ERNEST Hemingway was envious of Beryl Markham. The bristlejawed, he-man author of The Sun Also Rises wrote to his editor about the limpid writing of this daring young woman from the African bush who, in 1936, had become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, from England to North America.
Hemingway exclaimed of Markham’s resulting memoirs, West With The Night : ‘‘ She has written so well, and so marvelously well, that I was simply ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words . . . sometimes making an OK pigpen. But this girl . . . can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.’’
The 43-year-old Hemingway included an ungallant shot though, pointing out that this girl was also ‘‘ to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch . . .’’
Markham always did set some people’s teeth on edge. Golden-haired, with china-blue eyes and a healthy libido, she possessed a vague, childlike dreaminess that cloaked ruthlessness.
An old friend, Pat O’Neill remembers Markham’s aura of wide-eyed tranquillity. ‘‘ She was anything but,’’ says O’Neill, whose life intertwined with Markham’s several times. ‘‘ Once she’d made up her mind, no one was allowed to get in her way.’’
Markham had grown up in colonial East Africa among horses, but her adventurous life took her to Britain and the US, where she became famous as an aviatrix and writer as well as a glamorous fixture on the celebrity and social circuits.
During her life, her lovers included a famous conductor, a prince, a hero aviator and a biggame hunter, and she was as at home dancing the foxtrot in a New York nightclub as she was putting her champion racehorses through their paces or flying a single-engined plane over thousands of kilometres of unsurveyed African landscape. It’s hard now to think of a contemporary woman in the public eye living as bravely and as outrageously.
She was a regular at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Country Club and once pursued an errant lover there, threatening him with a hunting crop as he cowered in the lounge with his new girlfriend. When the club’s all-male committee met to review the issue, explains O’Neill, no one was brave enough to have Markham banned. ‘‘ Most of them had been her lover at one stage.’’
Abacus has just reissued Mary S. Lovell’s biography of Markham, Straight on Till Morning . First published 22 years ago, it has now sold half a million copies but it’s likely that a generation of young women have never heard of Markham, who died in Nairobi in 1986, aged 83. Ill and poor, for she was never good with money, she was training her beloved horses almost to the end.
On the phone from Hampshire, Lovell, who has gone on to write well-received biographies of the Mitford sisters, Amelia Earhart and explorer Richard Burton, has the kind of twinkly uppercrust voice that makes you think of Noel Coward, smoked salmon and Mumm champagne. She is tart about Hemingway’s throwaway line and sure Markham once spurned his advances. Given how ready Markham usually was for sexual adventure, that must have stung.
The trouble for Markham, who, at 19, was the first woman to get a horse trainer’s licence in Kenya, was that she didn’t play by anyone’s rules except her own.
She married three times, the first time at 16, but husbands seemed to have as much impact on her as beetles crashing into the windshield of a Ferrari. Gossip, innuendo and rumour always accompanied her often messy life. Even her much celebrated memoirs, published in 1942 — then rediscovered and republished to far greater international success in 1983 — are controversial.
Many believe her last husband, Raoul Schumacher, an ex-rancher and would-be Hollywood script-writer, actually wrote the memoirs when the pair lived in California together in the 1940s.
Both Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, the husband and the lover of Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa , succumbed to her. So did Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, brother to the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor. That caused a royal scandal and for the rest of her life, the palace paid Beryl a small annuity.
Her father taught her about racehorses. An early, much-loved boyfriend, aviator Tom Campbell Black, later taught her to fly and she became the first woman in Kenya to get her commercial licence. In the ’ 30s, she flew the mail around East Africa. It was an exciting time for aviation, and like Amy Johnson and Earhart, she dreamed of breaking records. A titled English friend dared
Markham was born in England in late 1902 but her parents moved to Kenya, then British East Africa, three years later, settling on the edges of the glorious Rift Valley filled with game, lion and leopards. Her mother, unable to cope, soon returned to England, leaving her daughter to be brought up by her adored father, an ex-army officer and gentleman horse trainer Charles Clutterbuck, and the Nandi, Kipsigi and Kikuyu tribesmen who helped on the farm. Markham rode and ran around barefoot most of the time, and was schooled by her despised English governess in whatever few hours were left.
That heady mix of savagery and civilisation turned Markham into a kind of prickly, exotic cactus. All her life, she was as tough as a tomboy, but people remarked on her alluring femininity.