The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

“A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.” – Beryl Markham

Two of my favorite writers, Lauren Willig and Deanna Raybourn, have writers have novels set in Kenya during the 1920’s. I have previously written about some of the denizens of the Happy Valley Set (Alice de Janze, Idina Sackville) before but I was all of a sudden inspired to read more about Beryl Markham. Way back in the 1980’s, after OUT OF AFRICA was released, there was a miniseries on CBS called SHADOW ON THE SUN starring Stephanie Powers as Markham. I vaguely remember a scene were Powers as Markham says “I’ve flown the Atlantic” in a really terrible English accent. Born in England but raised in Kenya, Beryl Markham was a notorious beauty. She trained race horses and had scandalous affairs, but she is most remembered for being a pioneering aviatrix. She became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to make it from London to New York nonstop. She also left the world an amazing memoir ‘West with the Night’ which was re-released in 1983, forty years after its initial publication, reintroducing the world to the fascinating life of Beryl Markham.

She was born Beryl Clutterbuck in on October 26, 1902 in the village of Ashwell in Leicestershire, the youngest child of Charles and Clare Clutterbuck. When she was a toddler, her father moved to Kenya, where he had purchased a farm in Njoro. Once he was settled, he sent for Beryl, her mother and her older brother Richard. Beryl was four years old at the time. Unfortunately her mother couldn’t stand the isolation and promptly returned to England, taking Beryl’s older brother with her. Beryl wouldn’t see her mother again until she was an adult. Beryl never forgave her mother for abandoning her; it colored her relationships with women for the rest of her life. Of course, she hero-worshipped her father; he could do no wrong in her eyes. She would compare every man she fell in love with to her father, most of whom were found wanting in the end.

With her father busy training and racing horses, Beryl was basically left to raise herself; her only company the African servants who worked on the farm. Left mainly to her own devices, Beryl grew up wild, running barefoot, without the restrictions and conventions of a traditional English upbringing, which she referred to as “a world without walls.” She spent her days in the company of animals and the local tribes. Her first language was Swahili not English. She was the only white woman permitted to hunt with the male warriors, and she was equally adept with both a spear and a rifle. In many ways, her sensibilities were more African than European. She didn’t treat the Africans who worked for her father as inferior. She learned their languages and absorbed their love of the land. Later on, her father hired a governess, a woman named Mrs. Orchardson. Beryl hated her, particularly after her father and Mrs. Orchardson formed a liaison. She preferred to live in a mud hut and later on her own house on the farm, rather than live under the same roof as Mrs. Orchardson. Her dislike didn’t extend to Mrs. Orchardson’s son Arthur, who became a playmate and later on, worked for Beryl as a jockey.

From childhood, Beryl had an affinity for animals, particularly horses. She could calm even the most recalcitrant horses. In her 84 years on the plant, Beryl’s great loves would be her father, horses and Africa. Although she only had 2 ½ years of actual schooling in Nairobi until she was kicked out for being a bad influence, Beryl was always a great reader throughout her life, thanks to both her father and lovers such as Denys Finch-Hatton and Tom Campbell-Black. Her upbringing meant that Beryl would never be a conventional Englishwoman. It also meant that she grew up practicing the art of survival, that “the end justifies the means.” She could be ruthless and amoral, using people and then discarding them. She often took advantage of friends, running up huge bills on their accounts, without guilt. Outwardly confident, she was also deeply insecure. Blessed with abundant charm, it was hard for her friends to stay mad at her for long.

As an adult, Beryl was almost six feet tall, blonde, blue-eyed with the figure of a super model. Although she grew up a tomboy, Beryl was also incredibly feminine. She loved perfume, ointments, and lotions. She also had regular manicures and salon appointments all throughout her life. All of her clothes were beautifully cut, trousers that emphasized the length of her legs, worn with silk shirts which became her trademark. She wore a great deal of white which emphasized her tan, and her blonde hair. She was striking more than beautiful, with a vibrant personality. When she walked into a room, heads turned. The first woman to earn a license as a horse trainer in not just in Kenya but England as well, Beryl spent most of her time around men and animals. She had few female friends, but those she did have like Karen Blixen, tended to be more maternal, treating her more like an errant daughter.

Beryl was married three times, none of them successful. She married for the first time just before her 17th birthday to Jock Purves, an ex-soldier turned farmer, who was twice her age. The marriage like her other two foundered under the weight of Beryl’s infidelities. Beryl didn’t know the first thing about the responsibilities of being a wife, nor did she grow up with many examples of a good marriage. Her father lived with a married woman, her mother remarried while abroad, and all around her Beryl saw casual infidelities. The members of the Happy Valley Sets swapped partners the way other people swapped recipes. Beryl was also fundamentally selfish and too independent to be confined in marriage. Some biographers claim that Beryl’s third husband, journalist and ghost writer Raoul Schumacher, may have been the actual author of her memoir West with the Night, although Mary S. Lovell in her wonderful biography Straight On Till Morning disputes that claim. If it were true, it would be the only thing that he contributed during their short marriage. Nor did motherhood interest her. She gave birth to her only child, a son Gervase, during her second marriage to Mansfield Markham. After he was born, she dropped off with her mother-in-law who essentially raised him. Occasionally she would visit her son, if she happened to be in England. She saw him for the final time soon after he married in 1955. She never saw him again after that, nor did she ever meet her granddaughters.

A clairvoyant once told Beryl that while she would have great success in life, she would never be truly happy. She never forgot it. Beryl treated sex more like a man, as a necessary function like brushing one’s teeth, or eating. Very few of her lovers touched her heart. She had a scandalous affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. The son of George V, Beryl met him when he accompanied his brother, the Prince of Wales on safari. Unfortunately they were not very discreet. When Beryl’s husband at the time, Mansfield Markham found out, he threatened to sue for divorce and name the Prince as a correspondent. In order to keep his name name out of the courts, Prince Henry agreed to put £15,000 into at trust for Beryl, which would pay her an annuity for the rest of her life. The only two men, besides her father, that Beryl ever really loved were Denys Finch-Hatton and Tom Campbell-Black. Both men inspired in her a love of flying and both affairs ended in tragedy. Beryl’s relationship with Finch-Hatton started soon after his affair with Karen Blixen ended, although some of Blixen’s friends believe that Beryl stole him from her. Finch-Hatton introduced her to music and literature, in many ways they were perfect for each other. Neither one had any interest in getting married, or leading a conventional life. Who knows where their relationship might have gone if he hadn’t died in a plane crash.

If anyone could be considered the love of Beryl’s life it would be Tom Campbell-Black. Like Denys Finch-Hatton, he was someone that she had known most of her life. It was he who made sure that she had a thorough education before she took her first solo flight. He made sure that she strip down and repair an airplane engine, how to replace spark plugs, and how to clear jets. She learned how to read maps and to have a thorough knowledge of the instruments. As she did when she was training horses, Beryl kept meticulous records of all her flights. It took 18 months, and a thousand hours in the air; but she soon became the first woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license. From the beginning, flying appealed to her sense of adventure. She ferried people to distant farms, flew mail routes, rescued pilots who had crashed, acted as a spotter for the big game hunters, an an informal air-ambulance service, and could tell from the air where herds of elephants were. This was at a time when air travel was still in its infancy; Beryl often flew with no radio or air-speed indicator, and very few instruments. She was fearless, whether in the air, or riding horses. She even surprised Tom by flying from Nairobi to England solo! While horse racing had been a man’s game, flying was wide open to both men and women. By the time Beryl became interested in flying, several women had already made names for themselves, Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Jackie Cochran and Mary, Duchess of Bedford among them.

In 1936, Beryl Markham became the first woman to fly solo and nonstop from east to west across the Atlantic. No one had made a successful non-stop flight from England to North America, and no woman had crossed the Atlantic from east to west. Amelia Earhart had flown successfully solo across the Atlantic, but she had done it from North America, which was considered the ‘easy way.’ Before the flight, Beryl trained like an athlete, giving up smoking and drinking, and exercising daily to build up her stamina. She pored over maps for hours, plotting what the best route was across the ocean. There were so many factors to consider. She needed a grand total of 6 fuel tanks to make it, if the weather cooperated. For inspiration, Beryl would often visit the factory in Gravesend, England to watch her plane, The Messenger, being built.

She left on Friday, September 4, 1936, after waiting several days for the weather to clear. The crossing was rough from the beginning. Headwinds were driving hard against the plane, reducing her speed to only 90 miles an hour. Four hours in, one of the engines quit, and the first fuel tank was empty. She flew blind for nineteen hours before she crash landed in a peat bog in Nova Scotia, leaving the plane badly damaged. She was lucky to walk away from the nose-in crash with only a small head injury. Despite the fact that she didn’t make it to New York, she was feted and lionized for her daring and skill. Beryl Markham was now a hero. Ironically, one of the reasons that Beryl attempted the flight was to impress Tom Campbell-Black who had surprised her by falling in love and marrying another woman while abroad in England. Beryl hoped that her feat would bring him back to her arms. Unfortunately, Tom Campbell-Black was killed in a freak accident before Beryl could make her case.

Without Campbell-Black to guide and motivate her, Beryl lost interest in flying. She spent the war years in California, doing some work as a technical advisor on a film entitled Safari. She wrote West with the Night in 1942, but although the critics raved, it was not a popular success. There was interest in making a movie about Beryl’s transatlantic flight, starring Beryl, but her screen test proved to be a bust. Finally, in the 1950’s, Beryl returned to Kenya and her first love, horses. For the next twenty years she had great success training and racing horses, including 6 Kenya Derby winners. Unfortunately for Beryl she spent too much time on the horses, and not enough time on her finances. Beryl had lived her life just assuming that money would turn up when she needed it. By 1980, she was living in squalor with just a few horses. But like the mythical Phoenix that is a symbol of the sign of Scorpio, Beryl rose from the ashes once again. The 1983 republication of her memoir West with the Night brought her new found fame and allowed her to live her remaining years in comfort.

After a brief bout with pneumonia, Beryl Markham passed away on August 3, 1986. She was 83 years old.

For further reading:Mary S. Lovell, Straight on Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987. ISBN 0-312-01096-6

Errol Trzebinski, The Lives of Beryl Markham. New York: W.W. Norton. 1993. ISBN 0-393-03556-5.


viridian said…
And I would strongly recommend West with the Night. -- a wonderful book!
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
That's my great aunt! lol! was an excellent read thank you
John said…
Just came across your blog whilst researching Beryl who was born locally to me. A great character and well put together. Just my type of adventurous woman! Nice job.
John said…
This lady was not scandalous, but obviously quite flighty for her time.
A geologist said…
A well written article. Thank you for sharing it.

"West with the Night" was a masterful work. In this regard, I feel that Hemmingway got it right. As for his opinion of Markham as a woman, I disregard Hemmingway as an unstable individual whose misogyny was a product of being conflicted about his sexual orientation.

Markham's life is a great example of how reality often outstrips the fiction Hollywood spews. Although well out of my league, she was a woman I would have loved to have had a few drinks with.
Unknown said…
A fascinating woman, no doubt! But how can anyone call the book great? It is truly one of the strangest I've ever read. The first half is as beautiful as her childhood surely was. But then, in couple of lines, her dear father is up and off to Peru, leaving her to make it on her own. What are we to believe about him after all? The rest of the book is uneven. With little of the beauty that characterized the first half. And nothing of her sentimental life.
Rebecca said…
I just finished "Circling the Sun," and enjoyed this post very much. I wish the book had included some of these details - but I also get that it's fictionalized fact ;) Thanks for the interesting read.
Jill said…
I just finished WEST WITH THE NIGHT & enjoyed it very much...It is a beautifully crafted book (agree with Hemingway) even though it is as Rebecca stated with some "fictionalized fact". I enjoyed the post to fill in some things Beryl conveniently left out.

My grandfather was a Flying Jenny airplane instructor during WWI & my mom soloed in a the mid-30's but that was the extent of their flying. I grew up near the annual EAA airplane show in Oshkosh, WI & realize that airplanes can inspire people. I also have friends who spent time in African missions & a very good friend who trained/rode dressage horses so this book would interest many.

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