January 2010

Hope on Ice

Robert Nelson turned to technology to beat the Great Inevitability, and then technology turned on him


cryogenics, my l.a. Henry Groskinsky/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

You can be clinically dead. Legally dead. Technically dead. And still, you could be merely...mostly dead. Or so says Robert Nelson, arguably California’s pioneer on, as he delicately puts it, “reanimation.”

He’s not a physician. In fact, he has absolutely no background in science or biology. But for more than 40 years, this retired L.A. electronics repairman has plunged himself into a war with death.

“Imagine,” Nelson says with the excitement of a man whose elusive lottery ticket just hit big, “if I had told a caveman one day there would be rockets traveling to the moon, he’d think I was a weirdo! Well, that’s what people have always thought of me when I talk about cryonics—that I’m some weirdo. But I’m not.”

Cryonics—the act of freezing a body at the moment of death in hopes of perfect preservation until science finds a cure for the cause of termination—has always been Nelson’s baby. He was president of the first Cryonics Society of California, launched in 1966, recruiting some 200 believers. He was a media darling, peddling the topic to the likes of Life magazine, Regis Philbin and Phil Donahue. And he was first to freeze a decedent.

Eventually, Nelson’s beliefs would drain him emotionally, break him financially, ruin his marriage and sink him into a nasty lawsuit filed by survivors’ loved ones, who called him everything from a swindler to a man against God.

The hurt ran so deep he refused to discuss his cherished beliefs for two decades. But time has softened his stance—well, time and the attention of Hollywood, suddenly anxious to bring Nelson’s tale of death on ice to a theater near you. “It feels like divine intervention,” says Nelson, in an ironic nod to the supreme being he’s allegedly trying to outwit. “It’s not normal for me to talk this way, but I have to think it’s all being orchestrated by a higher power.”

Blame it on the fates, as well, for that day back in 1966, when Nelson was racing his Porsche down the Ventura Freeway listening to Tony Bennett on the radio, and a deejay broke in: “Hey, does anyone out there want to live forever? If so, call the Life Extension Society...” He recalls it vividly: “I almost jumped out of my pants.”

He had just finished reading a brand-new book, The Prospect of Immortality, by a man considered the father of cryonics, Robert Ettin­ger. A trained physicist and mathematician, Ettinger theorized death didn’t have to be the end. “He suggested that the moment your heart stops, you may be legally dead,” says Nelson. “But really, you’re just a little dead.”

This “sort of” dead state, so the reasoning goes, comes the moment the heart stops, when the brain is still fresh, and the body’s cells haven’t deteriorated. Freezing a newly expired body could then halt death’s decay. And wouldn’t that give science the time to conquer man’s ultimate foe?

“The biggest misconception about cryonics is we want to freeze dead bodies and bring them back to life,” says Nelson. “That can’t be done. We simply want to stop the dying process. The question then is not, ‘Is this person dead?’ but ‘Can this person be revived?’ ”

In those early days, the thought consumed Nelson, compelling him to that first Life Extension Society meeting, held at an L.A. home with all the charm of the Bates Motel. Helen Kline was kind, elderly and a passionate believer. More friendly faces—Marie Sweet, Russ Stanley, Marcy Johnson—followed. Among them, no white coats, no doctors. “These were ordinary people,” he says. “Exactly like me.”

Renaming themselves the Cryonics Society of California, the group declared Nelson its president. And within weeks, his zest for the subject landed him speaking engagements and interviews. Membership swelled, and more cryonics groups appeared across the country.

Then in January 1967, Nelson got the call that changed his life. “Please, I’m desperate,” said the voice, belonging to a Glendale mortuary owner. “I’ve got a man here who wants to freeze his father. He won’t leave. And I don’t know what he’s talking about!”

Dr. James Bedford, a respected psychology professor, had terminal cancer. With two weeks to live, cryonics was his last option. He ordered his son, Norman, to make the arrangements. No matter that Nelson’s society had never frozen so much as a stray cat and that they had no means to store a body once it was frozen. Nelson agreed, spurred on by the man he’d come to befriend—Robert Ettinger.

“It was worth a shot,” says Ettinger, who, at 91, still recalls their excitement. “At some point, you’ve just got to do it.” Plus, as Ettinger would say to Life afterward: “If it all turns out to be a pipe dream, what have you lost? You’re dead anyway.”

So Bedford donated his body to the Cryonics Society and promised to bequeath them $300,000. But for Nel­son, along with Ettinger and friend Rob­ert Prehoda, a physiologist and cryonics enthu­siast, the question was simply...Now what?

When the inevitable happened—Bedford died—Nelson and company did the best they could. They bought a container—the shipping box for a traditional casket—lined it with plastic and thick blocks of Styrofoam. “Then I got this pickup truck, filled it with 500 pounds of dry ice, loaded up the container and drove to the convalescent home,” Nelson says. “Well, after we had Mr. Bedford all packed up on ice, we called Norman to come take his dad.”

But take him where? Well, the Hope Wig Factory in Phoenix, actually, where owner Ed Hope, a staunch Ettinger fan, had been welding his own airtight version of cryonics containers behind his warehouse.

Still, young Bedford didn’t see how he could ever retrieve his father’s frozen corpse.

“So, here I am—I have this container with Mr. Bedford,” says Nelson. “It’s full of ice, weighs hundreds of pounds—and Norman is not coming to get it.”

Nelson and his buddies had no choice but to load the deceased back into their truck and keep him, temporarily, in a friend’s garage. His friend’s wife, who apparently hadn’t been told a frigid body would be stored in her garage, objected. “Bob,” his pal said the next morning, a woman’s screams audible in the background, “you’ve got to move him.” So the Bedford container was taken to another member’s garage in Topanga Canyon. Ten days passed before Bedford’s son was able to retrieve his father.

They rendezvoused in San Diego’s Balboa Park; no one seemed to notice Nelson’s crew pulling a packed casket container out of a truck and sliding it into the hearse Norman Bedford had rented for his trip.

And after that?

“I have no idea,” Nelson says. “I never heard from Bed­ford again. And we never got that $300,000 his dad promised.”

You’d think that experience would have prevented Nelson from ever freezing the dead again. But it didn’t.

Eight months later, Marie Sweet died. Then founding member Helen Kline passed. Neither left behind funds, forcing Nelson to beg his associates for donations to buy cryonics capsules from the wigmaker.

Kline and Sweet sat on dry ice, resting in the garage of a sympathetic mortuary owner, Joe Klockgether, who ran Ren­aker Mortuary in Buena Park and often let Nelson use his property to prepare and store his patients.

And so it went for nearly a year. Then Russ Stanley, the cryonics group’s official record keeper, died. He bequeathed the society $10,000, enough to buy land at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth and build an underground vault to store iced remains in perpetuity.

Eventually, Nelson also negotiated his way into two cryonics capsules from Hope. Each was intended to hold one body, but faced with limited resources, Nelson stacked his collection of cold corpses. Sweet, Kline, Stanley and another man, Louis Nisco, shared the first capsule. And by the end of 1973, three others shared the second capsule, including the body of a seven-year-old girl, Genevieve Delaporte, whose desperate father begged Nelson to take on his little girl after she died of cancer in the summer of 1971. Delaporte had no money, like every one else, but Nelson refused to turn down the broken­hearted father.

Nelson knew he was in over his head, maintaining seven frozen corpses in a vault underneath the Chatsworth cemetery. He had no funds—and oddly, no support from his fellow cryonics members. His wife of 13 years signed off on a loan to give him extra cash for his cause, “but that turned out to be the end for us,” he says. “My marriage failed. And I was just drowning.”

And that’s when the liquid nitrogen capsules stopped working. “I kept trying to repair them, to put more liquid nitrogen in them,” Nelson says. “But they were like the first car ever built, really. They were antiques, made by a wigmaker.”

Nelson painfully decided to stop repairing the first capsule in 1971, allowing the bodies to defrost and decompose within the airtight capsule. But for years, he fought to keep the second going, mostly because it held little Genevieve.

He kept up his faithful watch, until his mom fell ill in 1975, taking him out of town for several days. He returned to find the second capsule in trouble. “It took 15 minutes to get the guts to touch it. And when I did, it was hot,” he says. “I just fell to my knees and cried.”

Nelson swears he contacted surviving family members to let them know. The relatives say Nelson never even sent a note about the capsule failures, and they never knew their loved ones were left to spoil. Nelson resigned from the Cryonics Society in 1977. And in 1979, several of the relatives filed a joint lawsuit against him, even naming Klockgether a codefendant—mostly because he carried a well-financed insurance policy, Nelson reasons.

“The trial portrayed me as a guy trying to crucify Christianity,” says Nelson. “They claimed I said heaven doesn’t exist—I can bring you back, all I need is your money. It was brilliant.”

The defense attorney, paid with funds Nelson got by selling his beloved Porsche, argued his client made no money through his cause. Still, the jury ruled against Nelson and Klockgether, awarding the families $800,000. “The jury couldn’t separate Bob and I,” says Klockgether. “But I can tell you, there was nothing illegal or immoral going on. Bob was a very dedicated person.”

Nelson withdrew from the spotlight, remarried and lived quietly for 25 years. Then, as fate would have it, a reporter for National Public Radio’s This American Life came upon a paper­back Nelson and cryonics follower Sandra Stanley penned in 1968. It caught Holly­wood’s eye, and producers battled for the rights, throwing around dollar figures and directors. Even Leonardo DiCaprio was mentioned by one zealous agent.

In the end, the movie rights went to Errol Morris, director of the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. Zach Helm, who penned Stranger Than Fiction, is writing the screenplay.

“It’s the story of the ultimate dreamer,” Morris says of his untitled cryonics movie project. “We’re talking about the deepest hopes of mankind—the prospect of winning against death. It’s a great tale. And this will be a Hollywood ending for Bob.”

And Nelson? He still dreams that someday, the “mostly dead” will be restored to life. “The lifespan of man compared with the ions of time is but a microsecond,” Nelson says. “But if we should learn through God’s reve­lation to extend that a few more microseconds, I’m sure He wouldn’t mind.”

Tina Dirmann is a crime author, entertainment journalist and commentator who’s never too busy to go mad refurbishing a house.