My interview with one of the original Project Blue Book investigators
Jennie Zeidman interview with Mark O’Connell
Around eight years ago, I began writing the biography of the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer and educator of note, but also a world-famous UFO expert and an advocate for the scientific study of the phenomenon. I happened to live near Hynek’s long-time home base in the Chicago suburb of Evanston at the time, and so I was able to spend many hours combing through voluminous records of Hynek’s life. Vast amounts of his UFO-related records were lovingly looked after by the few remaining active members of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), while a collection of his professional papers were stored in the Deering Library at Northwestern University, where he taught for a quarter of a century. As a bonus, documents relating to Dr. Hynek’s own education were available at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, just a few miles to the south. With so many collections of his papers within a few miles of me, I felt as though I had just won the literary lottery!
I’m not here to retell Hynek’s story; I’ve already done that in my book, The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs. No, I want to write about the people I met when I started delving into Dr. Hynek’s life and career, because they are fascinating and wonderful people in their own rights, and their UFO stories are just priceless.
Let me start with Jennie Zeidman. In one of my first visits to CUFOS HQ, otherwise known as Center Scientific Director Mark Rodeghier’s Chicago basement, I came across a very thick three-ring binder made of bright lime green plastic. My eyes were drawn to the binder’s vivid hue and so I plucked it out of the file drawer and sat down at the work table to look through it. Turned out my impulse was right: the green binder was full of letters between Dr. Hynek and a woman named Jennie, who appeared to be both a UFO colleague and a close personal friend. I found letter after letter between the two spanning the 1960s and 1970s, letters filled with geeky astronomy talk, but also jokes, friendly jibes, suggestions for where their two families could vacation together – and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. I knew that I had to find Jennie Zeidman and interview her for my book.
After a little detective work, I tracked her down to Columbus, OH, and I gave her a phone call. She answered in a soft, friendly voice. I introduced myself and told her that I was writing the biography of her old friend Allen, and asked if she would let me interview her for the book. I was hoping for an energetic “Yes!” but instead she said, “You know, I’ve written about those days in the newsletter of the OHIO MUFON newsletter and the International UFO Reporter (IUR). I’m sure you’ve seen them. You’re free to quote my articles.” I had indeed seen them, and I knew of Jennie’s history as a member of the Ohio chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), and of CUFOS; in fact, I tried to beef up my credentials by telling her that I was writing the book more or less under the auspices of CUFOS, but she was unmoved. I pressed on, reminding her that those articles were all written in the 1970s and 1980s. “I’d love to know how you feel about those days now,” I said.
There was a brief moment of silence. Then she hung up.
I was stunned. Surely, she must have cut us off by accident. Why would she pass up on an opportunity to talk about her UFO adventures with her old friend Allen?
For a few moments I considered calling her back and asking again for an interview, but I stopped myself. I realized that she must have her own reasons for leaving the past in the past, and that I needed to respect that.
So, I quoted from some of her articles, mostly about her work with Dr. Hynek on the U.S. Air Force’s ill-fated UFO investigation with the now famous moniker Project Blue Book. It was great stuff, but I still left it could have been better with an interview. That disappointment stuck with me for a long time.
Fast forward to June, 2017. My book had just hit the stands, it was getting great reviews in Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, Vice, Coast to Coast AM, the BBC and others, and I was on top of the world. Then one day I got an email through my publisher from a guy named Barry who said he was Jennie Zeidman’s son, and he asked if I could give him my contact info, because his mom wanted to talk to me about my book.
I felt a sudden chill. I admit, I was terrified at the prospect of getting an email from the woman who had hung up on me the last time we talked. But I swallowed hard and gave Barry my address, and a few days later Jennie got in touch and said, “Congratulations, Mark. You wrote Allen exactly as I remember him.” It was the best book review imaginable, and in a moment I was back on top of the world. Then as a bonus, Jennie got in touch a few weeks later and said, “Mark, I just finished re-reading your book and for the second time I was in tears when I finished it.” Okay, that’s an even better review.
In time, Jennie and I became pen pals of a sort, and now and then she would mail me a funny Allen story or a provocative UFO document. That was a wonderful experience, but I still hoped that in time she would agree to sit down for a formal interview. I had the sense that she had a lot of memories and stories that she was reluctant to share, but I told her that doing an interview with me would be a chance to tell her own story in her own words. In time, her attitude softened as I had hoped, and she agreed to do the interview. There was just one thing: she insisted on doing the interview via email. “Sounds interesting,” she wrote, “but I'm just paranoid enough to prefer a scripted ‘chat’ rather than a more spontaneous Q and A live over the-phone type of thing. (I almost got taken by that sort of thing about 30--yes thirty-- years ago with dear old Phil Klass.) He actually did a cut and paste job on a phone conversation we had.”
Of course I readily agreed to her request, and with that, the slow-motion email interview began. Interviewing someone by email is a challenge, though, as the conversation doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion, as you’ll see. It was, however, an effective way to get Jennie to open up. Before we got to the UFOs, though, Jennie wanted to write about her days as an undergrad at The Ohio State University, where she met a young assistant astronomy professor named Allen Hynek.
How did you first meet Dr. Hynek at Ohio State?
“I had been painting oils in high school with some encouraging results, and started at OSU in Fine Arts, but was impatient because I couldn't get better than a string of "Cs". I also liked to write, found it satisfying, the results were quicker, my grades were encouraging, and my clothes and room didn't reek of paint. I switched my major to English because it seemed the most practical way to make a living. I ended up with a nondescript BA in English. That was kind of embarrassing so I told people I was in technical writing! There was no technical writing; on my own I was reading technical journals and papers and figuring out how they were put together.
“Cedric Hesthal’s General Studies in Physics and Astronomy and Allen's Astronomy 500 were my only Astronomy courses, and they were both electives. Both Hesthal and Hynek were electives within a group of required general science courses for non-science majors.
“In a great example of serendipity, I took Hesthal first, which was the perfect prep for Hynek. Applying what I had just learned in Hesthal to Hynek's UFO cases was just what I needed to awaken my ‘intellectual curiosity’ and search for the truth. It also set me up to want to strangle anyone who insisted on applying the term belief to UFOs.
“But before that, back in 8th grade or so (1946?) a class visitor spoke about the wonders of the night sky. The speaker was an Assistant Professor in the OSU Astronomy department, newly arrived at Ohio State. I enjoyed his talk but never gave him a second thought until the Fall Quarter of 1953, when I needed to choose a physical science course for my BA requirements. I chose Astronomy 500, and experienced the shock of recognition when he wrote his name on the board, turned to the packed auditorium, and said ‘My name is Hynek’… (pause)… ‘as in giraffe.’”
Jennie quickly distinguished herself in the class. On a night when Professor Hynek took his students outside to do a little stargazing, the students spied a strange configuration of lights slowly crossing the sky. There was some discussion as to what the lights might be, but no one could be certain. It was a real mystery. Jennie, however, had a pilot’s license and went home that night to do a little aeronautical detective work. The next day in class Jennie announced that the odd lights came from a pair of military aircraft performing a mid-air refueling operation. Hynek had found his protégé.
In time Hynek took her on as a teaching assistant, and she was able to develop her astronomical detective skills to a high degree. “At OSU there was a doctoral candidate in Astronomy (let's call him Ted) who was not doing well,” Jennie wrote. “Allen and his colleagues exited from Ted's Oral exam in decidedly bad moods. Later I asked Allen what happened with Ted? ‘We flunked him,’ Allen said, ‘He didn't even know where the center of the galaxy was.’
“I was incredulous. ‘The Great Star Clouds of Sagittarius!’ I said.
“’There, you see—' Allen said, then added ‘Jennie, you really ought to go into Astronomy.’
“But I really didn't want to go into Astronomy; my math skills were poor, and anyway, I loved solving mysteries. I had decided by then that my goal was to be an intelligence analyst.”
How did you get involved in Dr. Hynek’s work for Project Blue Book?
“I had a Secret, not TOP Secret clearance, and it came through in just a few weeks time when I was still working as Allen's Teacher's Assistant at OSU. Younger people get security clearances quicker than older applicants who of course have more background years to check out. As for field investigating for Blue Book, that's a laugh. Most of the cases they sent to Allen were Venus or the like. There was rarely anything to investigate. The real meat was kept from us.
“We never thought we were wasting our time. Dr. Hynek loved to teach. At the very least it was a matter of educating the public. There's Venus, that was a meteor, over there is a lenticular cloud. At one point we talked about creating a little pamphlet for distribution – What's in the Sky? – but I don't think it ever happened. The objective of Project Henry – for Hynek and me – was to separate the wheat from the chaff, because as time went on, we realized that there was, indeed, something going on that needed to be explained.”
“Perhaps we should think of Blue Book as a pacifier – busy-work to satisfy the public – a diversionary tactic with a mild-mannered astronomy professor to say there, there, now--everything's okey, okey.
“Hynek's main concern was that Blue Book, with obvious deliberation, selected sighting reports that were comfortably solvable (Venus, par example). I suppose they thought they were being clever, feeding Allen the answers which demystified the phenomenon. Allen could see through that ruse: he realized that the cases he saw had been carefully selected. Frustrating. Insulting. Allen was being used.
“My opinion is that Allen's purpose was to be the easy-going friendly astronomy prof who calmed down the witnesses with explanations out of Astronomy 101. When Allen first took on the job, he expected to do that. After all, he was a teacher. When he discovered that Whoa! There's really something going on here! he failed the assignment and became a liability (read troublemaker).”
What can you tell me about Allen's intellectual curiosity? Were there any boundaries to his curiosity?
“Allen was interested in mysticism and exotic beliefs but he did not broadcast this in any way. I think he went through phases of exploring many different views, and was constantly searching for the truth. But don't we all? Doesn't each person choose a system of beliefs that makes them feel most secure? The paradox is that the smarter you are the more you search and the more you find the less secure you become! From this comes the phrase ‘Fat, Dumb, and Happy.’
What can you tell me about some of the famous and challenging UFO cases that Dr. Hynek was involved in?
“Just for starters, I remember that Allen said to me that he was so impressed by Lonnie Zamora that the case might be the one that was the most significant yet. As I remember, Allen was on site within a couple of days.
“The Father Gill case in New Guinea is a real puzzle. Allen actually went there and interviewed the witnesses.
“I think that from a scientific point of view, the more facts—data points, measurable, repeatable action—the better. That's tough, because the Pascagoula event, so far as I know, had only two witnesses, and they were not geographically separated. The Coyne helicopter case [Mansfield, OH, October 18, 1973] had multiple groups of separated, unknown to each other, witnesses, and has, you might say, lots more meat on its bones. Desperate insistence that the Coyne object was a meteor or a mid-air refueling mission is easily proven ludicrous. That doesn't prove it was extra-terrestrial in origin. All it says is that it wasn't a meteor. The object was under continuous observation for about 300 seconds.”
Aside from your work with Dr. Hynek, didn’t you get involved in some strange goings on when you worked at Battelle Memorial Labs, which has been linked to UFO research work dubbed Project Stork?
“Battelle was going to be the perfect doorway to a life career. But 'twas not to be. I was a friend of Allen Hynek. I was considered more of a threat than an asset. The Stork people hated Allen. He wouldn't play the ‘required’ game.
“I never felt that I was involved with any cover-up. I was too low on the totem pole. It is important that, au contraire, the Stork people watched me like a hawk and as I have stated elsewhere, never mentioned UFOs. After a while it dawned on me that they were afraid that I would run to Hynek with any ufo news.
“They could have fed me false info to see if I would bite, but it never happened: there was NO mention of UFOs, ever.
“I did nothing of any consequence at BMI (Battelle). Yes, they paid me and I even got a raise. Once they sent me to the library for 2 weeks to do busy work. I think they needed me away so they could do real ufo work. (Just a guess, but it's a perfect fit.) Then there was the time they told me to go into the vault (safe) room and put some papers on the table, and be sure not to look at the blackboard! Good grief, how juvenile can you get! I also was shown some photos of CCCP rockets. So, what was I supposed to do? Sell them to the CIA? I suppose I should be flattered that they thought I was a threat. It was really about Hynek being kept in the dark.”
“I keep saying Battelle hated Allen, but my naivety doesn't seem to know WHY! In theory they were ‘on the same side’ meaning a scientific quest for the truth, regardless of what that may mean. However, Allen was such a good PR man the BB people needed him more in that capacity (there, there now, nothing to worry about) instead of an investigative one, and maybe he couldn't play two roles. If BMI also had physical evidence of not-ours metallurgy (which, I do believe) that stirs the mud even more.
Didn’t you marry a Battelle scientist?
Gordon and I had been casually acquainted before I came to Battelle. He was a mechanical engineer and headed a team that developed (and patented) some of the Xerox technology. We were not supposed to exchange news about our work, and we didn't. Trekking high mountain trails in Colorado or New Zealand or the Swiss Alps was our thing. Our marriage lasted 60 years. We saw a lot of lenticular clouds.
“I forgot to mention that Mimi and Allen came to our wedding. I still use some of the kitchenware they gave us.”
How long were you employed at Battelle?
“By 1965 my whole world had changed. I was a housewife with 2 kids. I had retired from Battelle with my first pg. Allen still came to central Ohio, often (monthly??) to Wright-Pat, and he was also a prolific correspondent, so I might get a postcard from him from Paris or Prague or Norway. I have already written that during the Michigan swamp gas fiasco he called me at midnight to warn me of the morning news. I have also written about his revelation that the Condon committee was fixed.
How did you and Dr. Hynek react to the 1969 Condon Committee Report on the UFO phenomenon? Am I right in thinking you have some strong feelings about that Report?
“As I see it, the AF's assignment was for the Condon group to play down UFO reports and to conclude that the subject has no merit, and is therefore unworthy of serious scientific investigation. Previously, I used the word ‘rigged’, but that suggests a hoax: false info, false leads, disinformation. Rather, the Condon report comes across as ‘2 x 2 = 5,’ and if you don't like it, Tough!" The irony is that less than four years later [Oct '73] produced a major "flap" of high strangeness, high credibility sightings that remained unresolved after very credible investigations.
“With regard to Allen and me in the car on a cold winter day, he was absolutely telling me what he knew as the truth: ETs are here, The Condon project is fixed. Someone had leaked it to him.”
Who leaked it? Did you ever find out?
I did not question Allen about his sources. I haven't the slightest idea who it might be, but I can't conceive it being a Battelle person. That was an unspoken no-no. I'm not convinced the source was a Condon Committee member. Maybe it was Blue Book—someone low on the totem pole. BMI (Battelle) probably not. I put great weight on (BMI metallurgist) Art Westerman's comment to me: "we were concerned... we were concerned." Spontaneous comments sometimes unintentionally reveal a lot.
When I first asked you for an interview a few years ago, you turned me down. What was behind that?
“My paranoia kicked in and I wondered if you had been warned off any specific subject matter, although what it could be, and by whom, I don't know. I do want this on the record: Allen and I had no physical relationship, of any kind, ever, unless you count the time in the Hynek kitchen on Ridge Avenue, that Mimi and I were getting supper on the table, and Allen returned home, I had not seen him in several months, and he gave me a peck on the cheek. Sorry to disappoint everyone, but that's it. I am concerned that on the TV show, Allen's secretary will be portrayed otherwise. But I'll just grin and bear it. .....That's entertainment.......”
Shortly after this exchange with Jennie I got word that my reality TV series UFO Witness had been picked up by the Travel Channel for an 8-episode season with me as on-camera talent and Co-Executive Producer. The original concept I had pitched for the show was for me to be teamed up with another UFO investigator, and in each episode I would investigate a historical UFO event (they’re the most fun for me), and my partner would research a modern UFO case, and then we would look for similarities between the historic and the modern, hoping to detect meaningful patterns. I thought it was a fun idea, and I was thrilled to know that we would get Jennie in the show as well. Sadly, I was diagnosed with cancer at about this time so I had to reduce my involvement in the production considerably, and the format of the show was adjusted to fit the circumstances. It was terribly disappointing, but still, we had Jennie involved, and that’s all I cared about. To me she was the star of the show.
A month later the camera crew and I, along with investigator Ben Hanson, visited her in Ohio and did our interview. It was a magic moment when Jenny’s son Barry led her into the house where we were shooting, and she greeted us all with a shy smile. Then she walked over to me, took hold of my hands, looked into my eyes and asked, “How are you, Mark? Are you ok?” I had recently started chemotherapy (my hair started falling out that very day), but I was feeling good, so I told her so. She smiled, nodded, and said “good!” She had told me in an earlier conversation that she had lost a daughter to leukemia years earlier, so that exchange meant a lot to both of us.
Then she did something surprising: she apologized for hanging up on me. It turned out that there was some bad blood going back many years between Jennie and the CUFOS folks, so in that first phone call when I told her I was writing the book under the auspices of CUFOS, she took that to mean that I was writing it for CUFOS. So, she hung up. She didn’t want to have anything to do with CUFOS. But, years later she felt deeply embarrassed about the misunderstanding; I accepted her apology and it was never spoken of again.
Another moment that stands out is when Jennie grew very serious and asked me what I thought about the Roswell case. I told her I thought there was a possibility that something weird had happened outside Roswell in July, 1947, but that the case had been so contaminated over the years by grifters and hoaxters and gullible, would-be investigators that it was impossible to know the truth. She nodded and said, “I agree.” She also insisted repeatedly that the Condon Committee had been fixed, that they knew UFOs were real, and that aliens have been watching us for years. Believe me, she was very persuasive.
We interviewed Jennie for a few hours, until it was clear that she was growing tired. We called it a wrap and made plans to visit her again in a few months’ time, but that time never came. Jennie became ill and passed away before we had a chance to continue the interview.
There was much more I wanted to ask her, and I think there was much more she wanted to tell me. She knew things that no one else knows, but there was one thing she confessed to not knowing, and that was about her friend Allen Hynek, “as in giraffe.”
“Allen's true feelings,” she told me, with a trace of disappointment, “remain a mystery to the end.”
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