Markham, Beryl (1902–1986)
Markham, Beryl (1902–1986)
Famous adventurer and accomplished horse trainer and bush pilot who is most widely known for her record-breaking solo flight from east to west across the Atlantic in 1936 and her bestselling memoir West with the Night . Born Beryl Clutterbuck on October 26, 1902, in Ashwell, Leicestershire; died on August 4, 1986; daughter of Charles Baldwin Clutterbuck (a British army officer and farmer) and Clara Agnes (Alexander) Clutterbuck; raised on a ranch in British East Africa; married Captain Alexander Laidlaw "Jock" Purves (a British army officer and farmer), on October 15, 1919 (divorced 1925); married Mansfield Markham (a wealthy aristocrat and landowner), on September 3, 1927 (divorced 1942); married Raoul Schumacher (a writer), on October 15, 1942 (divorced 1960); children: (second marriage) Gervase.
Brought to Kenya to join her father (1905); mother left for England (1906); began career as horse trainer (1921); pursued career as pilot (1929); flew the Atlantic solo (1936) from England to Nova Scotia; moved to California (1938) where she worked as a consultant for the film industry as well as working onher memoir West with the Night and short stories; returned to Kenya (1949) to resume her career as a horse trainer where she won the top trainer's award for five years, then the Kenya Derby for six years: moved to South Africa (1967) where she continued her career as a trainer but with limited success; returned to Kenya for the last time (1969), but her training career was far less successful; lived in semi-poverty until West with the Night was republished (1983) to great acclaim and popularity; royalties allowed her freedom from poverty; fell and broke hip, dying a few days later, at age 83, from pneumonia which set in after a long operation (1986).
West with the Night (1942, reissued 1983).
One day in December 1932, Beryl Markham, who had been riding horses since she was four, was putting John Carberry's grey Somali mare through her paces. J.C., as he was known in Kenya, was impressed, and having a somewhat sadistic fondness for challenges, dared Beryl to ride the mare at full gallop and pick up a handkerchief he had just dropped on the ground. Markham took the horse around to get a running start. Urging her mount to top speed, she raced towards the spot and, leaning far over the horse's side like a Mongolian warrior, scooped up the handkerchief. She was just 30 and the feat was only one of many wild stunts she had pulled by that point. Within four years, it would pale in comparison to her greatest accomplishment, the first solo flight across the Atlantic from east to west.
Having been raised on a ranch in the Rift Valley of what was then British East Africa (modern-day Kenya), it is no wonder that Beryl Markham was unsatisfied with an ordinary life. Her father Charles Clutterbuck came to Africa in 1904 after being educated at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and a brief career in the military. After establishing himself on Lord Delamere's farm in the fabled White Highlands of Kenya, he sent for his wife Clara and their two children: Beryl, age 2, and Richard, age 4. In two years, the young couple had separated, and Clara Clutterbuck returned to England with her son, leaving Beryl in Africa to be raised by her father and the African servants he employed.
As her father was preoccupied with running a ranch and training race horses, Beryl spent much of her formative years with Africans, hunting in the woods and learning their traditions. In Beryl Markham's authorized biography, Mary Lovell writes:
Beryl seemed to tread easily between the two cultures, taking from each what she needed. Had she remained in England with her mother and brother, her life would have been vastly different…. Had she been born African she would certainly never have been allowed to participate in the hunting pastimes which are purely the preserve of the male warrior.
Indeed, East Africa was a comparatively free and open society for European women in the early 20th century, allowing many to reach their full potential and explore lifestyles and careers that would have been closed to them in the more restrictive social milieu of Western Europe.
From an early age, Markham was out in the Mau forest hunting wild boar with her young African friend Kibii. Like her companion, she went barefoot everywhere and was indoctrinated into the many social customs held by the Kipsigi and Masai tribes. Markham's first language was Swahili. The Africans taught her how to endure pain, avoid emotion, and gave her a fatalistic outlook. Many of these qualities would help her in the challenges she encountered and hinder her in establishing permanent relationships.
She was absolutely wild and would try anything, no matter how dangerous it was.
—Nigel N. Clutterbuck, cousin
Like the legends of a mythical figure, stories of Markham's early life abound, and it is unclear how many of them are based on fact. There is the well-documented account of how she was mauled by a neighbor's "tame" lion at the age of 11, but it is unclear whether she had harassed the lion or not. There are other stories, less well documented, of Beryl fighting off with a club a revengeful African boy who attacked her with a sword, even though her thigh was slashed open in the melee. There is the story of how, after being beaten by an unruly governess, Markham ran away from home during a four-day downpour and slept for two nights in a pig-hole wearing nothing but a pair of flimsy cotton pajamas. It is known that Markham went through several governesses, and it may also be true that she scared some of them away by placing dead vipers in their beds at night.
Markham never took well to authority. Sent off to school in Nairobi twice, she was expelled both times, and her formal schooling added up to only a few years. Shortly after Markham's mother left Africa, her father hired a housekeeper, Ada Orchardson , with whom he soon fell in love. They lived openly together as a couple, though they did not marry until years later. Markham took an instant dislike to Orchardson but was fond of her son, Arthur Orchardson, who was a few years younger than Beryl. Though her formal education was piecemeal and far from adequate, Markham did learn a skill from her father that would serve her well; how to train a race horse.
Though its European population was only 7,000, Kenya during this time was very much consumed with horse racing. Many Europeans, such as the Clutterbucks and the Delameres, were aristocrats from England who had either become disaffected with their mother country, fallen in love with Kenya's sweeping beauty, or been separated by fate from their fortunes and looked upon Kenya as a land of opportunity. These upper-class English women and men brought to this untamed country many of the diversions of the old world; cricket, polo, rugby, horse racing and especially hunting came to dominate many of their lives. These Europeans bought enormous tracts of land ranging from 500 to 10,000 acres, which were worked by hundreds and sometimes thousands of African laborers. This cheap labor enabled the European landowners to go to the races, or on safari, or to their all-white clubs, unhindered by the daily duties a farm entails.
Of course, many of these landowners went bankrupt. Africa was an unforgiving place with its drought, diseases and locusts. Markham's father, after having established himself on a large ranch on the edge of the Mau forest, lost it all in 1920 when the currency used in Kenya was revalued to the detriment of anyone in debt. He packed his bags and moved to Peru where he had accepted a position as horse trainer. Markham was only 18, and yet she had already been married for over a year.
Jock Purves came to East Africa during the Great War as one of the Madras Volunteers and later transferred to the King's African Rifles. He met Beryl sometime during the war, and they were married on October 15, 1919. Markham was only 16. Jock, who was twice her age, bought a 600-acre ranch in the Rift Valley of Kenya and settled down to a life as a farmer. Markham had other ideas. She took up where her father had left off by training race horses, several of which had been given to her by her father and others which were owned by her husband. She was the first woman in Kenya to be granted a trainer's license, and in 1922 one of her horses placed second in the East African Derby, the most prestigious race of the season.
During the 1920s, as a young, beautiful, active woman, Markham became more and more ensconced in the lively social milieu of Kenya. Her marriage with Jock fell on hard times as her circle of friends expanded and her success at racing increased. Jock was intensely jealous of the men Beryl associated with through her racing and even went so far as to physically assault and severely injure Lord Delamere, the "father" of British East Africa, because Jock suspected Beryl was having an affair with his son or his farm manager. Markham soon left Jock, and they were finally divorced sometime around 1925, though no records remain that can verify the exact date.
Once separated from her husband, Markham had to make a living on her own and did admirably well as a horse trainer, though she was never fiscally responsible and never managed to save anything. She moved around frequently during the years after she left Jock, living for periods with the Delameres and staying occasionally with Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen ) and her lover Denys Finch Hatton at Mbogani, Blixen's coffee farm. In a letter home, Blixen described Markham as "one of the most beautiful girls I have seen, but she has had such bad luck," referring to her marriage to Jock. Some claim that Markham was in love with Denys Finch Hatton and that her close proximity to Karen Blixen was a ploy in order to be closer to him. Indeed, Errol Trzebinski, who wrote biographies of both Finch Hatton and Markham, believes that they were lovers during the first part of 1931, and that Markham was Finch Hatton's last love before he died in a plane crash in May of that year.
If Markham did fall in love with Finch Hatton on first sight, it was over eight years before her feelings were returned, and in the meantime she had remarried. Mansfield Markham was the son of Sir Arthur Markham, an extremely wealthy coal magnate. Sir Arthur had died when Mansfield was only 11, leaving him and his brother each about £2 million. Mansfield was as sophisticated and cultured as they came, with a particular fondness for all things Parisian. It was an odd match; a somewhat effete, refined aristocrat and a zesty beauty raised in a new African colony. They honeymooned first class in the capitals of Europe, Beryl's first trip. They were accompanied by Beryl's childhood friend Kibii, now called Ruta and her personal servant, who made quite a stir in Europe's finest hotels, sometimes being mistaken for Indian royalty. Upon their return to Kenya, Mansfield bought a huge and beautiful ranch in the Rift Valley and stocked it with some of the finest race horses available.
Since Markham was always an extremely private person, her love affairs are poorly documented, except for one, which also happens to be her most famous. It occurred almost one year to the day of her marriage to Mansfield, when she was three months' pregnant. Prince Henry, 1st duke of Gloucester, along with his brother Edward, prince of Wales and duke of Windsor (the future Edward VIII), came to Kenya in 1928 to go on safari. Markham, being part of the inner social circle, was introduced to him, and Henry was instantly besotted. Their affair in Kenya continued in England when Markham traveled there in November, even though she was by that time nearly six months' pregnant. On February 25, 1929, Gervase Markham was born with a number of physical complications and was not expected to live. Shortly after the birth, Markham renewed her affair with Prince Henry, and in a few months this liaison caused a row with Mansfield Markham. Allegedly, Mansfield found out about the affair when he discovered letters to Beryl from Prince Henry in Beryl's hotel room. The couple were soon officially separated, and Gervase went off to live with Mansfield's mother Gar O'Hea , who raised the sickly child.
Not long after the breakup of her marriage and the birth of her son, Markham's career changed course as well. In October 1929, as she turned 27, she decided to pursue a life as a pilot. It was then the rage; Denys Finch Hatton, Prince Henry, and the prince of Wales had all learned to fly or owned their own airplanes. As with race horse training, Markham would quickly become established and successful at another occupation dominated by men. In 1931, she received her A license and passed the test for her B license in 1933, making her the first woman in Kenya to become a commercial pilot. "Beryl had instinctively found a way to avoid female destiny," wrote Trzebinski in The Lives of Beryl Markham:
Kenya's space, its raw growth, was responsible for such latitude, offering a different dream (as it has for many other women), allowing Beryl to mature with relatively unfettered ambition in its abstraction of human endeavor; through necessity, pioneering has always dictated that the best person for the job gets it, regardless of sex.
And indeed Markham was possibly the best pilot to fly out of Kenya, certainly the boldest. Some likened her courage to that of a lion. In April 1932, with only 127 hours of flying time, she set off alone in a single-engine Avro Avian for England. She had been in such a hurry that there had been no time to service the plane. She set off for Lake Victoria, then over Uganda and down the Nile, refueling when necessary. Crossing the seemingly endless expanse of marsh and swamp known as the Sudd was a risky venture for any pilot, alone or otherwise. Her plane was forced down at Juba with engine trouble, and from then on hopped across the Sudd, landing at major trading centers for repairs. Near Cairo, she ran into a sand storm and had to make a quick landing. She continued along the coast of North Africa and finally crossed the Mediterranean over Malta and Sicily. The European portion of the trip was relatively safe in comparison.
The airplane made Markham's life immensely mobile. She flew several times between Kenya and Britain during the early 1930s. While in Kenya, she worked as a bush pilot, transporting people and supplies. She also worked for the safaris, delivering essentials and spotting elephant herds. All of these daring escapades eventually culminated in one flight that would top them all. In 1934, while having afternoon drinks with friends at the White Rhino in Nairobi, J.C. challenged Markham to fly across the Atlantic alone and against the wind, from east to west. "Think of all the black water," he said. "Think how cold it is, Beryl." With a taunt like that she could not back down.
Two years later, J.C. Carberry provided Markham with a single-engine Vega Gull. Beryl returned to England to prepare for the historic solo flight across the Atlantic from east to west. The plane's passenger and cargo space had been filled with fuel tanks, and the plane had been taken to Abingdon because its military runway was long enough to allow the fully loaded plane to take off. September was a terrible time to fly the Atlantic. The Royal Air Force (RAF) officers at Abingdon and the Air Ministry were against Markham making the attempt, arguing the foul weather and unusually strong headwinds at this time of year made a crossing foolhardy. Markham was unperturbed. On September 4, 1936, as the sun's light drained from a clouded sky, she took off alone, "west with the night."
Most of her 22-hour flight was at night, flying by instruments. Markham tried to stay close to shipping lanes in case she went down, though she knew that a crash-landing in the North Atlantic would mean her death. Halfway across, one of the fuel tanks went dry and the engine quit. Her plane began to descend quickly toward the ocean from its cruising altitude of 2,000 feet. By the time she found the fuel switch for the other tank and got the engine started again, her plane had dropped to only 50 feet above the waves. "Eventually land did show up," she said later. Having battled strong headwinds the entire way, her plane was much lower on fuel than she had planned. Not far from Sydney, Nova Scotia, she attempted a landing in a bog, which she thought was a field. The plane nose-dived, damaging it severely, but only slightly injuring Markham.
In another plane, she flew on to New York City, her intended destination, to the applause of thousands and a ticker-tape parade. She was now famous. But her fame brought her little satisfaction and little financial reward. Carberry took back the plane that could have made Markham a fortune had she been allowed to tour with it. She traveled around the world looking for another opportunity to break a flying record but none revealed itself. Finally, she was wooed to Hollywood, only to be disappointed by an unsuccessful screen test. She remained in California and met Raoul Schumacher, a writer, who was to become her third husband.
The late 1930s and early 1940s are a poorly documented and highly controversial period of Markham's life. She traveled much and worked at various jobs, including consultant to the movie Safari, starring Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Sometime in 1940 or 1941, Markham's memoir West with the Night was written. Whether she wrote it herself or whether it was ghostwritten by Raoul Schumacher is not known. The book was published in 1942 to wide critical acclaim. Ernest Hemingway later called it a "bloody wonderful book." Because of the war and the rationing of everything including paper, the book was not as successful as it might have been at another time.
Markham went on to write a number of short stories, though these too are considered by a number of Markham's researchers to be the work of Raoul Schumacher. Schumacher was an American writer from Minnesota about whom little is known and who wrote mostly under pseudonyms. He was married to Markham until 1946, when they separated under unpleasant circumstances. Markham had little money at this point, living far beyond her means and relying on the generosity of friends and creditors to remain afloat. In 1950, she left the United States disillusioned and almost penniless to resume her life in Kenya as a horse trainer.
After a slow start, Markham eventually resumed her place in the racing elite of Kenya. The horses she trained won the Kenya Derby for six years, and she won the top trainer's award for five years. But after a strange disease, called "Beryl's blight," prevented any of the horses under her charge from racing, she moved, with a number of her finest horses, to South Africa, to try her luck there.
Markham continued training in South Africa for six years, from 1964 to 1970, but never again reached the prominence she had attained in Kenya; she moved back to Kenya after a brief stay in Zimbabwe. Life in Kenya had changed, however, and her resources were as low as they had ever been. Her house was broken into several times; once, when the burglars discovered that she was home, they beat her senseless. In 1980, during a coup attempt, she drove through a roadblock and was shot at, a bullet nicking her chin. In 1983, with Markham nearly destitute, a San Francisco restaurateur named George Gutekunst rediscovered her book and helped to convince publishers to reissue it. The book again met with wide critical acclaim, which this time was accompanied by brisk sales. It had soon sold 100,000 copies and to date has sold well over a million. This windfall did not alter Markham's life substantially, except to bring a legion of admirers, reporters, and moviemakers to the door of her humble bungalow.
In 1986, after 83 years of one harrowing event after another, Beryl Markham fell while leaning over to pet her dog and broke her femur. A long operation ensued and pneumonia set in during her recovery. A few days later, on August 4, 1986, she died. It had been a wild life, a life fuller than any other ten individuals combined. But Markham, though she had three husbands and countless lovers, had few enduring friendships. She ended her life essentially alone, having touched so many with her daring and her charm.
Lovell, Mary S. Straight On Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Trzebinski, Errol. The Lives of Beryl Markham. NY: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. San Francisco; North Point Press, 1983.
"A World Without Walls" (VHS, 55 mins.), television documentary chronicling the life of Beryl Markham, George Gutekunst Productions, 1984.
Taylor Harper , freelance writer, Amherst, Massachusetts