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A Brief History of Jeopardy!

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The long-running game show is adored by millions. But there was a time—and another time, and one more time—when questions swirled around its survival.

When he welcomed a reporter into his Southern California home, the 44-year-old Alex Trebek was on a roll. Trebek was an industry veteran. For years, he’d worked as a newscaster and sportscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while trying to kick-start his career as a TV personality. So far, nothing had stuck. But at the start of the 1984 TV season, he landed something promising—a job as the host of Jeopardy!

Everett Collection

Unfortunately, the program had a checkered history. Ratings had soared in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the show had also been canceled—twice. Now the high-paying trivia contest was being updated for a new generation. And as Trebek had quickly learned, Jeopardy!’s biggest hurdle was convincing station managers that a smart game show deserved premium air time. It was a hard argument to make. Programmers knew that established game shows like The Price Is Right and Family Feud could reliably draw a mass audience. But a show this cerebral was a gamble. In several major markets, including New York, Jeopardy! was relegated to a 2 a.m. time slot, a ratings wasteland. Trebek and the producers were pressured to dumb down the program and make the clues easier so viewers wouldn’t feel left out. Still, he remained optimistic.

As he and the reporter chatted, Trebek suavely flipped on his TV. At the time, Los Angeles was an outlier, airing the show at the decent hour of 3 p.m. But instead of seeing himself trot out to greet the audience, Trebek saw Jack Klugman. The local affiliate had replaced Jeopardy! with reruns of Quincy, M.E. “The fact that Quincy was a coroner seemed appropriate,” Trebek would later write. His optimism instantly disappeared.

What a difference three decades make. Trebek no longer worries about job security. But before viewers grew accustomed to shouting answers at the screen, its host and crew had to resolve one nagging question: Was Jeopardy! too smart for its own good?

Creating Jeopardy!

In the early days of TV, game shows were a network’s secret weapons. The programs were cheap to produce, with no highly paid actors, and they attracted rabid fan bases—everyday people who could identify with the ecstasy that came from winning a new oven. According to Olaf Hoerschelmann, Ph.D., director of the school of mass communication at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “One successful quiz show could get a 50 percent ratings share or more—half of all households watching.”

At the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1950s, Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question became national obsessions. City streets, Hoerschelmann says, were quiet when they aired. But with ratings and revenue at stake, producers became hungry for melodrama, so they manufactured suspense by feeding answers to contestants. It was all fun and games until 1956, when one contestant blew the whistle, and Congress stepped in to investigate.

Having broken the audience’s trust—and inviting a federal law that prohibited the fixing of game shows—the genre all but disappeared. This didn’t sit well with Merv Griffin, a television host, producer, and game show developer for NBC. On a flight to New York in 1963, Griffin was discussing his worry with his wife, Julann: How could he convince a network to take another chance on trivia?

“Why not just give them the answers to start with?” Julann mused.

She was joking, but Griffin’s eyes lit up. Back in his office, he outlined a template: 10 subject categories, each containing 10 answers of varying difficulty, with a dollar value assigned to each. Griffin invited friends over to his Central Park West apartment for run-throughs. Although he wasn’t the first to use the inverted answer format—1941’s CBS Television Quiz had a similar premise—Griffin was sure he could create something special. He called his show What’s the Question? and presented it to NBC executives.

The network was intrigued, but skittish. To convince the execs, Griffin reminded them that, unlike in decades past, there was little money at stake. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, some clues were worth just $10. Before long, he got the green light.

As Griffin refined the format, the network wanted to ensure that the show was compelling enough. What the game needed, one executive suggested, was “more jeopardies.” “I didn’t hear another word he said,” Griffin later wrote. “All I could think of was the name: Goodbye What’s the Question?, hello Jeopardy!” After months of tinkering, he presented his show for final approval.

The game was streamlined into six categories. The rounds moved from Jeopardy, to Double Jeopardy, with harder questions worth more cash. In NBC’s boardroom, Griffin pasted envelopes onto poster board and filled them with index cards revealing the answers. He emceed the run-through himself.

“It’s too hard!” Mort Werner, the head of NBC, cried, throwing up his arms in frustration. He hadn’t gotten one question right. Werner’s assistant leaned over to him and said, “Buy it.” 

Soon enough, Griffin had ironed out the details. Art Fleming, a game show novice, was selected to host, and for background music, Griffin composed a rather suspenseful tune. But the real proof of concept was the ratings, and Jeopardy! found itself in an unlucky spot, pitted against The Dick Van Dyke Show. Jeopardy! made its debut at 11:30 a.m. EST on March 20, 1964, and it was an almost instant hit. Within weeks, it had grabbed 40 percent of the viewers in its time slot. People were playing along on college campuses and during lunch breaks. Despite its success, NBC felt less demanding clues would reap greater rewards: They wanted 13-year-olds to be able to keep up. Griffin refused. He wanted the program to stay smart. This was a competition between adults, and he saw little sense in diluting a game meant to highlight intellect.

“Griffin’s genius in designing games was, if you’re changing channels and hit one, you don’t need anything explained to you,” says Bob Harris, a multi-time contestant and strategy expert who penned a memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Trebekistan. “The shows that have failed spend half their time explaining what’s happening.” Griffin’s instincts were spot-on. Between 1964 and 1975, Jeopardy! taped more than 2,500 episodes. The show regularly beat reruns and soap operas.

Then, in 1975, the network abruptly pulled the plug. Despite solid ratings, NBC wanted to appeal to a younger, female demographic. The show was reinstated in 1978, then canceled again less than six months into its run. Daytime soaps had come to dominate afternoon time slots. Worse, network research indicated that viewers weren’t interested in another incarnation of Jeopardy! The show was at risk of becoming a footnote in Griffin’s career.

Jeopardy! in Jeopardy

Everett Collection

In 1983, Griffin met with executives at King World Productions about doing a syndicated version of Jeopardy! Though the show had fizzled, Griffin’s career had not. Wheel of Fortune—a game that had grown out of his childhood passion for Hangman—had become a monster hit by the fall of 1983. Griffin had other successes too, including Click and Ruckus. But for all his hits, Griffin couldn’t let go of Jeopardy! He still believed his quiz show had legs. Luckily, King World execs agreed, and they had reason for their optimism: The board game Trivial Pursuit, which had debuted in 1981, had grown into a phenomenon, proving consumers had a healthy appetite for trivia. Additionally, they knew if they paired Jeopardy! with Wheel, it would be easier to sell networks on the programming block.

As Griffin envisioned updating his show for the 1980s, a decade blinking wildly with VCRs, video games, and MTV, Griffin dreamed up a glossier, flashier show—one with a hightech game board made up of video monitors instead of paper cards. Decades removed from the quiz scandals, he also wanted higher monetary stakes, with individual clues worth up to $2000. The original theme song would be rerecorded with synthesizers.

Fleming was the revamp’s earliest casualty. King World suggested that Griffin hire the younger, more polished Trebek to helm the faster-moving game show. “He’s like a pilot for the show,” Harris says. “He knows how to keep the tone right and when to lighten it up.”

Trebek’s charms notwithstanding, King World executives parroted the same concerns as their predecessors, advising Griffin to dumb down the questions. Again, Griffin refused. But this time, he had an ally in Trebek.

“We were getting feedback saying, ‘It’s too tough,’ ” Trebek recalled later in an interview. “I told them, ‘Well, I’ll ease up on the material.’ And I didn’t ease up.”

Rather than placate the syndicate, Griffin and Trebek raised the intensity of the game. Runners-up would no longer be allowed to keep their winnings. The original show proved that players sometimes wanted just enough to make a specific purchase and would stop buzzing in once they met their goal. (One contestant needed money for an engagement ring and stood silent as soon as he earned enough.) Now, players would be tempted to wager on Final Jeopardy, ensuring the entire game would remain suspenseful.

When Jeopardy! reappeared in the fall of 1984, the makeover wasn’t noticed by many. The show, perceived as a warmed-over relic of the 1970s, was stuck in deadend time slots. Then, shortly after its debut, New York’s ABC station tried it out in the early evening. Ratings immediately improved. Other affiliates noticed and followed suit. While Jeopardy! was still a poor fit for daytime, its pace proved perfectly suited for evening airings.

Trebek suggested viewers could be drawn in better if they felt more like participants. In its earlier iterations, contestants could ring in before the host finished giving the answer, which made for a frenzied game. By 1985, the show prevented players from hitting the buzzer until Trebek finished reading so the home audience could shout out answers too. As they tweaked the formula, King World and Griffin realized they’d struck gold. The faster pace, the syndicate’s patience, and Trebek’s tailor-made emcee skills all turned Jeopardy! into a permanent and profitable fixture on the dial.

Five years later, Jeopardy! was being watched by more than 15 million people daily, and 250,000 applicants applied each season for one of the show’s 500 available slots. As the show went on, its rituals—the pervasive theme music, phrasing answers in the form of a question—became cultural touchstones.

A last significant tweak was the removal of the five-game limit for returning champions. With that ceiling removed, Ken Jennings famously went on an unprecedented 74-show winning streak in 2004, garnering headlines across the country and further embedding the show in the cultural consciousness. Jennings’s celebrity, Hoerschelmann says, meant that the quiz show genre had come full circle. “It was no accident the show got more popular once it lifted the limit,” he says.

The current 2013–14 season is Jeopardy!’s 30th in syndication. Pulling in an average of 25 million viewers a week, it shows no signs of slowing—though Trebek has hinted he’ll step down in 2016. While producers will face a challenge finding a successor, it would seem a sure bet that Jeopardy! will continue to celebrate a brand of cognitive aptitude rarely found on television. In the smartphone era, when information is instantly accessible, it’s more impressive than ever to watch someone conjure answers without Wi-Fi.

Jeopardy! is a very classic hero’s journey,” Harris, the former player, says of the show’s enduring appeal. “The contestant is achieving goals with escalating stakes and obstacles. There’s even a three-act structure. The only difference between this and what Joseph Campbell laid out is there are three heroes.” Four, if you count the viewer at home, a pen standing in for a buzzer, realizing they know a lot more than they thought they did.

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How Eclipse Chasers Are Putting a Small Kentucky Town on the Map
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The most anticipated eclipse in American history is coming this summer. At the heart of it is Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which anticipates 100,000 visitors. Mental Floss takes a look behind the small town's preparations—and a deep dive into the passionate subculture of people who chase eclipses for a living.

 

In 2007, Cheryl Cook received an email from an out-of-towner planning a trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the executive director of the town's convention and visitors bureau, Cook was used to reading messages from potential tourists. There was one hitch, though: The visitor's projected stay was 10 years away.

The purpose of the visit: A total solar eclipse was coming to the U.S. on August 21, 2017, and Hopkinsville represented a plum location to observe it. The event would be huge, the traveler said. What exactly was the town doing to prepare?

Cook says she laughed when she first read the note.

"I didn't know what to say," she recalls. "We don't work 10 years out." Then she started Googling.

Hopkinsville, it turns out, was not only smack in the middle of the eclipse's path, but was also 11 miles from what astronomers dub the "point of greatest eclipse," where the Sun, Earth, and Moon form a nearly straight line. This was more than tavern night trivia. It was a big deal. The chance of seeing a total solar eclipse hover over your front porch is itself improbable—one appears over your location, on average, every 350 years. But the odds of living at the point of greatest eclipse was, statistically speaking, zero.

In other words, Hopkinsville—a Kentucky farm town of 33,000 whose main export is bowling balls—had won the cosmic lottery.

In the years since, Hopkinsville—or Eclipseville, as it's billing itself—has done a great deal to promote itself as the place to watch the 2017 eclipse, which will trace a path from Oregon to South Carolina: the first total solar eclipse to sail over the continental United States in 99 years.

a street in hopkinsville, kentucky
Hopkinsville, Kentucky
Jimmy Emerson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"We've been trying to get the idea out for years that Hopkinsville is going to become very, very busy that weekend," says Scott Bain, an astronomy professor at Hopkinsville Community College. "I started my job here 10 years ago and the eclipse was one of the things they used to lure me here."

"Busy" is putting it lightly. This year's solar eclipse could be the most viewed celestial event in history. Roughly 12 million people already live in its main path. On August 21, all they have to do is step outside and gaze up. Another 78 to 88 million more Americans live within 200 miles of the eclipse's trajectory. Many of them are expected to hit the road to see it.

Most drivers will set their GPSs for rural America, aiming at modest towns like Carbondale, Illinois (pop. 26,192), home of Southern Illinois University, which expects up to 60,000 visitors on campus. Or Idaho Falls (pop. 58,374), which is predicted to double in size. Or Prineville, Oregon (pop. 9000), which may see 30,000 people show up for an eclipse-themed music and arts festival in the Ochoco National Forest.

But Hopkinsville in particular expects to draw visitors from all over the world. The town of 33,000 expects to triple in size. Some locals, such as Cook, estimate the town's population could bloat to as high as 150,000.

For many, swimming through that crowd will be a small price to pay: A total solar eclipse is a sight so beautiful and so powerful that it's known to radically shake the course of people's lives.

 
 

The first thing you'll notice is a small, dark dent. It will be difficult to see—the Sun will shine bright like every other summer day—but, if you're standing in the right spot, a dimple will appear and people will cheer.

Over the next 71 minutes, that scallop will grow. The Sun will glare like a husky crescent moon. If you're standing under a leafy tree and look down, you'll see hundreds of tiny sickles of light dance among the shadows—the attenuating sun transforms foliage into natural camera obscuras. Step out from under that canopy and you'll notice that your own shadow appears sharper.

The western sky will blacken. Above, the blues of the sky will deepen and flirt with shades of violet. On the ground, the grass, trees, and any people will assume a leaden pallor, sapped of their vibrancy as if somebody had turned the dial on the landscape's saturation settings.

a solar eclipse at the Tian'anmen Square in China
A solar eclipse from Tian'anmen Square in China
Feng Li/Getty Images

About five minutes before the total eclipse begins, the Sun, narrowed to a sliver, will remain too bright to stare at with the naked eye. The sky will be dark enough, however, for a pinprick of light to emerge: Venus, shining now even in the daytime. More planets and stars will follow.

The western horizon will loom ominously, as if a thunderstorm were brewing. People observing the eclipse from a beach may see faint shadows undulate over their toes in the sand. These ripples, which resemble the folds of light wobbling at the bottom of a swimming pool, are called shadow bands. (If there are children in your crowd, they'll enjoy chasing them.)

The Sun disappears. Lights along the lunar rim will flicker, sparkle, and pop: These are Baily's beads, the last gasps of sunlight hurtling through the valleys of the moon. They will fade until one last torch of sunlight beams along the moon's edge like a gemstone. As it fizzles, a warm red halo, for one brief instant, may gleam around the moon.

It will become eerily quiet. Birdsong will cease. Then the darkness will swallow you.

People on mountaintops will see it sweeping across the landscape, a cloak of darkness careening in their direction at more than 2000 miles per hour. This is the moon's innermost and darkest shadow, the umbra. Mabel Loomis Todd, a 19th-century eclipse writer, described it "like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom."

Things will get weird, and fast. The chirp of crickets may replace that of birds. Fireflies may emerge; bats may flit. Cows may low and jangle back to the barnyard. Pigs may wallow, flowers close. Chickens may return to roost or—as happened when an eclipse passed over Easter Island in 2010—freeze in place, standing flamingo-like on one leg.

A gust may sweep across your face as the wind shifts direction. Even here in August, you may shiver as the temperature sinks 10 degrees. Anybody who brought telescopes or binoculars that aren't filled with nitrogen may be disappointed as the plunge causes lenses to fog.

The Moon's umbra is so small—this year, barely 71 miles wide at most—that spectators who gaze into the distance will see to the shadow's edge. In all cardinal directions, the horizon will radiate with the oranges, reds, and purples of sunset. Directly above, the planet Jupiter, the star Regulus, and other members of the constellation Leo will sparkle.

Most people won't notice them. Their eyes will be glued to the corona.

A total solar eclipse in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway
A total solar eclipse over Norway
Jon Olav Nesvold/AFP/Getty Images

Wispy tendrils of light, frothing and flailing around a deep black disc. That's the corona, a thin shell of gas millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun. Our star's interior light usually renders it invisible—with the exception of this moment.

Humans have tried to describe the corona for more than three millennia, and every account is said to not do it justice. It is ineffable. But all accounts agree: It is the most beautiful phenomenon in the natural world. The corona makes sunrise over the Grand Canyon feel like a sightseeing trip to a vacant strip mall.

The only people who will see the curtain of darkness, the 360 degree sunset, the corona—what's called totality—are those lucky enough to stand underneath the moon's narrow umbra. Everybody outside of this roving path of darkness will have a much less dramatic view. Standing under the moon's wider penumbra, people in Pennsylvania or Arizona will have to shield their eyes with special eclipse-viewing glasses the entire time and will only see a small bite taken out of the Sun, like a celestial Pac-Man. It will be, in comparison, remarkably disappointing.

"Make no mistake. The difference between whether you're inside the path of totality or outside it is literally the difference between night and day," writes astronomer Tyler Nordgren in his book Sun, Moon, Earth. "No other experience comes close to the multisensory strangeness of this most unnatural of natural events."

Totality will first appear over a rocky spit of land in Oregon called Governor's Point. It will zoom over Volcanoes Stadium in the town of Keizer, where the minor-league Salem-Keizer Volcanoes will be playing the Hillsboro Hops, prompting what's believed to be the first solar eclipse delay in professional baseball history.

Within 14 minutes, the umbra will slip over the Cascades into Idaho and, fittingly, the tip of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

2017 Eclipse Path
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

The shadow will make stops in Grand Teton National Park and rove over Alliance, Nebraska to visit Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge built from 39 automobiles spray painted to resemble monolithic bluestones). The umbra will divide Nebraska and hurtle over dozens of small towns before barely clipping Kansas and Iowa. In Missouri, it will fly over the towns of California, Cuba, Washington, and Mexico. It will also visit a crowd of 71,000 spectators packed in Faurot Field, home of the University of Missouri Tigers.

By the time the eclipse enters Kentucky, the umbra will have slowed to approximately 1451 miles per hour. At 1:24 p.m. (CT), the Sun, Moon, and Earth will nearly align. For two minutes and 40.1 seconds, the moon's shadow will mask a quilt of corn, tobacco, wheat, alfalfa, and soybean farms a few miles northwest of Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

In the crowd will surely be a handful of people who live for this moment. They go by many names: umbraphiles, ecliptomaniacs, total(it)y nuts, even lunatics. Most, however, call themselves eclipse chasers.

 
 

When James McClean was 12 years old, a lunar eclipse cruised over his house in suburban New Jersey. It was a hot August night, and McClean asked his mom for permission to drag a lounge chair outside to watch it. When a concerned neighbor—confused by the sight of a prepubescent squatter on one of the neighborhood lawns—saw McClean, they called the police.

At two in the morning, a cop pulled in front of McClean's yard.

"What's going on?" the officer said. Without missing a beat, the 12-year-old spent the next 20 minutes lecturing that police officer on the quirks of celestial mechanics. By the time McClean finished, the cop stood convinced: The two watched the lunar eclipse together from the lawn. "I've been hooked on this kind of stuff since," McClean says.

Today, James McClean is an eclipse chaser. That's not the name of some cute weekend hobby. It's a lifestyle. For the past two decades, McClean, a professional photographer, has given up everything resembling a normal life. He has no permanent home base, opting instead to trot the globe, work odd jobs, and live on tight budgets to see solar eclipses.

Every. Single. One.

James McClean
James McClean

McClean has made a living as a cartographer and an aurora borealis tour guide. He's lived on an island near Sitka, Alaska and taught photography. (When he needed Internet, he'd kayak an hour and a half to the nearest library.) He's spent summers in Germany doing archaeology and winters in Sweden constructing, and living in, a hotel made of ice. He's slept in bamboo huts on top of volcanic islands, backpacked through Egypt, and trudged the snows of Svalbard, Norway. One time, in Indonesia, he was invited to sip coffee in a sultan's palace.

As he told me, "You know, I've struggled with, 'Do I take this job? It pays more money, but then I won't see the eclipse. Or do I take this job where I know I'll lose money, see the eclipse, and do good for people? That's the job I took."

Currently, McClean works as a park ranger at South Dakota's Jewel Cave National Monument. I met up with him this spring as he passed through New York City, where we rendezvoused, fittingly, by the telescope and binoculars section at the B&H Photo Video superstore. He's a mutton-chopped man, 50, with an encyclopedic knowledge of photography and an infectious zeal for what he calls "that corona-action."

Standing by a sea of telescopes, he gestured toward the equipment. "Eclipse chasing is a stupidly expensive hobby," he said. "I can do it because I have nothing. I walk the Earth like Cain." He wasn't kidding. At one point, when we got on the topic of home offices, he motioned to a book-sized tin perched under his arm, a former chocolate box adorned with depictions of Mickey Mouse, in which he kept plane tickets, documents, notebooks, and his iPad. "This is my office," he said.

McClean is not alone in his pursuit. There are hundreds of people just like him, somewhere between 300 to 800 who are so passionate about solar eclipses that they will drop everything and travel to the ends of the Earth to experience one.

"We all come from different walks of life, different countries, but there's that one thing: We love a total eclipse of the Sun—that unites us," says David Makepeace, a Canadian eclipse chaser and professional videographer. "I've become friends with people I would have never met in any other way, and I might not have anything else in common with them but this. We love this shit. It's our whole existence."

Eclipse chasers are as evangelical as they are dedicated. In 2010, an eclipse passed over Chile's Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. It's home to roughly 6000 people and is notoriously difficult to reach. Four thousand visitors still showed up.

A similar scenario played out in 2015 when a total solar eclipse passed over the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago 200 miles north of Scotland. The islands, which only have 800 hotel beds between them, expected somewhere between 3000 and 5000 visitors. Actual attendance surpassed 11,000.

spectators on the beach for a total solar eclipse in Palm Cove, Australia
Spectators gather in Palm Cove, Australia
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

In 2012, Australia learned the hard way what happens when you don't heed the warnings of eclipse chasers. "Astronomy clubs and other eclipse chasers there had tried to warn them: This is a much bigger deal than you think!" Makepeace recalls. "It wasn't until the last minute that they took it seriously—they tried to control traffic, but it was a fiasco."

Months out, officials had estimated that 30,000 people would visit the northern reaches of Queensland, Australia. They were wrong. Twice as many showed up.

It's these kinds of numbers that Cheryl Cook, Hopkinsville's tourism director, discovered when she opened her search engine 10 years ago. "I was looking at ones that had been in China, and how many people were there and what they did, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is a really big deal!'"

Which makes you wonder: What's the fuss about?

 
 

McClean and I were walking and talking along Manhattan's High Line on a soggy day when, suddenly, his sentences started growing exclamation points. "The problem with solar eclipses is that everybody has seen pictures! They think they know what it's like! But their whole perception is based on bad photography!"

You know the photos: A black hole in the heavens circled by a soft, opalescent halo. Even the best photography, McClean insists, can distort people's impressions. That's because total solar eclipses aren't something you see, but something you experience. "Don't think you know what this is," Makepeace said with a rhetorical wag of his finger. "Don't think you already saw one in school when you were a kid. You didn't."

Watching the star disappear during daytime stirs something deep within the brain. Our circadian rhythm, which regulates biochemical processes within the body, is braided to the light-and-dark rhythms of the Sun. When that's radically disrupted, it may spark an innate chemical rush that many describe as pure primal fear. As Nordgren puts it, "[M]y mind screams at the wrongness of what I am seeing."

John Dvorak, a science writer and trained planetary geophysicist, agrees. "The sight of a total eclipse—the sudden darkening of the sky, the radiant corona, the blood-red prominences circled around the edge of what had just been a brilliant Sun—was the most primal experience I have ever had," he writes in Mask of the Sun. "It was as if the most primitive part of the brain—the part inherited from reptiles—kicked into play and now controlled my emotions."

Primal fear is a complex nervous system response. When the brain processes unfamiliar or unusual surroundings—such as, say, a colossal sheet of darkness hurtling in your direction at Mach 3—the amygdala, the brain's fear center, goes haywire. It incites an unconscious reaction that is difficult to articulate, even for those expecting it. McClean, for instance, felt afraid when he witnessed his first eclipse. "I was terrified," he says. "I felt a sense of dread … It was like the Eye of Sauron was peering through your SOUL."

Kate Russo, an eclipse chaser and psychologist, describes the response in her book Total Addiction. "Our logical minds understand what is happening, but our basic primitive warning systems go into overdrive." Like the first drop of a rollercoaster, this experience can be deeply thrilling—and addicting. For people like McClean, the rush can make drugs look unimaginably lame. "I have, let's say, preparatory research with psychedelics," he says in Russo's book. "[A]fter an experience like a total eclipse, I realize, who needs the stuff? Reality alone is weird enough."

You can't blame the brain for freaking out. Total solar eclipses are an anomaly. Our Sun, which is 400 times larger than the Moon, is also 400 times as far from the Earth. According to the book Totality: Eclipses of the Sun, if the Moon were a mere 169 miles smaller in diameter—or if the Sun were a pinch closer—total solar eclipses would never occur. The corona would remain the stuff of imagination. The sight, in fact, would resemble Martian eclipses, where the asteroid-sized moons Phobos and Deimos prance across the Sun like cosmic googly eyes.

An annular eclipse, as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars
An annular eclipse, as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars
NASA

That natural we-are-doomed feeling is probably why many cultures have viewed eclipses as portents of misfortune. The Tlaxcala people of Mexico sacrificed people of ruddy complexions at the sight of an eclipse; the Aztecs targeted dwarves. The Ojibwe Indians of North America tried to relight the heavens by shooting flaming arrows into the sky. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, pregnant women still follow Vedic scripture and rub their bellies with a mixture of ghee (clarified butter) and cow dung to avoid an eclipse's contaminating air. In ancient China, where eclipses were regarded as indictments of the current ruler—a cosmic approval rating, if you will—record-keepers would fabricate eclipse reports to thumb their nose at unpopular leaders.

People across the globe went to great lengths to predict an impending eclipse, in hopes to prepare for the ensuing havoc. In ancient Mesopotamia, officials protected the royal bloodline by hiding kings and queens and hiring "stand-ins" as the eclipse approached. In 1628, when astrologers predicted an eclipse would kill Pope Urban, the Holy Father was whisked away to a secret room and treated with rose vinegar, silk cloths, music, and magic. He lived. Two years later, when astrologers again predicted an eclipse would kill Urban, cardinals flocked to Rome to usher in his replacement. After surviving this second eclipse, the annoyed pontiff made history by banning astrology from the Church.

(That didn't stop believers. Days before a partial solar eclipse in 1654, Catholics in France scrambled to confess their sins. One parish priest, drowning in requests, fibbed and told parishioners the event had been postponed.)

By the 19th century, terror would cave to awe. The astronomer Francis Baily wrote he was "electrified at the sight of one of the most brilliant and splendid phenomena that can well be imagined." His contemporary in Vienna, Adalbert Stifter, witnessed crowds crying at the sight. "I have always taken the old descriptions of eclipses to be exaggerated," he said. The event changed his mind. And when the poet Emily Dickinson saw a total eclipse, even a veritable garden of dashes couldn't help her describe it.

It sounded as if the Streets were running -
And then the Streets stood still -
Eclipse - was all we could see at the Window,
And Awe - was all we could feel -

In 1925, when a total solar eclipse passed over New York City, Alvin Peterson, the Navy's chief quartermaster, stood atop a dirigible and recorded a video. His description of the event was admirably succinct:

"It was the weirdest sensation I have experienced."

 
 

In 1764, a foal was born at the stables of Windsor Great Park in England. A total solar eclipse towered overhead. The horse, named Eclipse in honor of this fact, would later win 18 of 18 races and retire a stud. More than a century later, his great-great-great-great-great grandson, Aristides, would win the first Kentucky Derby in two minutes and 37 seconds—a time nearly equal to this year's totality.

Kentuckians like to riff on the Derby's slogan—the "most exciting two minutes in sports"—and joke that the Bluegrass State will be the starting gate of "the most exciting two and a half minutes in astronomy."

Most of that excitement will fall on the Orchardale-Shepherd Farm, located 11 miles northwest of Hopkinsville. The 170-acre farm will be the point of greatest eclipse. The prize for winning the solar system's Powerball? A whole bunch of strangers on the lawn.

The farm has been in Mark Cansler's family for about a century. When he learned that the farm would be cosmic ground zero, he was unsure what to do. "We tried to make some arrangements like food vendors and insurance, but we weren't sure we wanted to do all that," he says. A share of other farmers had decided to close their property off to spectators—they have crops, and a living, to protect—but Cansler, with his farm at the epicenter, "guessed it would be a shame if people wanted to come and look at the eclipse and there was no place for them to see it." He and his family, like many other locals, set aside a viewing area and is renting spots for RVs on a few acres of fallow land.

Nobody knows if that will be enough room.

Farmland in Christian County, Kentucky
Farmland in Christian County, Kentucky
Stephen Conn, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

That uncertainty is rippling across the country right now. The eclipse will pass over five state capitals—Salem, Lincoln, Jefferson City, Nashville, and Columbia—cities that likely have the resources and budgets to prepare for a tidal wave of visitors. It's a different story for the small towns riding the eclipse's centerline. As Steve Kemp, a services director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, told the Asheville Citizen-Times, the best views will be "way out in the boonies." And people are coming.

Kate Russo, the psychologist who also works as an eclipse-planning consultant, pointed out that the 2017 eclipse will pass over 1000 communities, "and most of them will be under-resourced. These small communities, they usually have one person who does multiple jobs, and they're not able to think on this scale. They just don't usually need to, because nothing this big happens."

She said, "I've been saying this repeatedly to people, the hidden story is how all of these communities are preparing for what's going on. It's an unprecedented event."

The logistical challenges involved in managing a rural town that may quintuple in size for 24 hours can be intimidating. Gas stations could run out of fuel. Grocery stores and restaurants could run out of food. ATMs could run out of cash. Roads that rarely see traffic could clog.

Hopkinsville, however, is emblematic of the Herculean efforts small towns across the country are making to ensure that none of this happens.

The town, which expects visitors from across the U.S. as well as from as far as Germany, Brazil, and Japan, has hired a full-time eclipse coordinator. They've requested 85 National Guard and a handful of state police be on hand to help control traffic on the two-lane highways lacing the countryside. They've advised locals to avoid eating out on the days before the eclipse to ease the food crunch, and they've hired at least 50 food vendors to set up shop downtown (50 more vendors will be located at different spots around the county). Officials have encouraged locals to acquire temporary health and safety licenses to hawk snacks.

If roads jam on August 21, ambulances could be marooned on country lanes, a scenario that's prompted Hopkinsville's local Red Cross and other nonprofits to certify more residents in First Aid. The town even designated extra landing zones for med-evac helicopters and established a makeshift alternative care site in the northern reaches of the county. Emergency managers from Lexington and Louisville are on speed dial in case Hopkinsville needs reinforcement choppers.

Hopkinsville's regional airport, which has space for 40 small airplanes, expects twice as many aircraft to land that weekend. It will install extra tiedowns. Aviators better have rooms booked: A night's stay for that weekend at the local Hampton Inn or Comfort Suites, according to Cook, is currently running "anywhere from $400 to $800." Pickings are slim on Airbnb too, where, as of press time, a one bedroom ranges from $170 to $4050 a night. To make more space, the town plans to transform its parks into campsites and RV lots, building communal dump sites so visitors can safely dispose of gray and black water. Some areas have already sold out.

To prevent light pollution, the city teamed up with utility companies to manually stop streetlights from flipping on during totality. It's more complicated than it sounds. "It's not like one big switch on the grid!" says Brooke Jung, Hopkinsville's eclipse coordinator. The town has also worked with shop owners to stop light-sensitive business signs from flickering when the sky blackens.

A lack of technology outside of town, however, is a bigger concern: The farmland near the point of greatest eclipse, where thousands of people are expected to gather, has no cell service. AT&T will install a MEGA-COW, a temporary cellular tower on wheels, to transform the wireless desert. In the meantime, Hopkinsville has stockpiled everything from folding lawn chairs to porta-potties. "I tell you what. If you had a share in porta-potties right now, you'd be doing well," Russo says.

You'd be cashing in if you held stock in eclipse-viewing glasses, too.

It goes without saying that, unless you want to look like a pirate for the rest of your life, staring directly at the Sun is a bad idea. Thirty seconds is all it takes to cause permanent eye damage, which often goes unnoticed because it rarely causes pain [PDF]. Injuries have plagued every solar eclipse. In Europe, in 1999, 70 people lost some vision. Four years earlier in India, 21 people suffered eye damage. Since sunglasses don't cut it, Hopkinsville ordered 100,000 pairs of eclipse-viewing glasses, which Cook sells for 50 cents a pop. (The school district also purchased a pair for each student.)

This story playing out in Hopkinsville is quietly playing out in small towns across the U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina. "That doesn't mean it won't be chaotic," Cook says. "But it will be organized chaos."

When I asked her what the people in Hopkinsville's tourism office would be doing the day after the eclipse, Cook's voice lilted with excitement: "Oh, we're gonna take the day off!"

 
 

The experience of watching an eclipse can be so intense it spurs some people to reevaluate their lives. Before Makepeace saw his first total eclipse in 1991, he had set life on cruise-control. "I liked my job in film and video. I liked girls. That was pretty much it," he says. In fact, he was chasing a woman when he traveled to Baja, Mexico, to see his first eclipse: His girlfriend was working for a travel agency promoting the event and he decided to tag along.

David Makepeace
Makepeace in Indonesia
David Makepeace

That eclipse lasted almost seven minutes—one of the century's longest—and it shook Makepeace. He spent the next few days sitting on the beach in a daze of suspended awe. "It took two days for me to say, OK, how am I actually feeling about this? And then I started digesting that. I've been digesting it for 25 years." He's chased eclipses ever since.

Kate Russo had a similar experience. Being a science enthusiast who loves to travel, she figured it'd be a fun one-time event. "I thought a total eclipse would be something I see and move on," she said. "And then when I went, I was completely overwhelmed. It blew my mind. I knew it was going to be a good experience, but I had no idea it was going to be completely overwhelming, smacked around the face, wake up and go WHOA. And straight after that, I thought, I have to do this again—I didn't even know there were eclipse chasers—I just knew that I had this full compulsion to see this again, I have to feel that again, I have to see it again. I got to do it."

When she returned home, she checked a science textbook and discovered a map depicting future eclipse paths. "I saw that and thought: This is my life."

Future eclipses
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

Russo's eclipse-chasing has brought her to Mongolia, to the brink of deportation in Russia, and to the muddy rivers of Mozambique, where she paddled dug-out canoes with tribesmen. It's led Makepeace to visit all seven continents, fly prop planes in the Australian outback, spend 30 days on an Antarctic icebreaker, and flirt with the Iraq-Turkey no-fly zone.

All to see eclipses.

An idea from the 18th century might help explain why, for some, the experience can transfigure lives.

Today, people slap the word sublime on oversized cheesecakes and graceful tennis volleys, but in the 19th century, philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer had a different meaning in mind: The sublime was an overwhelming feeling of awe that overcame people when they confronted something so powerful, so incalculably grand, that it forced in his words a "turning away of the will"—that is, viewers lost themselves in pure contemplation. The sublime transcends beauty. It's paralysis by awe.

Eclipses are arguably the sublime at its most potent. "Because it is so compressed in this time, and it's so intense, nothing else comes close," Makepeace says. The Moon's shadow could basically put the country's mindfulness gurus out of work. "We're all intensely focused on the same thing, and there's nobody whose focus is elsewhere."

Easter Island
A total solar eclipse over Easter Island, Chile
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Such responses aren't new. For centuries, eclipses have had a reputation of causing people to remake their lives for the better. In 585 BCE, as the Lydians warred the Medes, an eclipse supposedly appeared over the battlefield and inspired the soldiers to call a truce. In 1183, the Minamoto and Taira clans of Japan were in the midst of a three-year civil war, yet, when an eclipse appeared, both sides dropped their weapons. In 1988, when the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore visited the Philippines to view an eclipse, people feared terrorists would target visitors. "But when we went there, the three terrorist groups issued a combined statement that they weren't going to shoot at us, and they didn't," he recalls in Total Addiction. "It was jolly sporting of them!"

A story McClean tells about the 2009 total solar eclipse in China sums it up well. As totality ended, another American in the crowd—an eclipse virgin—fumbled for his cell phone to call home. "Mom! Remember that time we saw that documentary about those crazy eclipse chasers?" he yelled. "Well, I'm one of them now!"

 
 

Ask anybody in Hopkinsville, and they'll tell you that August 21 is an uncanny date for an eclipse to arrive. The people of Christian County have a history of seeing otherworldly objects in the sky that day.

On August 21, 1955, a blinding light tumbled over rural Kentucky. Billy Ray Taylor, a visitor staying in a packed rural farmhouse a few miles outside of Hopkinsville, was drawing water from a well when he saw the light whisk across the horizon, leaving a contrail of "exhaust all the colors of the rainbow."

Taylor ran into the farmhouse and yammered about having witnessed a UFO. Nobody listened. As suppertime passed, and as dusk crept in, a hound outside began to bay. Taylor and a man named Lucky Sutton grabbed two guns and stepped out to investigate. Outside waited a group of creatures. One eyeballed the men from a tree branch.

It stood two and half feet tall: silver, with spindly legs, pointed ears, a large head, luminescent yellow eyes, and a long talon protruding from its hands. It could float. Sutton and Taylor shot at the creature and scrambled into the house, watching nervously from the window as night fell.

Big golden eyes glowed from the other side. The farmhouse matriarch, Glennie Lankford, shoved her youngest children under the bed as the roof rattled, the sound of claws scraping above. Gunshots rang out. The creature in the window dodged. Then the eyes peered again through the hole.

This game of peekaboo reportedly continued for hours.

Eventually, the family sprinted outside and drove eight miles to Hopkinsville's police headquarters. As the Kentucky New Era reported the next day, the family's distress appeared genuine. "We need help," one of them said. "We've been fighting them for nearly four hours."

Four city police, five state troopers, three deputy sheriffs, and some military police drove to the farm, but when they arrived, nothing was there but a hole in the window and, according to lore, a graveyard of spent shells and casings. After investigating for two hours, authorities found no signs of the creatures.

Today, the "Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter" is a favorite among UFO-philes [PDF]. Explanations range from extraterrestrials to monkeys that escaped from a traveling circus. The FBI's famed investigation into UFOs, Project Blue Book, calls the account a hoax. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, however, believes the family genuinely saw something: a dusk-loving critter with large yellow eyes, skinny legs, claws, talons, and the power to hover … called the great horned owl.

Avian or Alien?
Sarah Turbin

Avian or alien, the Kelly-Hopkinsville creature is cheekily celebrated by the town every August 21 with the "Little Green Men Days Festival," a celebration full of arts and crafts booths, cheesy T-shirts, bouncy castles, and excuses to eat fried dough. This year, however, the county is pulling out all the stops for the eclipse. In addition to the Little Green Men Days Festival, there will be a three-day music festival, a mini comic-con, a bluegrass bash, a bourbon mashoree, and more than 20 other events, including visits from NASA scientists and a lecture from the director of the Vatican Observatory.

The total economic boost may exceed $30 million.

For some, the coincidence of having the eclipse fall on the same date as a purported extraterrestrial encounter remains too eerie. "I like to say they came to pick up their viewing spot, they just came early," Cook says. "It just gives you the chills!"

 
 

In 2013, James McClean boarded a pondhopper in Nairobi, Kenya and flew two hours north to the town of Lodwar. He flagged down a taxi—which "cost about $2 and the time it takes to fix three flat tires"—and traveled 36 miles to the village of Kalokal, a sandy hamlet along the western shores of Lake Turkana. A park ranger sat there waiting for him, propped atop a motorcycle. McClean grabbed his backpack, hopped on, and puttered to his base camp.

For the next two weeks, he prepared for an eclipse that would last 12 seconds.

McClean shuttled between Lodwar and Kalokal to scout different viewing locations, build rapport with locals, and set up equipment. On eclipse day, it was a balmy 80 degrees with a few puffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. McClean placed his cameras along the shore of Lake Turkana, framing a small grass hut and thousands of pink flamingos standing in the shallows.

In the mid afternoon, the Moon chewed into the Sun, right on schedule. In the distance, darkness steamed across the landscape.

This was not the Moon's shadow.

fisherman from the El Molo tribe walks back with his net at sunrise in the village of Komote
A fisherman from the El Molo tribe walks along Lake Turkana.
Carl De Souza/AFP/GettyImages

Eclipses generate shifty winds. As ground temperatures cool under the umbra, warm air may stop rising and wind can alter course. The currents had caused a sandstorm. McClean chuckled as it rolled through a camp of moneyed tourists who had just flown in. "I thought, Look! all of those people who paid $8000 for that fly-in adventure are in the middle of this epic sandstorm."

Twenty minutes later, he stopped laughing. Minutes before totality, McClean watched a small island in the middle of the lake disappear. The sandstorm barreled straight for him.

"It was a dark wall of DOOM," McClean says. "Straight from the Scorpion King!" Large shards of sand—hard, painful pieces resembling "powdered glass or candied sugar"—swirled in the air. McClean abandoned his equipment, jumped into a taxi, and found shelter among a few grass huts.

The sky darkened. McClean looked up and saw sand. Twelve seconds later, daylight returned. "We all got skunked," he says.

That's the hard truth of eclipse chasing: Mother Nature holds the steering wheel. Many people who chase the 2017 eclipse, including those in Hopkinsville, could get skunked too: All it takes is one well placed cloud. In fact, a number of diehard eclipse chasers are avoiding the point of greatest eclipse in favor of states such as Wyoming where foul weather and big crowds are less likely.

"As ironic as it is, as large and open and free to move around in as this country is, this one's gonna be really hard to find a place in the west unless you arrange something with a rancher or if you're very skilled with rock-climbing," McClean says. In other words, the bulk of casual chasers will funnel to towns like Hopkinsville that are not only close to major cities, but are also ready to put on a party regardless of the weather.

Assuming skies are clear, the number of people who could catch the eclipse-chasing bug is anybody's guess.

"People say to me, 'I wish I could chase eclipses … if only I had the time," McClean said. He leaned in and carefully weighed his words. "Look. I have given up so much in my life just to have the time. I have nothing. I have this iPad, some Nikons I need to sell—I've given it all up to see eclipses. I have my backpack and my health, thank God, and I'm starting to think if I'm not crazy."

Is it crazy to give up expectations of a normal life, to take gigantic financial risks and literally go to the ends of the Earth, to experience something that may last only 12 seconds? What if those 12 seconds make you feel incandescently alive? Is that as crazy as having a passion you neglect? As crazy as actively choosing to spend most of your waking hours staring into the bug zapperish glow of a computer screen?

Russo is a psychologist, so I had to ask: Am I—your typical city slicker desk jockey—the crazy one? She just laughed. "Everybody is passionate or obsessed about something. Maybe they haven't found it, or maybe it's not as developed as other people's may be … but when you find your thing, and it becomes a part of who you are, it becomes a way of life. That's why I call [eclipse-chasing] an addiction. It's a positive addiction though, because it doesn't take anything away from your life. It gives you something."

portrait of Kate Russo
Kate Russo
Paul McErlane

Makepeace can vouch for that. When asked if he's made sacrifices, he shook his head. "I think there have been consequences for the way I've lived, to be less stable and more spontaneous—but those are things I love about life," he says. "I generally have spent 100 grand or 150 grand traveling, that could have gone into a house, and I could have equity. But then I'd be a boring son of a bitch."

Say what you will: Eclipse chasers are finely tuned to what matters most to them.

 
 

In Hopkinsville, the total eclipse of the Sun will last two minutes and 40.1 seconds. After that, the Sun will reappear, cleanup will begin, and the umbra will bolt into Tennessee at speeds tickling Mach 2. After giving Nashville a show, it will graze the corner of Georgia and North Carolina and sail over Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Its last stop will be South Carolina, where it will, appropriately, make its curtain call by visiting a lineup of small towns—like Anderson (pop: 26,686), Saluda (pop: 3565), Kinards (pop: 810)—before tipping its hat in Charleston. At 2:49 p.m. EDT, the 2017 eclipse will charge over two lighthouses, a sandy barrier island, and disappear over the Atlantic Ocean.

Who knows what will be left in its wake.

 

Kate Russo's new book about ordinary people experiencing an eclipse for the first time, Being in the Shadow, is available now.

Also out now: David Makepeace's latest documentary about the hunt for eclipses, Still Hooked.

Original image
Andrew Lenoir
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History
The Secret Cold War History of a Ruined Long Island Estate
Original image
Andrew Lenoir

Deep in the Muttontown Preserve of East Norwich, New York, off a series of winding trails, lies a graffitied staircase to nowhere. It’s one of just a few crumbling structures nearly swallowed by the woods—all that’s left of the Knollwood estate, a once-grand neoclassical mansion built starting in 1906 for Wall Street tycoon Charles Hudson.

Although historians call the place Knollwood, locals know it as King Zog’s Castle. The king in question is Zog I of Albania, owner-in-absentia of the estate for several years in the 1950s. While King Zog I purchased the mansion in 1951, he never lived there. In fact, he probably never even visited. His story is one of Cold War intrigue, failed CIA operations, and a lingering, unresolved exile.

A photograph of a staircase in the ruined former estate of King Zog I of Albania
Andrew Lenoir

When Ahmed Zogolli, the boy who would become King Zog, was born in 1895, there was no Albanian throne—there wasn’t even an Albania. The mountainous Balkan region was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, although order was largely maintained through a feudal system of competing familial warlords. Zogolli was not supposed to inherit his father’s post as the chieftain of his powerful mountain clan—he was the only son of his father's second marriage, and his older half-brother from his father's first marriage had been groomed to take over. But Zogolli's mother managed to convince the clan's elders to pass over her husband’s first-born heir in favor of her own offspring. Ambitious as her son would later become, the future king’s mother acted as chief until he reached maturity. Meanwhile, Zogolli was raised among the ruling class in Istanbul, reading about Napoleon and aspiring to a life beyond Turkish bureaucracy.

Over the next few years, he rose slowly but steadily through the ranks. In 1912, Albania declared independence, but after a brief monarchy, the country was consumed by the fighting of World War I. Zogolli proved himself a popular military commander under the Austro-Hungarians, and when a democratic Albanian government formed in 1920, he was appointed Minister of the Interior. Within a few years, he had become Prime Minister, shortening his name to Zogu. As he continued to consolidate his power, Zogu maintained control over his feudal chieftains with displays of drinking and gift-giving. But he also had harsher methods, once pulling a gun on a drunken chauffeur and telling him, “Drive more slowly or you die.”

Zogu became president in 1925, but three years later he declared the Albanian democratic experiment a failure: A republic was too much all at once for “backward” people used to hereditary hierarchies, he claimed. Instead, he offered himself as the country’s first nationalist monarch—King Zog (dropping the u), or “King Bird,” an allusion to Albanians’ self-identification as “Sons of the Eagle.” Six days of celebration followed, during which thousands of prisoners were pardoned, state employees received bonuses of a month's salary, and every shop and cafe displayed his picture (failure to do so meant a fine). Accounts of his 11-year-reign are mixed; historians note his love of luxury despite an impoverished population, but also his early efforts to spread literacy and electricity. “Zog is clever enough, but no hero, and he loves intrigue,” was the assessment of Benito Mussolini, according to the English explorer and writer Rosita Forbes.

The leader of Fascist Italy would also be the one to end Zog’s reign. When Italy invaded in 1939, Zog and his wife Geraldine fled with their newborn son, the crown prince Leka, waiting out World War II first in Greece and England before eventually landing in Egypt as a guest of that nation's King Farouk, where they soon settled into a villa in Alexandria.

After the war, the royal family flew to New York, arriving in America for the first time on July 26, 1951. The New York Times reported that Zog’s trip was strictly a pleasure visit, but recently declassified CIA files reveal there was more to the story. While newspapers focused on his social engagements, the king’s most important meetings were secret ones. A few weeks after his arrival, Zog had the first of three meetings with U.S. intelligence services.

A black and white photo of King Zog of Albania at an unknown date.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The deposed king had chosen his arrival shrewdly. Since 1944, Enver Hoxha and his USSR-backed Party of Labor had held control of the Albanian government. With the Iron Curtain closing and Cold War alliances starting to form, the United States was extremely interested in replacing the Albanian government as quickly and quietly as possible. Operation Valuable Fiend, launched in 1949, sought to do just that, serving as the first clandestine U.S. operation of the Cold War.

It wasn't the CIA's first effort in Albania: A few months before they started Operation Valuable Fiend, the CIA also began funding the National Committee for a Free Albania (NCFA), a United States-based group consisting of both pro-democracy and pro-monarchist politicians in exile. But the NCFA got off to a rocky start—its first chairman, the moderate Midhat Frashëri, died of a sudden heart attack within months of his appointment amid suspicions of Soviet foul play.

After that, Operation Valuable Fiend became the CIA’s top priority. So when King Zog arrived, presenting himself as the ultimate Albanian insider, Operation Commander Col. Gratian Yatsevitch—a Ukrainian immigrant turned U.S. intelligence officer—seized the opportunity to ask him some questions. First off, what was the best way to start a revolution in Albania?

“I’ve given the matter a lot of thought,” the king said, smoking cigarette after cigarette as he laid out his vision through an interpreter. He proposed personally selecting a small infiltration team of his best men to perform reconnaissance and rally any remaining Albanian monarchists. Meanwhile, the Americans and the king’s personal staff would train 10,000 Albanian rebels. Following a few targeted assassinations, Zog himself, the NCFA, and any other Albanian exile groups eager to join the fight would lead an invasion.

“At this point,” Zog said, “I will invite the UN to send representatives to ensure that formation of the new Albanian government is in accordance with democratic principles.” The king promised he had no pretensions of reinstating his regime, and the CIA documents note that he seemed frank and sincere. Still, the document notes, “it is very difficult if not impossible for a former monarch to divorce himself entirely from visions of returning to his kingdom.”

Two meetings later, at the beginning of September 1951, Yatsevitch confirmed that the U.S. government wanted to try Zog’s plan. But before returning to his Alexandria villa to await further instructions, the king decided to acquire an American pied a terre. “A bucket of diamonds and rubies was reliably reported yesterday to have been paid for an outstanding property in the Muttontown estate section of Syosset,” The New York Times reported on September 19, 1951, calling it “a deal that will bring a former member of European royalty to Long Island as a farmer resident.”

The Times was half-correct in its assertion that Zog aspired to be a “farmer resident.” He was particularly taken with Knollwood’s extensive dairy and capacity to house a thousand chickens. But Zog’s hopes ran higher than poultry: Owning an American residence meant that Zog and his family would have an easier time immigrating to the United States, which was an implicit component of his understanding with the government. If he could not be king in Albania, Zog planned to live like an aristocratic landowner in America. Once the paperwork on Knollwood was signed, he began looking into the possibility of bringing over whole families of servants with him to America to serve as the foundation for a court of over 100 people.

A photo of a monument to King Zog of Albania in a main square of the capital.
A monument to King Zog in Albania's capital.

In early May 1952, with Zog back in Egypt, a group of Albanian rebels handpicked by him from his personal guard and codenamed Apple Team crossed over the Albanian border. As Yatsevitch wrote in early June of that year, “There is a basis of hope that this Apple Tree will bear a rich harvest of bitter fruit for BGGYPSY [a codeword for Communist] palates.” But that never happened. Although the details are still unclear, sometime in the early hours of June 29, Apple Team was compromised.

In a 1954 letter, King Zog claimed he had personally instructed Apple Team to make contact with his old royalist allies, the Lleshi family. On June 29, as Apple Team members drank toasts to the king’s health, the Lleshi house was raided by a Sigurimi task force—the special forces of the Albanian communists.

Zog later claimed the once-loyal Lleshis had been bought off, their patriarch Haxhi Lleshi bribed with the offer of a high post in the Albanian government. As it happened, Haxhi Lleshi became presidium of the National Assembly the next year. Whatever the reason, by the end of June 1952, the Albanian forces had Apple Team’s men, weapons, radios, plans, and codebooks—and the CIA had no idea.

The Sigurimi first made contact with the Americans using the captured agents on July 3. There were some initial telegraphing errors that might have been a member of Apple Team signaling that something was wrong, but the Americans didn’t notice. It was only in November, when the Sigurimi tried to steal more supplies and capture more prisoners by claiming Apple Team’s radio operator was hurt, that the CIA began to suspect that something was wrong.

The now-suspicious CIA went to Zog, asking him for help in confirming who they were actually speaking to in their communications with Apple Team. Via radio contact from Alexandria, Zog told the CIA to ask team member Zenel Shehi, “Do you remember in whose hands you left your silver cuff links before your departure?”

The answer was Queen Geraldine, Zog’s wife. Or, it should have been. Shehi had been the Queen’s bodyguard since they entered exile in 1939 and the two remained close—so much that they exchanged keepsakes. Shehi should have known the answer immediately, as Zog had even discussed it with him in person before Apple Team left Alexandria. Instead, though, the operator answered: “The silver cuff links are in our suitcases … Don’t bother us unnecessarily.”

Somehow, Zog was convinced that Shehi had simply become confused. Maybe the former "King Bird" was distracted by his failing health and all that was happening in Egypt, where King Farouk, Zog’s friend and benefactor, was overthrown around the same time. By 1953, Egypt had become a democracy, and Zog’s Alexandria villa quickly became a luxurious prison.

Even worse, after a year of insisting he was immune to property tax, Zog was forced to pay $3000 in back taxes to New York's Nassau County to keep Knollwood off the auction block.

If Zog was ever going to move to America, this would have been the time. But he didn’t. In addition to wanting to bring 115 Albanians along with him, there was the problem of what kind of visa was appropriate for royalty. Worried that being accepted as a “refugee” or an official “emigrant” might damage his claim to the Albanian throne, Zog refused to accept anything less than an official invitation and sponsorship. According to Jason Tomes’s biography of the monarch, King Zog: Self Made Monarch of Albania, Zog’s emigration was also delayed because the U.S. never agreed to take more than 35 Albanians.

But on September 22, 1953, after a direct petition from CIA Director Allan Dulles, the U.S. State Department finally instructed their Alexandrian consulate that Zog and his entourage were to be allowed into the United States without visas. Sadly for him, the king didn't leave the country in time. Four days later, the king’s villa was raided by Egyptian authorities, Zog was arrested, and a large sum of his gold reserves were seized. According to Egyptian officials, the monarch had failed to declare his assets or pay any taxes during his arrival and stay in their country. Although there were some suspicions of Soviet involvement, assistance did not come from the U.S. Dulles wrote on October 2, “some steps [must] be taken to ease the possibility of causing embarrassment to the U.S. Government.” Things got worse when the reality of Valuable Fiend’s failure became obvious.

A photograph of a fountain in the ruined former estate of King Zog I of Albania
Andrew Lenoir

After months of stealing supplies and spreading misinformation, the communists impersonating Apple Team were tired of playing around. (The location of the real Apple Team members during this time is unknown, although they were likely in prison.) On the night of October 23, after sending a series of desperate messages, the communists lured a CIA supply plane into a trap—opening fire with anti-aircraft guns when it arrived at the predetermined drop point. The pilots barely managed to crash-land on the Greek side of the border.

Having revealed their hand, the Albanians knew they had used up Apple Team’s usefulness. Shortly afterwards, the Albanian government announced the capture of all six American-backed agents and began a highly publicized trial in April 1954. Prosecutors made sure to drag Zog through the mud in the process—claiming the king had betrayed his country to the Americans—before all members of Apple Team were publicly executed.

With Apple Team dead, Operation Valuable Fiend in shambles, and Zog on trial in Egypt, the CIA decided to “let the dust settle.” There was a brief spark of hope at the end of 1953, when an agent told the king to burn all CIA documents and promised to have the royals out of Egypt the next month, but the extraction never came. Instead, when Zog was finally allowed to leave Egypt in July of 1955 after paying various fines and arrears, he and his family fled to France—by then, the king was too ill with stomach ulcers for a transatlantic voyage. That was when Zog finally sold the Knollwood Estate in New York.

His throne a lost cause, the ex-ruler also gave up on Albania. The feeling, it seems, was mutual. In 1957, The New York Times wrote of the widespread belief among the Albanian population that “the United States is plotting to return King Zog to the throne and restore a feudal system of serfdom" [PDF]. Whether it was his own doing or an after-effect of CIA meddling and Communist propaganda, Zog was seen as just another autocrat interested in his own power and not the people.

In 1959, the same year The New York Times ran an article announcing the auction of the Albanian crown jewels "to be sold to assist the dependents of King Zog I" [PDF], the new owner of the Knollwood Estate, mining magnate Lansdell Christie, had the mansion torn down. By then, it had lain vacant so long it was deemed unsafe, although local legend has it that ransacking by treasure-hunters contributed to its decay.

Oyster Bay town historian John Hammond says that piece of local lore is unlikely: Although the Times’s report that Zog purportedly purchased Knollwood with "a bucket of rubies" might have given some people ideas, in his estimation the "treasure hunting" refers to a far more common kind of vandalism—stealing scrap metal. Hammond’s certain the only "treasure" was Knollwood’s fixtures: its copper gutters, downspouts, and wiring, which proved too tempting for trespassers.

Rumor of a great treasure seems like the kind of thing Zog would have liked, had he lived to see it. The deposed king outlasted Knollwood by only two years, dying in Paris in 1961 [PDF]. Queen Geraldine, nearly 20 years his junior, died in 2002.

But Zog has seen a kind of resurrection in Albania since his death. In 2012, his remains were exhumed and reburied at the Royal Mausoleum in Tirana, the country’s capital, as part of the country’s centennial celebrations. Greeted by a crowd of more than 3000, his place in his homeland has become more certain, whatever his role in the Cold War. He is, as Prime Minister Sali Berisha chose to remember him, the "illustrious figure who laid the foundations of the Albanian state." And on Long Island, the ruins of his estate remain as silent testimony to an odd interlude in the early Cold War.

Additional Sources: Operation Valuable Fiend; King Zog: Self Made Monarch of Albania; CIA documents

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