Jack Grimm was issued an ultimatum from his group of scientists: It was either them or the monkey.
It was 1980, and Grimm, an oil tycoon, was organizing yet another of his seemingly impossible quests. After searching for the remains of Noah’s Ark, evidence of Bigfoot, and proof of the Abominable Snowman, Grimm had set his sights on finding the wreckage of the Titanic, which had sunk to the depths of the North Atlantic in 1912. No one had located the ship. Grimm believed he could—with the aid of a monkey named Titan.
Titan, Grimm insisted, would be able to divine the location of the Titanic through some kind of primate extrasensory perception. (It would also be good publicity.) The scientists hired for the expedition, who were used to more pragmatic methods, considered the gimmick “bizarre” and “circus-like.” But their dissent—and the decision to leave Titan on land—didn’t deter Grimm from funding the expedition. In fact, he would fund a total of three attempts to find the Titanic, at a cost of millions, and later insist he had been the one to actually discover it.
Through it all, he made grand proclamations, promoted half-truths, and mythologized himself as a West Texas version of Don Quixote. In retrospect, enlisting a monkey to find the Titanic was probably one of his least sensational adventures.
Grimm was born in Wagoner, Oklahoma, on May 18, 1925. An incident at age 11 portended his future as a curious mind who was largely untroubled by obstacles: After becoming fascinated by stories of lost treasures told to him by his grandfather, George Washington Grimm, he became convinced something valuable lurked nearby. According to some sources, he thought it was in a nearby creek bed; others say it was in a tree. Regardless, he decided to blow it up using dynamite, and retrieved a few arrowheads and a frying pan in the process. This pattern of chasing legends using extravagant excess would prove to be a metaphor for his entire life.
After serving in the Marines during World War II, Grimm studied oil geology at Oklahoma University and would likely have entered the industry as an employee were it not for his friend Nelson Bunker Hunt. His father was famed oil billionaire H.L. Hunt, and his incredible wealth inspired Grimm to go into business for himself: He proceeded to endure a dry spell that reduced both him and his wife Jackie to poverty before striking oil in a spot that poured out $1000 a day. By age 31, he was a millionaire.
For a time, oil prospecting seemed to satisfy Grimm’s appetite for discovery. He aged into what The Washington Post once described as a look in the vein of Ed Asner, a somewhat burly man with thick eyebrows and the vague presence of an insurance salesman. But by 1970, his ambitions turned esoteric. After reading about a planned French expedition to retrieve remnants of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey, Grimm decided to join up and lend his resources.
There was, of course, the thrill of the hunt, but his motivations had a deeper meaning—the somewhat oxymoronic opportunity to validate faith. “It had always bothered me that communism was a godless society,” Grimm told the Post in 1981. “I thought if you could prove that there was a flood, an Ark and eight survivors then you would have to accept the Bible.”
The expedition happily welcomed Grimm and his financial resources to the trek, which Grimm joined in person. But the Ark was nowhere to be found. Undaunted, Grimm tried again 1974, this time subsidizing his $20,000 investment by selling a television documentary about the search. This, too, was futile, though Grimm never admitted it. Instead, he would brandish a piece of hand-carved timber he said was retrieved from Mount Ararat and would not broker any doubt as to its authenticity.
“This is the Ark,” he said. “That’s my story, and I’m going to stick to it.”
The Ark expeditions clearly whetted Grimm’s appetite for trafficking in pursuits that garnered attention. He backed attempts to find evidence of the existence of famed woodland creature Bigfoot, offering $500,000 for a definitive photo. He also pursued the Loch Ness Monster. That these creatures lacked scientific credibility didn't seem to deter him.
"I am inclined to believe the creatures exist," he said in 1975. "We knew they existed millions of years ago, why not now?" (His approach for finding Nessie, which involved using "experimental" film from Eastman Kodak and taking aerial shots by helicopter, failed to produce evidence of the aquatic monster's existence.)
Grimm's objectives went beyond the fantastic. In 1977, he attempted to win the World Series of Poker, sinking $10,500 a day into the tournament.
He didn’t win, but another, vastly more important pot of gold was awaiting him.
A Titanic Struggle
By 1979, Grimm had set sights on a new and vaguely more practical objective—locating the Titanic.
The ship, which had struck an iceberg and was subsequently swallowed whole by the water in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, had yet to be rediscovered. It wasn’t as simple as merely diving in the spot where it went under, as the deep-diving technology was still brand new. Earlier attempts to find it had not produced any encouraging leads.
Grimm, however, had faith in a man named Michael Harris, an expedition leader and documentary filmmaker who believed the Titanic could be revealed if someone had $1 million to cover what he felt were the necessary expenses. (He and Harris had something else in common: The latter had once overseen a separate expedition to find Noah’s Ark, too.)
In front of reporters that Grimm had summoned for the occasion, the two men met and hammered out an arrangement for an expedition. Grimm solicited investments from his oil industry peers, while putting up a quarter of the amount himself. He also partnered with oceanographer Dr. William Ryan of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory as well as researchers from the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, lending the entire affair real legitimacy.
In anticipation of finding something, Grimm laid the groundwork for a victory lap. He signed a book deal and hired Orson Welles to narrate a documentary, Search for the Titanic; he flirted with the idea of striking a deal with a cruise line so passengers could come see what the expedition was up to; and enlisted singer Kenny Starr to record “Ballad of the Titanic,” a country tune about the doomed ship. Even his recruitment of Titan the monkey seemed orchestrated to maximize press.
The first attempt, in 1980, was a bust—bad weather interfered with sonar targets. But Grimm was emboldened by the effort. He announced “phase II” for summer 1981, which also netted little in the way of evidence he had located the wreck.
The three expeditions (1980, 1981, and 1983) failed to discover the wreck. As a result, both Grimm’s 1982 book, Beyond Reach: The Search for the Titanic, and the 1981 documentary didn't receive the expected attention. (The movie appeared to have been limited to local screenings in his hometown of Abilene, Texas.)
But still, Grimm took a more optimistic perspective. As with Bigfoot, the team had taken a blurry sonar image Grimm interpreted to be one of the ship’s propellers.
When Robert Ballard actually located the Titanic in 1985, Grimm argued the photo was proof that he, not Ballard, had been the one to discover it and that Ballard’s team had used Grimm’s data to help inform their own search. Others believed the "propeller" in the fuzzy photo was a rock.
“I’ll strike a deal with you,” Grimm told Ballard. “We discovered the stern in 1981 and you discovered the bow in 1985.” Ballard was amused—but unmoved—by the pitch.
Theatrics aside, Grimm’s interest in the Titanic did have tangible benefits. His grant of $330,000 to Columbia University afforded the team use of a sonar device that could cover wide areas in less time—equipment the school could also make use of. The press he welcomed also appeared to stir a newfound fascination in the Titanic, one that piqued the interests of adults and schoolchildren, who wrote to Grimm inquiring about what he might find. Grimm would often respond, at one point fielding questions from kids on the telephone about the ship’s possible contents.
"It gives me a great deal of pleasure to do these projects and share them with the world," he said. "A lot of people live vicariously through my adventures. I enjoy that. To me, life is a series of adventures."
The Titanic efforts were said to have put a dent in Grimm’s finances for a time. They also marked his last major wave of publicity. (His planned search for the fabled lost city of Atlantis—which he announced shortly after his final Titanic expedition—failed to garner the same levels of media attention.) He died in 1998 at age 72 having never backed down from his claims regarding Noah’s Ark or the Titanic. But Grimm's most fantastical story wasn't really about lost treasure: It was the tale of Jack Grimm, indomitable adventurer.