Life & Culture

Everything You Need to Know About Artist and Adventurer Peter Beard

To mark the release of a new film about Beard, we give you a six-point guide to this intriguing man

  • TextStuart Brumfitt

“I first met Beard in the mid-1970s, and, like many others, was charmed by his aristo’s combination of confidence and self-mockery,” says Owen Edwards in his introduction to Taschen’s book on the artist and adventurer. “Here was a man who had looked through his lens at charging lions and walked coolly among unpredictable elephants, who slithered through the mud of Lake Rudolf to hunt man-eating crocodiles with a telephoto and a rifle, who wore African sandals on the coldest New York winter days, who spent time with Francis Bacon and Karen Blixen, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol.”

As well as that, Peter Beard – the collaborator and subject of That Summer, a new film by Göran Hugo Olsson which hits UK screens today – knew Jackie O, Salvador Dalí, Lucian Freud, Iman and Pablo Picasso and spent extensive periods in Montauk, Tanzania, New York, Jamaica, Arles, London and Skorpios. His improbably charmed life moved effortlessly from Studio 54 to the African savanna.

With his dashing good looks and privileged social lineage (his great-grandfather, James J Hill, was one of the leading industrial figures of the late 19th Century and was name-dropped in The Great Gatsby), Beard found himself in places few others could reach. But his storied life was as much down to his intellectual curiosity, social fluidity, artistic bent and wild side (Olsson remarks, “He had a physique from hell: he could party for weeks and still look good and still be happy”).

Beard started creating his legendary collage diaries aged just 10 in South Carolina, “clipping hairs off the horses’ tails and pasting them into this little notebook” and later adding alligator skin, pebbles, bark, moths, feathers, bones, seaweed, mud and blood. They later evolved to include photographs of the world’s most beautiful women, Kenyan wildlife and tabloid headlines, always recording the curiosities of life as he led it and forming an impressive artistic output. For those less versed, here’s what you need to know about Peter Beard.

Dalí thought he was his dead brother

Beard became buddies with Salvador Dalí, who pronounced his surname “Mr Bird”. In his conversation with Steven M.L. Aronson for the Peter Beard book, Beard says, “I was exhilarated when I lucked into a friendship with him. He was the idea man of all time. He kept insisting, weirdly enough, that I was his dead brother. He said I was a dead ringer for him and that he had used my face for his portrait. People like to think Dalí was crazy. Believe me, he was never crazy – he was just inspired.”

He made the proto-Grey Gardens

The acclaimed 1975 documentary about big and little Edith Beale was made by Albert and David Maysles, but Göran Hugo Olsson’s film That Summer shows the original footage, which was orchestrated a year before by Peter Beard and Jackie O’s sister Lee Radziwill (the Maysles brothers were on sound and camera). Beard and Radziwill were making a film about the changes happening in the Hamptons, and in the process caught the two Edies (Radziwill’s aunt and cousin) in all their eccentricity and squalor, before abandoning the project to head to Africa. The following year, the Maysles came back and made Grey Gardens, but only after it had been cleaned up with the help of Onassis. “When you see Grey Gardens, you see that the house is made up,” says Olsson. “It’s so messy that you don’t really feel it, but then you see this film [That Summer] and you see how much more run down the place was.”

He thought Warhol was weird (but they eventually became friends and collaborators)

Beard became friends with Warhol, but wasn’t taken by him at first. When they met in 1963 at a screening of Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, he says, “I thought Andy was a freak. He was dressed in all leather. He was very white and slightly scary.“ They later became friends, eating together every week at the Algonquin in 1971 and 1972, working together on collages and holidaying together in Montauk where they were neighbours. Beard made the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine in January 1978.

He had a bond with Bacon

“I’m the one person, by the way, who Bacon ever let photograph his work in progress,” Beard says in his interview with Aronson. “I shot a painting of his called The Last Man on Earth, which he then went and ruined that same night – he came home pickled, and painted over it. So I have the only pictures in existence of it unruined, with him in the open doorway brandishing an angry brush.” Olsson estimates that Beard is the subject of between 20 and 25 of Francis Bacon’s paintings in the late 1970s.

He “toured” with Truman Capote

Beard and Truman Capote were chosen to cover the 1972 Rolling Stones tour for Rolling Stone magazine and stayed in the same hotel in Kansas City that Capote had been in whilst researching In Cold Blood. Despite spending much time on the road gathering material, Capote never delivered a word. They later worked together on an assignment at San Quentin jail for Life, also interviewing one of the Manson Family. His summation of Capote’s final years in the Aronson interview is brilliantly brutal in its brevity: “As for Truman, he later got into a Warhol connection, became very close to the Factory, got his facelift, kind of freaked out and died.”

He was skewered by an elephant’s tusk

In September 1996, Beard and some friends were charged down by 15 elephants on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. The matriarch ran a tusk through his thigh and crushed his ribs and pelvis with her forehead. He almost bled to death during the four-hour drive to the nearest hospital. A ten-hour operation at St Vincent’s Hospital in NYC left him with seven titanium plates and 28 screws in his shattered pelvis.  

That Summer hits UK screens June 1

Peter Beard, published by Taschen, is out now