Capturing photographer, adventurer, author, wildlife preservationist and international playboy Peter Beard (1938-2020) in words is like catching lightning in a bottle. Friend and intimate to Cheryl Tiegs, Candice Bergen, Lee Radziwill, Frances Bacon, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, Beard also befriended Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) late in her life and, inspired by her, lived in Africa for many years. When his body was found in the woods near his home in Montauk two weeks ago, Gary Lippman recalled some memorable occasions with the charmingly elusive artist
In her classic 1937 memoir Out of Africa, the Danish author Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen) mentions Lightly Come, Lightly Go, a compilation of unusual gambling stories from the early 20th Century. I thought of this gambling book’s title when I read this week of the death of my acquaintance Peter Beard. The body of the celebrated photographer/adventurer (“half Tarzan, half Byron,” in Bob Colacello’s memorable phrase) had been found near his home in Montauk, New York, after he’d gone missing more than two weeks earlier. In their public statement, his longtime wife Nejma and his adult daughter Zara wrote, “He died where he lived—in nature.”
Although the handsome and debonair Beard, born to WASP privilege, gained notoriety in the 1960s as a substance-favoring hedonist and international playboy—his previous wives and lovers included the heiress Minnie Cushing, the model Cheryl Tiegs, the film star Candice Bergen, and Jackie O.’s socialite sister Lee Radziwill—he was also a serious person and serious artist, racking up decades of meaningful accomplishments.
Having read Out of Africa as a young man, Beard sought out its author in Denmark not long before her death, befriended and photographed her, and wound up buying property and living in rural Kenya near Blixen’s former coffee plantation. From his Hog Ranch, Beard pioneered his own brands of fashion and wildlife photography and created a sui generis creative form with his gorgeous and fascinating visual “diaries,” where images were drawn from every imaginable source and animal blood, or the author’s own, were used when ink wasn’t deemed expressive enough.
Meanwhile, Beard became an ardent though pessimistic “preservationist” (he disliked the word “conservationist,” saying “Conservation is for guilty people on Park Avenue with poodles and Pekingeses”) and wrote a few memorable books about Africa, including The End of the Game (1965) and one for young adults (specifically, his daughter).
Throughout his life, he expressed a dark philosophical outlook, musing in one documentary made about him in 1996, “During the three hundred million years of the dinosaurs, what was the meaning of life? I think it’s always been biological. We have imposed upon (life) human viewpoints, which are essentially propaganda. We want to be above biology, above nature. We want to be ‘human,’ with a lot of self-aggrandizing myths like ‘created in the image of God,’ ‘life everlasting’—just a lot of things that are intended to make us behave better…(But) I believe in the dinosaurs. I believe in Australopithecus. I believe in the apes…They were real.”
Meanwhile, he published volumes of his photography. He designed the baroque cover of Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk. With a typically whimsical rollout, he introduced the model Iman to the world. His 40th birthday party was held at Studio 54. And he socialized with a coterie of friends who included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and the great English painter Francis Bacon, who painted multiple portraits of Beard. In turn, Beard liked to quote Bacon: “There are two things in life that are sure, birth and death. And in between is basically a meaningless period of time that is as good as what you make out of it.”
Asked in one interview how he characterized his profession, Beard called himself “an escapist.” What elements he was escaping from remains an open question, but there’s no doubt that he fled with a vengeance into his work, into bodily pleasures, and into a romantic dream of Africa. Perhaps, as many have noted, his life was his truest art, and he lived it quite dangerously, leading visitors on perilous tours of the bush, fighting off poachers on his land, getting into trouble with difficult local authorities, photographing himself writing in his diary while buried up to the waist inside the long-toothed mouth of a (presumably dead) crocodile, and barely surviving a vicious elephant attack in 1996. Apparently, the reality of Africa proved more difficult to escape into than the dream had been.
For all of Beard’s wildness, there was a courtliness about him. Yes, he harbored some unfashionable, even objectionable opinions—and blithely conveyed them to journalists—yet he could be, according to many friends and associates, a gentlemen. And for all of Beard’s worldliness, there was a surprising innocence about the man, an irrepressible boyish enthusiasm that went part and parcel with his recklessness and irresponsibility. To be sure, those negative qualities could infuriate his intimates, but they delighted others, especially in small doses.
Beard called himself “an escapist.” What elements he was escaping from remains an open question, but there’s no doubt that he fled with a vengeance into his work, into bodily pleasures, and into a romantic dream of Africa.
It was Beard’s innocence, his enthusiasm, his jeu d’esprit, that made me think of the book title Lightly Come, Lightly Go when I learned of his death. One got the sense with this man that if things went his way, cool, but if they didn’t, well, that would have to be cool, too. (To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, “Things arise and you let them come; things disappear and you let them go.”) I only spent a few times socializing with Beard—and these times were toward the end of his life, when he was plainly “a lion in winter”—but his “lightness” was unmistakable each time.
By the time I first met Beard, in the early ‘90s, I had already read his book The End of the Game and knew some people who in turn knew him, including a Dutch photographer, a Parisian dentist, a German painter, and a young man nicknamed “Jungle Georges.” I was also well aware of Beard’s reputation as a rake. Still, this awareness did not prepare me for the night when Beard and I ended up going together from a benefit for Tanzania to the benefit’s after-party at a then-fashionable Soho nightclub called Buddha Bar. Because Beard was being so convivial with me, and because I’d bought one of his artworks at the benefit that night, I assumed we’d share some cocktails and have a powwow at the club. Beard, however, made different plans as soon as he caught sight of a banquet full of attractive young women.
After affably wishing me well, he walked directly to that table, like an arrow shot toward a bull’s-eye, introduced himself to everyone there, asked if he could join them, and later left the place with two or three of the women, his arms around their shoulders, while I sat alone at the bar, watching in envy. Envy, but not enmity, because, hey, how can you hate a pure force of nature?
The next time our paths crossed was in the spring of 2013, when a mutual acquaintance invited my Hungarian girlfriend Vera and me to join her with Beard for dinner at a restaurant near his apartment on West 57th Street in Manhattan. I remember the details of this night fairly well because I keep my own diary, and wrote everything down (in ink, not blood) the next morning.
My first thought on saying hello to Beard was that the years had had their way with him as they’d had with me: his hip was still bad from that ‘90s elephant attack, his posture was a bit stooped, and, he was quick to inform us, his general health was shaky.
As we got talking, Beard said that he found Vera’s lips beautiful, complimented her frilly elegant white blouse, and compared her earrings, which were made from dried fire-engine-red Magyar paprikas, to a dish he enjoyed at the restaurant Nobu. He also announced, as we finished our meal, that he had no money to pay with, but he seemed unembarrassed about this, it was just how it was, and he invited us back to his home because he said he wanted to photograph Vera. Then he added that he wanted to shoot me, too, because of the outlandishly colorful Moods of Norway blazer I was wearing. Even though I assumed he only said this to put me at ease because of all the attention he was paying to my girlfriend, he kept talking about how cool my jacket looked, and in time I came to believe him. That boyish enthusiasm seemed genuine.
In Beard’s cluttered multi-room apartment, he introduced us to his daughter and then gave us a tour of the place in earnest, behaving like a proud museum docent as he showed us elephant tusks, Egyptian sculpture, and the hospital bed in his room, necessary because of his lingering infirmities.
While following Beard from one room to another, I stumbled over a framed painting, or the print of a painting, that was leaning against a piece of sofa. When I glanced down at the object, I realized with surprise that it was an original work of Francis Bacon. When I expressed surprise at this, Beard said something like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been meaning to hang that somewhere around here.” Leaving the framed work on the ground next to the sofa, he began to speak about Bacon, saying that they had gone together to Bacon’s favorite watering hole in London’s Soho, the infamous “Muriel’s Colony Club.” I asked what the Colony Club had been like, but all Beard would say about the place was that it was “a dump.” He did reminisce about Warhol, though, saying, “Andy was better with people when it was one-on-one. He got quiet in groups.”
As we sat beside Beard on a sofa, he leafed through a big coffee-table book of his work, explaining how he made various photographs and diary entries. Eventually he shifted to his personal scrapbook, where original photographs were stuck among the pages. When Vera or I said we liked one piece or another, Beard said, “Do you want it? I guess you can have it. Take it—it’s a gift.” Tempting as this was, I had heard that his wife Nejma was growing frustrated with his habit of giving away his expensive works as gifts to acquaintances, or else to settle restaurant tabs, and so, much as we wanted to accept those offerings, we felt this wouldn’t be ethical of us and politely declined.
I realized with surprise that it was an original work of Francis Bacon. When I expressed surprise at this, Beard said something like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been meaning to hang that somewhere around here.
Now it was time to get to work. “I really must take pictures of you,” he told us. In his living room, he instructed me on how to tilt a standing lamp in order to light Vera properly, then he gave her instructions on how to sit and where to look, managing her poses and expressions and gestures gently yet firmly, the way a film director would wrangle an actor.
“Move your chin up,” he’d tell Vera, moving around the room with my BlackBerry cameraphone, clicking its shutter every few seconds, and then he’d turn to me and say, “More light on her face.”
Once Beard had finally gotten the all the images of Vera he wanted, it was my turn. “I want to shoot you in that blazer you’re wearing,” he declared, and, switching now to his own camera, he began to photograph me in various poses. (Funny how, with me, he was no longer so interested in getting the lighting just right.) Then he said, “Wait, I want to show you something,” disappeared for a few minutes, and returned wearing a Hawaiian shirt which, he excitedly told us, complemented my own jacket. “Here,” he said to Vera, handing her his camera as well as my phone, “make sure you get us standing together in these outfits.”
Once those shots were completed, he asked his daughter to take photographs of all of us together. And finally, although the hour was late, Beard proposed we go to his friend’s art gallery, which would still be open for us to visit. In fact, a small party would be happening there.
During the cab ride downtown, I spoke about “Jungle Georges,” the friend of mine and Beard’s who’d been raised in Kenya. From what I’d heard, Georges’ father had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II as well as Salvador Dali’s psychoanalyst. (Imagine that gig). His mother was even more exotic: a Sorbonne professor who’d gone to Kenya after her husband died in order to study the Masai culture. While there, she fell in love with a Masai warrior and soon moved herself and her children to live with the Masai.
“What’s Georges doing now?” Beard asked me.
“Last word I got, he’s a bush pilot in Kenya or Tanzania. My friend Julie Jo visited him years ago and—if I’m recalling this story right—one day he put her on a little plane with a pilot he knew, a guy who started drinking booze before he even took off. When Julie asked him if he thought that was a good idea, to imbibe while piloting a plane, he explained, ‘I’ve survived three plane crashes which killed other people—so if I can’t drink, I refuse to fly.’ ”
From the front seat of our taxi, where Beard had insisted on riding, he chuckled at my story, and grew more chatty as we crossed 14th Street. Beard remembered meeting the beastly Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin at a UN conference in the late 70s—“I gave him a copy of one of my books”—and he spoke grimly about elephant extinctions, saying that only South Africa had good conservation practices at that time. When I asked about other wildlife extinctions and ecological crises, he grew downright dark, saying that there was no chance to save anything of value.
“It’s just too late,” he concluded.
Once we arrived at the art gallery, where some of Beard’s works were on display, he grew exuberant again and led us from image to image, pointing out various details. He signed one of his works with a quote from Gauguin. But when I asked about technical aspects of photography, he demurred, saying that a certain ex-assistant of his really understood camera technology whereas he “prefers the subject rather than the technological stuff.”
Pizza was ordered. At one point, someone at the gallery mentioned needing to use “the powder room,” and Beard turned to us and said something amusingly quaint: “In the old days, when women said they needed to ‘powder their noses,’ they meant they wanted to snort cocaine.”
Around 3am, Vera and I decided to call it a night, and Beard wrote his address and home phone number for us on some scrap paper I had with me. (He said he didn’t use a cell phone or email.) He wrote in a very precise way, concentrating hard as he formed the letters. Once he finished, he handed me back my pen.
“If you’d like it, Peter, just keep it,” I said.
He thanked me and said no, he didn’t need it. But then he paused to think about this offer and at last decided that, yes, he would keep it, after all. As we turned to go, he asked if he could share a cab with us and be dropped off back at his apartment building. “Sure,” I said. But then a couple at the gallery mentioned that they were going to an afterhours nightclub, and Beard looked indecisive for a moment before deciding he’d rather go with them instead of going home.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.
“Of course not,” I said, shaking his hand goodbye, and I thought, He might be a lion in winter, I thought, but he’s still a lion, with vitality to spare. Besides, why would this so-called “escapist” go home when he could move on to another party? And as we walked out of the gallery, we overheard Beard telling his friends that he would need them to give him cab fare home later that night as well as a tip for his building’s doorman. Escapism costs money, of course, and Beard seemed to have no problem cajoling people into providing it.
I spoke with the man a few times by telephone after that, and he sounded a tad more formal than he had in person—the WASP formality coming through, I thought—but we met again a few months later, on the day that Vera and I got married at City Hall. After the ceremony and a dinner with friends, the two of us took a celebratory evening walk around Soho, only a few blocks from where Beard and I had arrived together at the Buddha Bar twenty years before. On hearing that he was currently doing some print-work nearby, we stopped by to visit him, and he was as amiable, as “light,” as ever. He was clearly focused on the work he was doing, work we’d interrupted, but Beard didn’t appear to mind speaking with us.
He might be a lion in winter, I thought, but he’s still a lion, with vitality to spare. Besides, why would this so-called “escapist” go home when he could move on to another party?
Almost in a boastful tone, he mentioned that he’d recently suffered a mini-stroke, which surprised us: he seemed undiminished in his energy and enthusiasm. And when we mentioned that we were “just married” earlier that day, he grinned and said to me, “Well, give me your camera-phone.” So there we were again, posing for Beard as he congratulated us by shooting on my BlackBerry an impromptu series of wedding photos. He didn’t praise my attire this time, and he didn’t break out a Hawaiian shirt of his own, but he really got into the process for a few moments.
“Wow,” we said when it was finished. “Thanks, Peter!”
“Sure,” he said, wanting to take a peek at how the pictures had turned out. He studied them carefully before nodding his head. “Are they okay?”
Then he glanced back at the prints that lay spread out before him, his latest art to work on, and after smiling at us once more, Beard escaped into the next pleasure to be had.
A short, beautiful film about Peter Beard by Derek Peck: