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On September 5, 1936, two fishermen in Nova Scotia stumbled across a young woman covered in blood, wading through a bog. In the background, a single-engine aircraft was half-buried in the mud.

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“I’m Mrs. Markham,” she told them. “I’ve just flown from England.”

Aged thirty-three, Beryl Markham had just become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, non-stop from Europe to North America, no mean feat given that she was traveling east-west against a 40-mile headwind.

As Sidonie Smith writes in Moving Lives: Twentieth-Century Women’s Travel Writing, the flight was reminiscent of the “swashbuckling adventure movies of the 1930s.” Markham was armed with chicken sandwiches and a hip flask of brandy, on which she steadily drew as she overcame terrifying moments such as when her engine cut out for thirty seconds; a storm and ice particles blocked the air intake on the petrol tank, which eventually led to her inelegant landing in the aforementioned bog.

Born in England in 1902, Markham left Great Britain when she was little more than a toddler. Her father, Captain Charles Clutterbuck, established a horse farm near Njoro, near Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Her mother, Clara Agnes (née Alexander), never adapted to life in the bush and made for the UK with her new lover, a handsome Etonian called Major Henry Fernley Kirkpatrick, and her son, Dickie, in tow. Markham was left in the care of her father and their Kipsigis and Nandi neighbors.

In The Lives of Beryl Markham, Errol Trzebinski describes Markham’s unusual girlhood in detail. Markham’s best friend was a boy named Kibii (or arap Rutas, as he became known after circumcision), and she grew up as an honorary boy in the Kipsigis tribe, speaking Swahili as a first language and crossdressing. Her father taught her and Kibii to ride horses with the control of cavalry cadets, while Kibii’s father shared his extensive hunting and tracking skills. She also joined in the other boys’ games of skill and strength, which involved challenges such as jumping one’s own height and hunting warthog with a spear.

During World War I, Markham went to the English school in Nairobi but unsurprisingly struggled to comply with its strict rules. In less than three years, she was expelled for attempting to ferment a “revolution” among her classmates. On returning home, she focused her energy on her horsemanship, becoming the first woman in Africa to receive a racehorse-trainer’s license in 1920. She remained a prominent trainer throughout her life and achieved six Kenya Derby winners.

Just before her seventeenth birthday, Markham married Jock Purves, a brawny Scotsman twice her age who ran Clutterbuck’s sawmill. The marriage was a disaster, thanks in part to Purves’s drinking. Markham sought relations outside the marriage before ultimately leaving Purves in 1922, setting into motion the tongue wagging that would dog her throughout her life. It was whispered that when Purves sold their marital home, it had a door hammered with brass nails—one for each of Markham’s infidelities.

Although staid colonial society no doubt exaggerated Markam’s appetite for sex and romance, she clearly craved connection, perhaps due to having been essentially abandoned by both her parents at a young age (her father emigrated to Peru amidst financial turmoil when she was just eighteen). “The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all,” she wrote in her 1942 memoir, West With the Night.

With her sculpted blond beauty and pantherine charm, she had no difficulty attracting a string of high-profile partners. Her first and perhaps greatest love was big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who was one of the first people in Kenya to own a plane and who ignited her interest in flying. In 1927, however, she married Mansfield Markham, heir to a British coal mining fortune. In 1928, she had a brief liaison with Edward, Prince of Wales, and soon after began an affair with his brother, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, which lasted until his marriage in 1935. Although Queen Mary forbade Mansfield Markham from citing either of her sons on his divorce petition, Henry settled £15,000 in trust to pay for an annuity for Markham for life, according to biographer Mary S. Lovell.

Fresh out of the long-term relationship with Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) chronicled in Out of Africa, Finch Hatton became Markham’s romantic partner once again as she entered her thirties. Tragically, he died in a plane crash in May 1931. It’s a testament to Markham’s courage that the loss of her great love only cemented her interest in aviation. She took her first solo flight a few weeks after Finch Hatton’s death and proceeded to become the continent’s first female professional pilot. For the next six years, she worked in the air postal service, as well as a bush and rescue pilot.

After the warm welcome she received in North America on the completion of her crowning achievement, the solo transatlantic flight, Markham moved to California in the late 1930s. It was there, in 1942, that she published West With the Night, which author Lesley Hazleton describes as “a lyrical combination of Markham’s three main passions: flying, horses and Africa.” Initially praised, it faded from public view following claims that Markham’s third husband, Raoul Schumacher, had written some or all of it for her—despite the fact that much of the manuscript was delivered before the two met.

After a letter from Ernest Hemingway to his publisher, Maxwell Perkins—in which he calls West With the Night, “a bloody, wonderful book”—was rediscovered, the autobiography was republished in 1983, giving Markham some much-needed income during her final years. She died in 1986, at age eighty-three, in Nairobi, having lived a life defined by autonomy, adventure, and aviation. One imagines that the little girl who grew up as a Kipsigis warrior wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to clarify that the mother of Edward, Prince of Wales, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester, ruled as Queen Mary though she was earlier known as Princess Victoria Mary of Wales; her given name was Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes.

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