 was largely debunked in the 1980s, when National Geographic magazine, which played a large part in upholding Peary’s primacy in 1909, published an article admitting it had been wrong: Peary’s navigational records and journals simply did not support his claim.
Peary — who once wrote home in a letter, “Mother, I must have fame” — was self-serving, paranoid and meanspirited. He fathered, and abandoned, children with Inuit women; he obfuscated and minimized the accomplishments of his Black assistant Matthew Henson; he stole treasured meteorites and brought Inuit people from Greenland in order to put them on display at the American Museum of Natural History. And when his polar excursion failed, he set about inventing, just as Cook had.
By the time he claimed to have reached the pole in 1909, Cook had proved his worth as an explorer. He had begun his polar work alongside Peary in 1891, carefully learning about the customs and lifeway of the Greenlandic Inuit, which he later used to save the lives of many of the crew of the perilous Belgica expedition to the Antarctic (an expedition that included Roald Amundsen, the first person to reach the South Pole). He had also invented an early form of light therapy to stave off ennui during the long polar night. Even though Cook and Peary were no longer on the best of terms, Cook was seemingly content to share in the glory of the North Pole, however invented, with his former leader. But Peary couldn’t abide a shared podium. After his smear campaign left Cook completely disgraced, Cook’s days as an explorer were over — nobody would ever fund one of his expeditions again. So Frederick Cook, our would-be American hero, simply set about another adventure.
In portraits taken around this time, Cook peers out from under a swoop of chestnut hair. You trust me, don’t you? the picture asks. Of course I do, you can’t help wanting to reply. So did the suckers who bought into Cook’s madcap Texan oil scheme in the 1920s, which involved his buying of numerous failed oil companies and convincing their struggling investors that handing over yet more money would help them finally recoup — though Cook invested all his own money into the wells, too. (The dry wells did, in fact, end up producing oil many years later, albeit with new technologies unavailable to Cook at the time.) When the scheme collapsed, Cook was sent to the Leavenworth federal prison to serve out a 14-year sentence for mail fraud. (The sentence was widely seen as being unduly disproportionate to the crime — punishment not only for his oil schemes but also for the worse crime of having duped the American people.)
Cook simply could not live up to the stringent character requirements of the turn of the 20th century, before flappers and the jazz age and pre-code Hollywood hijinks. His popularity buckled under the newly formed moral weapon of mass media brought to bear on him by Peary — his contemporaries were happy to reward a liar, so long as the liar was a respectable, well- connected member of the establishment.
“There’s a fine line, especially in America, between optimism and delusion, and Cook embodied that,” said Julian Sancton, (see interview) author of Madhouse at the End of the Earth, an account of the 1897 Antarctic expedition that included Amundsen and Cook, in a recent interview. We pick our heroes now out of delusion — and we pick delusional heroes.
Honesty doesn’t matter so much to our drama-hungry society. What often does is a clear disregard for the rules of the game. Many seem to adore or respect public figures who abuse the visible and frustrating weaknesses in the system that we wish we ourselves were brave enough to exploit. We’ve leaned wholeheartedly into love of the huckster’s charisma that made classics out of “The Music Man” and “Catch Me If You Can.”
These figures are often scammers or frauds or criminals who suffer some kind of downfall that lets us enjoy their antics guilt-free — and perhaps even clamor for their eventual redemption. We might cast a skeptical side-eye at those with clear scams-in-progress, but once the hammer falls — once Caroline Calloway’s co-writer publicly calls her out, once Anna Sorokin (or Delvey) heads to Rikers — we find ourselves freed to enthuse over their audacity, the true American pluck that led them to get as far as they did.
Like our best modern heroes, Cook wasn’t honest or honorable. He almost certainly lied about reaching the North Pole and about the oil down in Texas. But for that wonderful week before his disgrace — a sort of Progressive Era Milkshake Ducking — he made himself a lovable hero, a people’s prince who would have resonated on the X platform.
Cook never gave up his claim on the pole, and even if I can’t quite make myself believe him, I can’t give up on him. Charismatic, compelling and at times too creative, Cook was not the man for his era, but he might just be the one for ours.
Allegra Rosenberg is a NYC-based writer who began volunteering with the Frederick Cook Society in 2023. She is a writer who focuses on polar exploration and fandom culture.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Cook Society.
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