On a cold afternoon in January, Nejma Beard is walking me through her husband Peter’s vast storage space in an old warehouse building in West Chelsea. Today, Peter is in Florida celebrating his 75th birthday with the couple’s daughter, Zara, and his brother Anson. Nejma, who stayed behind with the flu, is dressed all in black. She has honey-colored hair, caramel skin, and high, regal cheekbones. She resembles Anjelica Huston, perhaps, if the actress were playing a guarded, if unfailingly polite, Chelsea gallerist.
Peter Beard, of course, is the photographer alternately known for his pictures of Africa and African wildlife, his elaborate photo-collage “diaries” incorporating everything from news clippings to smears of his own blood, his photographs of international supermodels and rock stars, his leading-man good looks, and his ardent pursuit of New York nightlife. Shuttling between his ranch in Kenya and his estate in Montauk, Beard was a fixture at Studio 54 in the seventies, partying with the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick and Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Onassis. He was close with Janice Dickinson, Paula Barbieri, Veruschka, and Iman and was married to Cheryl Tiegs for five years. Although Beard has always been well regarded as a photographer, and once counted Francis Bacon as an admirer and friend, he has never reached the level of respect reserved for so-called serious artists. At times, in fact, it has seemed as if Beard were begging not to be taken seriously. “I don’t mind the word dilettante,” he once said. “A dilettante means someone who does what he loves.” He has also been famously undisciplined about his business affairs, relying on gallerist friends and party pals to manage his career, and often giving away works to friends or treating them as currency to cover bar tabs and dinner bills. Despite his considerable success, and being born into a wealthy New York family, “it’s amazing that I have gotten through without total bankruptcy,” Beard has said. A larger-than-life personality, he is by turns charming, warm, glib, arrogant, and sometimes ugly. A decade ago, he told this magazine that homosexuality was “a societal illness of every single species in nature” and that he was relieved to have met Tom Ford and seen for himself that the designer wasn’t gay. “But he looks absolutely normal!” he said when corrected.
Beard and Nejma met in Kenya, where she was born, and were married in 1986, shortly after his divorce from Tiegs. Nejma is twenty years Beard’s junior and, for much of their life together, played the role of the devoted and tolerant spouse, not involving herself with her husband’s work and allowing him his dalliances with drugs, alcohol, and other women. Recently, however, that has changed: Nejma is now actively seeking to secure Peter’s legacy—and his financial future. On our tour of Beard’s storage facility, nearly everything she says reflects a desire to lift her husband’s status in the art world. She talks about how this should be Peter’s big moment, given the environmental message of his work. She has hired a consultant to help her court museum curators who might mount a major Beard retrospective. She prefers to sell directly to collectors now rather than work with galleries, to more carefully control the value of his work. Perhaps most controversially, for financial and legacy reasons, she has taken steps to reclaim, or claw back, some of the works Beard has given away over the years, a move that has infuriated some of his old friends. “She’s trying to control the purse strings and keep him on a short leash,” says one friend. “She’s eager to establish him before he dies as an important artist. That’s going to be her nest egg.”
Starting with The End of the Game, Beard’s seminal 1965 work featuring beautiful yet haunting pictures of starving elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, Nejma is also republishing Beard’s out-of-print books, and some of his individual works, in high-priced, large-format limited editions. “Every artist needs an editor,” she says. “I regularly go through Peter’s contact sheets and mine them for images I think he may want to use.” Nejma is also exploring merchandising opportunities with an environmental tie-in. “Peter wants to do wallpaper. It’s just a question of finding the right company to do it with. We’re also looking into limited-edition rugs and floor-length scarves.” More than once, Nejma affectionately refers to her husband as “P.B.,” as if she’s the executive producer and he’s the talent. Anything he does, she says, would have to reinforce and not undermine his work’s sense of natural-world authenticity. “This man has broken bones to show for what he’s done. This isn’t someone running around a garden with a butterfly net.”