Thursday, November 1, 2012

An Amazing Woman

Being a long-time educator, I always like to give little quizzes (Who got my last blog’s question right?).  This week’s quiz is perfect for this blog.  It is about a writer.

To whom was Ernest Hemingway referring when he wrote the following?  And what was the name of the book?

Ernest Hemingway
“She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.  I felt I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished for the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen.  But this girl who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers…it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

How’s that for a blurb?  I’d pay a lot for that.

Some more clues:  Her maiden name was Clutterbuck. She was married three times.  She had more affairs than quills on a porcupine.  She was best known for something she didn’t do.  If it wasn’t for a restaurateur, she would have died in poverty.  And if it wasn’t for the fact that the restaurateur read Hemingway’s blurb about 40 years after her best-known book was written, none of us would have known about her.

My aunt, who knew her, said of her that when she walked into a room, everyone knew it.  She had that sort of charisma.

She is represented in another famous book as a character called Felicity.

And had it not been for a premonition by her flight instructor, she would have died on the fatal flight that killed her lover, who had previously been the lover of the author who called her Felicity.

Sounds like quite a gal!

It is really difficult to keep track of her bedfellows, who included the son of George V of England.
As I’m sure you guessed, I am talking about Beryl Cutterbuck --- I mean Beryl Markham --- to whose bestseller, West with the Night, Hemingway was referring.
Beryl Markham
Markham was born in England and raised in Kenya, where on attaining adulthood, became part of the dashing crowd of Happy Valley.  She was a noted horse trainer, aviatrix, and bon vivant.
Many people think that she was the first person to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.  But that is not correct.  She was the first woman to accomplish that daunting feat – in September 1936.  She had hoped to make it to New York, but a frozen fuel line in her Vega Gull aircraft caused to crash on Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia.  She survived.

Her book, West with the Night, was very well received when it was released in 1942, but soon went out of print and sank into obscurity.  Until 1982, when a restaurateur in California, George Gutekinst, read what Hemingway had to say of Markham.  Gutekinst fell in love with West with the Night, and all the associated stories.  He persuaded a publisher in California to re-release the book, which became a huge success after a PBS documentary that he produced, called World without Walls: Beryl Markham’s African Memoir.

Karen Blixen
She was found in Nairobi, in poverty and badly beaten from a robbery.  The proceeds from the book allowed her to live in comfort for the remaining three years of her remarkable life.

To wrap up a couple of loose ends:  The fatal flight I mentioned earlier that she did not go on, killed Denys Finch Hatton, who was previously Karen Blixen's lover (she of Out of Africa fame).  In the book Out of Africa, Markham is represented by the tomboy, Felicity.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there.  There are serious questions as to whether Markham ever wrote West with the Night.  One of the reasons people question her authorship is the very different style and quality of her other writings, in particular A Splendid Outcast.  There are several contenders as to who may have either written the book or contributed substantially to it.  All of them seem to have been her lovers, the most interesting of whom was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, of the Little Prince fame
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Boy, did this lass get around!

Anyway, I would hate for truth to get in the way of this great story.  I think that Markham was an extraordinary person in all aspects of her life.  And West with the Night is a wonderfully written book about an amazing adventure. It is a great read.

Stan - Thursday


  1. I heard it was the other way around, Stan, that she wrote their books! Fascinating story of a life so well-lived for the most part, that I cannot help but wonder how she viewed it in her moments alone, away from the wild times and accolades.

  2. Stan, I agree with Jeff about Markham's private thoughts, even though they were doubtless dulled by drink. Not certain how to feel about her not writing WWTN. As you know, I am in the middle of it in my research for the African series. It is a dream to read, and like many and better before me, I have marveled at her writing style. It is wonderful to fly with her over the Serengeti.

  3. Annamaria, did I suggest that you read Elspeth Huxley's mysteries? And Flame Trees of Thika? And Something of Value?

  4. Yes. Yes. And no. I have the Flame Trees of Thika. Her mysteries are hard to come by, even in the remarkable NYPL. I will put Something of Value on the list. Thank you, Mr. Muse!