The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

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