from Aimee Crocker: Queen of Bohemia by K.M.C. Taylor
After his childless marriage failed, cousin Templeton Crocker, who once described his vocation as “multimillionaire,” lived an increasingly alternative, Bohemian lifestyle and indulged in numerous flights of fancy. In the late 20s, Crocker commissioned Garland Rotch to design and build an extraordinary two-masted, 118-foot-long, blackhulled schooner. Her galley and interior furnishings were the finest in pleasure craft equipment and she had a considerable spread of canvas. It was christened “Zaca” a Native American word which means “Peace” on April 12, 1930 by Academy Award winner and Aimée’s chum Marie Dressler.
The yacht provided the ever-restless Crocker a unique, luxurious escape and boasted sleeping accommodations for 18. Staterooms, glamorous hotel-like apartments reflecting favorite Art Deco motifs were done in combinations of imported woods, including beams of Alaskan cedar and panels in teak and primavera. The total cost was over $200,000.
Garland Rotch was Zaca’s first captain. With Rotch, Templeton sailed his yacht around the world covering 27,152 miles and calling at 50 ports including Marquesas, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Pago Pago, Trobriands, Bali, Java, Singapore, Ceylon, Aden, Arabia, Egypt, Malta, Cannes, Teneriffe, Puerto Rico, Panama, Guatemala, Manzanillo, and Ensenada. It was the first time a private yacht circumnavigated the globe from the West Coast. Crocker sailed smiling seas. The weather was perfect with only 43 hours of gale in the Mediterranean.
Templeton didn’t experience his cousin Aimée’s nail biting adventures during his world jaunt. None of the crew had a narrow escape from a cannibal island stew pot. “It must have been the most perfect yachting adventure that anyone ever had,” Crocker said. In 1933, Templeton wrote a narrative of his one-year journey cruising around the world in his grand yacht under the title The Cruise of the Zaca.
After the globe spanning odyssey, the “Commodore,” as Crocker insisted on being called while at sea, ordered the yacht transformed into a floating laboratory for scientific expeditions. The yacht lost completely the appearance of a pleasure craft. Four temperature controlled tanks with running sea water were installed on her decks to bring back live fish. Six voyages in all between 1932 and 1938 transported ichthyologists, ornithologists, anthropologists, zoologists, botanists, and photographers from the California Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Zoological Society and other academic institutions.
During an expedition to the Galapagos Islands for the California Academy of Sciences in 1932, Crocker and crew explored some of the previously untouched areas in the interior of several islands. Together they compiled collections of 400 stuffed or frozen birds, 3,000 plant specimens and 331 live fish. Artist Toshio Asaeda painted over three hundred water colors of fishes, crabs and marine life and took over 1400 photographs. Academy officials declared the expedition of great and permanent value to science. The perpetually tanned Templeton described the journey as “full of adventures,” and promptly offered to host a follow-up expedition that would pass through the Galapagos in 1934 on its way to Polynesia.
One species of finch not known since the time of Charles Darwin and supposed to be extinct was found to have survived on some of the islands. The birds of these islands were of exceptional interest, not only because of their many remarkable peculiarities, but because the study of them was largely responsible for the formulation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The most important single accomplishment of the expeditions according to some was the penetration of Indefatigable Island (now called Santa Cruz) and the ascent of its main volcano. The challenge was not one of delicate mountaineering technique, as it was only a 2,690 foot mountain, it was a matter of perseverance and endurance in fighting through tangles of upland rain forests, dense thickets of dark green mangroves, and a most extraordinary forest of 20-30 feet cactuses. The mountain was named after Crocker in honor of his conquest of that peak.
Crocker crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean from California to Asia and from the Arctic to Antarctica contributing much to the world of science. A new species of sea snake, found while exploring a brackish lake on Rennel Island, was named “Laticauda crockeri” after Templeton Crocker following his expedition to Western Polynesian and Melanesian Islands, making his family, especially his snake charming cousin Aimée, very proud.
Crocker went on two oceanic adventures along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Columbia with William Beebe, renowned naturalist, marine biologist and world deep sea record holder. The goal of the expedition to the waters around Baja was to study the area’s undersea fauna by means of dredging and helmet diving, and Beebe and his team were surprised by the diversity of animals that they encountered there.
In 1937 Beebe went on a second expedition aboard the Zaca, documenting the native wildlife along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Colombia. During this expedition, rather than focusing on either sea animals as he had at Nonsuch Island or on birds as he had earlier in his life, he attempted to document all aspects of the ecosystem. Beebe described his two expeditions on board the Zaca in his books Zaca Venture and The Book of Bays, in which he emphasized his concern for threatened habitats and his dismay at human interference with ecosystems.
In 1934–1935, Crocker went on sea borne investigatory enterprise with Harry L. Shapiro, anthropologist extraordinaire. Shapiro set out to measure mixed-race islanders, including the descendants of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island. The study came to influence U.S. racial thought, adding impetus to the condemnation of racism in science.
Scholars accompanying Templeton determined that the Commodore was troubled with an eccentric and compulsive personality. He was indeed a complex character. Templeton grew up pampered, in an exceedingly wealthy family. He had a scenic town in California’s wine county named after him at aged two. Templeton, however, suffered the loss of both parents by aged ten and thereafter struggled to feel worthy of his great fortune. The victim of intense mood swings and prone to alcoholic binges, Crocker could be both a generous and entertaining host and a demanding Captain Bligh. “It is curious,” Shapiro observed, “that so introspective a man with ultra-sensitive feelings should be so callous about inflicting torture on others.”
William Beebe, in spite of some tensions, dedicated his second book to Crocker writing, “Not only must Mr. Crocker be given full credit for the inception and carrying out of the expedition and for the constant care that he took to see that every wish of ours was provided for, but especial thanks are due to him for his active part in capturing, sorting, labelling and preserving specimens, thousands of which passed through his hands.”
Due to a lack of available patrol ships, the US Navy seized all privately owned ships over 70 feet in length after World War II broke out, fearing that the Japanese might attack California. The Zaca was again converted, this time for military use; she was outfitted with anti-aircraft machine guns and stationed off the California coast to patrol for enemy ships and rescue downed pilots.
At war’s end, the craft was sold to dashing film star Errol Flynn. He spent $50,000 on new furnishings and decorated her all in white, with red rugs and a white ermine bedspread.
Flynn met Orson Welles in Acapulco while Welles was scouting locations for his 1948 film noir “Lady from Shanghai.” Welles contracted to use Zaca for the two-month movie shoot. Flynn captained the yacht himself. He later moved Zaca to the French Riviera. Flynn, unlike Templeton, sailed Zaca with “full cargos of passionate women.” She became the true love of his life. Press reports soon referred to the storied vessel as “the sexiest yacht in the world.”