BY COREY SEYMOUR
Peter Beard Credit: Getty
It’s long been a cliché to note, upon someone’s passing, that their death marks the end of an era. Peter Beard, however, had been living and working in, around, and at the ends of things for almost his entire life, seemingly up to his last moment. (Beard’s family confirmed yesterday that, three weeks after his disappearance from his home in Montauk, New York, a body found in nearby Camp Hero State Park was Beard’s. He was 82 and had been suffering from dementia.)
“Peter was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life,” his family said in a statement. “He squeezed every drop out of every day.… He was an intrepid explorer, unfailingly generous, charismatic, and discerning. He was a pioneering contemporary artist who was decades ahead of his time in his efforts to sound the alarm about environmental damage.… He died where he lived: in nature. We will miss him every day.”
Beard’s work as a photographer and a writer, most notably in his epochal 1965 book The End of the Game, documented the quickly approaching twilight of free-roaming African wildlife as the continent and the world had known it for centuries, while it also closed the book on the notion of Africa as a kind of post-colonialist, romantic escape—a notion, as distilled in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, which first drew Beard to Kenya upon his graduation from Yale in the early 1960s.
His groundbreaking fashion work, as published in Vogue and elsewhere, advanced the end of both studios and restraint in fashion photography as Beard turned wild Africa into an alfresco set. Hog Ranch, meanwhile—his sprawling tented encampment in Kenya’s Ngong Hills between the end of Nairobi and the end of nearby Tsavo East National Park—became Beard's home base, where he wrote books and mentored and trained many African artists among the giraffes, warthogs, crocodiles, waterbuck, dik-diks, lions, and buffalo with which he shared the property.
Beard’s original Montauk home, perched at the literal end of the South Fork of Long Island, burned to the ground in 1977, destroying works of art gifted to Beard by such friends as Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol (both of whom collaborated on pieces with Beard) along with decades of the overstuffed, rococo diaries in which Beard meticulously pasted photographs, news clippings, comic strips, leaves, matchbooks, primitive drawings and doodles, and cigarette butts over and around jotted phone numbers, to-do lists, erstwhile manifestos, poems, and ad hoc mantras penned in a calligraphic style seemingly cribbed from circa Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
His well-documented personal life—Beard’s image should probably reside in the dictionary next to the word dashing (and perhaps also near shambolic)—likely spelled the end of a number of marriages, including some of his own. (Beard was married to Mary “Minnie” Cushing and, later, the model Cheryl Tiegs before marrying Nejma Khanum in 1986; she and Beard have a daughter, Zara.)
"Peter Beard was the most romantic love of my life," Tiegs says. "Living in Africa with him elevated my soul. His ideas and insights were endless."
Beard and Truman Capote traipsed across America with the Rolling Stones on their Exile on Main Street tour in 1972 ("my dear friend Peter. . . was a visionary artist and photographer who wasn't afraid to take risks," Mick Jagger wrote); he was close with Jacqueline Onassis and generations of Kennedys (and had a long relationship with Onassis’s sister Lee Radziwill) and was a fixture at Studio 54. More essentially, he had solo shows at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, among others. (Along with his wildlife and fashion photography and his diaries, Beard often embellished his work with drawing and painting; he framed photographs in exquisitely curated collections of rocks and shells.)
He also, famously, discovered the supermodel Iman one day as she walked down the street in Nairobi. Never mind the fact that Iman, the daughter of a Somali diplomat, spoke five languages and studied political science—Beard introduced her to an agent at Wilhelmina Models and then spun a tall tale for the press about how he’d found her herding cattle in the African wilds.
"I met Peter in Nairobi in 1975 and, as destiny would have it, we were forever intertwined," wrote Iman. "He discovered, photographed, and molded me in a way I had never [experienced] before—I didn't know anything about modeling and had never seen a fashion magazine—[though] he was at times exasperating, as when he presented me to the American news media."
In his 2004 book Zara’s Tales—a mesmerizing collection of real-life African stories written ostensibly for his daughter—Beard credits the African Hall of Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History (along with the towering giraffes hand-painted on a screen in his nursery and the Disney drawings of Dumbo) for sparking his lifelong obsession with the continent and its inhabitants. In any case, his persona of “half Tarzan, half Byron,” as Bob Colacello once put it, wasn’t quite preordained. One of his great-grandfathers founded the Great Northern Railway; a stepgrandfather, Pierre Lorillard V, was an heir to what is now the largest tobacco company in the United States (he also, asserted Beard, invented the tuxedo, which was alas, a half-truth at best: Lorillard founded Tuxedo Park, after which the tuxedo—first introduced there Stateside after debuting in Europe—is named).
Beard followed his father, a partner at a Wall Street brokerage house, through Pomfret and Buckley and Yale, but a trip to Africa with Charles Darwin’s great-grandson—and a searing encounter with Dinesen’s Out of Africa—seemed to chart his course for him. In short order, Beard, with the help of a special dispensation from Kenyan Prime Minister (and later President) Jomo Kenyatta, bought 45 acres of rolling hills directly adjacent to the coffee farm owned by Karen Blixen (who wrote as Isak Dinesen). After brief employment roping and capturing rhinos with a ragtag team hired to export the rhinos to Tsavo National Park—a death-defying experience rendered vividly in Zara’s Tales, which, early on, laid bare to Beard the nonsensical approach to wildlife “conservation” that was transforming Africa’s animal habitats and populations (because Tsavo was “protected” from hunting, an overpopulation of elephants simply overran and destroyed its food sources, along with anything a rhino would want to eat, thus forcing a mass starvation)—Beard documented the die-off in what became The End of the Game, an urgent warning of what was to come and a haunting, bell-tolling coda to a way of life that Beard well knew he was extraordinarily privileged to witness.
“Our children will never know what could have been seen in this generation, and we’re just losing more and more, and nobody seems to be interested in changing direction—that’s what bothers me,” Beard said at the 1977 opening of his ICP show. “The march downhill has gone too far, and the speed is getting greater. There’s too much going on at too great a rate: too much growth, too much waste too much speed, too many things.”
He was then asked, somewhat oddly, about a range of heavy subjects, including hope and pessimism, life and death. Beard, unflappable as ever, didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“Remember what Karen Blixen said: ‘Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: That God and the devil are one.’ It’s marvelous that death is an end—what’s the matter with that? We have plenty of time to live; we have plenty of time to have fun and really get into things. I have absolutely no fear of dying—it’s one of the most natural processes there is. It just irritates me that due to our greed and lack of consideration and our stupidity and politics that other creatures have to suffer a fate that we’re all in for prematurely. I just don’t see the point of it, and it irritates me.”