ON DECEMBER 20, 1934, the New York Jewish Daily Bulletin’s Michel Kraike published an article about one Peter Freuchen: “Eight feet tall, weighing close to 330 pounds, with a head like a grizzly bear’s and a thick, square red beard.”
Born in Denmark, Freuchen held a series of professions that, to modern ears, might sound unlikely: He was an Arctic explorer who traded goods with the Eskimos, a novelist who accidentally starred in a Hollywood adaptation of his book Eskimo, an amateur-surgeon-by-necessity — suffering from frostbite during his time with the Eskimos, he amputated several of his own toes before eventually having his leg amputated — and a onetime governor of a Greenland colony.
He was also a Jew. “Perhaps,” Kraike wrote, “the most unique Jew alive.” And that was before, according to The New York Times, Freuchen joined the Danish resistance in World War II, escaped Nazi imprisonment and an accompanying death sentence and, in 1956, won The $64,000 Question, a game show that was an early predecessor of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?
In a 1947 portrait by the photographer Irving Penn, Freuchen poses with his third wife, Dagmar Cohn. She sits, chic in all-black, a refined hat and a two-strand pearl choker. Freuchen stands by her side, grim-eyed and wearing an enormous fur coat, his hair standing on end.
His ferocious demeanour prompts one to wonder how, exactly, a man swathed in what was once the exterior of a polar bear came to be the husband of a fashion illustrator whose work had reached the cover of Vogue. (Rumour is that Freuchen himself killed the polar bear destined to become his coat.)
FULL STORY He fought polar bears and Nazis and was called ‘the most unique Jew alive’ (Forward)