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Episode 19 - Champagne Safari

Charles Eugene Bedaux was born on October 10th, 1886 in Charenton-le-Pont, France to Charles Emile Bedaux and Marie Eulalie. There is not much known about Charles’ early life. We know that his fathers was a railroad engineer and his mother was a dressmaker. Charles enrolled in Lycee Louis LeGrand (lise lwi la-grahn) in Paris to study engineering, but he never graduated. After dropping out of Lycee at age 16, Charles went to Paris and made money by working at several menial jobs. Shortly after moving to Paris, Charles met Henri Ledoux, a famous pimp in the Pigalle (pee-gahl) district.

Charles became Ledoux’s apprentice and Ledoux taught him how to dress, run a pimp business, and how to street fight. In 1906, Henri Ledoux was killed in a gang shooting. After his mentor had died, Charles decided to leave Paris and make his way to the United States. Charles arrived in America on February 14, 1906 with almost no money. He took up several different jobs like washing dishes, construction, and selling insurance. In 1908, Charles moved to St. Louis to work as a laborer at the Mallinckrodt Chemical company. It was there that he met Blanche de Kressier Allen. Charles and Blanche married soon after they met and welcomed a son in 1909. Charles was doing well at the chemical company. He came up with several ideas for the company and was climbing the ladder. In 1912, Charles had made enough money to take his wife and son to Paris and show them where he was from.

When Charles and his family made their way back to America, Charles went to work in New York for a pharmaceutical company named McKesson-Robbins. While working there, Charles met A.M. Morrini, an industrial engineer from Italy that was in the United States to study how to make workers more efficient. Morrini hired Charles as his interpreter and together they travelled the country studying worker efficiency methods and management. After hiring a group of American engineers, Charles accompanied Morrini and the group of engineers to Europe in 1913. While in Europe, Charles joined a French consulting company. While working for them, World War 1 started and Charles enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Charles stayed with the French Foreign legion only for a few months and was discharged in December 1914 because he suffered from bacillary hemoptysis or coughing up blood. There’s no evidence that he suffered from the hemoptysis other than his discharge papers and some believe that he made up the condition so he could be discharged. There is also speculation that Morrini’s consulting business was a cover for a spying mission of the U.S. Italy was a member of the Central Powers until April of 1915, when they entered the war as part of the Allied Powers. Charles was suspected of being an enemy agent while he worked for Morrini and was being investigated, but charges were never filed.

After being discharged, Charles returned to the United States and this time his family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Charles started his own business consulting firm in Grand Rapids and created the “Bedaux system” which was described as “standardizing all human efforts according to a single unit of measurement. The so-called “B” defined as a fraction of a minute of activity plus a fraction of a minute of rest. Workers were expected to achieve a minimum of sixty B per hour and received a bonus for higher B values. In addition, supervisors usually received 25 percent of the bonus as a reward for their role in achieving higher output.” After only a few years, Bedaux’s consulting company reached worldwide, with offices in nineteen countries. In late 1916, Charles sent his wife and son to Japan to live until 1917. There’s not really a good reason for this unless Charles was using his wife to Japan as a courier for certain documents that she handed over to contacts in Japan. Travelling across the Pacific Ocean would mean that the documents could avoid the British that routinely searched ships that were travelling across the Atlantic.

Charles became an American citizen in 1917 and when Blanche and his son returned from Japan, he divorced her quickly after that. Charles was dating Fern Lombard, the daughter of a prominent family in Grand Rapids. According to the Grand Rapids Herald, Charles and Fern were driving from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids on July 2, 1917 when they got a flat tire. A clergyman stopped to help them out and so Charles asked the clergyman could also marry them and so he did, right next to their broken-down car.

Charles continued to grow his consulting company and the Bedaux system became increasingly popular across the world. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, company’s used the system to increase productivity while decreasing their staff and the system is also responsible for the 40 hour work week that Henry Ford made popular in the United States.

Charles, along with being a successful businessman, was also an avid traveler, perhaps to use as a cover as a spy or maybe just because he was an eccentric millionaire that liked to spend money. In 1926, Charles took several friends on a trip to British Columbia to hunt and explore. In 1929, Charles left America again, this time for 5 months in Africa. Charles started in Kenya and then made his way to Nairobi, Tanzania, Uganda, Tonga, Nigeria, and finally ended in Casablanca, Morocco which brought the trip to a total of 9,500 miles travelled.

For his next adventure, Charles began to plan an expedition through the Canadian Rockies that he would lead. Charles had loved British Columbia, calling it one of the last remaining, true wilderness regions on earth. Charles told the public that the reason for the expedition was to map out a path for an Alaskan-Canadian highway that he was proposing. The highway that he had mapped out would be about 1100 miles, going through land that was mostly uncharted. Bedaux told everyone that was going to be accompanying him on this trip that they would need to attend a training camp to make sure they were all physically fit enough to make the journey. So, Bedaux’s friends that were planning on making the trip all met in Jasper, Alberta for a week of training in June of 1934. However, when they arrived they did zero training and instead just had a bunch of banquets and drank a ton of champagne.

After the week of training in drinking champagne, the group assembled in Edmonton, Alberta to begin the expedition. After posing for a ton of photographs, having a champagne breakfast, taking part in a parade and then attending a reception hosted by the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, they left Edmonton on July 6, 1934. The exploration party consisted of Charles Bedaux, his wife Fern, an Italian countess named Bilonha Chiesa that was also Charles’ mistress, Fern’s maid, 53 Alberta cowboys, 130 horses, a geologist, two geographers, and a large film crew headed by director Floyd Crosby that were in charge of documenting the expedition on film. A party of six men and 50 horse had already gone ahead of the main expedition to forge a rough trail for the expedition to follow and dropped off supplies and gasoline along the way.

Charles was a friend of French car maker Andre Citroen, so Citroen gave Bedaux five half-track trucks to use on the expedition. Each truck had a roller on the front and rear wheels that could be taken off and replaced by a track. The expedition planned on building rafts to the truck across rivers and the trucks were also outfitted with winches that could pull them up steep gorges. As soon as the expedition reached the outskirts of Edmonton, it began to rain and it rarely stopped for the rest of the trip, making it the wettest summer on record at the time. The Citroen trucks were created for the Sahara desert and weren’t made

to go through mud. The trucks kept getting stuck in the mud and the mud would also clog the truck’s transmissions. The expedition was making progress at an average speed of 4 miles an hour, so progress was slow. From July 17th through the 22nd, the expedition stayed in Fort St. John so that the trucks could be repaired at the village’s only garage. While they were there, Bedaux hired more cowboys and bought more packhorses from nearby rancher and bought several more supplies for the trip.

After leaving Fort St. John and getting the trucks repaired, the trucks still continued to break down in the mud. Despite trying to bill this as a surveying expedition, Bedaux decided that the 100 pounds of surveying equipment would need to be abandoned to lighten up the load. However, the several cases of champagane, caviar, truffles, ballgowns and tuxes were kept.

Bedaux didn’t want to have embarrassing headlines printed about him, so he fired the radio operator and said that they had to abandon the radio because of the weight. Bedaux would release news of the expedition by writing out articles and having them taken to newspapers by couriers. Bedaux soon realized that he would also have to continue on the expedition without the trucks made a plan to just get rid of them. On August 11, two of the trucks were pushed over a 120 foot bluff and rolled into the Halfway River with the drivers jumping out of the trucks at the last minute. All of this was being captured on film by the camera crew to make the eventual movie more interesting. Another truck was placed on a raft and pushed down the Halfway river. The group had planted a stick of dynamite down the river that was supposed to go off when the truck got to it, but the trucks missed the dynamite and just gently floated into a sandbar instead. The group then just abandoned the two remaining trucks at a ranch near the river and continued on the expedition on horseback.

Using the updates that Bedaux’s couriers had given them, newspapers wrote articles on the expedition. On September 11, a newspaper printed an article with the headline “Bedaux To Reach Goal in October” and so it seemed that Bedaux and his party were moving right on schedule, however just a few days later an article read “Horses, Tractors, Men Fail as Bedaux Trip Continues” then in October “Bedaux Party’s Troubles Increase” and on October 9, the Victoria Times had the headline “Bedaux Party Is In Danger.” That article discussed that the police were beginning to become very concerned for the safety of the expedition and their attempts to cover a snow-covered pass.

Bedaux did not want to turn back, but the journey was starting to become too difficult. 30 horses had to be put down because they developed hoof rot, or thrush, from walking in mud for months. If the expedition wanted to continue, they would have to cross the mountain pass on foot. On October 17, the Edmonton Journal had an article titled “Bedaux Party Turning Back” which detailed the expedition’s losses and their need to return back home without completing the expedition. On October 18, the expedition arrived in Hudson’s Hope and it was reported that “the main party arrived and the banquet turned out to be one of the biggest celebrations Hudson Hope had ever seen.” The expedition made their way down Peace River until they got to Taylor, then rode in trucks to Pouce Coupe, where they finally boarded a train that took them the rest of the way to Edmonton. When they got back to Edmonton, Bedaux told reporters that he had discovered a route that could be used for an international highway to link Canada with Alaska, but that there would still need to be some serious geological surveying done.

Bedaux purchased a castle in France named Chateau de Cande and moved there with Fern. On June 3

rd, 1937, Charles and Fern hosted the wedding of Prince Edward and Wallis Warfield at the chateau. Bedaux then arranged for the couple’s honeymoon to the Third Reich, where they all met Adolf Hitler. This was met with protests back in the states, with some calling the Bedaux method fascist. Bedaux was forced to resign as head of his consulting company.

When France became occupied by Germans during World War II, Bedaux became acquainted with top leaders in both the Vichy regime and the Reich and used these connections to become appointed as an economic advisor for both governments. On January 13, 1943, Bedaux was in Algeria supervising the construction of a German pipeline. The United States Army captured Bedaux and his son and extradited them back to the United States to stand trial for treason and trading with the enemy. While in FBI custody in Miami, Bedaux overdosed on sleeping pills on February 19, 1944.

Rumors began to spread that Bedaux had went on his Canadian expedition as a spy mission for the Nazis and years later, German War Department records were released laying out plans for a highway that would connect the mainland of Canada to the Bering Straight that would allow for Nazi Germany to obtain control of both North America and Russia.

The Alaska Highway was built in 1942, 8 years after Bedaux’s expedition and 2 years before his death and it was built fairly close to the path that Bedaux had taken. Once the highway was opened for use, an automotive dealer found the two Citroen trucks that had been abandoned.

In 1995, director George Ungar found footage of the expedition in a basement in Paris and used the footage to create a documentary named “The Champagne Safari.” The documentary won Best Feature Length Documentary at the Genie Awards and Certificate of Merit in the Documentary-History/Biography Category at the International Film Festival.

Sources:

“Charles Bedaux – Deciphering An Enigma” By Sol Bloomenkranz

“Bedaux Canadian Sub-Arctic Expedition” by Richard Vettese

“Rumours Surround Legendary Bedaux Trek” by Noelle Grosse

“Delusions of Grandeur: Constructed Realities and Newspaper Coverage of the Bedaux Expedition” by Bob Dyke

“Colossal Canadian Failures” by Randy Richmond and Tom Villemaire

“Charles Bedaux & The Champagne Expedition” by Murray Lundberg

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