Bwana Comes Home

For Peter Beard, the legendary photographer and Africa hand, the end of theroad isn’t here yet, but it’s definitely getting closer. Or let him tell it.”I have no need to go back to Africa,” he explains, perched on a staircaseabove a foggy ocean in Montauk. He’s wearing a striped blue sarong and aHawaiian shirt. His hair is combed very neatly to the side, and he’s verytanned. “I could go to Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s the same deal. Barking dogsin parking lots. It’s really revolting. Africa has lost its authenticity, sowhat’s the point of being there?”Then again, so has Montauk. “Montauk used to have what you call ruralintegrity,” he says, “but now it’s under the hand of East Hampton, which islike Palm Beach or New York. It’s a loser’s game. But I don’t really care.When you get to be 65, you get old-age benefits. I get on the Jitney forhalf-price, I get into movies. I’m home free.”

Beard loves chaos and disorder. Every book on the floor-to-ceiling shelves inhis New York apartment, and in the nooks of his Montauk cottage, is filledwith scribbled notes and torn pages. He stomps across his photographs, yanksthem out of drawers, and tosses them on the floor. It’s a destructive habitthat’s become part of his art – he’s been fascinated by and has found beautyin decay, but now even the decay is decaying. And by the sound of it, Beardhimself may be decaying. “Denatured Africa,” he says. “The change is sonauseating and puke-making. On television this weekend they were talkingabout the extinction of lions in Africa. Who cares?! They’ve got these – lookslike homeless kids with, like, Studio 54 T-shirts all ripped up and runningwith kind of clubs and spears and yelling horrible things running after thislion. It was a hyena!” He bursts out laughing. Peter Beard is many things, but he is not sentimental. He shrugs off what hecalls the end of a landscape that served as his home and his inspiration forthe bulk of his life. “You’d hate me for my views on Africa,” he says. “Wehave no idea what we’re dealing with. We’ve become so artificial and fakeand so far from the Darwinian realities of life that we have lost commonsense. Our views are ridiculous.”

Beard is compiling a giant book of his life’s work, which he calls a “compost heap,” albeit acompost of high hedonism and tremendous luck. Raised in haute Wasp LongIsland and the Upper East Side and educated at Yale, Beard’s life was fullof sailing, rugby, and beautiful women. When he graduated in 1961, he went to Kenya. After a brief marriage to MinnieCushing – a Newport society type – he decided to stay. “The real truth,” hesays, raising his eyebrows and smirking, “is that I’ve never had a job. I’vealways been a miserable bum. Hand to mouth.”In 1965, he produced arguably his most famous work. Called The End of theGame, it chronicles African game facing destruction, and ends with hundredsof photographs of elephant carcasses, observed from a helicopter in TsavoNational Park. It is a potent argument against certain strains ofconservationism that ends with the ominous words “Today, this species is theelephant – ”

While The End of the Game is the work that has most informed Beard’spolitics, the work from which he’s made the most money is the vastphoto-collages – black, white, and sepia pictures of Africa: three lonelygiraffes galloping across a plane; the heads of a dozen Kenyan men peeringout from a rusting truck. And the women! Veruschka darting across anelephant’s tusk. And Iman – Beard, after all, discovered her, selling her tothe fashion world as a simple tribal girl when she was a multilingualuniversity student, the daughter of a diplomat.As well-known as Beard became for his photography, he became better-known forhis social life. He married Cheryl Tiegs, hosted Jackie O. and Lee Radziwillat Hog Ranch, and toured with the Stones. The stories of the backpackers who sought him out, the models, the Africanwomen, are legendary. So it should come as no surprise that he’s become amuse of virility and masculinity to the fashion world. (A near-fatal run-inwith an elephant, which left him dead for a minute – “pretty cool” – has onlyenhanced his Great Hunter machismo.)When Michael Kors was developing his men’s line, he said, “You might not bePeter Beard, but don’t you want everyone to think you are?” A T-shirt atBarneys declares, “I want to be your Peter Beard.”

“It’s extremely weird,” he says of his icon status, settling into a wornvelvet sofa in his double-height Manhattan living room. “I don’t enjoy thefashion world at all. I had dinner next to Tom Ford the other night. God, Isound like Leona Helmsley, but I was amazed and relieved to see that he’sprobably not another fag. He’s not, I’m pretty sure.” I told him that Tom Ford is gay.”He is?” asks Beard, genuinely surprised. “But he looks absolutely normal. Isat right next to him and I studied him and I thought, Whoa! A fashionexception. I’m not homophobic, but the odds are getting a little heavy,aren’t they?” Beard has elaborate Darwinian biological arguments to buttress his diatribes.”Let me assure you,” he says. “This is a societal illness.” His side-combedhair gives him the air of an addled Dennis the Menace. “I went on the Stonestour with Truman Capote. He was one of my best friends, and he was kind oflike Napoleon of the gays. We went to the clubs. For once, I have to standup for the old pope. This is a societal illness of every single species innature. I went to the Darwinian centennial, and some very high-up professortold me it was already well known in scientific circles that theseparation-of-the-sexes phenomenon is in large part due to the chemicals inour food and drinking water. This is the first effect of exceeding carryingcapacity. AIDS, cancer, heart disease – they’re all sent by nature.”

He takes a drag of his cigarette and stares into the ocean. “Have you ever ‘shroomed with a gay friend? You have interior vision, youknow.” I tell him I haven’t. “Well. Age and experience have something on you.” His frustration, which never really seems to frustrate him, is mostlydirected toward Africa. “Africans are the only racists I know,” hecontinues. “And that’s because they’re primitive. They’re hilltop tohilltop. Kikuyu, Masai … Racism is a bullshit word that we’ve invented.It is tribalism, and it is too close to nature. We’ve made sure that natureis not in our lives. The Natural History Museum is as good as it gets. It’sbetter than going to Africa! Save yourself the money, unless you want to getrobbed at the airport.”

He says he can barely recognize his ranch. It’s been swallowed up byNairobi’s ever-swelling sprawl: “There are 83 missions on my road. It’s likelocusts. And we find this absolutely wonderful. You haven’t put in 40 yearsin a Pleistocene setting. It’s very ruthless. I’m very ruthless, in fact. “We’ve gone so far we basically have to reconsider that doctor’s Hippocraticoath. More food means more people. We’ve got to stop sending these Band-Aidsand these packages of food, because we’re causing a different problem. Youremember the Time magazine cover, ‘Why Are the Ethiopians Starving Again?’ Bythe way, they’re starving right now. Because we are feeding the overburdenedpopulation and causing this huge problem. We are so determined to unload ourguilt that we are causing this unheard-of problem. “I was premed until I figured it out: We are the disease. We’re like canceron Earth.” So this is the end, then, or at least the beginning of the end. These aredark, ugly thoughts, a cocktail of Malthus and Colonel Kurtz served up insome of the most expensive real estate on Earth. The most charitable thingto say is that this is a man who’s spent too much time in the sun. And yetBeard is optimistic about it all, darting about his apartment and laughing,yanking books from shelves to read quotes-Fitzgerald, Blixen, AlfredWallace-photographing C-span, and imitating Asa Hutchison in a high nasalwhine. He liked Best in Show because, to him, that was it. “We live in aWeimaraner world.”

He won’t admit to being fazed by September 11 (which, like Ali G, he calls7-11): “I believe in cause and effect. I’m not pointing fingers, but I wasvery interested in the way we’ve homogenized it. All the whining we’ve doneabout it, you would have thought they’d have focused on the jumpers. That’swhat interested me. Pretty big inconvenience, that many people jumping likethat. And they try not to show it. Of course it had a good side, which isthat it was pretty amazing that for a moment, we had a little touch ofauthenticity.” I ask him what he thinks makes one day more “authentic” than any other. “Well, I was thinking on the Jitney, what a bunch of shit stores, and they’reall on sale, half-price. Why don’t we clean up our mess? It’s just amazingthat we’ve spent billions of dollars blowing apart a tiny little ramshacklebit of the Third World. “We’re the disease.”

Beard wanders around his apartment on his 65th birthday sipping a viscousgreen vitamin drink made for him by his wife, Najma, who also manages hisbusiness affairs, and waits for his kid to come home from school. Valentino sent a dress for Najma to wear to her husband’s birthday party, butBeard didn’t change much that night for his party. One of the young artistshe employs in his studio did a Dumpster dive to pick up new trousers andslip-on shoes for the birthday boy, but Beard left his cashmere shirt on. Downtown Cipriani was closed to the public for the event. In fact, it was socrowded with young, nubile models of many nations that P.B. (as he’s knownto his friends, and to his wife) held court on the street. “Pee-tah,Pee-tah!” called the girls, their tan bellies peeking out of their low-risepants, goose-bumping in the night. “Pee-tah, Pee-tah!” Many of them woresunglasses though it was close to midnight: the frameless kind with yellowlenses adorned with rhinestone hearts.

“Stay outside, do some lines!” P.B. laughed, and climbed up a fire ladder onthe side of the building. The girls surrounded him; a paparazzo begansnapping. The girls started singing: The amalgamated accent was strange;none of the girls, it seemed, could count English as their first language.But they sang their hearts out and mugged for the camera, clutching forBeard’s legs, reaching for fistfuls of his flannel shirts. And anothervoice: Jocelyne Wildenstein running down the block, her arms up, cheering asher tiny companion (male, not quite five feet) chased after her. It’s late indeed for Africa, and Montauk, and New York City, and the world.But not yet for Peter Beard. Here is a man who announces, with a smile onhis face, that “the whole theme for the future is the loss of quality oflife. We’re going to live like cockroaches, we’re going to squeeze, and,like elephants, we’re going to adapt to the damage we’ve caused. Theelephants are like us. They eat hard wood. They eat shit. They eat weeds.They’ll just clear every single element of that habitat to get to that lasttree.” But here, at Cipriani, he looks around, a girl on each arm. “This is prettycool,” he says.

Bwana Comes Home