Like many people from my generation I have a few personal heroes to whom I look to for inspiration. I know everyone is flawed and everyone screws up here and there and the hero I want to highlight in this post absolutely did, (for one, she ditched her only child in order to go off and have her amazing life) but, while I couldn’t do it myself, in a hard-to-describe-way that just made her dossier that much more fascinating to me.
Whenever I talk about Beryl Markham—and I do it not infrequently—I always mention the Avocado Farm. In some ways, this seemingly insignificant and certainly boring chapter in the famous aviatrix’s life engages and intrigues me more than any other.
First a little background: Beryl Markham was a British citizen born in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler. Her childhood, depicted briefly in the film “Out of Africa” as the wild-child “Felicity” tearing up the countryside on the outskirts of Isak’s Dinesen’s farm was singular in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that she spent most of her time with the Nandi natives training to be a young male warrior. Her mother, horrified at what she considered primitive conditions in 1904 Kenya, fled back to England, but little Beryl wouldn’t budge. She was beautiful as all great heroines must be, strong-minded and smart. A natural with horses, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. Her lovers included Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s husband, Denys Finch-Hatton, Dinesen’s lover, and Prince Henry, brother of King George VI. She learned to fly with Tom Campbell Black (both Finch-Hatton and Black died in plane crashes) and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight which she did in spite of prevailing Atlantic winds, fog and almost total darkness.
On top of all that, she wrote a book. An amazing book. “West with the Night.” To give you an idea of her ability as a writer—up to this point undiscovered—here is a comment on the book in 1942 from Earnest Hemingway—notoriously sparse with literary praise:
“I knew (Markham) fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant…can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.”
So I hope I’ve set the stage for you to see what an astonishingly incredible person Markham was. A super nova in every sense of the word. Which is why the Avocado Farm stage always intrigues me to the point that I cannot let it go. I keep mulling it over and trying to make it fit into her biography—and maybe my own?
You see, after Beryl had done all these amazing things and was a mega-celebrity on all continents worth mentioning, she married Raoul Schumacher and moved to California where the pair ran an avocado ranch. Mary S. Lovell’s book “Straight On Till Morning” says that she and Raoul spent their days drinking and watching the avocados grow. After years of intense international celebrity, of partying hard with the famous and the infamous and filling world headlines with her world-firsts accomplishments, she spent what we might consider today to be her peak years drinking herself to sleep every night and staring into space for nearly ten full years. She didn’t party or socialize. She didn’t do anything except fight with her third husband and drink.
In 1952 she left the avocados and the third husband and returned to Kenya. She started raising and training horses, and from 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes. Before she died in 1986 at the age of 84, West with the Night was republished and became an instant best-seller.
So, okay. Back to the Avocado Farm. What was that? Do we all have a period in our lives where we’re growing avocados before we get back to being amazing? Or, as I suspect with my own biography, are our whole lives one big avocado farm with a few interrupting glimmers of awesomeness peeking through here and there?