• Peter Beard liked photographing two things most: nature and beautiful women
• In an exclusive to the Star, Alan Donovan recounts Peter's career highs and lows, from taking the last photos of Karen Blixen to spending several days in Kamiti Prison
Peter Beard was a voice OF and IN the wilderness. He warned people to wake up to the fact they have only one habitat, which they are destroying (framed as a conflict between human and animal and vice versa). He warned of an impending African and world ecological catastrophe as the unexpected result of human actions or inaction. He railed against silly sentimentalists and overpopulation. He used to scribble on the margins of the daily newspapers, “I told you so!”
We shall never know what Peter would have to say about today’s pandemic!
That voice was stilled this year at some point between March 31 and April 19. Peter’s body was found deep in a forest not far from his cliffside home on the tip of Long Island, New York, after a frantic manhunt. At 82, suffering from dementia, Peter had wandered out of his home.
His death in the forest was a fitting end for a man who lived his life on the edge, captivating royalty, intriguing celebrities, wooing gorgeous women and occasionally stepping on the toes of those in authority, upsetting protocol and accepted manners.
He had affairs with the likes of actress Candice Bergen and Lee Radziwill, Jacquie Onassis’s sister, was great friends of rocker Mick and Bianca Jagger, writer Truman Capote, artist Andy Warhol, singer Diana Ross and had his portrait painted several times by the famous artist Francis Bacon.
FASCINATION WITH AFRICA
Peter was born wealthy and privileged. He married another socialite, Minnie Cushing, which lasted only two years when she refused to return to Kenya. He then married America’s sweetheart model, Cheryl Tiegs, but after an expensive divorce, he said that marriage was unnatural.
His last marriage was to whom he called his immigration wife Nejma, the daughter of an Afghani diplomat in Nairobi. I assumed he used that term because they had met when both were held up in an immigration cell for a period.
This marriage lasted until his death and with the birth of his only child, cherished daughter Zara, for whom he wrote his last book, Zara’s Tales.
Peter and I often crossed paths, although he had created his own world in nature as I had done with African Heritage, which I opened in 1972. It so happened that during 1970, we were both in the far north of Kenya, where he had spent several years culling crocodiles in Lake Turkana, while I was making my first collection of Northern Frontier Art in the same area. I exhibited my collection in Nairobi in October 1970, where I met Joseph Murumbi, the first Foreign Affairs minister and second Vice President of Kenya, who became my future business partner.
Peter had first arrived in Nairobi at 17 years old, when he bellied up to the Long Bar of the New Stanley Hotel and delighted in the stories of the legendary white hunters, who habituated the place. He was enamoured with Karen Blixen’s ‘Out Of Africa’, which he thought was the best book ever written about the best place and era on earth.
A few years later, after graduating from Yale in Art History, he visited Kenya again, this time going through Denmark, where, by luck, he was able to meet the fabled, frail and fragile authoress. He took the last photographs of Karen Blixen before her death in 1962.
Soon after, he moved to Nairobi and began to arrange to buy land next to Karen’s original house, Mbogani. He planned to establish a haven for environmentalists and others who wanted to experience nature in all its grandeur after getting a special presidential dispensation to use the centre to promote Kenya.
His new home was called Hog Ranch due to the many warthogs who took up residence there, along with giraffes, sunis, dik-diks and a multitude of other animal guests.
RISE AS PHOTOGRAPHER
For the next 10 years, Peter perfected his career as one of the world’s leading wildlife photographers. His first book, ‘End of the Game’, was a testament to what he thought was the folly of keeping wild animals (especially huge animals like elephants) penned in preserves, especially during a prolonged drought when they could not move on, which occurred during his long stay at Tsavo.
During this time, he came to know many of the leading wildlife conservationists in Kenya, though their relationships became strained after he published heart-rending images of hundreds of carcasses of elephants, who had writhed in agony as they created pinwheels in the parched earth in death throes.
Peter attracted support for his books from friends in high places. These included Jack Block, owner of the New Stanley Hotel, where he had first settled in, spending his mornings at the Thorn Tree Café and his evenings at the Long Bar. Another was Joseph Murumbi, who wrote the forward to his book ‘End of the Game’ (the title enraged both hunters and conservationists).
Murumbi said, “For 20 years, Peter Beard has devoted himself to making this invaluable record for us, which should evoke our humility as well as our willingness to re-evaluate what appears to be an irreversibly selfish propensity for growth and waste.”
Tragedy seemed to follow Peter wherever he went. During these years of trailing the elephants, he had a habit of “filing” the unexposed rolls of film in a basket that the night watchman mistakenly emptied into the fire at Hog Ranch. Later, he lost another year-long body of work on wildlife conservation he photographed in Nambia.
The most tragic event, reminiscent of that suffered by Karen Blixen when she lost her coffee farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills, was when his old Mill House on Long Island burned down full of a lifetime of photographs, books and his painstakingly kept diaries (He always referred to himself as a “diarist”).
Sometimes, Peter’s rash actions created more problems. He once found a man trapping tiny suni antelopes in metal snares. He and his long time guide, Galo Galo Guyu, tied the man to a tree and left him for several hours in the hot sun. The police came and arrested Peter and Galo Galo, instead of the poacher.
They spent several days in the formidable Kamiti Prison before Peter was released after Jack Block contacted the President, among others. Jack threw a homecoming party for Peter at his Norfolk Hotel. Peter showed up late, his head shaven while in prison, wearing shorts smeared with elephant dung.
As part of his addiction to the Karen mystique, Peter befriended Karen’s legendary cook, Kamante, made famous through the movie ‘Out of Africa’. He tape-recorded Kamante’s tales in Kiswahili and then, with Kamante’s sons, rewrote them in English. This book, ‘Longing for Darkness’, was promoted by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, former wife of the US President, who wrote the afterword to the book.
I arranged to launch the book for Kamante at African Heritage in 1975, and both he and Kamante signed the book for me, with Peter’s lavish trademark signature of his handprint dipped in ink (sometimes he used blood) plus drawings by Kivoi, Kamante’s son.
Peter liked photographing two things most: nature and beautiful women. His photographs started several major careers for aspiring Kenyan models. The first was the legendary Iman, the most successful African model of all time.
Peter had approached Joe Murumbi and asked if he could borrow some of the costumes and jewellery from African Heritage. This was after Iman had appeared in some of them during her first time on a catwalk at the Third African Heritage Night in 1975 at Maasai Lodge. The black and white photographs Peter took against a plain background were sensational.
I arranged for Iman to meet me in Hollywood for a show I was doing there on the impact of Africa on fashion. The first black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, had been invited as Guest of Honour.
I arranged for Iman’s visa to travel to New York and then California, but she never showed up. The minute her feet hit the pavement at the airport in New York she was snagged by the modelling agency Wilhelmina, whom Peter had contacted, and she was having dinner with the grand dame of fashion, the editor of Vogue, Diana Vreeland.
Iman went on to change the world’s covers, catwalks and cultures and brought the diversity we know today.
Her high priestess aura made the other models look like attendants, and her entry was eagerly awaited by celebrities, who packed each show.
Another African Heritage model, Kenyan’s first Miss Africa, Khadija Adams, went straight from an African Heritage Night to launching the fabulous book ‘Africa Adorned’ by Angela Fisher, to the catwalk of famous Parisian couturier Yves St Laurent.
Peter also photographed several other beautiful women, including Joy Mboya, Fayel Tall and Catherine Karl.
Peter’s final tangle with Kenyan authorities was a result of his photographs in the book ‘Art of the Maasai’, a book produced by his co-manager, Gillies Turle, at Hog Ranch, which purported to exhibit lost art created by the Maasai, and they were exhibited in New York as such.
Many of these objects, including ceremonial pipes and headrests, were created of wild animal parts, including bones of giraffes and rhinos. This was after the government had forbidden the use of wild animal parts for such objects. Peter continued to profess that these were legitimate works of art, but many of them were confiscated.
After a huge bull elephant trampled and gored Peter, nearly tearing off a leg, Peter never returned to Kenya. He and Iman remained good friends even after her sensational marriage to David Bowie, the legendary rocker. Although many thought the 24-year marriage a publicity stunt, this proved not the case. Iman has never looked so radiant as when she was with David, who unfortunately died in 2016.
Peter continued to hold exhibitions and make lectures, sometimes on a stretcher, or sitting down. His photographs now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially those assemblages which combine his worlds of art, wildlife, women and fashion, signed in his unmistakable hand or footprints, often with blood (sometimes his own), insects, snakeskin, newspaper cuttings, leaves and bits of his diaries and other photos.
His family said in a statement, “Peter died where he lived: in nature… always insatiably curious, he pursued his passions without restraint and perceived reality through a unique lens.”
Edited by T Jalio