The Lives of Beryl Markham: Out of Africa's Hidden Free Spirit and Denys Finch Hatton's Last Great Love

by Errol Trzebinski. W.W. Norton & Co. 396 pages. $29.

Beryl Markham's life has all the ingredients needed for a dramatic biography. As a child in colonial British East Africa, she played and hunted with African boys, one of whom became the first of her many lovers. She was an extraordinarily successful race-horse trainer, and Kenya's first female bush pilot. In 1936, flying alone, she crossed the Atlantic for the first time "the hard way," from east to west. Beryl Markham was also a famous beauty and the rival of Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, for the love of the aristocrat and big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton. The Prince of Wales once climbed down a drainpipe to meet her for an assignation.

Errol Trzebinski, who has lived for many years in Kenya, knows her subject well. She writes with authority about the social setting in which Beryl Markham lived, and with grace and beauty about the Kenyan landscape. With an unsparing eye, her biography clarifies much that is obscure in Beryl Markham's memoir West with the Night and in Mary S. Lovell's earlier, less critical biography Straight On Till Morning. But in the end, the author's unrelenting exposure of her subject's less pleasant traits makes this a dispiriting book to read.

Trzebinski is also the biographer of Denys Finch Hatton, and in some ways she sees Denys and Beryl as a matched set: "His elusive, captivating yet essentially self-centred nature inevitably had thwarted definition as much as Beryl's and was as beguiling to those drawn to it." But whereas Trzebinski wrote about Denys Finch Hatton with obvious respect and admiration, she relates Beryl's life in a muted, analytical tone, piling up footnotes and facts as if to compensate for the missing heart of the book. Time after time, she describes Beryl's appalling or humiliating behavior, then follows with a psychological rationalization or an excusing comment from one of Beryl's supporters, who were almost always men. Often, unfortunately, Trzebinski explains her subject's predatory sexuality, her selfishness, and her lack of compassion for the weak and sick by referring to Beryl's childhood exposure to traditional African life, which she presents in terms of stereotypical savagery. How could we expect anything better from a woman who grew up in "Africa in the grip of atavism," in a culture where "revenge is all"?

Trzebinski doesn't fault Beryl Markham for pursuing many lovers, though she was more sexually aggressive than even the free-and-easy standards of colonial Kenya could easily accommodate. Beryl's lovers themselves, she notes, never seemed to complain. They appreciated her directness, and her refusal to cling or sulk when she didn't get her way. But Beryl's seductions were accompanied if not driven by a contempt for other women that was often unsavory. Beryl named one of her dogs Tania -- the nickname of Karen Blixen -- because it was "a little bitch with short legs."

That term was more often applied to Beryl herself, even by Hemingway in his famous letter praising West with the Night. "I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's logbook," Hemingway wrote. "But this girl who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers."

How unpleasant could Beryl Markham be? Well -- she shunned her only son so effectively that few people even knew he existed. She vandalized the cars of lovers whose attention was straying, to keep them from leaving her. She stole short stories from a South African writer who had hired her as a typist, and tried to pass them off as her own. (Some silk shirts and scarves also disappeared.) As an "irascible old stick" in South Africa, she tormented the jockeys working under her. Trzebinski also suggests that she may have achieved her phenomenal record as a trainer in Kenya by drugging her horses with an African bark extract known as seketet.

This new biography strengthens the long-standing argument that West with the Night, the memoir by which most people know Beryl Markham, was actually written by Raoul Schumacher, Beryl's husband at the time, who happened to be a professional ghost writer. Trzebinski tells us she had once dismissed this notion, but that further research changed her mind. Quietly, she builds a devastating case against Beryl's authorship, citing her scanty education, her lack of interest in writing or reading, Schumacher's comments to friends at the time West with the Night was being written, and the opinions of various friends and acquaintances who considered Beryl Markham virtually illiterate. "If you believe that Beryl wrote that book," said one, "then you probably believe in Santa Claus and that there are fairies at the bottom of your garden."

The world of West with the Night is a seductive one, as evidenced by its status as an enormous best-seller. A highly romantic story told in lyrical, sometimes purple prose, it captures the myth the settlers of Kenya created around themselves in the days when they believed that Kenya would always be the white man's country. Surrounded by natural beauty, freedom of action, and great economic opportunity, the settlers began to see themselves as larger than life. Shooting a lion, winning a horse race, or landing a small plane on a remote bush airstrip became not just feats of skill but heroic deeds. In West with the Night, Africans themselves have strictly supporting roles: as childhood companions, figures of fun, or loyal servants who talk like Old Testament prophets. But despite its flaws, the book uses the genuinely dramatic material of Beryl Markham's life to create an intoxicating impression of freedom and adventure.

The Lives of Beryl Markham dispels many of the illusions created by West with the Night. Whether readers will appreciate that is another question. The illusions are more attractive than this portrait of a thorny, headstrong, sometimes dishonest, and deeply self-centered woman.

Published in the Boston Sunday Globe, September 5, 1993.