Beryl Markham

by Andrada Costoiu

Aviator Beryl Markham arriving in New York, on Sept. 6, 1936, after a solo flight across the Atlantic. Credit: AP

Sometimes life gets so busy that we forget about the people that were not a Napoleon, a Freud, a Plato. Figures that deeply marked with their knowledge or experiences life as we know it are always there, always referenced, always remembered.

But what about the other inspiring people? What about the ones that are not part of the main stream?

Today I thought about someone that I would have liked to know, someone that inspired me in my love of flying, someone that was a pioneer in many ways: Beryl Markham.

Why I like Beryl? Who was she? What did she do?

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She was born in England in 1878 and when she was 4 years old, she left with her parents to Kenya, which back then was British East Africa.  While she was still small her mom returned back to England and eventually married another man. Beryl lived with her father, adapting to the new culture and eventually blending into the Kenyan way of life.

Her life was an adventure; a true adventure in which she had to work and fight for her dreams.

We all know how great Amelia Earhart was. But not so many of us know about Beryl. Just like Amelia, Beryl was the first woman to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic from east to west, from England to America.  Her experience is documented in a book I enjoyed reading: “West with the Night” (this is her memoir).

She flew in Kenya, on vast distances, delivering mail, medical supplies, carrying critically ill patients. The flying instruments back then were a far cry of what we have now! No radio, no GPS, no air speed indicator; she only had maps of navigations and a compass. 

So yes…..I admire Beryl!

She also trained horses, she was the first woman race-horse trainer in Kenya.

She meet Ernst Hemingway on a safari trip in Kenya. Years later, he praised her book and said in a letter to a friend that “As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”( Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961, Carlos Baker ed. ,Simon&Schuster, p.541)

She loved. She loved and she suffered, she went through the emotional roller coaster that we all do.  She was a nonconformist and in the eyes of many she had a “scandalous” life. She was married three times, but I think from her love life, two relationships were memorable to me: the one that involved Denys Finch Hatton and the one that involved Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, son of George V. I think the one with Prince Henry struck me because it was a scandalous affair and they were both married.

The other one with Denys Finch Hatton was a love triangle. Most of us have probably seen the movie “Out of Africa”, which is based on Karen Blixen‘s( also known as  Isak Dinesen)memoir. Karen was also a strong woman and was the lover of Finch Hatton; she loved him deeply but so did Beryl! It is unclear when Beryl-Finch love story started (different sources have that it started when he was still together with Karen and that Beryl stole him from her, others say that their relationship started after he and Karen were not together anymore). So, I don’t really know…..and I guess we won’t really know , but what is certain is that Denys inspired Beryl to learn flying.

There is so much more to say about this woman.  I have read a few books about her; my favorite two are “ Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain and “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham. Paula McLain ’s book is wonderfully written. You will feel as you are witnessing Beryl’s life, you’ll feel like you’re hunting in the Kenyan landscape with her and the other children, you’ll feel like you’re flying with her and you’ll also dream with her about Finch Hatton. “West with the Night” is a wonderful account of what Beryl felt and dreamed, in her own words.

So yes! Beryl Markham was a remarkable woman, one that should inspire and empower the woman of today.

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