Skip to main content

America’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and Possible Inspiration for Indiana Jones

Item: 22896
Add to Wishlist

PHILLIPS, WENDELL. (1921-1975). Flamboyant American archeologist called “America’s Lawrence of Arabia” and thought to be an inspiration for the iconic movie hero Indiana Jones. ALS. (“Wendell” and “Wendell Phillips”). 3pp. 4to. Concord, April 24, N.y. (ca. 1946). On University of California Museum of Paleontology letterhead. To “Henry,” American archeologist and anthropologist HENRY FIELD, 1902-1986.

I bet you think I am a fine one for not answering your very swell letters before this – however I just now returned from three weeks in Hollywood where I stayed with Kenneth Macgowan at Paramount.

My African Expedition is growing by leaps and bounds. Sol Lesser the famous producer wants to back me at least in part so that I can do some jungle photography for him. I will be flying south again tomorrow I guess to finish up the details – Prof Charles Camp – Chairman of my Dept. will go with me. I have set a minimum of $50,000 for the expedition and things are looking pretty good. President Sproel is personally backing me – so that helps a lot.

I write again just as soon as I have some more information. I certainly do appreciate your interest and help and I will certainly make a special trip to Georgia to see you if I come East – and I should be coming East soon.

When I had Polio I gave my notes to my nurse to send to you – well she forgot and I never received them – so I wrote Henry Collins and he checked up and the nurse is sending them to you. I am afraid they are kind of out of date now but you may find something of interest. If you do not receive them let me know for I eventually would like to get them back.

I just received a letter from Ethel Lindgren saying she received my M.S. from you and that she gave it to Sir John Myres who says he will be only too happy to publish it in ‘Man’. Thus my poor little story finally made the grade thanks to you – I can never tell you how very much I appreciated your handling this matter for me when I was so sick. I am returning the interesting enclosures. I wish I could get a copy of Preliminary Announcement of the Congress for myself. For I believe it possible that I may be able to bring part of my expedition to the Congress and to cover the show with colored movies.

Do you think that you will attend? Also tell me more of your trip to Mexico and when you plan to leave and for how long.

Please let me hear from you soon and I am looking forward very much to a visit with you very very soon…”

Photo of Phillips

Wendell Phillips

A native of California, Phillips’ studies at the University of California at Berkeley were interrupted by his service during World War II, which, itself, was cut short by a bout of polio that left him temporarily paralyzed in a Maryland hospital in 1945, as mentioned in our letter. After recovering and returning to college, Phillips, who was known for his enormous charm and charisma, persuaded the university to fund an archeological expedition covering the entire length of Africa, known as the University of California African Expedition (1947-48), which brought him considerable fame. Our letter details Phillips’ preparations for the expedition.

His image, following subsequent expeditions through the Middle East sponsored by American businesses like Colt, General Foods, Pan American, Heinz, Dodge, and Chrysler, was enhanced by films showing him brandishing his Colt .45 pistols and evading angry locals. “Rumors have even circulated that Phillips could have provided an inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. He once described being served a dish of eyeballs in a sultan’s palace while getting fanned by palm fronds. He staffed his expeditions with beautiful women, including a truck driver with ‘the figure of a mannequin’ and a 19-year-old secretary so attractive that he feared she would be annexed into a local harem. He talked of discovering buried treasure and pledged to find traces of the Queen of Sheba,” (“The Complex Legacy of America’s Lawrence of Arabia,” Smithsonian Magazine, Tucker). Phillips was also nicknamed “America’s Lawrence of Arabia” by traveler and broadcaster Lowell Thomas.

Photo of Phillips with locals

Phillips in the field

His explorations of Yemen and Oman yielded what is “still considered to be one of the finest and most coherent collections of ancient Yemeni artifacts outside of South Arabia, housed partially in the Smithsonian. The collection’s scholarly significance has only increased in recent years, as excavation work in Yemen is at a standstill due to the country’s civil war and intensifying humanitarian crisis,” (ibid.). Using the power of the media to enhance his image and penning books detailing his exploits, Phillips also enriched his wallet, by amassing oil concessions and mining and fishing rights, first in the middle east and later all over the world. By 1975 he was the world’s largest individual holder of oil concessions.

Our letter details preparations for his African expedition and mentions Kenneth Macgowan (1888-1963) who produced films for RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount and Sol Lesser (1890-1980) who produced Tarzan films for MGM and RKO as well as the documentaries Kon-Tiki, Under the Red Sea and Quest for the Lost City, all of which feature explorers or scientists.

Charles L. Camp (1893-1975) chaired Berkeley’s paleontology department and co-led the southern branch of the University of California African Expedition that uncovered primitive human fossils in South Africa. Robert Gordon Sproul (1891-1975) was Berkeley’s president from 1930-1952, and then president of the University of California system from 1952-1958. Henry Collins may be archeologist Henry Bascom Collins, Jr. (1899-1987), an expert on the prehistory of the Arctic, employed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology from 1939 to 1965 and who would have been geographically close enough to the Maryland hospital where Phillips was recovering from polio to investigate the whereabouts of his missing manuscript. Ethel Lindgren (1905-1988) was an influential American-born British anthropologist and professor at Cambridge. British archeologist John Linton Myres (1869-1954), known for his excavations of Cyprus, founded the journal Man, discussed here and now known as the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

After earning advanced degrees at Eton and Oxford, Henry Field, our letter’s recipient, returned to his native Chicago where he worked as curator of physical anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History and participated in the University of Oxford/Field Museum excavation of the Sumerian archeological site of Kish. By 1941, Field’s reputation was such that President Roosevelt selected him as “Anthropologist to the President,” attached to a special intelligence unit dealing with human migration and war refugees. Field participated in the northern leg of the University of California African Expedition through Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula and reported on it for the journal American Anthropologist.

Written on two sheets of stationery, with show-through on the recto and verso of the first sheet. Phillips, who signed the letter with his first name, has added his return address bearing a full signature in the upper left corner of the first page. Folded with staple holes in the upper left corners. Normal wear and in very good condition. Rare.

America’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and Possible Inspiration for Indiana Jones

$400 • item #22896

    Just this once...
    Please share your name and email address to receive:

      We will not share your contact info