Beryl Markham didn’t get a hero’s welcome when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic east to west-she crash-landed on what looked like a safe, green field, but was actually a rock-strewn peat bog. She got out of her battered plane with a gashed head and trudged through the muck for hours before she found someone who could help her.
Her flight, against the prevailing winds, was seven hours longer – and tougher – than Amelia Earhart’s opposite flight four years earlier. No one had yet flown non-stop from Europe to New York, though several people had perished in the attempt, and Markham had her sights on the record. But after about 20 hours of coffee- and chicken-sandwich-sustained sleepless navigation, her fuel tank vents froze, choking off fuel from the engine and forcing her to crash land her Vega Gull nose-first in Nova Scotia.
Wandering exhausted through the bog and thinking she would probably die, she came across local fishermen, and explained who she was. After calling to report her crash and having her wounds treated, she flew to New York, where Mayor Fiorello Laguardia finally gave her the hero’s welcome motorcade through Manhattan.
“It was a great adventure, but I’m so glad it’s over,” she told news reporters. “I really had a terrible time. That’s the only word for it: terrible. Fifteen seconds more and I believe my aeroplane and I would have gone down on the water and no one would have ever known what became of us.”
A rough-and-tumble young tomboy, Markham grew up playing and hunting with her native neighbors in colonial Kenya where her father had settled the family. Her aristocratic mother had a rough time adjusting to the settler’s life and returned to England when Markham was young, leaving her to be raised by her father’s African house servants, who taught Markham their dialects and how to hunt with a spear. It was there she developed a lifelong habit of going barefoot whenever she had the chance, as well as a deep instinct for survival, whether in the wild or among society.
Her father trained racehorses, and the highlight of her days growing up was working the stables with him. At 18, when her bankrupt father returned to England, Markham took over training the racehorses he left behind. But it wasn’t long before flight lured her. She became the first female commercially licensed pilot in East Africa, which required her to be capable of completely stripping and repairing her own engine. She flew around Africa – even in the dark – with no radio or air-speed indicator, eventually working as an aerial game spotter for big game hunters and carrying mail and ferrying people to remote regions where a crash landing would mean a life-and-death fight against thirst, hunger, and wild animals. Even in town, villagers had to keep an eye out for predatory felines.
A striking blue-eyed blonde with a statuesque figure, Markham drew a slew of admirers and used her looks to her advantage, rolling with a notoriously licentious crew in Kenya and England. Marrying three times and carrying on unabashedly public affairs, Markham managed to keep up a glamorous lifestyle despite being relentlessly broke herself. During golden age of flight, she had flings with various flying aces, eventually embarking on her own record cross-Atlantic flight.
By the 1940s, Markham had made such a name for herself that she was invited to consult on a film in Hollywood, where she met Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who eventually became a lover and helped her write her memoir, “West With the Night.” Ernest Hemingway probably didn’t know that when he wrote that her book was so marvelously well written, he was ashamed of himself as a writer. However, his impression of her writing didn’t change his opinion that she was a “high-grade bitch.” Reportedly, when they were on safari in Africa, she had refused to sleep with him. Clearly, she was a woman who succeeded going against expectations.
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