her to do the Atlantic crossing, and lent her his plane. But like many of Markham’s astonishing successes, the record-breaking flight didn’t lead to much else other than, this time, her last brief marriage and the memoirs. By the late ’ 40s, she had left the US and was back in Africa, penniless and dependent, as she was so often, on the kindness and charity of others. She always assumed someone richer than her would provide. They usually did.
Men tended to swoon over her, says Lovell. Many women disliked her. The ones who did become her friends, like O’Neill, were equally strong women content not to compete.
I met O’Neill when I edited her own memoir, A Lion in the Bedroom . She had spent her life in the shadow of her glamorous and imperious mother, Enid, Countess of Kenmare, formerly Enid Lindeman of the Australian wine family. Beryl must have been chicken-feed. At one stage, in the mid-’ 60s, Markham and the countess set up a successful horse-training establishment together in South Africa. The farm wasn’t big enough for two such famous, demanding beauties; Markham soon went back to Kenya.
‘‘ She was totally amoral,’’ O’Neill told me, putting it down to Markham’s undisciplined childhood. ‘‘ One day, when I was living in Nairobi where Beryl was too, I foolishly left my handbag in her sitting-room with £ 50 in it for staff wages. It was a great deal of money then. By the time I got back half an hour later, the money was gone. When I pointed this out, Beryl opened her eyes very wide and in the softest voice said, ‘ Oh sweetie! How very unfortunate! It must have been Timau [ her house servant]. How naughty of him.’ ’’
The question still hanging over Markham’s reputation is: did she also nick her third husband’s writing skills?
Six years after Lovell’s biography came out, a second — The Lives of Beryl Markham by Errol Trzebinski — appeared. Trzebinski, egged along by Schumacher’s close friend, writer Scott O’Dell, argued yes. O’Dell claimed Schumacher had bitterly confided that his wife hadn’t written a ‘‘ damn word’’ of her memoir.
Lovell is disdainful, questioning how a man who’d never experienced Africa could have written about it so vividly. ‘‘ The memoir is crammed with knowledgeable and evocative descriptions of the country which is plainly intimately known to the writer, even to the taste of the dust, the smell of animal dung on the road, the sound made by colobus monkeys as they flit through the trees.’’
Nor, says Lovell, was Markham illiterate as she’d even said herself. She knew the classics and was an avid reader. ‘‘ Her letters reveal a simple elegance in phrasing.’’ Trzebinski claims Schumacher was an experienced ghost writer. Lovell argues that the only thing he had ghostwritten before he met Markham was a Western novel which he completed in seven days on a dictaphone and even he called it ‘‘ a worstseller’’. The biggest discrepancy between Lovell and Trzebinski is that the latter has the couple, who married in 1942, meeting in 1937, well before Markham started on her memoirs. Lovell has them meeting in 1941, after Markham had sent her enthusiastic publishers 132 pages of manuscript from Nassau where she stayed with friends for several months.
‘‘ The very first meeting of Beryl and Raoul was a coup de foudre,’’ Lovell says. ‘‘ After it they were inseparable for a long time. There is simply no room in this story for Beryl to go off to Nassau and have several more passionate affairs and then drift back to Raoul somehow.’’
Trzebinski’s publishers in Britain did not respond to requests for a contact. Lovell, after discussing the mystery, immediately wrote another 2000 precise words in an email, putting more of her case. ‘‘ I still evidently feel rather strongly about it,’’ she concluded with some surprise of the memoir that has now sold a million copies. ‘‘ Maybe Beryl is still looking over my shoulder?’’
After the memoir, Markham produced several stories based on her life, and there’s certainly proof that Schumacher wrote at least three or four of them. Given neither Markham nor Schumacher pursued successful writing careers once they split, it’s most likely that Markham found her husband to be an invaluable editor. Without his guidance, she found writing too hard. But without her, Schumacher had nothing to write about.
Markham was often underestimated through her life. There is a sense, reading commentary on her, that people couldn’t quite forgive her sometimes unpleasant single-mindedness and, perhaps, the way she made it appear as if her achievements had come to her too easily.
Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gelhorn visited her in Kenya in the early ’ 70s. Surprised by the racing legend’s glamour, Gelhorn immediately dismissed her as a society darling who only kept horses to amuse herself.
Ten years later, Gelhorn — who never got a chance to meet Markham again — was still ruing her mistake. Straight on Till Morning by Mary S. Lovell ( Abacus, $ 29.99), out now.