Adventurer, pilot, senator—and the man who found Machu Picchu

Alvaro Vargas Llosa in the Wall Street Journal:

PT-AO387_BOOK_DV_20100409175145 George Lucas won't tell us if he based Indiana Jones on Hiram Bingham III, the swashbuckling, fedora-topped explorer who in 1911 (re)discovered Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel in Peru. But it is hard to find anyone other than Bingham who would make a more suitable model.

The grandson and son of Protestant missionaries, Bingham broke out of his Puritan constraints to became a professor, explorer, photographer, writer, World War I pilot and U.S. senator. His character was so complex that not even his closest family members felt that they fully understood him. Referring to Bingham's marriage to Alfreda Mitchell, an heiress to the Tiffany jewelry fortune, his son wrote that one “never could be sure how much his love forAlfredawas for herself and how much for her family's money.” Nakedly ambitious, Bingham was a man of his age—an era when fortune-hunters ventured into remote parts of the world in search of “lost cities” and when the U.S. was making ever more inroads into Latin America.

Hiram Bingham and the Machu Picchu saga deserve no less than “Cradle of Gold,” Christopher Heaney's thorough, engrossing portrait of a mercurial figure at a crucial juncture of his life. In the end, Mr. Heaney pronounces harsh judgments on Bingham's very real flaws—the author, for one thing, sides with detractors who regard Bingham as a terrible archaeologist, even if he was an effective publicist for the profession. But it is a tribute to Mr. Heaney's sense of fairness that different conclusions can be reached through a careful weighing of the material he presents.

More here.