Straight on Till Morning
Like many arresting figures whose biographies survive their deaths, Beryl Markham was full of contradictions, and she gloried in them. Her biographer, Mary S. Lovell, writes:It is interesting to speculate about the feelings of a man, stranded in the bush for days with a broken ankle, waiting for assistance . . . when, instead of [being rescued by] a helmeted male pilot, a tall Garboesque vision of a girl, dressed in white, with long blonde hair and painted nails, grinned cheerfully and handed over a bottle of gin. . . .
During the period addressed above Markham was working as a free-lance flyer, at a time when aviation was still in its infancy and had few female participants. She was the first woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license in East Africa, where bush flying in primitive aircraft involved considerable danger. The androgynous appeal of this image sums up much of what made Markham’s life so remarkable: her preoccupation with her unquestionably striking appearance, her extraordinary daring, and her pronounced talent for self-promotion.
Lovell’s admirable book makes clear the origins of these traits. Reared in British East Africa alongside the sons of African tribesman by a father whom she adored but who seldom had time for her, she was nevertheless an integral part of a community of European exiles who always paid homage to her patrician beauty. This unusual upbringing gave her—in addition to a notable disregard for Western sexual mores—a profound self-reliance that allowed her to dispense with conventional schooling. Expelled from boarding school in Nairobi—reportedly for attempting to organize a revolt—Markham received only two and a half years of formal education, together with some sporadic tutelage from a stepmother she always loathed and later from her erudite lover, Denys Finch Hatton. Apparently she had a native talent for horse training, to which she was exposed as a child on her father’s farm, but the process by which she became accomplished at this trade remains very much a mystery. It speaks volumes about her legendary quality that some people ascribed her success with horses to a magical potion she was reputed to have gained from her African helpmates.
In later years it was rumored that Markham was illiterate and that her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, a failed writer, had ghostwritten her evocative autobiography, West with the Night (1942, 1983). Lovell convincingly argues that this rumor, like so much of the mythology that grew up around Markham, was an exaggeration—in this case a half-truth promoted by Schumacher after the marriage went bad. While it is accurate to say that Schumacher provided some helpful editing, West with the Night contains Markham’s own words as well as her experiences. It is worth noting, however, that the memoirs were written and published with the help of the renowned writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who may also have been one among Markham’s multitude of lovers.
Despite an early friendship with the writer Karen Blixen-Finecke, Markham showed a pronounced preference for the company of men, and she often did not distinguish a friendship from a sexual relationship, as in her casual, intermittent affair with her friend’s husband, Baron Bror von...
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