Sunday, December 26, 2010
Beryl Markham became an icon for the feminist movement after her writing was rediscovered in 1983.
Chicago's own Ernest Hemingway thought she was "a very unpleasant...high-grade bitch."
Any list of famous Chicago writers always starts with Hemingway but I'm not really sure why. While he was born in suburban Oak Park and hung around here as a young boy, he really spent about as much time in Chicago overall as Rahm Emanuel.
That is to say that Hemingway lived mostly in Paris, Spain, Cuba and Idaho (just as Mayoral anointee, Emanuel seems to have spent most of his life in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street and various Israeli military posts.)
But when the constellation of great Chicago writers is so meager as to include the likes of Nelson Algren and Michael Crichton as luminaries, I guess you take whatever you can get.
At any rate, the great feminist icon Beryl Markham was re-discovered because of Ernest Hemingway.
Markham was a British woman who was raised on a plantation in British East Africa (Kenya.) She was best known for being the first woman to fly an aircraft solo across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West, a feat she accomplished in 1936.
Cashing in on the celebrity status acquired from her celebrated flight, in 1942 she penned a memoir, West With The Night, which sold modestly for a time and then disappeared from sight.
In 1980, George Gutekunst, a friend of Hemingway's son, Jack, was invited to read Papa Hemingway's collected letters. Within this vast trove, he discovered a reference that Hemingway had made to the famous aviatrix, who he knew from his time in Nairobi.
In a letter to his publisher,the usually hyper-critical Hemingway, glowingly heaped praise on Markham's book:
"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West With The Night? ...She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on 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."
Gutekunst managed to unearth an old copy of Markham's book and effected its re-publication in 1983. It instantly became a best-seller and catapulted the aging heroine (she was then 81) into the pantheon of feminist heroes.
The quote from Hemingway appeared on the back cover of the re-released book, but the reference to Markham's high-grade bitchiness was conveniently omitted.
Upon its re-issue, I was given a copy of West With the Night by my Christian Science practicioner, a grand old ebullient lady, and was instantly taken in by it. It was an exciting and often soulful account that begins with her life as a child in British East Africa with only horses, favorite dogs and Masai tribal children for playmates. It progresses to her breathtaking exploits as a pioneering aviator in Africa and culminates with her account of her historic solo trans-Atlantic crossing.
Little wonder that Markham was adopted by militant feminists as a hero.
She was fearless and independent. But she also exhibited more than a few of the darker traits of the feminist era woman.
She was a positively awful wife and an almost criminally negligent mother. She never even bothered to meet her two grandchildren.
According to a 1987 biography, Straight on Till Morning,by British writer, Mary S. Lovell, she was as promiscuous as an Able Seaman on shore leave. She had a storied affair with Prince Henry, third in line to the British throne, which so scandalized England that the Royal family paid her off to leave the country.
She casually cheated on all three of her husbands, the last of whom was a bi-sexual writer who may have actually ghost written her acclaimed book. She was rude to her African servants and employees, financially took advantage of her monied friends and sneered at what she considered her social inferiors.
She could, and often did, drink like a fiend. She used abortion as a means of birth control, a fact which led to severe medical problems in later life.
All in all, she was the perfect icon for the harridans of the feminist left.
Or as Hemingway so adroitly put it: " A very unpleasant girl. We might even say, a high-grade bitch."