Peter Beard would do anything for a dramatic picture.
The wild wildlife photographer — who was found dead in 2020 near his home in Montauk at the age of 82 — chased rhinos and lions and dove into croc-infested waters. He collected hundreds of skulls at stage an elephant graveyard for his photo book “The End of the Game” and once climbed into the mouth of a dead crocodile for a self-portrait. He convinced models to strip naked and pose with cheetahs. He turned his already-sensational snaps into “art” by splattering them with his own blood.
A bon vivant and libidinous ladies man, his life matched — even exceeded — his work’s intensity. He shot wild animals, inhaled a colossal amount of drugs and seduced a staggering number of women, from supermodels Janice Dickinson and Cheryl Tiegs (his second wife), to actresses Candice Bergen and Bond Girl Carole Bouquet, to society scions like Lee Radziwell. Bob Colacello of Interview Magazine called him “half Tarzan, half Byron.” He was like Hemingway, Picasso and Hugh Hefner rolled into one.
But like those men, he had a dark side. Graham Boynton’s new biography, “Wild: The Life of Peter Beard,” (St. Martin’s Press) is largely in thrall to its larger-than-life subject, but it does delve into Beard’s less-publicized, less-charming attributes. He was violent and callous. He exploited friends, family members and lovers, as well as the Africans who worked on his rugged Kenyan property, Hog Ranch, having them add the embellishments and engravings that made Beard’s artworks so distinctive — without sharing any of the works’ profits.
One model accused him of mistreating her and leaving her with bite marks and bruises after sex. He had at least one suicide attempt, after his first wife left him, due likely to his serial cheating. His third wife had Beard, then in his 70s, sent to a mental institution when he came home in the wee hours of the morning after partying all night with two Russian hookers. That same wife, in the 1990s, falsely accused Beard of sexually abusing their daughter (although she later backtracked that assertion, saying that she had heard it from another friend).
The book’s dust jacket describes Beard as “the original 20th-century enfant terrible.” Yet reading “Wild,” you get the sense that Beard represents not the prototype but the last of a certain kind of 20th-century man. Like Beard’s own pictures of vanishing African wildlife, “Wild” is a portrait of a dying breed: the hypermasculine (generally white) artist-adventurer whose bad behavior was excused, even lionized, as part of his art.
Peter Beard was born 1938 in upper-crust Manhattan, far from the wilds of Africa.
His paternal great-grandfather was a tobacco baron; his grandmother on that side married a succession of heirs to various fortunes. Beard — the second of three boys — went to elementary school with Rockefellers.
From the beginning, Beard chafed at his parents’ WASP values. By age 5, writes Boynton, he was “a fearless street fighter.” He caused his alcoholic money-managing father and prim mother much grievance, but delighted his maternal grandma — a three-pack-a-day eccentric with a pet monkey who took the wayward rebel to the Museum of Natural History and bought him his first camera when he was 11.
At 17, Beard read “Out of Africa” and attended a lecture by Charles Darwin’s great-grandson Quentin Keynes about Kenya. The confident, raffish prep-school student somehow convinced Keynes to take him there, and that summer Beard went on his first African expedition. It was love at first contact.
Beard followed his father’s and older brother’s footsteps to Yale, but dropped his pre-med degree for fine art and continued traveling to Kenya, photographing his exploits and chronicling them in collage-like diaries. (He continued keeping these elaborate diaries throughout his life, which include intricate engravings, toenail clippings, receipts, rocks, feathers and other found objects in addition to his photographs.) He went on safari and killed his first animal, a hippo used to feed some 300 workers at the plantation where he and his guides were staying.
By the end of that trip, Beard “had evolved into a hardened African hand, able to survive in harsh circumstances, live by his wits, hunt for his dinner, and remain mentally tough over long periods of isolation.” In 1961, he planted roots in Kenya, buying 40 acres of land outside Nairobi which he christened Hog Ranch, the stage for many of his famous photos of gorgeous, often naked women in the African bush.
Beard started his career doing fashion shoots — he had a contract with Vogue at the same time as greats Richard Avedon and David Bailey and later “discovered” Iman. (He made up a story about how he had found the “primitive” Somali beauty herding goats in the wild, when in reality he had spotted this educated diplomat’s daughter who spoke four languages walking down the street in urban Nairobi.)
His 1965 book, “The End of the Game,” established his reputation as a wildlife photographer and “expert” on Africa. That tome argued that game preserves meant to save elephants were actually killing them and the environment surrounding them, and featured harrowing photos of Africa’s starving elephant population and titillating close-ups of wild animals.
Local Kenyans had a much less romantic view of this white trust-fund kid who recklessly pursued big game and acted like an authority on their country. Their opinion of him soured further after he reportedly tortured and confined a black poacher he found on his property in 1968 — a crime that landed Beard in jail for 10 days before his famous friends got him out.
But “The End of the Game” and its success in America made Beard an object of fascination in New York society. Here was a young man with the looks of a Greek god, the pedigree of a Rockefeller and the rugged swagger of Hemingway. He hung out with Truman Capote, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. He bedded lots of women. He took even more drugs.
In 1967, he married Minnie Cushing, an “East Coast society beauty” who spent lots of time in Nairobi thanks to her adventure-seeking father. But Cushing didn’t particularly like being stuck at Hog Ranch, which had no indoor plumbing, while her new husband would wander off for days at a time — sometimes “with a flotilla of models and assistants in tow” — with no warning or explanation . Within a year, she packed her bags, went to New York City and never came back.
Beard joined her a few months later, but couldn’t save the marriage. He overdosed on barbiturates in early 1969 and woke up four days later in the hospital. He spent the next five months at Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, where he only had one regular visitor, an old friend from Yale. His estranged wife didn’t go see him.
His second bride, model Cheryl Tiegs, told Boynton that toward the end of their volatile marriage she had convinced Beard to see a couples therapist. After a few sessions the counselor said Beard was “bipolar.” It made sense. “He could be sweet, charming and endearing and then he could also be tough and mean and hurt me on purpose,” Tiegs said.
Tiegs puts Beard in 1978; she was married but embarked on an affair with him, joining him in Kenya to shoot a documentary for ABC, where he coaxed her into posing with rhinos and other big animals. “I was naive,” Tiegs told Boynton. “I didn’t know, for example, you don’t get between a female rhino and its calf.”
It was far from the worst thing he did to her. In 1981, during one of their frequent rows, he punched Tiegs — then pregnant with their baby — in the stomach, causing her to miscarry. “Why he hit me there I don’t know, because he wanted a baby badly,” she told Boynton.
Boynton writes: “They lay on the bed, both crying, and Cheryl asked him if he still wanted to get married. He said yes, of course.”
The day after the wedding, Beard—who was having an affair with an opera singer—went into Manhattan and didn’t come back until morning. The marriage, unsurprisingly, barely lasted a year.
In 1986, he married aspiring model Nejma Khanum, the daughter of an Afghan diplomat in Nairobi, saying he was rescuing her from her strict Muslim household. She claimed before their wedding that she could “tame” him.
In 1996, Beard’s recklessness finally caught up with him. While shooting a tourist brochure, he followed a herd of elephants, including a mother and a baby. The female charged at him and bore his tusk through his thigh, smashed his pelvis and fractured his ribs.
When he came back to New York for surgery, Nejma — who had until then been trying to divorce him for years — stepped in as his caretaker and manager. By this point, Beard was a successful art photographer, and his collages of naked women and wild animals, affixed with detritus and often splattered with blood, commanded up to $100,000. She attempted to cut off all the bad influences from his life and sued his former gallerist, agent and various friends who had received Beard’s works as gifts or trade. (Beard went along with it — excising his friends with a ruthlessness that they found hurtful if not surprising.)
Beard continued to run away from home to do drugs and party with models all night, but by 2017, he “could no longer jump the fence” of their Montauk property. He had suffered three strokes and had to take it easy. Nejma prevented many of his acquaintances from seeing him, saying that they would likely bring drugs.
Then on March 31 2020, Beard went missing. It took three weeks until one of his friends found his body in the woods by his house. His friends found it a fitting way for Beard to go out. As one put it, “Like an old elephant, he went off to die. In a [state] park. Perfect end.”