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Man, Martyr, Myth

'Bear Whisperer' Timothy Treadwell's Life Was a Tangle of Passionate Environmental Activism, Idealistic Half-Truths and Outright Lies. And With His Shocking Death in October, It All Began to Unravel.

December 14, 2003|Craig Medred | Craig Medred is Outdoor Editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

Former high school swimmer George Neyssen, a teammate of Dexter's at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, N.Y., says that sounds like the Dexter he knew. "His personality was such that you couldn't really get close to him, because he would go off on people. I can't even recall him having a girlfriend at the time. He was kind of a pretty boy."

Neyssen not only swam with Dexter in high school, he also spent several years working with him as a lifeguard when both returned to Long Island from college in the summers. Neyssen lends credence to Dexter's claims of drinking in the introduction to "Among Grizzlies." "He was a little on the wild side," Neyssen says. "We partied together. One of the lifeguards, he had his own bar. We used to get in there at 16. We had a good time. He was lively, just a bit of a hothead at times. But he was an exceptional diver in high school."

Bradley University officials say Dexter set three-meter springboard records there. They don't say why he left the dive team after only two years and eventually dropped out of school. Martin lost contact with him there.

"I don't remember him being real buddies with anyone," Martin says, "but he had a lot of friends or acquaintances. He had a smile that sort of drew people in. I think he probably did have a need for attention. I think he was a little bit of a storyteller. I think I'd call it more of an exaggeration to get people's attention, like telling a fish story."

Susan DeFeo, a community columnist for the Cape May County Herald in New Jersey who spent a lot of time at the Dexter family home when Timothy was in high school and college, says she stayed in touch with him until about 1980. "I am sad to hear that an old friend of mine, Timothy Treadwell, was killed last week in Alaska by his life's work--grizzly bears," she wrote in her newspaper column in October. "I had lost touch with Tim over 25 years ago, about the same time he changed his name from Dexter to an old family name Treadwell, but [I] was always glued to the set when he made appearances on 'Letterman,' 'Dateline' or 'Rosie.' Despite an outlandish bio that he made up for himself and no one seemed to question, Tim did leave his mark on environmental issues."

Karyn Kline, a former Californian now living in Washington state, met Treadwell in Sunset Beach in 1981. He apparently had a sister living in Venice and had moved west. He supported himself by tending bar and waiting tables, something he would continue to do off and on into the 1990s

"He had a Cockney accent and told my brothers that he was an orphan from England," she remembers, saying that Treadwell's surfboard had sported a Union Jack flag. "He said he'd been thrown out on the street and headed to the U.S.A. His first stop was Long Beach, and then Sunset Beach. We all felt sorry for him at first, then the family caught on." She adds that "Tim was always in fights. He finally left when he heard several people were out to get him."

Kline believes those people were drug dealers, as Treadwell later claimed in his book, but she isn't sure. Once Treadwell left Sunset Beach, Kline lost contact with him until 1997. "After he published his book, he came back to Sunset Beach and tried to brag to my dad that he had made it in life," she says. "I think his whole thing was to be somebody. He was quite a character. He probably should have been an actor. I am amazed that he got his life together."

In the book, Treadwell claimed it took a drug overdose near-death experience to change his ways, and life among the bears to cure him. Whether any of that really happened is hard to say. What is clear is that by the late 1980s, he apparently was clean and sober and living in the Malibu area.

Ira Meyer met Treadwell there in the late '80s. Meyer says he never knew Treadwell as a drug user. Another Treadwell friend, photographer Alan Sanders from Port Hueneme, knew Treadwell for almost as long and says the same, but admits that his friend had such a compartmentalized life it might be impossible to know what was really going on.

"Most of his friends never met each other, as far as I can tell," Sanders says. Treadwell's parents attended an October memorial service for their son at Wolfgang Puck's Granita Restaurant in Malibu. Marc Gaede, the friend who received the Sept. 2 note from Treadwell, says it was the first time anyone in Malibu had ever met them. Friend Joel Bennett from Juneau, Alaska--who made three full-length films with Treadwell and had been working with him on another film just weeks before his death--didn't even know that Huguenard was Treadwell's girlfriend.

"He didn't mention her while we were working together for a week," Bennett says. "I've been with him for hundreds of hours. I'd never heard him mention her."

Treadwell's father won't even identify Timothy's four siblings. "His life story began 16 years ago in California," Valentine says. "They're really out there hunting for information on him. I smell a movie."

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