Saturday, October 10, 2009

One of Our Favorite Heroes: Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham (26 October 1902 - 3 August 1986), was a British-born Kenyan horse trainer and adventurer. She was a record-breaking aviatrix in the pioneer days of aviation, and is primarily remembered as the author of the memoir West with the Night.

Beryl Markham was born Beryl Clutterbuck on October 26, 1902, in the village of Ashwell, in the county of Rutland, England, the daughter of Charles and Clara Clutterbuck. When she was four years old, her father moved the family to Kenya, which was then British East Africa, purchasing a farm in Njoro near the Great Rift Valley. Although her mother disliked the isolation and promptly returned to England, Beryl stayed in Kenya with her father, where she spent an adventurous childhood learning, playing and hunting with the natives. On her family's farm, she developed a knowledge of, and love for horses. As a young adult, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya.

Impetuous, single-minded and beautiful, Markham was a noted non-conformist, even in a colony known for its colourful eccentrics. She married three times, but accounts of her life indicate that she was not a faithful spouse. Her unconcealed 1929 affair with the Duke of Gloucester, the son of George V, led her husband's brother, Sir Charles Markham, to threaten the British Royal Family with naming the prince in an embarrassing divorce suit. The Windsors promptly cut the romance short; Beryl was bought off with a capital trust of £15,000 from the Duke's own funds, from which she drew a modest annuity for the rest of her life.

She befriended the Danish writer Karen Blixen during the years that Blixen was managing her family's coffee farm in the Ngong hills outside Nairobi. (In the film rendering of Blixen's memoir, Out of Africa, Markham is represented by an outspoken, horse-riding tomboy named Felicity.) When Blixen's romantic connection with the hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton was winding down, Markham started an affair with him herself. He invited her to tour game lands on what turned out to be his fatal flight, but Markham declined because of a premonition from her flight instructor, Tom Campbell Black. Sara Wheeler, in her biography of Finch Hatton, notes that she believes stories that Markham was pregnant by him at the time of his crash.

Largely inspired by the British pilot Tom Campbell Black, with whom she had a long-term affair, she took up flying. She worked for some time as a bush pilot, spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to safaris on the ground. She also mingled with the notorious Happy Valley set, but was never a full-fledged "member" of the decadent crowd.

Markham is often described as "the first person" to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight, but that record belongs to Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, who attempted to fly from Dublin, Ireland to New York City in 1932. Low visibility forced Mollison down in New Brunswick, Canada, but he was still able to claim the Atlantic east-to-west record (a westbound flight requires more endurance, fuel and time than the eastward journey because the craft must travel against the prevailing Atlantic winds).

When Markham decided to take on the Atlantic crossing, no pilot had yet flown non-stop from Europe to New York, and no woman had made the westward flight solo, though several had died trying. Markham hoped to claim both records. On September 4, 1936, she took off from Abingdon, England. After a 20-hour flight, her Vega Gull, The Messenger, suffered fuel starvation due to icing of the fuel tank vents, and she crash-landed in Baleine on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia (her flight was, in all likelihood, almost identical in length to Mollison's). In spite of falling short of her goal, Markham had become the first woman to cross the Atlantic east-to-west solo, and the first person to make it from England to North America non-stop. She was celebrated as an aviation pioneer.

Markham chronicled her many adventures in her memoir, West with the Night, published in 1942. Despite strong reviews in the press, the book sold modestly, and then quickly went out of print. After living for many years in the United States, Markham moved back to Kenya in 1952, becoming for a time the most successful horse trainer in the country.

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