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Beryl Markham: Britain's Amelia Earhart

Gavin Mortimer recalls the tragic, scandalous life of Beryl Markham, the first British woman to fly the Atlantic solo

By Gavin Mortimer, The Daily Telegraph

2:51PM GMT 27 Nov 2009

When the English aviatrix Beryl Markham crash-landed her Vega Gull monoplane in a bog on Nova Scotia on 5 September 1936 she became the first woman to fly solo from England to America.

The flight, in appalling conditions, had taken more than 21 hours: she was famished - having taken nothing more than flasks of coffee and chicken sandwiches as sustenance - and exhausted.

The impact of the landing had thrown her against the instrument panel, inflicting a savage cut on her forehead, and she had to trudge for two hours across what she described as 'engulfing mire’ before two fisherman picked her up.

Two days later she arrived in New York to a rapturous greeting from a crowd of more than 5,000. Her flight was described as 'epochal’, and Columbia Pictures presented her with a contract to appear in a film ’portraying her great achievement’.

Amelia Earhart, who had become the first woman to conquer the Atlantic solo, flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1932, professed herself ’delighted beyond words that Mrs Markham should have succeeded in her exploit’.

Markham’s feat was, if anything, more remarkable than Earhart’s, because she flew against the prevailing winds. But Markham has been largely forgotten, while Earhart remains a figure of fascination (she is currently getting the full Hollywood treatment in a biopic starring Hilary Swank).

Markham did not, like Earhart, die a young, heroic death in pursuit of a dream; she lived on to the age of 83, but her story - beset by tragedy and scandal and punctuated by moments of extravagant triumph - reads like something from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel.

Markham was born in Rutland to Charles and Clara Clutterbuck in October 1902. Two years later she moved with her parents and older brother, Richard, to a farm on the western edge of the Rift Valley in Kenya. Richard suffered in the harsh climate, and at the end of 1906 he and his mother returned to England.

Beryl remained with her father, and it was only years later that she found out the real reason for her mother’s flight: she had fallen in love with an army officer serving in east Africa, whom she subsequently married.

Following the officer’s death in action in 1918, Clara returned to Kenya. Mother and daughter established a civil relationship, but Beryl bore the emotional scars of the abandonment for the rest of her life.

A blue-eyed blonde, Markham was nearly 6ft tall. In her excellent biography, Straight on Till Morning: The Life of Beryl Markham (Abacus, £10.99), Mary S Lovell records how one of Markham’s contemporaries described her as ’a magnificent creature very feline. It was like watching a beautiful golden lioness when she walked across the room.’

Markham married three times - each union a disaster - and in between (and during) embarked upon dozens of love affairs, some passionate, some just to pass the time of day.

When Lovell interviewed Markham she asked her if she had been a lover of Bror Blixen, the husband of Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa. Markham replied, ’Good God, no!’ before adding matter-of-factly, ’Of course, I made love with him Sometimes when we were out there [in the bush] there was nothing else to do but make love.’

None of Markham’s husbands shared her mindset and all divorced her for infidelity.

Her conquests throughout the 1920s were legendary. There was Tom, the son of Lord Delamere, who lost his virginity to Markham in a stable; there was the big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton; and there was Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, third in line to the throne. (Markham described the latter as a ’mad little gallop’, though Queen Mary viewed it less frivolously.)

Markham first met the prince in 1928 when he and his brother, Edward, Prince of Wales, came to Kenya on a safari. It mattered to Markham neither that she was married at the time to Mansfield Markham, nor that she was four months pregnant with his son. In 1929 she gave birth in London to a boy and a few weeks later began visiting the prince at Buckingham Palace.

Eventually, the queen found out about the affair and demanded it end. Markham was given an annuity of £15,000 on condition she leave England at once. She handed her son into the care of her parents-in-law and returned to Kenya. Back in Africa, she sought new ways to be entertained, and found it at the controls of an aircraft. She also discovered a handsome flight instructor.

Tom Campbell Black was a veteran of the Royal Air Force. After the war he had come to Kenya to farm, but he soon saw an opportunity to establish the country’s first commercial air service.

By 1931 Black’s company had three pilots and seven aircraft, and Markham was keen to join their number. Black became her flight instructor, then her lover, but one who was different from the rest. He stood no nonsense from her.

In August 1931 Markham gained her pilot’s licence and a year later flew the 6,000 miles to England. She didn’t remain long in London, just enough time to dance at the Dorchester and pay a fleeting call to her three-year-old son.

By the end of the year she had her commercial pilot’s licence and for the next three years earned a good living taking hunters on safari, ferrying doctors to ill settlers and delivering mail to remote mines.

In 1934 Ernest Hemingway came on safari to Kenya and was introduced to Markham. Rumours abounded that he made a pass at her and was rebuffed, an unusual occurrence for both parties. But Markham was in love with Black and, for the first - and only - time in her life, valued fidelity.

In October of that year Black and his fellow aviator Charles Scott won the Londonto-Melbourne race, and Markham scanned the East African Standard each day for a report on the contest. When eventually it appeared her blood ran cold.

Under the heading ’Air Race Romance’, the article described how prior to the race, ’Miss Florence Desmond, the British actress, was asked by Capt Campbell Black to marry him.’ Markham sent a despairing cable to Black asking, ’darling is it true you are to marry florence desmond? please answer stop heartbroken beryl.’ The following year Desmond and Black married.

Markham vowed to win him back. It was only marriage, an obstacle that in her view could be overcome with a bold gesture. In early 1936 she arrived in England to chase Black - and flying records.

Black and Scott’s record three-day flight to Australia was just the latest in a string of feats that stretched back to Charles Lindbergh’s inaugural non-stop flight across the Atlantic, and which included Amelia Earhart’s 1932 achievement of becoming the first woman to traverse the ocean.

That same year had seen the first conquest of the Atlantic in an aeroplane east to west by the Scotsman Jim Mollison, but he had started out from Ireland. Markham wanted to become, not only the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west, but also the first person to take off from England.

At a dinner party in London she explained her ambition to the Irish peer John Carbery. He didn’t believe she was serious, and decided to test her by daring her to fly the Atlantic in the aircraft he was having built for his own use, a monoplane called The Messenger. Markham accepted without hesitation.

On 4 September she took off from Abingdon in Oxfordshire, watched by a horde of reporters, one of whom had been handed a letter by Markham moments before her departure.

It was printed the following morning, when her fate was still unknown. ’I can laugh, love, hate and occasionally fall in at the off-licence to hear the views of my fellow-beings,’ Markham concluded. ’I am neither an innocent girl from the country, nor a city slicker, but an ocean flyer, in embryo. If I can dispense with the last two words I am more than satisfied.’

The flight began badly. She lost her chart of the Atlantic after half an hour, when it was blown through the cockpit window by a gust of wind. As she crossed Ireland a storm buffeted her, and driving rain obscured the visibility.

It was nearly dark when she saw the 2,000 miles of Atlantic ocean stretching before her. She said subsequently she felt no fear, just ’the security of solitude, the exhilaration of escape’.

Even though Markham had refused an inflatable life jacket in preference for a thick winter coat, she was bitterly cold. There was one storm after another, and, as she described later, ’The clouds were lying about in lumps, absolutely in lumps, and poor old Messenger was so sluggishly heavy.’

Just before dawn Markham felt ’tired, cramped and cold’. She reached for her final flask of coffee but the plane was jolted by a blast of wind and the coffee splashed around the cockpit floor. It was the low point of the flight, the only time she felt like bursting into tears.

Daylight revived her morale, however, even though fog concealed her whereabouts. She was now down to the last of her six petrol tanks, but she estimated land was close.

Suddenly, she heard the engine cough and saw the needle on the petrol gauge begin to fall. Markham couldn’t understand why she was out of fuel when she’d brought more than enough to reach New York (mechanics later surmised that ice collected in the air intake of the fuel tank, causing it to fail).

Then, just when it seemed she would have to ditch into the ocean, the fog parted and Markham saw ahead the Newfoundland coast. ’I’ve never seen land so beautiful,’ she said later, as she skimmed the beach and brought down The Messenger in a bog.

Though she had failed to reach New York, Markham had become the first person to fly from England to North America, and the first woman to cross the Atlantic east to west. Her peers saluted her.

However, the praise that pleased Markham most came from Tom Campbell Black, who told reporters, ’Amazing! I thought she’d do it, but the weather, on what is always a tough crossing, seemed appallingly bad.’

But would it prise Black out of the arms of Florence? On 20 September, a few days before Markham was scheduled to sail for England and what she hoped would be a passionate reunion with Black, a friend phoned to tell her he had been killed in an air crash at Liverpool aerodrome. Markham was devastated.

Back in England she struggled to find a purpose. In 1939 she returned to America, took a succession of lovers, married and left her third husband, a hard-drinking writer called Raoul Schumacher, worked as an aviation advisor in Hollywood and wrote an account of her life entitled West with the Night.

It was published in 1942 and disappeared under a torrent of war news.

Eventually, Markham retreated to Africa in 1950. For the next 30 years she lived in Kenya, South Africa and Rhodesia, making a name for herself as one of Africa’s most successful racehorse trainers. She was still winning races in 1982, in her 80th year, but her personal life was as wretched as ever.

She lived alone in a small cottage, an irascible woman who was partial to a drink and found life ’rather boring’. Then in 1982 she received a letter from a George Gutekunst, who introduced himself as a friend of Jack Hemingway, Ernest’s son.

Gutekunst had read Ernest’s correspondence and among the letters was one to his editor in which he described West with the Night as a ’bloody wonderful book’. Gutekunst told Markham he had persuaded a publisher to reissue it. Second time around it was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies and resulting in a television documentary.

With sales of the book in six figures, Markham was suddenly a wealthy woman.

But a happy one? Perhaps that was too much to ask from a woman who, as she revealed to Lovell shortly before her death, never forgot the words a clairvoyant had spoken to her when she was younger: ’You will always be successful, but you will never be happy.’

Reproduced from The Daily Telegraph with permission

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Luftwaffe's Hanna Reitsch
Women in USAAF
Specialist site on Women as Combat Pilots WW1
Beryl Markham - Britain's Amelia Earhart

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