Given the gender discrimination women faced during the first half of the 20th century (not to mention before and since), it is somewhat surprising that this golden age of pioneering aviators featured quite so many female trailblazers.
Among them was Beryl Markham who, exactly 80 years ago (September 1936), became the first woman, and only the second pilot, to fly solo east-to-west across the Atlantic. She had hoped to become the first person to fly non-stop from Europe to New York, but 20 hours into the flight her plane, The Messenger, suffered fuel starvation and she crash-landed in a bog in Nova Scotia.
Markham was famished – having taken nothing more than flasks of coffee and chicken sandwiches as sustenance – and exhausted. The impact of the landing had thrown her against the instrument panel, inflicting a nasty cut on her forehead, and she had to trudge for two hours across what she described as “engulfing mire” before two fisherman picked her up.
But she would be greeted in New York by a rapturous crowd of more than 5,000, while Columbia Pictures presented her with a contract to appear in a film portraying her achievement.
As Gavin Mortimer explained for The Telegraph back in 2009, “Markham did not, like her contemporary Amelia Earhart, die a young, heroic death in pursuit of a dream; she lived on to the age of 83, but her story – beset by tragedy and scandal and punctuated by moments of extravagant triumph – reads like something from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel.”
Markham was born in England but moved to Kenya as a child. She became a racehorse trainer, married three times but had a string of affairs, and befriended the author Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame (the film’s character ‘Felicity’ is inspired by Markham).
Mortimer adds: “Her conquests throughout the 1920s were legendary. There was Tom, the son of Lord Delamere, who lost his virginity to Markham in a stable; there was the big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton; and there was Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, third in line to the throne.
“Markham first met the prince in 1928 when he and his brother, Edward, Prince of Wales, came to Kenya on a safari. It mattered to Markham neither that she was married at the time to Mansfield Markham, nor that she was four months pregnant with his son. In 1929 she gave birth in London to a boy and a few weeks later began visiting the prince at Buckingham Palace.
“Eventually, the Queen found out about the affair and demanded it end. Markham was given an annuity of £15,000 on condition she leave England at once. She handed her son into the care of her parents-in-law and returned to Kenya. Back in Africa, she sought new ways to be entertained, and found it at the controls of an aircraft.”
She initially worked as a bush pilot, spotting animals from the air and signalling their locations to safari groups on the ground, before making her record-breaking flight
Her many adventures were recorded in the 1942 memoir West with the Night, upon which Ernest Hemingway heaped huge praise. Despite this, Markham was reported to be living in poverty until the rediscovery of the book in 1982. The success of a subsequent reissue allowed her to live her final few years in relative comfort.