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Taming Peter Beard

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Beard with a collection of his diaries in New York in 2005.  

Thanks in part to her efforts, the art market is experiencing something of a boom for Beard. Last year, in London and New York, two of his pieces set records, each selling for more than half a million dollars. Even while she seeks to further raise Beard’s profile, Nejma remains wary of media attention. She won’t comment on her alleged attempts to retrieve some of his works and won’t let ­Peter be interviewed in person, lest, presumably, he says something she regrets, given his freewheeling mode of expression. Her new policy is written questions only, unless it’s with friends like Alec Baldwin, with whom Beard held forth on a podcast last year. “He really deserves to be out there now, but he just doesn’t play the game the right way,” Nejma says. “His antics have been chronicled to death in the press. But now that the circus has left town, so to speak, he has the peace of mind to concentrate on his work.”

A few days after Nejma and I met, I asked Beard, by e-mail, what he thinks about the new focus his wife has brought to his work. “Now that art is almost entirely a commodity,” he wrote, “I’m glad to be, shall we say, commodious.”

Peter Beard was born a New York aristocrat, heir to a railroad fortune on his mother’s side of the family and a tobacco inheritance on his father’s. Educated at Buckley, Pomfret, and Yale, he made his first trip to Africa when he was 17, taking photographs with a Voigtländer camera his grandmother had given him. (Some of the pictures he took that summer would end up in The End of the Game.) On a return trip to the continent in his twenties, Beard met and befriended Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen. In the mid-sixties, he purchased Hog Ranch, a tent encampment outside Nairobi, partly because it abuts the land that inspired Dinesen to write Out of Africa. “I made a life for myself in Africa that was as far as you could possibly get from art school at Yale,” Beard told me by e-mail.

By the time he followed up The End of the Game with Eyelids of the Morning, a study of crocodiles, in 1974, he had begun doing fashion work for Vogue, and had shot the Rolling Stones as they toured for Exile on Main Street. He also started creating his multilayered, mixed-media diaries—an intensely personal and original style showcased in an exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York in 1977. Although observers saw ecological themes in Beard’s work, he resisted being labeled an environmentalist. His worldview had more to do with the brutality of the natural world, the violent nature of existence, and the folly of man. “Conservation,” he once said, “is for guilty people on Park Avenue with poodles and Pekingeses.”

Beard became a staple of the international art and party scene. He bought his Montauk property near Andy Warhol’s place in 1972 for about $135,000 (it’s easily worth more than $20 million today) and photographed Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, and a skinny-­dipping Jackie O. on the premises. He befriended Bacon, and the two became close enough that Bacon painted Beard’s portrait more than once. He met Iman in Africa and frequently took credit for launching her modeling career. At nightclubs, he’d turn up regularly with an entourage of ten or twenty. His virile safari style inspired designers from Michael Kors to Tommy Hilfiger. (In a grisly episode that seemed all but preordained, he was trampled by a charging elephant in Kenya in 1996; the video, if you can stomach it, is available on YouTube.)

If Beard cared at all about managing his career or finances, he didn’t seem to show it. Photographer Sante D’Orazio, a good friend since the late eighties, remembers visiting Montauk and finding the phone dead and stacks of unopened bills beneath it (even now Beard doesn’t use a cell phone). Another time, D’Orazio followed Beard into a dark shed and found himself walking over negatives covering the ground beneath him. “Just all open, exposed, not wrapped in anything! He says, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m gonna get around to it one of these days.’ ” Once D’Orazio offered to print some negatives of Beard’s, thinking Beard lacked the wherewithal to do it himself. “The first thing he does is, the mailman comes to pick up the mail, and he gives him a print! I’m like, Holy shit. That’s how he was with everybody.”

Nejma is the oldest of seven children born to a conservative Muslim family. Her father was a high-court judge, now retired, and her mother is an amateur champion bridge player. “They brought us up strictly, and I learned the hard way to appreciate that,” Nejma says. After studying anthropology at the University of Sussex, Nejma traveled in Europe for a time. When she returned to Kenya, friends introduced her to Beard, and she quickly fell in love. “He was outlandish—everything to him is a green light—but so incredibly refreshing,” she says. “He has a sort of magic to him that when he concentrates his attention on you, it’s like the sun suddenly coming out.” She was also smitten with Hog Ranch. “It has the elegance of simplicity and, to use one of Peter’s favorite words, authenticity. You sleep in tents that are wide open to the animals and the elements, and you wake in the morning to birdsong.”


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