When I first heard Peter Beard had disappeared I laughed out loud.
I’d immediately assumed he’d managed to jump over the fence at his sprawling Montauk estate and escaped into Manhattan to go clubbing again. He’d done it before, and anyone who knows him will tell you that even in his diminished state, in his 80s, his instinctive wildness, his reflex flirtation with recklessness, would have him do it again.
However, as I write this the police have scaled back the search, the detectives have moved in, and the outcome may be more prosaic and terminal. If that is the case, then R.I.P., old friend.
I have known and hung out with Beard for more than 30 years. I smoked joints with him around the campfire at his Kenyan retreat, Hog Ranch; shared his bleak, pessimistic views on the way Africa is heading; and introduced him to a wide range of wildlife conservationists who confirmed this pessimism. I also took him into Condé Nast’s Madison Avenue offices and watched most of the female staffers stop what they were doing and stare in awe. I was at some of the celeb-strewn birthday parties and exhibition openings and witnessed him sashaying through the throngs stoned, wild-eyed, declaiming seamlessly about art, politics, and the state of the natural world. He never stopped moving.
Sashaying through the throngs stoned, wild-eyed, declaiming seamlessly about art, politics, and the state of the natural world.
If this is a tribute post-mortem, then, for Peter Beard, read Peter Pan. Truman Capote, who covered the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street tour with him, said of Beard 50 years ago that he would never change, and I don’t believe he ever did. “Half Tarzan, half Byron” was how Bob Colacello, in Holy Terror, his book about Andy Warhol, described the Beard of that era.
As a young man he was so beautiful that men and women fell at his feet. Beard, who grew up on the Upper East Side, was heir to a railroad fortune on his mother’s side, and his paternal grandfather was the tobacco heir Pierre Lorillard. He started Yale in 1957, switching his pre-med studies to art history. He married one of the most beautiful women on earth, the supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, and also had affairs with Jackie Onassis’s sister, Lee Radziwill; Candice Bergen; and a phone book full of fashion models. One of his best-known photographs has a beautiful young model, naked in the African bush, feeding a giraffe. That model was Maureen Gallagher, who says, “I went there [to Kenya] for three weeks and stayed there for three months. I cancelled all my bookings. I was 22, and I was in love.” They ended up having a long affair.
As a young man he was so beautiful that men and women fell at his feet.
As an elder statesman, resident on his bucolic Montauk coastal estate with his third wife, Nejma, a long-suffering partner of 35 years, Beard remained wild-eyed and reckless. A few years back, while staying at their Manhattan apartment, Peter, after a night of clubbing in the Meatpacking District, arrived home at six a.m. with two Russian hookers in tow. More recently he escaped his Montauk home—Brits call that “doing a runner”—several times, to be retrieved from Manhattan dives days later by Nejma.
Across the years he has drawn into his web people of all faiths and persuasions—authors, socialites, actresses, wildlife conservationists, artists—mainly because he brought a sense of urgency and flamboyance into their lives. What he said was not always coherent, but the passion and power with which he said it filled rooms. And as the years passed his instantly recognizable art—that unique, chaotic potpourri of original photographs, found objects, smeared blood, finely drawn ink sketches—gained international recognition.
Beard’s rise was rapid—from East Coast trust-fund kid to cool Warhol-set appendage and Africa hand. He was responsible for two of the most important African-wildlife books (The End of the Game and Eyelids of the Morning) of the late 20th century. He was also a wild social roustabout who unashamedly enjoyed drugs, mainly marijuana and cocaine, and partied until dawn and beyond.
With it came some rather hair-raising scrapes with Africa. In the late 1980s he was involved in the making of an ABC wildlife documentary set in Kenya. During filming a black rhino charged and gravely wounded one of Beard’s consultants, the hunter and sculptor Terry Mathews, who was opened up from thigh to sternum by the wild beast. He blamed Beard for spooking the animal, and lawsuits followed against him and ABC but failed to prove Beard guilty of negligence. There was an out-of-court settlement.
A wild social roustabout who unashamedly enjoyed drugs, mainly marijuana and cocaine, and partied until dawn and beyond.
Then, in 1996, Beard and old family friend Calvin Cottar were tracking a herd of elephants in the Maasai Mara reserve when the matriarch charged Peter. In a dust storm of trumpeting and stamping, she speared his thigh with her tusk and then, as he clung to one of her legs, she smashed his pelvis in five places with her head. He was casevaced to Nairobi Hospital all but dead.
Several weeks, and several operations, later he was flown back to New York, where he spent a further two weeks in hospital. He called me from his room, instructing me to meet him at the hospital’s entrance so we could go off to a bar and catch up on what had happened. I arrived at the appointed hour, and there was Beard in a wheelchair raving about rhino poaching, corrupt Kenyan parks, and the disappearance of ancient Africa. Just as he was saying, “Now let’s get to that bar,” Anson, his eminently more sensible older brother, arrived, told Peter he was coming home, and swept him away to a more secure environment. The lasting image I have is of Beard shrugging his shoulders as he was wheeled away to the safety and sanity of the family home.
The last time I saw him was 18 months ago. We had a day out in Montauk, wandering around in the soft autumn sunshine. He had most certainly been diminished by several strokes in recent years and perhaps was showing the early signs of dementia, so much so that my notes carry this deadly phrase: “He appeared to be in no condition to discuss big issues.” I left with a heavy heart, then looked back to wave good-bye and caught a flash of that wild gleam in his eye.
Graham Boynton is a London-based journalist and author of Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland, about the end of white rule in Africa