Adamson, Joy (1910–1980)

views updated

Adamson, Joy (1910–1980)

Austrian-born writer and naturalist in Kenya whose bestselling book Born Free was pivotal in changing attitudes worldwide toward the value of preserving wildlife and habitat. Born Friederike Victoria Gessner in Troppau, Silesia, in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, on January 20, 1910; murdered near her compound "Shabba," 230 miles north of Nairobi, Kenya, perhaps by poachers who resented her conservation efforts, on January 3, 1980; ashes scattered over the plains; daughter of Victor (an architect and town planner) and Trauta Gessner; married Victor von Klarwill (an Austrian), in 1935; married Peter Bally (a Swiss), in 1938; married George Adamson (senior warden in the Kenya game department), in 1944.

After growing up on an estate near Vienna, educated in Vienna earning a music degree before studying sculpting and medicine; went to Kenya on vacation (1937); painted flowers in Kenya for botanical books for 15 years, spending time camped out in the wild; became interested in African customs, ornaments, and costumes, which she began painting as well; adopted three lion cubs; kept Elsa, the smallest, and wrote Born Free, followed by Living Free and Forever Free, which told of experiences living with the lion and returning her to the wild; proved that captive wild animals could be reeducated to live in their natural habitat, a practice widely used today; alerted the world to the loss of species and habitat, a topic on which she became an early crusader.

Selected writings:

Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds (NY: Pantheon, 1960); Elsa: The True Story of a Lioness (NY: Pantheon, 1961); Forever Free (NY: Harcourt, 1963); Joy Adamson's Africa (NY: Harcourt, 1972); (introduction by Sir Julian Huxley) Living Free: The Story of Elsa and her Cubs (NY: Harcourt, 1971); The Peoples of Kenya (3rd ed., London: Collins & Harvill, 1973); The Searching Spirit: Joy Adamson's Autobiography (Harcourt, 1979).

At the time Joy Adamson wrote Born Free, it was commonly assumed that wild animals lived in huge numbers on vast tracts of land. In telling the story of a lion cub that she raised and then successfully returned to life in the wild, Adamson put an end to this conventional wisdom, publicizing the alarming loss of wildlife and habitat in Africa and around the world. Today, growing numbers of eagles, condors, wolves, bears, lions, and countless other creatures are released into surviving segments of their native habitats as a means of guaranteeing the survival of their species, a movement that owes considerable thanks to the public support first inspired by the story of a cub named Elsa.

Adamson, who was to call international attention to one kind of vanishing world, was born into another, that of the late European aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Named Friederike Victoria Gessner, she was the child of Victor Gessner, an architect and town planner, and Trauta Gessner , who gave birth to her on January 20, 1910, on a large estate outside Vienna. Under the rule of Kaiser Francis Joseph I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire stretched across Central Europe, including what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and parts of Italy. At its heart lay elegant and sophisticated Vienna, with its unending rounds of fashionable dinner parties, operas, and balls attended in horse-drawn carriages. As a woman of her class, Adamson learned to ride and shoot at an early age, and took part in hunts, but preferred from the beginning to watch game animals rather than kill them. A good shot, she killed her first buck at age 16, a feat she then refused to repeat.

In Vienna, Adamson earned a degree in music, which was only one of her talents. Afterward, she studied sculpting for a time before deciding to enter medical school, but the medical studies ended when she married Victor von Klarwill, an Austrian, in 1935. The marriage was over by 1937, when Adamson, at age 27, went to Kenya to visit friends and fell in love with Africa. Fascinated especially by the plant life, she showed a gift for painting the native flowers and plants, which gained her a place on an expedition to the Chyullu mountain range sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Adamson's second husband, Peter Bally, was one of the eight scientists on the trip, which became a three-month honeymoon for the couple. Her illustrations for the next edition of a garden book on East Africa flora led to contracts to illustrate seven more books published by the Royal Horticultural Society of East Africa. The artist documented her botanical findings with plant specimens she forwarded to Kew Gardens in England.

This second marriage also proved to be short lived. In 1944, she married George Adamson, senior warden for the Kenya game department, and found a compatible life, as she described it, spent on what "amounted to 360 days a year on safari." According to Gregory Jaynes:

In the early years of their marriage the Adamsons spent most of their time wandering across the flat East African plain and living in tent camps. They had spent their honeymoon walking around the shores of Lake Rudolph, thick with crocodiles.

"Both of us were nearly killed by rhinos," George told an interviewer. "But Joy discovered some lovely rock engravings. I captured several poachers and learned to call crocodiles. All in all, it was a good trip."

Contact with the many tribes of East Africa led Joy Adamson to begin recording their patterns of dress and ornamentation, which provided clues to their tribal origins, through designs linked to cultures that originated in Asia, Egypt, and Persia. This ethnological work attracted government interest and financial support, leading the artist to produce more than 750 illustrations, many life-size, of the peoples in tribal dress. She also made book illustrations of the brilliant coral fish found off the Kenyan coast.

In the 1950s, a tragedy typical of wildlife management led to the immense change in Adamson's life. When George Adamson was called out to hunt and kill a lion that had earned a reputation as a man-eater, he was charged by a lioness he assumed to be the culprit. Forced to shoot her in self-defense, he shortly discovered that she had attacked to shield her three cubs, hidden nearby, so young that they were still blind. Knowing his wife's love of animals, George brought the cubs home for her to nurture, and as their eyes began to focus, Adamson became the first face they recognized. Raising three lion cubs was an impossible human task, however. Adamson arranged for the two larger cubs to be sent to zoos, handpicked for their humane treatment of animals, and kept the smallest, named Elsa.

Because her infant charge had been born free, Adamson was determined from the outset that the lioness would not be tamed or domesticated; her resolution, however, was to prove difficult to keep. A history of mostly unfortunate experiences had led to the conventional wisdom that captive animals could never successfully return to the wild, and the Adamsons were the only parents the young Elsa knew; they were her protection and her lion tribe. Certainly her early experiences were not those of a lion in the wild. She was nursed from a bottle, slept on a cot, and rode on the roof of a Landrover—that is, until she grew large enough for the roof to cave in. When Elsa was a year old, she accompanied the Adamsons on vacation to a coastal village on the Indian Ocean, where she proved to be a natural swimmer. Weighing almost 200 pounds at this stage, she wrestled and played with Joy in the shallow surf, photographed in a number of pictures George had begun to take to document their daily life together.

But as Elsa approached age two and the onset of sexual maturity, the Adamsons were forced to think increasingly about what it would take for her to return to the wild. The main barrier to Elsa's survival was that she had never learned to hunt for food. Growing up outside a lion pride, she also did not know lion etiquette; once, because she failed to follow the conventions of lion behavior, she was nearly attacked by an angry lioness, before George fired warning shots into the air to save her. Until she learned to fend for herself, she would never be able to live on her own and mate.

The first attempt to wean Elsa from civilized life was made in a sparsely settled region 350 miles from Isiolo. But Elsa's accustomed climate was different, and she became deathly ill. While she was recovering, the Adamsons traveled 400 miles to the area of Elsa's birthplace, where game abounded, to set up camp and teach her to hunt and kill prey. George would fire at an animal to wound it, then encourage Elsa to finish it off.

After the young lioness began to disappear at night, the Adamsons learned that she was spending the time with a young male lion, but she continued to return to the camp during the day to nap on the cot next to George. Finally, the Adamsons broke camp, leaving her on her own for a week. Upon their return, Elsa greeted them joyously and soon showed signs that she had been able during their absence to hunt on her own. One day, in a curious reversal of earlier hunting forays, she grabbed a full-grown water buffalo in mid-stream, but held it by the throat, as if waiting for George to finish it off. More remarkably, Nuru, the Muslim Somali who was Elsa's keeper, rushed to the kill while Elsa still had the warm, bloody body in her clutches. Nuru's religion required that the throat of any animal that was to be eaten be cut before it died, and visions of buffalo steak for dinner caused him to move in and finish the animal off, in preparation for carving off a nice piece of meat. In what Adamson identified as "an astonishing tribute no less to her intelligence than to her self-control," Elsa growled but did not attack Nuru.

After three years with the Adamsons, Elsa made her final transition to life in the wild in a release that Joy found wrenching. Elsa had become "almost like my child," Adamson recorded in the book about their unique relationship. "Because I had no children, I have spent all my emotion on her and my other animals." After a trip to England of several months to arrange for the book's publication, she returned in July. Then she was delayed several more months in paying a visit with George to the area of Elsa's lair, where the two were greeted with an affectionate 300-pound lion hug. Despite this obvious show of affection for her human family, however, Elsa's life was irreversibly changed. She had a mate and had given birth to cubs, and although the cubs showed up in camp, her mate remained shy, never allowing himself to be touched. Elsa also showed signs of how well her lessons had been learned. If the Adamsons became too familiar with the cubs, she would grip the humans by the knee to pull them away; she also discouraged the cubs from too much familiarity. As Adamson writes:

Elsa tactfully combined this double life—I should say triple life because she had her own wild life, the wild life of her cubs, and life with us. This, in itself, was an important contribution to the knowledge of the psychology of animals. You see, I am convinced that all of these animals can teach us a great deal, far more than we even now suspect.

With the publication of Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds in 1960, Adamson found her own reclusive life on safari overtaken by the bright lights of intense publicity. The book was a huge success. Selling more than three million copies and translated into many languages, it was also the inspiration for television shows and movies. Drawn into the circuit of talk-show appearances, interviews and lectures, Adamson took this opportunity in the international limelight to publicize the plight of wild animals around the world. "We had no idea when George first brought in Elsa, an adorable cub, that it would lead to anything," she wrote:

But obviously Elsa started us on the road to something important. I made up my mind, long before Born Free was ever published, much less filmed, that every penny of royalties Elsa earned would go toward the survival of wild animals. Watch out. I'll sell you anything for my cause—books, drawings, a life-time membership in the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal…. I'm shameless. I'll do any thing to help animals.

At a time when the urgency of the problems surrounding wildlife and the reduction of their habitats was barely beginning to be understood, Adamson linked the nature of the problem to the nature of human beings:

Our brain is wonderful but also frightening because it has so thoroughly separated us from the entire range of other mammals that we are no longer a part of the balance of nature. We must remember what happened to the dinosaur. When his physical bulk became too big to fit into the landscape, he had to go. I'm not joking when I say that the same thing could happen to us because of our mental bulk. Every form of life, from an ant to an elephant, an eagle to a fish, has its function in the balance of nature—except man. We, the highest form of mammal ever recorded in biological history, have overspecialized our brain. We could, like the dinosaur, overstep our limits and become intellectual rather than physical monsters.

Marshalling worldwide enthusiasm for Elsa and the wildlife she represented, Adamson began to raise funds to save a disappearing Africa. After Born Free, she wrote three sequels, Elsa: The True Story of a Lioness (1961), Forever Free (1963), and Living Free: The Story of Elsa and Her Cubs (1961). In 1972, she also published Joy Adamson's Africa, followed by The Peoples of Kenya (1973), a collection of her paintings and photographs. Her autobiography, The Searching Spirit: Joy Adamson's Autobiography, appeared in 1979. By the mid-60s, however, celebrity had taken its toll on the Adamson marriage, and the couple began to live separately. The parting was amicable, and the Adamsons kept in constant touch with weekly chats over short-wave radio, still drawn together by a mutual love of Africa and its wildlife. In 1969, when she was 59, Adamson was in an auto accident that left her with a severely injured right hand, causing her great difficulties as a writer and artist, but her hectic schedule continued unabated. Though still traveling frequently overseas for her cause, she spent as much time as she could manage at Shabba, her Kenyan compound, 230 miles north of Nairobi.

Elsa's … impact upon the entire world … proves the hunger of people to return, in whatever way they can, to a world of genuine proportion, a world in which our balance and basic values have not been destroyed.

—Joy Adamson

On January 3, 1980, a few weeks short of her 70th birthday, Adamson was in robust health and set out for her daily walkabout in the bush. When she did not return at her customary time to listen to the BBC news before supper, her cook dispatched a guard to look for her. Her body was found a short distance away. At first her death was attributed to lions, but subsequent investigations proved human rather than animal intervention; she had been stabbed in the chest and arm, perhaps by local hunters or poachers who saw their way of life threatened.

Toward the end of her life, however, Joy Adamson had begun to feel that her efforts were helping to bring about changes in human behavior. Since the appearance of Born Free, the number of books and magazine articles for the popular audience and the wildlife television programs and movies enhancing the value of preserving wildlife had certainly proliferated, and would continue to do so. Increased public enthusiasm was helping to revolutionize the treatment of animals in zoos, popularizing zoo living space in the form of large outdoor habitat areas, and drawing financial support that now allows important discoveries about the preservation of wildlife through zoo institutions. Public interest was stimulating the growth of "ecotourism," which would shift attitudes in many countries in favor of wildlife as an important economic resource. While such circumstances existed before Adamson's accounts of Elsa, her books' tremendous popularity unquestionably accelerated the pace of change. Wrote Adamson:

Sometimes when I drive along the road and see a giraffe standing tall and beautiful against the sky or an elephant herd drinking unafraid at a water hole, I think to myself, "Elsa helped give that animal to the world."


Adamson, Joy. "The Lady and the Lion," in Saturday Evening Post. Vol. 232, no. 37, March 12, 1960, pp. 24–27.

——. "What Animals Can Tell Us about Ourselves," in McCall's. Vol. 94, no. 4, January 1967, pp. 60–61; 104–105.

"Adamson, Joy (Friederike Victoria)," in Current Biography Yearbook. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1972.

Dowty, Leonhard. "The Lady Who Listens to Lions," in Good Housekeeping. Vol. 174, no. 2, February 1972, p. 14+.

Jaynes, Gregory. "Joy Adamson. Author of 'Born Free' Is Killed in Africa," in The New York Times Biographical Service. January 1980, pp. 1–2.

"Kenya: Don't Blame the Lions," in Newsweek. Vol. 95, no. 3, January 21, 1980, p. 56.

Marnham, Patrick. "Orphans All," in Spectator. Vol. 224, no. 7906, January 19, 1980, pp. 27–28.

Newquist, Roy. Counterpoint. NY: Rand McNally, 1964.

suggested reading:

Cass, Caroline. Joy Adamson: Behind the Mask. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia