Biography of Beryl Markham, Aviation Pioneer

The first woman to fly nonstop from Europe to North America

Beryl Markham in her plane
Beryl Markham in the cockpit, circa 1936 (Bettmann / Getty Images).

Beryl Markham (born Beryl Clutterbuck; October 26, 1902 – August 3, 1986) was a British-Kenyan aviator, writer, and horse trainer. Although she worked in several different fields, she is best known for being the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west. She wrote her own memoir, West with the Night, and was the subject of a best-selling novel.

Fast Facts: Beryl Markham

  • Full Name: Beryl Clutterbuck Markham
  • Occupation: Aviator and writer
  • Born: October 26, 1902 in Ashwell, Rutland, England
  • Died: August 3, 1986 in Nairobi, Kenya
  • Key Accomplishments: The first woman to make a non-stop transatlantic flight from east to west and the author of the memoir West with the Night.
  • Spouses' Names: Jock Purves (m. 1919-1925), Mansfield Markham (m. 1927–1942), Raoul Schumacher (m. 1942–1960)
  • Child's Name: Gervase Markham

Early Life

At age four, young Beryl moved to British East Africa (modern-day Kenya) with her father, Charles Clutterbuck. Beryl’s mother, Clara, did not join them, and neither did Beryl's older brother Richard. As a child, Beryl's education was spotty at best. She instead spent considerable time hunting and playing with local children.

For a while, Beryl was happy. Her father Charles started a horse racing farm, and Beryl took to horse training immediately, establishing herself as a trainer in her own right by the time she was only seventeen. When Beryl was a teenager, however, her father fell on hard times. Charles lost his fortune and fled from Kenya to Peru, leaving Beryl behind.

Never one to be down for long, Beryl took her career into her own hands. In 1920, at the age of eighteen, she became the first woman in Kenya to receive a racehorse trainer’s license.

Romantic and Royal Entanglements

As a young woman, Beryl was the subject of much attention. She married Captain Jock Purves at age seventeen, but the couple divorced soon after. In 1926, she married the wealthy Mansfield Markham, from whom she took the surname that she used for the rest of her life. Mansfield and Beryl had one son together: Gervase Markham. Beryl went on to have a complicated, often cold relationship with her son for most of her life.

Beryl was often in the company of the “Happy Valley Set,” a group of mostly English, mostly wealthy adventurers who settled in Africa (specifically in the area that is Kenya and Uganda today). This group was notorious for its decadent lifestyle, reportedly indulging in drugs, sexual promiscuity, and extravagance. Although she was not wealthy or titled enough to truly be part of the group, Beryl spent time with many of its members and was influenced by their lifestyles.

In 1929, Beryl’s affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (the third son of King George V) became public. There were also rumors that she had been romantically entangled with his older brother Edward, who was an infamous playboy. (Perhaps these rumors about Edward and Beryl were an indicator of things to come: Edward’s proclivity for scandalous romances would eventually result in a succession crisis in the United Kingdom, when he chose to abdicate his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.) Even though Henry was only a third son, the British royal family disapproved, and although the reason for Beryl and Henry's eventual parting was never known, it was widely believed that his family had split them up. Beryl earned a reputation for many affairs, which she typically ended when she tired of them. She reportedly treated her friends the same way.

She may have had affairs with princes, but the great love of Beryl’s life was only minor nobility. Denys Finch Hatton, the second son of an English earl, was a big game hunter and daring pilot who came to Africa following World War I. Fifteen years Beryl’s senior, he had also had a long-term romance with Beryl’s friend and mentor Karen Blixen, who wrote the famous book Out of Africa about herself and Denys. As Karen and Denys’s affair hit a slow patch in 1930, he and Beryl fell into an affair of their own. In May 1931, he invited her to come along on a flying tour, knowing her burgeoning interest in flight, but she declined when her friend and flight teacher Tom Campbell Black urged her not to go, out of some unsettling instinct. Campbell Black’s advice proved life-saving: Denys’s plane crashed minutes after takeoff, killing him at the age of 44.

Flight Career

Following Denys’ death, Beryl pushed herself even harder in her flying lessons. She worked as a rescue pilot and a bush pilot, scouting out game and signaling their locations to safaris on the ground. It was in this capacity that she encountered more notable names, including Ernest Hemingway, who would later praise her memoir but insult her personally because she wouldn’t have an affair with him while he was on safari in Kenya.

Beryl’s crowning achievement was her transatlantic flight in September 1936. Before then, no woman had ever flown a non-stop flight from Europe to North America nor flown it solo. She departed from the English coast and, despite serious fuel problems towards the end of her journey, made it to Nova Scotia. Upon achieving this dream, she was celebrated as a pioneer in the world of flight.

In the 1930s, Beryl relocated to California, where she met and married her third husband, the writer Raoul Schumacher. She wrote a memoir, West with the Night, during her time in the United States. While the memoir was not a bestseller, it was well-received for its compelling narrative and writing style, as evidenced in passages like this one:

We fly, but we have not 'conquered' the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us the study and the use of such of her forces as we may understand. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick fall across our impudent knuckles and we rub the pain, staring upward, startled by our ignorance.

West with the Night ultimately went out of print and into obscurity, where it languished for decades until it was rediscovered in the early 1980s. Controversy has persisted to this day about whether or not Beryl actually wrote the book herself or whether it was partially or completely ghostwritten by her husband. Experts on both sides of the debate have presented compelling evidence, and it seems likely that the mystery will remain forever unsolved.

Later Life and Public Legacy

Eventually, Beryl returned to Kenya, which she considered her real home. By the early 1950s, she had re-established herself as a prominent horse trainer, although she still struggled financially. She slid into obscurity until 1983, when West with the Night was re-released and a journalist from the Associated Press tracked her down. By then, she was elderly and impoverished, but the publicity and sales around the book’s re-release was enough to raise her back to a comfortable lifestyle until she died in Nairobi at the age of 83 in 1986.

Beryl’s life sounded more like the stuff of adventurous (and mostly male) aviators than of a lady of her time, and as a result, she was the subject of endless fascination. Although her scandalous and sometimes callous romantic behavior garnered a lot of attention, her record-setting flight would always be her legacy. When Karen Blixen (using the pen name Isak Dinesen) wrote Out of Africa, Beryl did not appear by name, but an avatar of her—a rough-around-the-edges horse rider named Felicity—did appear in the film adaptation. She has been the subject of multiple biographies, as well as Paula McLain’s 2015 bestselling fictional novel Circling The Sun. A complicated woman with a nearly unbelievable life, Beryl Markham continues to fascinate audiences to this day.

Sources

  • “Beryl Markham: British Author and Aviator.” Encylopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Beryl-Markham.
  • Lovell, Mary S., Straight on Till Morning, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987
  • Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983
  • Trzebinski, Errol. The Lives of Beryl Markham. New York, W.W. Norton, 1993.