As Beryl Markham is not well-known, I should probably begin by saying Markham (1902-1986) was Kenya’s first female bush pilot, the first person to fly solo from England to North America, the author of a very good and successful book (a memoir entitled West With the Night), and Kenya’s legendary, and first-ever licensed female, horse trainer. As I read Straight On Till Morning: a Biography of Beryl Markham, by Mary S. Lovell, I wondered why the name of Beryl Markham was not as well known as that of Amelia Earhart, since Markham set a more substantial flying record than Earhart had. Earhart was only the first woman to fly solo from America to Ireland. This was a far easier trip than a westward crossing due to the difference than air currents, and a number of men had preceded her.
In this Salon interview, Betsy Prioleau attributes the disparity between the two to the fact that aviatrix Beryl Markham’s love life “doesn’t bear inspection”, but I do not see how this could have been the reason. The media of the day showed far more restraint in what they did and did not report (i.e., although Bill Clinton was far from the first or most promiscuous president, during earlier administrations we were not subjected to accounts of presidential preferences in the taste of cigars). Although Markham’s casual promiscuity was common knowledge to all who were acquainted with her, it would not have been reported in the press no matter what her level of fame as an aviatrix (this word delighted me so much it nearly made me regret the otherwise useful and praiseworthy gender neutralization of language). Her contemporary Marlene Dietrich had literally thousands of partners of both genders and unblushingly regaled dinner party guests with accounts of her escapades, and that never seemed to affect her career adversely. A more likely explanation is that Amelia Earhart died young and spectacularly in the middle of an internationally publicized record flight, while Markham was never able to muster the financial backing for any further stunts and lived out a long life in relative obscurity. As in the cases of legendary Marilyn Monroe and the nearly forgotten Brigitte Bardot, an early death while one and one’s legend remains free from wrinkles and liver spots can make all the difference between posterity and obscurity. Also it may be pertinent that Earhart was American while Markham spent most of her life in Kenya. The U.S. has a marked celebrity culture while Kenya is not known for its self-promotion.
But although Earhart may have garnered more fame in her passage through the world, I doubt that she was any more interesting as a biographical subject. Mary S. Lovell got to know Markham quite well during the last year of her life, was fascinated with her, and so presents her as a fascinating person, and perhaps more sympathetically than a biographer who had not personally experienced Markham’s charisma might have done. For Markham would have been difficult to know. She had a phenomenal affinity with animals and an equally confounding inability to maintain relationships with other people. She did as she pleased without regard for authority or the feelings of others. She had a terrible temper. She was certainly not someone to whom one would want to lend money, as her attitude towards her debts was as cavalier as her attitude towards her marital infidelities. She was not one who ever went out of her way to help anyone, though her friends were generous with her. Markham had a remarkable talent for making friends and winning love, but the friendships tended not to be long-lived, especially in the cases of other women. Markham and Karen “Tania” Blixen certainly had a strong affection for one another at one point, with the older Blixen taking an almost maternal attitude towards the younger woman and opening her home to the divorced, penniless 20-year-old Markham, but this did not stop Markham from having affairs with both Blixen’s ex-husband Bror Blixen and current lover, Denys Finch-Hatton. It was Finch-Hatton who first took Markham flying, and it was actually Markham, not Blixen, whom Finch-Hatton invited to accompany him on his last and fatal flight, but she declined.
Amazingly, no one seems to have minded Markham’s behaviour very much, and Lovell’s quotes from those who knew Markham contain no bitterness. Her son was very proud of her and seems to have accepted that she was an unattainable figure. She did remarkably little damage to others, perhaps because she usually behaved as she did simply to ensure her survival, rather than from malice. Even those who didn’t like her respected her. Her book was rediscovered in 1982 because someone came across a reference to it in one of Ernest Hemingway’s letters. Hemingway had written that “this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” One of her jockeys told Lovell that Markham “was a first-class superbitch who never gave a damn about anyone but herself”, that “at times I hated her guts but by God I respected her. Now over twenty years later, though I haven’t seen her for years, I still love her like a lover.” Note the adjectives used before the word “bitch” in both cases, which are in the way of grudging upgrades from the common and undistinguished pejorative. And is it just me, or does Hemingway’s comment seem a little… personal? If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, perhaps it has nothing so spitefully sharp as the pen of a scorned and normally lionized writer.
An interesting feature of Mary Lovell’s research was that she had great difficulty separating fact from legend. Beryl Markham was well known in Kenya and even at the end of her life whenever she appeared at the track people at the track still pointed her out and whispered about her. It’s unusual for a woman in her eighties to be the subject of gossip, but Markham was. Lovell heard many rumours about Markham and many of them proved to be unfounded. Lovell found no evidence that Markham ever drank to excess, or that she had had an affair with the Prince of Wales (Edward, that is, not Charles, which would have been too far-fetched even for the most versatile gossip), proved that Prince Henry could not possibly have fathered Beryl Markham’s son, and commented wryly that if Markham had really been as promiscuous as claimed she would have spent the entirety of her adult life in a reclining position.
One rumour that dogged Beryl Markham all her life was that she was illiterate and could not have written West With the Night. Lovell concluded from her experience with Markham and her extensive research that both these allegations were untrue, but it seems odd that such a rumour should have been so persistent. Perhaps this was because her other attributes – her beauty, charisma, courage, stamina, and physical skills – were undeniable, while her literary abilities left more room for speculation, and since she was a perpetually hot topic, the gossip bloomed in what form it could.
Though as I read this book I often wondered that anyone would put up with this woman’s behaviour, at the same time I knew exactly why people did. Excellence and success attract and compel, and an unpretentious, unapologetic manner devoid of any real ill will towards others compensate for much bad behaviour. Markham was so very interesting, charismatic, and genuinely entertaining – titillating, enraging, shocking, moving, and inspiring. Unfair as it may be, people will forgive those who inspire and fascinate them far more readily than they will forgive a bore.