Gava Fox on the life and times of a loveable rogue . . . All images Peter Beard.
A half century since the first publication of The End Of The Game, this year’s anniversary is as much a re-examination of creator Peter Beard’s searing magnum opus to Africa’s wildlife as it is a retrospective of his own wild life.
Variously described as a photographer, artist, writer and diarist, the now 77-year-old American has also been called the most charming man alive (by most of his ex lovers), the cleverest man in the room (by most of his friends), an endearing rogue (by most who have met him) and an irresponsible, drug-abusing colonial (by Kenya’s police).
He has long refused to categorise himself or his work, scoffing “art is whatever is life enhancing” when asked the question by Danish filmmaker Lars Bruun in his gritty 1996 documentary A Study of Peter Beard, adding elsewhere that “small minds make big scrapbooks”.
The End Of The Game had been in the making since Beard first started scrapbooking as a teenager. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth – and possibly one up his nose – Beard was a scion of New York aristocracy, boasting fortunes on both sides of the family. He toyed with medical school before studying art, while his larger-than-life personality and talent saw him signed by Vogue magazine as a photographer while still a student.
After two photo shoots in Africa Beard became mesmerised by the Dark Continent and in 1961 traveled to Denmark to meet his literary heroine Karen Blixen – charming the reclusive and ageing author of Out Of Africa into giving him access to a vast collection of pictures, diaries and notebooks from her Kenya days.
Blixen would die the following year but in Beard she recognised a kindred spirit – someone who would chronicle the decline of an era, for better or worse.
“Very few matters,” she wrote to him, “could move me as deeply as your epitaph, or monument, over the Old Africa which was so dear to my heart – the continent of wisdom, dignity and deep poetry, equally expressed in nature, beast and man.”
Beard returned to Kenya to finish the book, sealing his literary betrothal to Blixen by purchasing a plot of land next to her former coffee station and naming it Hog Ranch – a sprawling, tented safari camp that he still calls home.
The first edition of The End Of The Game was a publishing sensation despite its gritty and unlikely subject matter. In various chapters he chronicled the exploits of the men and women of colonial Africa, including Colonel John Patterson – the famed killer of the man-eating lions of Tsavo, as well as the great hunts of US president Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.
The pages and sepia-toned illustrations are interspersed with his own photographs and calligraphy – frequently drawn in blood; sometimes his own – and the net result is a chaotic, disturbing, but always illuminating, work of art that remains fresh today on each viewing.
In the decade that followed Beard established himself as one of the world’s leading fashion photographers and led the high life . . . literally. He was a permanent fixture at Studio 54 and was close friends with rock luminaries such as Eric Clapton, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones, who he accompanied on tour in 1972 and 1975 – bonding particularly with Mick Jagger and photographing his wedding to Bianca. He dated model/actresses Lauren Hutton and Candice Bergen, as well as socialite Lee Radziwill; the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Painted by Salvadore Dali, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, who described him as “one of the most fascinating men in the world … half Tarzan, half Byron”, he briefly married Cheryl Tiegs, the supermodel of her day, and “discovered” Iman in Nairobi – famously promoting the model in New York as an illiterate Somali refugee when she was actually the university-attending daughter of a diplomat and gynaecologist; fluent in five languages including Italian, French and English.
In 1977, at the height of those hedonistic times, Beard re-issued The End Of The Game with an additional chapter entitled Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend, containing dozens of mostly aerial photographs of the disintegrating carcasses of elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo national park.
Some 30,000 elephants are believed to have died of starvation in just three years after misguided conservationists decided that keeping the great beasts confined to one place would protect the species more than allowing them to roam in conflict with man. Elephants feed by knocking down trees – which provide otherwise impossible-to-reach food for other species – before lumbering on. By confining them to one place the elephants effectively destroyed their own food supply and had nowhere else to go . . . the landscape turned into a vast dustbowl and millions of creatures died.
The additional chapter contained no text, just 40 pages of stark images, but in a re-issue a decade later Beard included an afterword where he explained: “In the 1977 edition . . . it seemed politically unwise to include details of the conservation efforts that had paradoxically led to the die-off”.
Beard’s reputation – for good and bad – continued to grow. A notorious spendthrift, and often broke despite his fortune, he frequently paid long-standing bills with pieces of his art and suffered a devastating blow when his second home in The Hamptons was destroyed by a fire that also consumed a priceless collection of work by him as well as several pieces by Warhol, Bacon and Dali.
With his matinee-idol good looks and prodigious appetite for beautiful women, drugs and alcohol, Beard cut a larger than life figure wherever he went. Awaiting surgery for a shoulder injury after being beaten up by bouncers at a New York nightclub, he asked the anesthesiologist “can I have some of that to go”, while a 1996 Vanity Fair interview famously tells of him emerging from his Hog Ranch tent in a fog of marijuana smoke accompanied by five Ethiopian girls.
“We were very cozy,” he said, adding: “It’s such a waste, sleep. You’re just lying there.”
Although he married for a final time in 1986, he was frequently estranged from Nejma until a decade later when he narrowly escaped death after being trampled and gored by an elephant while filming a documentary. Doctors gave him almost no chance of surviving, but like an old tusker he pulled through.
Friends say the incident changed him for good.
In the midst of a messy divorce, he and Nejma reconciled and she began exerting a greater influence on his affairs, determined to secure his legacy as well as win greater critical recognition for his art. With major retrospectives in New York and Europe this year, The End Of The Game is again being re-issued with previously unseen new material and is expected to be another publishing sensation.
Fifty years on, Beard appears like the elephants whose demise he chronicled, one of the last magnificent bulls living on the edge of the herd.
“Peter is not a commercial person, that’s his beauty and that’s his downfall,” said Iman in Vanity Fair. “He’s an artist; but he does not live in society; he does not play by their rules. He’s like a wild animal. He would rather have grand disasters than a mediocre life.”
Now the same age at which his idol Blixen died, Beard’s introduction to the original edition seems even more apt: “Nature has seen to it that individuals die but species and cycles live on. Death is the patiently awaited, unfeared fact of delicately poised African life.”