Beryl Markham

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Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham 1936.jpg
Beryl Markham in 1936
Born Beryl Clutterbuck
26 October 1902
Ashwell, Rutland,
United Kingdom
Died 3 August 1986(1986-08-03) (aged 83)
Nairobi, Kenya, Africa
Occupation Writer, pilot, horse trainer
Notable works West with the Night

Beryl Markham (née Clutterbuck, 26 October 1902 – 3 August 1986) was a British-born Kenyan aviator (one of the first bush pilots), adventurer, racehorse trainer and author. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She wrote about her adventures in her memoir, West with the Night.

Early years[edit]

Markham was born in the village of Ashwell, in the county of Rutland, England, the daughter of Charles Baldwin Clutterbuck, an accomplished horse trainer, and Clara Agnes (née Alexander) Clutterbuck (1878–1952).[1] She had an older brother, Richard Alexander "Dickie" Clutterbuck (1900–1927). When she was four years old, her father moved the family to Kenya, which was then colonial British East Africa. He purchased a farm in Njoro near the Great Rift Valley, and worked for Hugh Cholmondeley. Although her mother disliked the isolation there and promptly returned to England, Markham stayed in Kenya with her father, where she spent an adventurous childhood learning, playing, and hunting with the local children. Later, after both women had spent time back in England, Markham and her mother — now Kirkpatrick — found themselves again in Kenya, living near each other in the small expatriate community. Markham would greet her two new half-brothers, but never quite forgave her mother.

On her family's farm, she developed her knowledge of and love for horses. Barely an adult, she became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya and rapidly became a successful and renowned figure among the racing community of Kenya.

Impetuous, single-minded and beautiful, Markham was admired and described as a noted non-conformist, even in a colony known for its colourful eccentrics. She was married three times, taking the name Markham from her second husband, the wealthy Mansfield Markham, with whom she had a son, Gervase. She is believed to have had an openly public affair in 1929 with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the son of George V, but the Windsors allegedly cut the romance short. She also had an affair with Hubert Broad, who was later named by Mansfield Markham as a co-respondent in his 1937 divorce from Beryl.[2] After her Atlantic crossing, she returned to be with Broad, who was also a great influence in her flying career.

She befriended the Danish writer Karen Blixen during the years that Baroness Blixen was managing her family's coffee farm in the Ngong hills outside Nairobi. When Blixen's romantic connection with the hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton was winding down, Markham started her own affair with him. He invited her to tour game lands on what turned out to be his fatal flight, but Markham supposedly declined because of a premonition of her flight instructor, British pilot Tom Campbell Black.[3] Sara Wheeler, in her biography of Finch Hatton, points out in a footnote that "There is no proof..." of rumors that Markham was ever pregnant with Finch Hatton's child.[4]

Largely inspired by Tom Campbell Black, with whom she had a long-term affair, Markham took up flying. She worked for some time as a bush pilot, spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to safaris on the ground. She also mingled with the notorious Happy Valley set.

Record flight[edit]

Beryl Markham, circa 1930.
Beryl Markham, circa 1930.

Markham was the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic from east to west. She is often incorrectly described as "the first person" to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight, but that record belongs to Scottish pilot Jim Mollison.[5]

When Markham decided to take on the Atlantic crossing, no pilot had yet flown non-stop from Europe to New York, and no woman had made the westward flight solo, though several had died trying. Markham hoped to claim both records. On 4 September 1936, she took off from Abingdon, England. After a 20-hour flight, her Vega Gull, The Messenger, suffered fuel starvation due to icing of the fuel tank vents, and she crash-landed at Baleine Cove on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada (her flight was, in all likelihood, almost identical in length to Mollison's). In spite of falling short of her goal, Markham had become the first woman to cross the Atlantic east-to-west solo, and the first person to make it from England to North America non-stop from east to west. She was celebrated as an aviation pioneer.[6]

Markham chronicled her many adventures in her memoir, West with the Night, published in 1942. Despite strong reviews in the press, the book sold modestly, and then quickly went out of print.[7] After living for many years in the United States, Markham moved back to Kenya in 1952, becoming for a time the most successful horse trainer in the country.


Markham's memoir lingered in obscurity until 1982, when California restaurateur George Gutekunst read a collection of Ernest Hemingway's letters, including one in which Hemingway lavishly praised Markham's writing (if not Markham herself):

Intrigued, Gutekunst read West with the Night and became so enamored of Markham's prose that he helped persuade a California publisher, North Point Press, to re-issue the book in 1983. The re-release of the book launched a remarkable final chapter in the life of the eighty-year-old Markham, who was lauded for her three final years as a great author as well as flyer.

When found in Kenya by AP East Africa correspondent Barry Shlachter, Markham was living in poverty. She had recently been badly beaten during a burglary at her house near the Nairobi racetrack, where she still trained thoroughbreds.[8] The success of the re-issue of West with the Night provided enough income for Markham to finish her life in relative comfort. Earlier, she had been supported by a circle of friends and owners of race horses she trained into her 80s. The book became a surprising best-seller, spurred by the 1986 broadcast of a public television documentary about Markham's life, World Without Walls: Beryl Markham's African Memoir, produced by Gutekunst, Shlachter, Joan Saffa, Stephen Talbot and Judy Flannery in collaboration with KQED-TV in San Francisco. Gutekunst and Shlachter had approached the station to co-operate on the documentary, directed by Andrew Maxwell-Hyslop. British actress Diana Quick was the voice of Markham in readings from her memoir and Shlachter conducted the interviews. CNN Africa correspondent Gary Streiker did the filming for the well-reviewed, award-winning PBS program.[9]

Markham died in Nairobi in 1986. Her short stories were posthumously collected in The Splendid Outcast, with an introduction by Mary S. Lovell. A tale from West with the Night was excerpted and illustrated by Don Brown as a children's book, The Good Lion. In 1988, CBS aired the biographical miniseries, Beryl Markham: A Shadow on the Sun, with Stefanie Powers in the title role.

Authorship controversy[edit]

Over time, critics raised questions as to whether Markham was the true, or sole author of West with the Night, not least because she never repeated her accomplishment with a second book of similar length, scope or beauty. The writing style has been linked with various writings by Thomas Baker, a contemporary writer also rumored to be her lover. During the rest of her life, she completed only a handful of short stories, collected and published posthumously.

According to Errol Trzebinski in her biography, The Lives of Beryl Markham (1993), her memoir was written by her third husband Raoul Schumacher, a ghost writer and journalist. Trzebinski said that Markham later had an advance from Houghton Mifflin to write a biography about the famous international jockey Tod Sloan, which she and Schumacher intended that he would write. Apparently Schumacher never did, and she was forced to go it alone. The publisher purportedly rejected her manuscript, saying that it was not from the same person who had written West with the Night.[10] But, when interviewed by Shlachter for the 1986 PBS documentary about Markham, Trzebinski had insisted on camera that only a woman could have written her memoir.

Author Mary S. Lovell visited Markham in Nairobi and interviewed her extensively shortly before Markham's death, in preparation for her biography, Straight On Till Morning (1987). She disputes the claim that Schumacher made substantive contributions to West with the Night. From her research, Lovell concluded that Markham was the sole author, although Schumacher edited the manuscript. Instead, Lovell credits Antoine de Saint Exupéry, another of Markham's lovers, with having inspired Markham's clear, elegant language and storytelling style.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the film adaptation of Blixen's memoir, Out of Africa (1985), Markham is represented as an outspoken, horse-riding tomboy named Felicity.
  • 1986, a United States public television documentary about Markham's life, World Without Walls: Beryl Markham's African Memoir, was produced by Gutekunst, Shlachter, Joan Saffa, Stephen Talbot and Judy Flannery in collaboration with KQED-TV.
  • Stefanie Powers portrayed her in a made-for-TV film called Beryl Markham: In The Shadow of the Sun in 1988.
  • In the BBC-TV series, Heat of the Sun (1998), set in 1930s Kenya, the character of Emma Fitzgerald, an independent aviator played by Susannah Harker, appears to be modelled after Markham.
  • A novel written by Paula McLain about Markham's life, "Circling the Sun", was released in 2015.

Legacy and honors[edit]

The International Astronomical Union has named the impact crater Markham, on the planet Venus, after her.


  1. ^ Lovell, Mary S., Straight on Till Morning, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, p. 3
  2. ^ "Divorce Court File: 7428. Appellant: Mansfield Markham. Respondent: Beryl Markham....". Retrieved 11 March 2016. 
  3. ^ Markham, Beryl, West with the Night, North Point Press, 1983, p. 194
  4. ^ Wheeler, Sara, Too Close to the Sun, Random House, 2006, p. 162.
  5. ^ Lovell, Mary S., Straight on Till Morning, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, pp. 162–163
  6. ^ Lovell, Mary S., Straight on Till Morning, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, p. 175
  7. ^ Lovell, Mary S., Straight On Till Morning, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, p. 236
  8. ^ Shlachter, Barry, "A Life of Adventure Rediscovered: Beryl Markham's 1942 Book, Lauded by Hemingway, Reprinted," The Associated Press, "International Herald Tribune," 16 June 1983, Paris.
  9. ^ Mitgang, Herbert [1]"The New York Times", 8 October 1986, and 5 November 1986 CORRECTION."'World Without Walls,' About Beryl Markham".
  10. ^ Trzebinski, Errol. The Lives of Beryl Markham. New York: W.W. Norton. 1993, pp. 258–9. According to Trzebinski, this account was by Scott O'Dell, a close friend of Schumacher, in a 1986 interview with the biographer.
  11. ^ Lovell, Mary S., Straight on Till Morning, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, pp. 218–220


  • Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983 [1942]. ISBN 0-86547-118-5.
  • Lovell, Mary S. Straight on Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham New York: St Martins Press, 1987. ISBN 0-312-01096-6
  • Shlachter, Barry, "A Life of Adventure Rediscovered: Beryl Markham's 1942 Book, Lauded by Hemingway, Reprinted," The Associated Press, carried by "International Herald Tribune," Paris, 16 June 1983.
  • Trzebinski, Errol. The Lives of Beryl Markham. New York: W.W. Norton. 1993. ISBN 0-393-03556-5.
  • Wheeler, Sara. Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton. New York: Random House. 2006. ISBN 978-1-4000-6069-6.

External links[edit]