Beard said later in an interview that he was equally taken with Nejma, realizing immediately “that this was the only person I could be married to—the Africa connection was essential.” Zara was born in 1988, and during their early years together, the family lived mainly in Africa, making regular trips to Montauk. But Beard had never been wired for monogamy. While Nejma turned up in Beard’s work like any number of women, she was not his central muse, and at times Beard seemed to live a life completely apart from her and Zara. In a 1996 Vanity Fair story, he emerged from his tent at Hog Ranch with not one but four or five Ethiopian girls. “We were very cozy,” he said. Marriage, he said at the time, was a ridiculous institution. “Biologically it’s very unnatural. It’s masochism and torture the way it’s been organized.”
In 1993, Beard struck up an informal partnership with Peter Tunney, an investor whose Soho gallery, the Time Is Always Now, became the site of a nonstop party hosted almost nightly by Tunney and Beard (and almost never attended by Nejma). “It was fashion and art, creativity, models, socialites, and drugs,” says Jeffrey Jah, the nightclub investor, who attended several of the events. “People were crazy.” Over the years, Tunney became Beard’s de facto financial manager. “If Peter needed money, I gave him some money,” Tunney tells me. “We literally spent every day together.” No one really kept track of the work Beard created during his nine years with Tunney. “He didn’t want to do editions or stuff like that,” Tunney says. “He wanted each piece to be a living, breathing work of art.” As one close friend of Peter and Nejma’s recalls, “A lot of people took advantage of people, at his studio at night. ‘Peter, I like that!’ ‘Oh all right, you can have it.’ That’s a double whammy for Nejma, because she didn’t like that activity, and he’s giving away the art.”
By 1996, the Beards were reportedly divorcing, with Nejma accusing Peter of molesting Zara. Peter had claimed this was just a tactic to get custody, and in response Nejma told Vanity Fair that “Peter’s problem always has been too many drugs.” According to Tunney, Nejma stepped back into Peter’s life shortly after the elephant attack. “One thing the accident did do was ground me,” Beard later said. The couple reconciled, Beard left Tunney’s gallery, and the Beards took Tunney to court. Tunney countersued, the cases were settled, and neither side will discuss the details. Tunney notes that Nejma’s return happened to follow a wildly successful show of Beard’s work that he and Peter mounted at the Centre Internationale de Photographie in Paris.
“I think it’s fair to say that Nejma probably thought we were having too much fun, not doing things professionally enough, not knowing where the money was going,” Tunney says now. “I was basically just plowing all the money back into the whole operation. It was an enormously expensive thing. But just when it was becoming a substantial thing, Nejma came in with the lawyers and said, ‘The party’s over, I’m in charge.’ And Peter said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ ”
Nejma insists she never wanted to manage her husband’s business affairs but that the role was thrust on her. “I was just a kid when I met him, and I thought he could take care of me. When I first took over, I hardly believed I could do it. But I had to—it was the only way his work was going to flourish.”
Drawing on advice from friends like Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill gallery, Nejma started putting a halt to the sale of Peter’s artwork to better control it, ending his relationships with his galleries, including Tunney’s. Two friends say she put Beard on an allowance. He resisted the new measures at first, telling one friend he was going “on strike with Nejma” and that “she took away the keys to the car and we aren’t speaking and she won’t send me any money.” Beard quietly sold a few works through the art dealer Elizabeth Fekkai, until Sotheby’s called Nejma to authenticate one of the pieces and Nejma exploded. Nejma says Beard eventually came around under pressure from others in his inner circle, including his lawyer Michael Stout and his brother Anson, a retired executive with Morgan Stanley.
Nejma’s efforts to manage Beard’s career would have probably gone unnoticed outside a small circle were it not for the claw-back attempts. Last year, Jah, who has comped Beard and his entourage on countless nights over the years at his clubs, was approached by someone close to the Beards about a work of Peter’s—a portrait of Francis Bacon that had been displayed for years in the VIP room of Lotus. Beard had spent so many wild nights at Lotus that the VIP room, accessible only by a keypad with a secret code, had been named the Peter Beard Room. The portrait had been in Jah’s possession since the club closed in 2008. Now he was being asked to give the portrait back.