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The Prime Minister Who Disappeared

In 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim in the ocean and never returned. While the official verdict was that he drowned, no body was ever recovered, leading to endless, enduring conspiracy theories

It must be extremely frustrating to be incredibly powerful but still suffer the day-to-day indignities of existence. Despite knowing rationally that everyone is as human and mortal as everyone else, it’s all too easy to assume the wealthy and powerful can somehow ascend beyond basic human fragilities. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, for instance, didn’t think he would drown. He was the prime minister, and above such things. But drown he did. Or did he?

He went swimming one day and never came back. When that happens to people, they’ve clearly drowned, but we’re not used to people of that stature simply disappearing. Had he faked his own death? Was he murdered? Did he kill himself? The idea that he might just have kind of fucked up and died is vastly less satisfying.

Holt became prime minister in early 1966, when Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned. He was elected unopposed by his party, and then achieved a landslide victory in a general election later in the year. 

Harold Holt during an official visit to London on July 7, 1966. (Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He was an enthusiastic sportsman and fisherman, both things that helped him out in terms of popularity, meaning he was seen as a man of the people rather than an establishment politician. He played Australian rules football in his youth, leaving him with a recurring shoulder injury, and was very into spear-fishing, spending a lot of his free time paddling around in a wetsuit, impaling fish and shoving them into his suit so he could keep going.

He also had a fairly colorful personal life. He was in a relationship for a while with a woman who later married his widowed father. He fathered twins with his university girlfriend when she was married to another man, then when she subsequently got divorced and married Holt, he began having what was later described as “dozens” of affairs. 

Forever cavalier, one day, when his press secretary urged him to be careful in the water, he waved away his concerns, saying, “Look Tony, what are the odds of a prime minister being drowned or taken by a shark?” When one swim ended with him vomiting up huge amounts of seawater, he blamed it on a bad snorkel and carried on. 

On December 17, 1967, one of the headlines in The Australian was “PM Advised to Swim Less” — his doctor had advised him to take a break from swimming and tennis for a while. That morning, Holt woke up in his holiday home — this being Australia, it was the height of summer — and again, giving not a shit, decided to go for a swim. He and four friends (one of whom, Marjorie Gillespie, he was having an affair with) went for a drive then ended up at Cheviot Beach, a spot generally used for military training, but where Holt had permission to swim. Only two of them went into the water, as it was choppy, and Holt was quickly swept out to sea, where he disappeared from view, never to be seen again.

Heads of state don’t tend to just disappear, so immediately conspiracy theories started spreading. The lack of a body made it seem all the more suspicious, an absence of evidence somehow being interpreted as a smoking gun. Under the law at the time, no corpse meant no inquest: convenient for anyone up to anything nefarious. Other elements seemed suspicious, too. Holt used a security guard when on official business, but not in downtime — to conspiracy theorists, this made it clear the timing of Holt’s disappearance was no coincidence. However, Holt’s wife later suggested this arrangement was primarily motivated by its conduciveness to hiding his shit-ton of affairs. 

Holt, circa 1966, on the beach with three women. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The major theories:

He was murdered by the CIA. Australia was already involved in the Vietnam War when Holt had entered office, and he was a keen advocate of the war, more than quadrupling the number of Australian troops deployed there. He was friendly with Lyndon B. Johnson, a friendship which grew to be seen in Australia, particularly as public support for the war waned, as sycophantic and dangerous. Did the CIA kill him because he was about to pull Australian forces out of Vietnam? Probably not!

He was murdered by the North Vietnamese. Same deal, different culprits, still nope.

He killed himself. Whether in order to avoid his affairs being discovered, avoid being outed as gay or due to stress from CIA pressures to remain in Vietnam, rumors abounded that Holt had taken his own life. (The absence of a body would, in this case, just be a stroke of luck on Holt’s part.) Holt’s friends and family were adamant this wasn’t the case.

He was a Chinese spy and faked his own death. Journalist Anthony Grey wrote a book, The Prime Minister Was A Spy, which put forward the theory that Holt had been working for the Chinese government for his entire career, sharing state secrets with Beijing. When he realized he was about to be exposed, he arranged to be secretly picked up by Chinese divers and taken to a submarine, to live the rest of his life in peace in China. The book was fairly widely mocked, the most immediate debunking of the rumor being the physical impossibility of a submarine getting anywhere near Cheviot Beach — everyone involved would basically have had to be superhuman. Grey’s main source for the claim, a former naval officer and diver with a checkered financial history, was described by a close friend as “a professional con man.” 

So it was all nonsense, but it stuck with people. (One book about Holt’s death, bafflingly, is written by an Australian author named Robert Menzies, also the name of the prime minister who preceded Holt.) It wasn’t until 2005 that a change in the law meant an inquest could take place, and the official verdict was, of course, that the least-bonkers thing happened. He swam when he shouldn’t have, and drowned. His body was either swept further out to sea or eaten by sharks. 

Perhaps Holt’s most enduring legacy is the swimming pool named after him, arguably an awkward and/or fairly offensive honor for a drowning victim. The Harold Holt Swim Centre, already underway in Holt’s constituency when he died and renamed in his memory, opened in March 1969, with new Prime Minster John Gorton delivering a riff-filled speech about how he didn’t really know what he was doing, but swimming was important.

The idea that even the super-famous or incredibly powerful can still just suddenly die is a stark, horrible reminder that nobody is ever more than one accident or bad decision away from perpetual nothingness. However nonsensical ideas like a secret Chinese submarine might be, in some ways they feel like they make more sense than the truth — life is fleeting, and death comes for us all.