The sole connection Vol de Nuit has with the raving aviatrix Beryl Markham is this: Saint Exupery was one of her many lovers.
Beryl Markham's life is mythic. If Hemingway’s heroine from “The Sun Also Rises,” Lady Brett Ashley, had been raised by servants in East Africa, hunted big game and guided safaris, trained thoroughbred horses, worked as a bush rescue pilot and, incidentally, become the first person (as opposed to first woman) to fly the Atlantic the “hard way” – east to west – she might have begun to approach Markham territory. Hemingway knew Beryl Markham. She was one of his safari guides. He called her “a high-grade bitch….who can write rings around all of us.”
It appears that Markham lived for herself and none other. Baroness Karen Blixen, who most of us remember from “Out of Africa,” was a friend, although Markham appears to have had little regard for other women. Blixen called her “pantherine.” Blixen’s husband and her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton (so memorably played by Robert Redford in the film) were Markham’s lovers as well. There is speculation that Markham was inspired to fly by Finch-Hatton, and that may be true. She had other teachers, though. And many other love affairs -- England’s Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester was one; Markham was paid a princely sum by the royal family to go away, which she did (and drew on that fund for the rest of her life). There were other rumors about Edward, Prince of Wales, who later married Wallis Simpson. What is clear is that she lived beyond convention.
In early September, 1936, Markham made the transatlantic flight that entered her name into history. She fought headwinds the whole way. Her navigation documents blew away the first hour. She battled icy fuel lines and, at one point, realized she’d been flying upside down. She didn’t make it to New York, as she’d planned – she was forced to crash-land in a peat bog in Nova Scotia – but she made it. She wrote about this and other experiences in her autobiography “West With the Night.” (There is some speculation about who actually wrote it. A disgruntled ex-husband -- she had three -- attempted to claim authorship. Critics have wondered if Saint-Exupery did some embellishing or editing – all that is clear is that his prose inspired hers.) The point, though, is that this is a life that the world's best storytellers could hardly imagine.
These early aviators captured public fervor much like the later astronauts would. Beryl Markham might have been more famous than Amelia Earhart, had she perished as mysteriously as Earhart did. But she lived on, until 1986, training horses and barnstorming around Africa, and so did not have the rock-star glamour death that would have ensured her notoriety forever.
What does Markham have to do with Vol de Nuit perfume? Not a whole lot in terms of history; Guerlain didn’t know her. We don’t know if she wore it, although it’s not a stretch to imagine that she did – after all, Saint Exupery’s book Vol de Nuit was published in 1931, just as Markham was learning to fly, and Guerlain's Vol de Nuit was released in 1933. It’s likely that she later went after Saint Exupery with the same fury that characterized all her pursuits. Did she wear it?
Notes for "Vol de Nuit" include orange, mandarin, lemon, bergamot, orange blossom, jonquil/narcissus, aldehydes, galbanum, vanilla, spices, oakmoss, sandalwood, orris and musk.
“West with the Night,” by Beryl Markham, is still available. The ISBN is 0-86547-1185.
“Straight On Till Morning,” by Mary S. Lovall, is the definitive biography of Beryl Markham. ISBN 0-312-01096-6
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