PARIS—Peter Beard was far out of Africa in November 1996. He was opening a retrospective show of his photographs and artworks (the two overlapping) at a former Rothschild mansion here in Paris. And he was on crutches. Two months before, he had been gored and had his pelvis crushed by an elephant. The x-rays had worked their way into some of the art.
This seemed, for Beard, not only appropriate, but something of an apotheosis, because for all his Page Six notoriety as a playboy—he truly was a beautiful man, was always surrounded by famously beautiful women and enraptured, among others, the artist Francis Bacon—the passionate relationship at the very center of his life was with Africa. And more precisely, with the enormous, majestic, totemic, extraordinarily intelligent beings that are the biggest animals you will ever see walking on the face of this Earth.
Over the weekend, Beard’s death at age 82 was confirmed by police and his family on Long Island. Suffering from dementia, he had wandered away from his home in Montauk and, after 19 days missing, his remains were found by a hunter in the dense woods of a state park.
As obituaries proliferated, the glamour of Beard’s life took precedence: his marriages to a socialite, a supermodel, and an aristocratic Afghan drew attention, and there were so many other women besides, often several at a time. He was as comfortable in Studio 54 during its glory days as he was on safari. He liked to smoke weed, a lot. He liked cocaine. His Hog Ranch in Kenya was right next to Isak Dinesen’s “farm in Africa,” and although he came from a rich family, he was always broke. These were details that made him seem, in death as in life, accessibly eccentric.
But Beard’s views about the African wild, and especially about elephants, are not easy for many casual observers to accept, and the book of photographs and text that made his reputation, The End of the Game, first published in 1963 and updated through 1988, is a largely misunderstood masterpiece. People look at the pictures, they don’t read the text.
The book is, in fact, a paean to the hunters of elephants in the early 20th century and, especially in the later editions, a damning appraisal of wildlife administrators in more recent years. The final pages of The End of the Game are filled with images of dead elephants, mostly photographed from the air. People flipping through the book might imagine these were the victims of poachers, but they are in fact photographs of some of the thousands of elephants that died of starvation and thirst when conservationists allowed the animals’ burgeoning population to destroy their habitat.
In the early '90s I traveled to East Africa several times and reported a long piece for Rolling Stone about anti-poaching campaigns that killed men in order to save elephants. The issues were complex. There were no clear good guys or bad guys, not even the poachers. And at the time I studiously avoided connecting with Beard, because I didn’t want the story to become yet another tale about the Hog Ranch, the women, the coke, and the whole Page Six thing.
But I had met some of the people he respected most, including the legendary Bill Woodley, warden of the vast Tsavo West game park, and the aged Elui Nzenge, whose tribe had hunted elephants with poison arrows. “By the time they took aim,” I wrote, “they were often among the herd, a few feet away from their targets, so close they could see the long lashes of the elephant’s eye and the thin cracks in the mud on its skin.”
Elui Nzenge had worked with Woodley since 1948, and in the early '60s he was a tracker for Peter Beard, who put him on the cover of the first edition of The End of the Game. When I visited Woodley and Elui in 1990, Elui showed me, somewhat ritualistically, where he was bitten by a crocodile, wounded by a hippo, and by a rhino, and a lion, and a leopard, and where he was bitten by a cobra. Then he hugged himself to demonstrate what it was like when a python had him. “He has had a full life, this fellow,” said Woodley.
I thought of that in Paris in 1996 when Beard and his wife and his little girl joined me and Newsweek correspondent and author Dana Thomas for a long, largely liquid lunch at the baby bistrot of Taillevent near his retrospective show.
When I pulled up the notes from my hard drive this morning, in the midst of the global health crisis that may kill millions of humans, the interview had a resonance I had not expected.
Dana asked about the elephant that attacked Beard.
“I think she had been shot at, maybe in,” he said. “She gave us one demonstration charge, and it was a very sick demo—her head was down and usually the head is up, throwing things around—and she went back to the herd. Then she came back all the way. We were running of course. We ran about a hundred yards, then split up, and she followed me. I got a hold of one of her legs. She was running around in circles. She pressed me up against this ant hill. I think that's when the tusk went through my leg. And I felt this enormous weight. Everything cracked—CCRRRRR—and then I went blind for five minutes. When my vision came back it was like when you are watching a movie and a storm knocks out your TV and then the image starts to come back. Dink dink dink.”
How much damage did she do?
“She broke my pelvis in five places. It was an unbelievable cruncher. When I arrived at the hospital I was completely bled out. I arrived dead, actually.”
A lot of people claim they see a tunnel with light at the end when they die, Dana said. Had Beard?
“No, unfortunately. I'm very interested in that,” he told us. “That is, to me, the only frontier left, and I have gone out of my way to meet a dozen or more people who have had tunnel experiences. I totally believe in it. How can you not believe in it? I want to be on the edge of my own existence.”
I wanted to talk more about elephants: “Your most famous book, The End of the Game, blames conservationists for destroying the African frontier. You say they let 30,000 elephants starve to death in Tsavo National Park.”
Beard: “If you just put all those fences and boundaries around wildlife, you better be pretty damn smart to understand how to manage it. They used to say in Kenya that the national park [service] had ‘the courage to let nature take its course.’ It created starvation. You could fly over Tsavo and you were never out of the smell of dead animals.”
“Is there a better solution?” we asked.
“I'm not a cause merchant,” said Beard. “But, yeah: understand the population dynamics of us [humans] first, because we are the ones who have squeezed animals into tiny little parkettes, which are then mismanaged by our greedy, ignorant politicians. If we really wanted wildlife, we'd do a lot of things differently. But we don't. We want air conditioning.”
“Years ago,” I said, “you seemed out to save the world, or at least parts of it. The End of the Game had a messianic tone.”
“More like messy.”
“From messianic to messy?”
“We're living in a disintegrating world, and people are not calling it out right,” said Beard. “We're entering the age of density and stress from overcrowding and squeezing. It's like the elephant metaphor.”
“When elephants are starving to death they band together, totally immobilized with the horrors. Our existence in Japan, India, China—I'll even venture to say Great Britain and New York—is the same. What you've seen with the people in Rwanda and Zaire is exactly what happened to the elephants in Tsavo 25 years ago.
“Density and stress. That's our fate.”