About the Book by Graham Boynton Titled “WILD: The Life of Peter Beard: Photographer, Adventurer, Lover”

From the New York Times review by Alexandra Jacobs of the book by Graham Boynton titled “WILD: The Life of Peter Beard: Photographer, Adventurer, Lover”:

The first rule of biography, according to the late Justin Kaplan, is “shoot the widow.” Another prolific biographer, Meryle Secrest, liked the phrase so much, she used it for the title of a book about her process.

The word “shoot” resounds with the force of a lion’s roar in the life of Peter Beard, the artist, author and frenetic bon vivant who died in 2020 at 82 after wandering into the woods near his house in Montauk. Beard’s primary medium was photography, often enhanced with blood (his own or sourced from butchers); his preferred venue, along with Elaine’s on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was the Kenyan wilderness, where he hunted widely and made a second home. He also seemed to regard the pursuit of women as sport, marrying three times but flagrantly unfaithful to each of his wives.

The last of these, Nejma (formerly Najma) Beard, is a strong but somewhat spectral presence in “Wild: The Life of Peter Beard,” by Graham Boynton, a journalist who had socialized with the couple. She drew a “cordon sanitaire” around her husband toward the end of his life, trying to protect their financial interests, Boynton writes, and did not grant him access, for example, to the 20 to 30 of Beard’s heavily annotated diaries she is said to have in storage. Though any feelings she might have had about this project are unvoiced here, their adult daughter Zara was actively hostile, according to Boynton, and dissuaded close family members from cooperating.

As Beard was recuperating at St. Vincent’s Hospital from a near-fatal tusking by a matriarchal elephant during a 1996 excursion in the Masai Mara, he grandly declared that Nejma would thenceforth be “my Jacqueline, the Governess,” referring to the controlling second spouse of Pablo Picasso.

Having bushwhacked through “Wild,” a not-overlong book packed with history, literature, gossip and a smattering of environmental science, I think Beard’s estimation of himself as being in the same league as one of the great masters of the 20th century seems premature at best, overblown at worst. (For one thing, as Boynton points out, though some sell for considerable sums, Beard’s pieces have never hung in a “reputable museum.”) Perhaps because of copyright issues, “Wild” shows only a few items from his immense catalog, at a distance. But it also suggests the old cliché, that the man’s greatest work of art was himself. He was glamorous and itinerant, omnipresent and elusive, with echoes of both Ripley and Zelig.

Beard was born in 1938 to a family of old American wealth, the middle of three brothers, and educated at home by his mother, toward whom he felt an unexplained loathing, then at Buckley and Pomfret, with a brief but influential stint in an English preparatory school. He majored in fine art and later befriended the figurative painter Francis Bacon. He looked like a walking Ralph Lauren ad, with high cheekbones and a floppy golden forelock, and in possession of a mysterious charisma that bewitched, among countless others, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ sister, Lee Radziwill, and the socialite Minnie Cushing, his first wife. (Two of his girlfriends describe him emanating “an electric current.”)

As a youth Beard had been entranced by Karen Blixen’s memoir “Out of Africa” and charmed Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, the explorer Quentin Keynes, into giving him a tour of the continent. An ardent if somewhat scattershot naturalist who made his bones with “The End of the Game” (1965), a photo book of animals in their habitats heavy with beauty and foreboding, he would eventually buy more than 40 acres of property near Nairobi, naming it Hog Ranch. There, Boynton writes, “his campfire gatherings were an African version of the Algonquin’s Round Table, attracting diplomats, local politicians, international conservationists, foreign correspondents, and of course, global supermodels.”

Beard notoriously took credit for discovering the Somali model Iman, claiming to journalists he’d discovered her tending goats in the bush (in fact another photographer had happened upon her temping at a travel agency). Twelve years after brushing off the teenage Janice Dickinson during a party at Halston’s house, he persuaded her to pose naked for Playboy with the largest cheetah in captivity.

But his most significant relationship in this industry was with his second wife, Cheryl Tiegs, who shares letters and stories with Boynton from the era when she and Beard were the “Beautiful Americans.” She called him Pita. He called her Churly — and punched her in the stomach when she was pregnant, causing a miscarriage.

This is far from the only occasion when Beard’s behavior is so abhorrent that you start to sympathize with that angry elephant who crushed his pelvis and ruptured his spleen. Beard may have cozied up to cheetahs, but when a domestic cat owned by his fellow photographer and Montauk neighbor Richard Avedon wandered onto Beard’s property, another girlfriend ruefully tells Boynton, he beat it to death with a rock. In late 1969, he and a wingman were found guilty of assault and wrongful confinement of a poacher and briefly imprisoned.

One of Beard’s last affairs was with a teenager, Natalie White, 50 years his junior, who describes Nejma threatening her with a hairbrush; Beard appeared to have mocked his wife’s jealousy in a subsequent artwork, describing her as an “Afghan trench-warfare terrorist” who harbored a fantasy of a “devilishly drawn-out Kung Fu type STRANGLING” of her rival “with windpipe-crunching knuckle dusters.” (The artist Julian Schnabel, who also likens himself to Picasso, was not happy either when Natalie unwittingly called one of his paintings “crap.”)

The next-level enablement of Peter Beard — only one pseudonymous paramour, who said she had to go on antibiotics from his bites, seems to have regretted tangling with him — is one of this book’s great unsolved mysteries, along with the authenticity of Masai artifacts he brought to market with another wingman, Gillies Turle.

One therapist proclaimed Beard bipolar (he scorned psychiatrists as “non-doctors” after a barbiturate overdose landed him in Payne Whitney); some observers thought him sociopathic. Longtime loyalists, like his gallerist, Peter Tunney, and his agent, Peter Riva, were coldly dropped. Other people were always the ones paying for his jet set lifestyle, “pleasantly pixilated,” as Beard put it, by drugs. “Marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, peyote, crack. He did them all,” Boynton writes. “However, he never appeared out of control. It seemed the pharmaceutical magic carpet he rode through his life distanced him from the harsh vagaries of a world of which he did not instinctively approve.”

But what of the world now, which might not instinctively approve of Peter Beard: might not so much cancel him as trample him? Affectionate and a little bemused, with plenty of recent interviews hot off the tape, “Wild” is fresh meat, sometimes delectable, sometimes hard to chew. Unclear how it will age.

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.”

 

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