Twentieth Century Man-The Wild Life of Peter Beard

Peter Hill Beard (1938-2020) was “a man of action, maybe the last great romantic adventurer” (Christopher Wallace); an activist, “the first person to chronicle the decline of the majestic mega-fauna of East Africa” (Paul Theroux); a photographic artist of wildlife and fashion, an uber-diarist, outlaw socialite, and existentialist. “There was not a trace of interior monologue, critical analysis, or self evaluation.” (Wallace)

Extremely handsome, fit, and charismatic, Beard was an infamous playboy when the term was popular, bedding a succession of the world’s most beautiful women. He romanced a vast number of models and had a long, on- again, off-again affair with Lee Radziwell beginning when Jackie Onassis invited him to distract her sister during Lee’s divorce. (She was, by all reports, besotted.) Wives included Mary “Minnie” Olivia Cochran Cushing, model Cheryl Tiegs (who supported him and claimed abuse at the divorce), and Nejma Khanum (who took over his business affairs) with whom he had a daughter.

Beard grew up privileged and untamed, hating rules and plans. There was no way he would conform to societal or family expectations. “Phonies” were the worst. Animals were never phony. He haunted The Museum of Natural History and took a course in taxidermy. While boarding at high school, Darwin’s great grandson, an older Quentin Keynes, invited the enthusiastic 17 year-old to Africa.

The boy felt oddly at home. Upon graduating from Yale, he secured work at Tsavo National Park in Keyna documenting the demise of 35,000 elephants. That experience would lead to his first book, The End of the Game. Interior trips with experienced hunters followed. Hunting came easy, only the size of quarry changed. “Balance must be maintained within a herd or it will consume its own way to starvation and extinction,” Beard wrote.                                                                                                                  

He began to romantically picture himself another Denys Finch Hatton (aristocrat, wildlife enthusiast, big game hunter, and Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s lover chronicled in Out of Africa). A few years later the young man would talk his way into the home of notoriously reclusive Blixen. Still later, he would purchase Hog Ranch in the Ngong Hills, 45 acres adjacent to her East Africa coffee farm. (The farm is now a refuge for endangered wildlife.)

Descended from tobacco and railroad fortunes, Beard possessed sufficient wealth to indulge hedonistic inclinations, cavalier about putting others at risk. One hunter he accompanied was mauled by a white rhino because the photographer provoked his animal subject. Model Janice Dickinson recalls posing barely clothed (she says, drunk) on top of several live crocodiles, their jaws held shut by picture wire.

Beard himself, having ventured dangerously close, was trampled by an elephant in the Maasai Mara. With a broken pelvis, gashed leg, and internal hemorrhaging, four hours from a hospital, survival was a miracle. “Well, my screwing days are over,” he quipped from the gurney.

Intermittently and finally living in New York and Montauk, he was considered by many “court jester to Camelot.” Beard shot iconoclastic photos for Vogue, collaborated with Andy Warhol and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, toured with The Rolling Stones (for Interview), photographed and was painted by Francis Bacon (both men saw beauty in brutality), participated in “happenings” with Salvador Dali, accompanied Picasso to bullfights, and modeled for Helmut Newton. He practically lived at Studio 54. Writer Bob Colacello called him “half Tarzan, half Byron.”  There were several important exhibitions of his work and the publication of six books.

Peter Beard was also, according to many, homophobic, racist, sexist and Anti-Semitic, with exceptions to each; selfish, a liar; possibly a smuggler; and, an emotional and physical abuser of women. He was diagnosed as being bipolar and lived through several strokes.

In 2020, at 82, Beard wandered out of his Montauk home into the woods wearing flannel pajama pants and a fleece sweatshirt. “He didn’t look back; he never would, never did. He was always moving forward, a million miles an hour in whatever direction he happened to be facing, and that was that.” (Christopher Wallace) He was found dead 19 days later.

Christopher Wallace romanticizes his subject, neither difficult nor perhaps a negative aspect of the book. Few of Beard’s intimates are quoted. Entertaining narrative includes tangents surrounding relationships, activism, and African excursions. The sweep, poetry and recklessness of Beard’s life is well drawn.  There’s also considerable analysis. I’d skip the dense, repetitive introduction and go on to the meat and adventure following. It’s a helluva trip.

One caveat: Twentieth Century Man has, alas, no photos.

Twentieth Century Man-The Wild Life of Peter Beard
By Christopher Wallace
Harper Collins

About Alix Cohen (1775 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.