Revisiting the scandalous ‘Galapagos Affair’

Posted on August 25, 2014 by Sonoma Valley Sun

c18ab536-6d93-4f74-bff0-0d3b77442406When he came across the long-forgotten memoir “Satan Came to Eden,” written by a adulterous young German woman who emigrated with her lover to an uninhabited Galapagos island in 1929, Sonoma author and editor Joe Troise knew he was on to something. “Adventure, survival, sex, murder,” he figured, “What’s not to like here? And it’s all true.”

The recent re-release of the book is the first of what Trosie calls his “Out of Print But Not Out of Mind” series. “This is my inaugural venture in seeking out and re-printing books that have been forgotten but shouldn’t have.”

The original book was published in 1936. In it, Dore Strauch tells of fleeing the social and economic turmoil of post-World War I Germany with her lover, choosing to abandon the chaos of modern civilization — as well as their respective spouses.

Their unlikely Eden was the dry, uninhabited volcanic island of Floreana in the Galapagos chain. Yacht crews returned with news of the eccentric couple’s adventures, and they became darlings of the Western press. Then came a second family on the island, soon followed by a pistol-wielding Austrian “baroness” and her two young lovers.

“You can smell trouble already, right?” Troise predicted.

The charming aristocrat was also sinister and controlling. Tensions grew, jealousies and resentments raged, and soon this island with a population of nine was at war with itself.
The baroness was to disappear into thin air, in what papers headlined as “The Galapagos Affair.” It was a major scandal of the day.

A documentary film was released about it in May entitled “The Galapagos Affair” with Cate Blanchette as one of the voice-overs. “While the film meanders here and there, the original memoir I am reprinting is pretty precise in describing the undoing of this couple’s idyllic aspirations at the hands of an uninvited and evil visitor, Troise said.

While a great deal has been written about this fascinating story in blogs and websites, Trosie said, the book itself has only been remotely accessible as a rare and expensive hardcover. “Being passed from friend to friend, or tediously photocopied, used to be the only method of securing a copy,” he said. “Until now, that is.”

Sun: The book was out of print for 80 years. What drew you to this particular story?

JT: I stumbled on this story quite by accident, while doing research for the Sausalito Historical Society. We were working on an exhibit about boatbuilding in Sausalito, and I was in hard pursuit of the history of the infamous yacht “Zaca,” later owned by Errol Flynn. At one time, this boat sailed through the Galapagos Islands, and it was within the story of this journey that I first heard the strange tale of the “Adam and Eve of the Galapagos.” It took me months to find the actual book written by the “heroine” of this saga, Dore Strauch. She called it “Satan Came To Eden” and it caught my eye, as you can imagine.

Sun: The adventurers left their respective spouses to live amid the harmony of nature. How close to paradise did they get?

JT: In some ways, the Galapagos Island of Floreana, where this couple settled in 1930, was paradise, in terms of being unspoiled by man; but it was hardly the lush, romantic desert isle often depicted in Victorian literature. Volcanic in origin, it was a sere and rugged place, subjected to the many vagaries of a volatile climate. We aren’t talking Maui here.

Sun: Just how scandalous was “The Galapagos Affair” when revealed to the world?

JT: It was a big deal in the world press. People were as fascinated by the wildly eccentric Dr. Ritter, who fancied himself “The Robinson Crusoe of the Galapagos,” as they were by the much younger, brashly bohemian young nurse he chose as his primal mate. Of course, center stage went to the scandalous Austrian “baroness” who invaded the island with her two young German lovers. She proceeded to, shall we say, “entertain” visiting yachtsmen, while submitting the other hapless colonists to exquisite forms of emotional torment. When she mysteriously disappeared, the scandal was now fully in flower. The tabloids and crime magazines were still running fanciful versions of this story well into the 1960s.

Sun: You say it reads like a collaboration between Charles Darwin and Stephen King….

JT: The story is so bizarre you couldn’t make it up. You could take the point of view that not only did Charles Darwin visit this island in real life, but that his ghost might have been in residence in the 1930s. While Darwin never used the term “survival of the fittest,” one has to admit that judging by which colonists survived on Floreana, and which ones perished, perhaps natural selection was going on, with assistance from the darker regions of human intervention.

Sun: What are some of the striking elements of the memoir?

JT: There are many layers to savor here. First of all, we have the rather intimate experience of sensing that the narrator might be lost in her own self-delusions. Then we get to know an entire cast of characters, each of whom are, in their own way, very rich, very individualized. This isn’t some cardboard-cutout, plot-driven murder mystery. This feels like real life being lived by real people. We also participate in a cautionary tale of paradise unraveling before our eyes, a kind of microcosm-macrocosm duet being played out for us. And what a stage for it all to be played out upon — a volcanic island 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, teeming with giant lizards, ferocious wild pigs, and birds that will fly onto your hand. If that’s not enough, we can ponder the chaos of post-World War I Germany from which this couple and the later colonists fled, and the changing world, and sad fate, that awaited the author when she returns to Germany in 1936. And finally (phew!) we have the “Rashomon” nature of the mystery itself. Each witness has a different story. And who, or what, is the actual “Satan” of the title? It’s just great fun to try and figure out this enigma.

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