by Norman Vanamee | Town & Country
The body of photographer and environmentalist Peter Beard was found on April 19 in a wooded area near his home in Montauk, New York. His wife, Nejma Beard, had reported him missing in early April when Beard, 82 and suffering from dementia, wandered away from their house near Deep Hollow Ranch.
In a career that spanned six decades and played out across several continents, Beard combined a fascination with nature, love of travel, and eye for beauty to create a body of work that resonated in the worlds of fashion, fine art, and environmental and animal conservation. Along the way, he made scores of famous friends, collaborated with artists, writers, and musicians, and developed a reputation as an inveterate partier.
“I first got to know Peter the best way—not at a party or a club, but through his work,” said the writer Paul Theroux. “People are full of stories about his carousing, but the fact is that his intensity as a writer, a traveler, a photographer, and an artist are what stands out for me.”
“There’s nobody like Peter,” the late Lee Radziwill, a former girlfriend, once told T&C. “He’s full of enthusiasm, laughter, and soul.”
Beard was born into a blueblood family—his great grandfather was the railroad magnate James Jerome Hill—in New York City in 1938 and he attended Buckley, a private school in Manhattan, Pomfret, a boarding school in Connecticut, and Yale University, where he majored in art.
A camera he received as a childhood gift sparked a lifelong obsession with recording the people and things he saw around him, a habit that broadened to include painting, journal keeping, and collage making. He combined all of these forms in his artwork. Beard began shooting fashion portfolios for Vogue while he was at Yale and kept a hand in magazine photography throughout his career.
He took his first trip to Africa when he was 17 and returned again the summer of his junior year in college. In 1961 he befriended Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen, and ended up purchasing land adjoining her ranch in Kenya. He lived there in a tented compound, which he named Hog Ranch, on and off over the decades, and hosted a rotating cast of famous artists and writers, fashion world insiders, and environmentalists.
His breakthrough book, The End of the Game, published in 1965, chronicled the history and bleak future of African wildlife, in particular the plight of elephants at Tsavo East National Park. Beard focused on mankind’s often misguided attempts to manage and preserve species whose habitat it was simultaneously destroying. “We’re all liars,” he told Charlie Rose while discussing the book in a 1993 interview. “We don’t want to believe that we’re the source of the problem.”
The End of the Game, which included his photographs as well as archival shots and artwork by his frequent collaborator Kamante Gatura, was reissued by Taschen in 2015 after Beard made extensive updates. (Theroux wrote the introduction for the new edition.)
Beard’s cousin, the philanthropist Jerome Hill, introduced him to Salvador Dali in the early 1960s and the two became fast friends. They had a similar sense of humor and lack of reverence for the art world. In 1963 they staged a mock protest of the Mona Lisa outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the painting was on loan to the museum). A few years later, Beard met the painter Francis Bacon, with whom he would also become close.
In the early 1970s, Hill introduced Beard to Andy Warhol (Hill was an early investor in Warhol’s magazine Interview) and Beard began photographing for the magazine and hanging out at the Factory. “I met him at a party and he talked to me for hours and hours about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard,” said the writer Bob Colacello, who was then the editor of Interview.
“He was absolutely mesmerizing, and when I told Andy about it, he said, ‘Oh, you’ve fallen for him, too.’”
Countless people would have similarly intense and illuminating encounters with Beard, many of which would blossom into creative collaboration. Beard photographed Bacon numerous times and Bacon in turn painted Beard’s portrait. “Peter absorbed so much at the Factory,” said Colacello. “Andy was silk screening on top of photographs and everyone was saying, ‘Is this even art?’ Peter also manipulated his photographs and there was a great back and forth between them.”
In 1972, Rolling Stone magazine sent Beard on a two-month assignment to photograph the Rolling Stones on their “Exile on Main Street” tour. He befriended Mick Jagger, who would later turn up at his book parties. Beard also met and befriended the writers Truman Capote and Terry Southern, both on assignment. He had an easy rapport with celebrities and soon became one himself.
His first marriage, to Minnie Cushing, an heiress and assistant to the designer Oscar de la Renta, ended in divorce. They wed in August 1969 in an elaborate ceremony attended by a 21-person wedding party in Newport, Rhode Island. The reception was held at her family’s estate, the Ledges. The couple split three years later, and Beard entered Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic for two months after overdosing on barbiturates; he was open about his drug use over the years.
“I hadn’t slept in six months,” he said of the incident in a 1975 interview with the New York Times.
A string of high-profile relationships followed, including with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s sister, Lee Radziwill (Jackie wrote an afterword for one of Beard’s books) and Barbara Allen, an assistant to Andy Warhol. He was married to the model Cheryl Tiegs for four years. In 1986, he married Nejma Khanum, but continued to enjoy other relationships.
Beard’s romances and increasingly fixture-like status on the party circuit became part of a public persona that at points threatened to eclipse his work. According to New York magazine, he became such a regular at the nightclub Lotus that they called it the Peter Beard Room. He spoke to anyone and everyone, including journalists, and was sometimes tripped up in mini scandals of his own making. It didn’t seem to bother him.
“He was handsome, rich and personable, [and had] a lot of fun-loving pals,” said Theroux. “But he also had a quiet side and a devotion to his art that seemed to me at the core of his being,”
In 1996, Beard was almost killed by a charging elephant. After his recovery, Nejma took on a larger role managing his work and, increasingly, his social life. Some old friends hinted that Nejma isolated Beard; others, including Colacello, say he needed to slow down. “Nejma probably saved him from an early death,” Colacello said.
In 2013, Nejma told New York’s Bob Kolker, “His antics have been chronicled to death in the press. But now that the circus has left town, so to speak, he has the peace of mind to concentrate on his work.”
The value of Beard’s photographs has gone up in recent years. In 2017, his photograph Orphaned Cheetah Cubs, Mweiga, near Nyeri, Kenya, March 1968, sold for over $672,000 at Christie’s New York.
Beard’s artistic influence is easy to spot in the pages of fashion magazines and on the walls of art galleries, but his work in environmental and animal conservation was closest to his heart. “He led the way,” said Theroux. “He was really the first person to chronicle the decline of wildlife—the majestic mega-fauna of East Africa, elephants, lions, cheetahs—and he did it in a characteristic way, by depicting the deaths in iconic images, and writing about his own experiences, using texts from classic books related to Africa.
“The End of the Game is about fifty years old and yet is completely relevant. He has updated it constantly, because he has never lost his commitment to Africa, or his bravery, or his love of life.”
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