“I like things that don’t look like you’re in control. It´s like life itself, you just learn how to benefit from accidents and chances that you take.”
– Peter Beard
This article has been a long time coming because Peter Beard is truly one of my biggest inspirations and favorite artists. A year before his death, I had the great fortune of visiting him in his home in Montauk. Below, I have added some pictures from this most special of experiences. I am so excited to finally share a little bit of his life story and work with you as this month’s cover story.
Beard was one of the most adventurous and visionary artists of the 21st century. “Peter Pan, Lord Byron, Tarzan, Casanova, Saint-Exupéry’s Petit Prince, Ernest Hemingway: All have been invoked to describe Beard. But there is no template for an original like Beard, who possessed an insatiable appetite for drugs and danger. His art was sometimes overshadowed by his attention-getting exploits, antics that should be considered “dust in the lion’s paw,” according to the writer and Beard friend Paul Theroux. The precincts that entranced him, and formed his lifelong work, were Africa and women.” (read full article here)
Peter Beard is very well known for his diaries and scrapbooks, where he often compiled hundreds of little snapshots, clippings, remnants of his life, text, paint, and, at times, even blood. His collage below in a crocodile’s mouth is one of his most famous. “While waiting for a plane to arrive the next day, Beard asked Graham to take a picture of him, writing in his 1966 diary, in the giant animal’s mouth. Unluckily for Beard, the crocodile went into rigor mortis and twisted Beard’s leg. Despite the incident, Beard successfully created this now beloved self-portrait.”
Peter Beard was born in New York in 1938, the son of two very distinguished American families. He grew up between New York City, Alabama, and Long Island and eventually went to study at Yale University, switching from Pre-Med to Art History.
Beard started his career as a fashion photographer, but his images of Africa truly put him on the map. “Africa was his lodestar and he riffed on its ecstatic beauty and deterioration throughout his life. Captivated by Isak Dinesen’s rendering in her book Out of Africa, Beard traveled to her native Denmark in 1961 to meet her. So impressed was she with Beard, Dinesen paved the way for him to buy about 45 acres outside Nairobi adjacent to her former coffee plantation. He named it Hog Ranch for the roaming warthogs.”
“The entire ecology of the elephant is more similar to us than any other animal. What have they done to their habitat? They ate it, they trampled it, they died. You think we’d take a hint from their demise.” – Peter Beard
Photographer Guillaume Bonn, says, “Hog Ranch was like Andy Warhol’s Factory or the literary salon of Nairobi, where everybody dropped in for drinks and little canapés beginning at 6 p.m. when the giraffes stopped by to feed.”
He also, famously, discovered the supermodel Iman one day as she walked down the street in Nairobi. Never mind the fact that Iman, the daughter of a Somali diplomat, spoke five languages and studied political science—Beard introduced her to an agent at Wilhelmina Models and then spun a tall tale for the press about how he’d found her herding cattle in the African wilds.
Beard was very well known for his love of excesses and was no stranger to drugs, alcohol, and enticing women. He photographed many of them in his beloved Africa. I am quoting the beginning of one of my favorite articles African Dreamer, written by Leslie Bennett for Vanity Fair in 1996:
The first day of my visit to Hog Ranch, Beard finally ambles out of his tent in early afternoon to begin the day. He is clad only in his usual kikoi, a colorful saronglike loincloth. His torso is sinewy and nut-brown, with not an ounce of extra flesh, and he looks surprisingly fresh for someone who stayed out until five A.M. Apparently, after I begged off at two A.M. to get some sleep, Beard stopped in at the Carnivore, a local hangout whose menu features zebra and ostrich and crocodile as well as a diverse array of Nairobi night crawlers. It isn’t until the Ethiopian girls begin to wander out of his tent that I realize he didn’t come home alone.
As more girls appear, I finally ask, “How many of them are there?”
Beard shrugs. “Four or five.”
“Did they all sleep in your bed?”
Beard nods, grinning.
“Wasn’t it crowded?”
“We were very cozy.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“It’s such a waste, sleep,” he says dismissively. “You’re just lying there.”
He was married three times. His first brief marriage was to Minnie Cushing, his second to model Cheryl Tiegs and his third and last to Nejma Khanum in 1986. They had a daughter together – Zara – for whom he wrote Zara´s Tales.
Although married various times, he was notoriously unfaithful to all of them and known to be extremely moody (he was diagnosed as bipolar) and elusive.
“In September 1996, Beard was trampled by a female elephant concerned about the safety of her young calf. She crushed his pelvis and pierced his bladder and hip. Bonn, filming for the documentary, caught the accident on tape. As a broken Beard was carried into the back seat of a car, he quipped to Cottar, “my days of screwing are over.” Perhaps not, but he would spend the rest of his life in pain.
When Beard returned to New York for further hospitalization and physical rehabilitation, he reunited with Nejma, and any divorce plans were called off.”
“It does the heart good to see what nature has made available to us. Beauty takes space, it takes things that work. I like being in touch with what’s out there.” – Peter Beard
On the afternoon of March 31, 2020 Beard, who was suffering from dementia and ill health after a stroke, wandered away from his Montauk, Long Island home. Despite exhaustive searches he was not found.
On April 19, Beard’s body was found by a hunter in a densely wooded area in Camp Hero State Park in Montauk Point, New York.
“Our children will never know what could have been seen in this generation, and we’re just losing more and more, and nobody seems to be interested in changing direction—that’s what bothers me,” Beard said at the 1977 opening of his ICP show. “The march downhill has gone too far, and the speed is getting greater. There’s too much going on at too great a rate: too much growth, too much waste too much speed, too many things.”
He was then asked, somewhat oddly, about a range of heavy subjects, including hope and pessimism, life and death. Beard, unflappable as ever, didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“Remember what Karen Blixen said: ‘Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: That God and the devil are one.’ It’s marvelous that death is an end—what’s the matter with that? We have plenty of time to live; we have plenty of time to have fun and really get into things. I have absolutely no fear of dying—it’s one of the most natural processes there is. It just irritates me that due to our greed and lack of consideration and our stupidity and politics that other creatures have to suffer a fate that we’re all in for prematurely. I just don’t see the point of it, and it irritates me.”
Below some photographs I took in his home in Montauk a year before he died:
This article is a homage to Peter Beard – A true artist and lover of all things beautiful whose work I will always be so grateful for!