Still Searching for Peter Beard
Dan Rattiner shares memories of the adventurer, socialite, photographer and environmentalist.
Originally published on Dan's Papers - April 16, 2020
It has been more than two weeks since Peter Beard went missing. And in spite of all efforts to find him by volunteers, the East Hampton Police Department and detectives hired by his wife, Nejma, there’s been no news.
Beard is a member of New York society, an adventurer, a photographer, a veteran of many African safaris, an environmentalist and a man who has lived life to the fullest. He has been a resident of Montauk for the past 60 years, living on a vast oceanfront property in a small cottage near a dirt road and a long hike through the woods to a beach. He’s also 82 years old and suffering from dementia. He was last seen on March 31, heading out in jogging shorts and a sweatshirt. He has not come back.
“He’s out there somewhere,” Nejma said a few days ago. And indeed, he could be. Much of his time in Africa was spent living in the outdoors. And the wooded area where he lives, extending for more than three miles along the ocean, is dotted with not only six or more private homes, but also abandoned reinforced concrete machine gun nests and observation towers, built during the Second World War. Along this three-mile stretch there are also 80-foot-tall oceanfront cliffs leading down to rocky beaches pounded daily by the wild ocean. He could have fallen from those cliffs, his body washed out to sea. Or he could have climbed down and is now living in a cave. The possibilities are endless.
Peter Beard was born an heir to a railroad fortune on his father’s side and a tobacco fortune on his mother’s. He graduated Yale, then soon, gripping a copy of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, went to Africa to photograph wild animals. He bought a farm in Kenya. He subsequently bought homes in London, New York City and Montauk. He considers Montauk his American home, at least that part of the wild, wooded, largely uninhabited oceanfront stretch of Montauk he’d bought in the 1960s.
I met Peter Beard at an annual fundraising party in Montauk in 1977. At the time, a group largely of local Montauk women had formed the Montauk Village Association to bring plantings, trees, curbs and streetlights to downtown Montauk, where none had existed before. Celebrities served as bartenders at this party, and Beard was one of them. He had, some years earlier, become famous for a coffee-table book of photographs he’d taken of wild animals in Africa called The End of the Game. So he was mixing cocktails for everybody. He was personable, funny and full of himself. He was also movie-star handsome.
“What are you doing next Saturday night?” he asked me. “We’re having a party at my house. Can you come?” I said sure.
More than a thousand people attended that party, and they included Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Princess Lee Radziwill and Richard Avedon. The party was not held at his cottage, but at the grand stone-and-glass house he had just completed right at the edge of the cliff looking down at the ocean. Balloons and colored lights bordered the party’s outdoor limits. And nobody was allowed inside, because, as Beard said, there were still flights of stairs that hadn’t been finished.
He made an exception, however, when the Governor of New York at that time, Hugh Carey, arrived in a helicopter and landed on the lawn. He’d give Carey a private tour—the centerpiece of the house was the three-story Rheinstein windmill he had towed from Ditch Plains—and I should come, too. Once inside, Beard described everything to us. Books were in bookcases. Rugs and furniture were in place. The kitchen was stocked. There were steep winding stairs into the tower.
Six weeks after that party, on the night of July 28, this new house, still waiting for its finishing touches, caught fire and burned to the ground. Lost in the fire were, among many other things, two Picassos, some works by Warhol, notes for a book about Montauk, and lots of diaries that Beard kept of his travels in Africa and elsewhere. Many of these included entries that featured twigs, flattened bugs, drawings and, in some places, entries written in blood, sometimes creature blood, sometimes his own.
After that, he was away a lot, mostly in his beloved Africa. But he told me I should come up to his cottage any time to have a drink with him, if he was there. He had no phone. Just come. At one visit to the cottage, I asked if I could spend the night out at the ruin. I had a camper bus, and a girlfriend. He said sure, so we did.
For four years in the early 1980s, Beard was married to supermodel Cheryl Tiegs. But they sometimes didn’t get along. Once on the sidewalk in downtown Montauk, they very publicly got into an argument. Beard was apologizing, palms out, trying to explain things. Tiegs was yelling. I tried to ignore them.
Another time up at his cottage, he asked for my help. By this time Cheryl Tiegs was gone. And the ruin was still out there.
“Cheryl and I are still going through this divorce,” he said. “It’s been hell for three years. We’d decided to split the property. She’s a New York City girl, so she got that. But this is my home. I got the ruin and hoped to rebuild. She got this cottage. But now the Town won’t let me rebuild there. Please see what you can do.”
I said I would. But then, noticing where we were, I asked a question.
“Does she own the cottage?”
“Yes, she does,” he said. “But I’m squatting in it.”
Well, I tried. I came up against a battery of lawyers but found no way to help.
A few years later, I came up and met his new wife, Nejma, a beautiful Afghan woman. Their child, Zara, was in a cradle, asleep. They both doted on her, and I joined them. She would be Beard’s only child. Peter and Nejma separated for a while, but then got back together again. Their daughter grew into a beautiful young woman.
I recall many years ago, Beard came back to Montauk with a tall Somali woman named Iman, who he then photographed, mostly nude and draped across one of the boulders out by the ruin. He was telling people she should be the next supermodel, and indeed she became one. She later married David Bowie, the rock musician, who died in 2016. Another time, Beard photographed a small elephant out on his Montauk property. I’d heard about it. Well, he’d gotten the Ditch Plains windmill out there, so now there was an elephant.
He wrote a half dozen more books. His new diaries, much like his earlier ones lost in the fire, are collectors items. He’s been in 10 movies, usually in a supporting role. His works appear in museums around the world. Once, when I was on safari in Africa, I stayed at Jack’s Camp in the middle of the Makgadikgadi Delta in Botswana and saw there, on the dining tent wall, a six-foot framed photograph of Beard in full safari regalia. He’s just everywhere, I thought.
Then, in 1997, on safari in Africa. he was charged and trampled by an elephant.
His companions, who were making a documentary about a soon-to-be-completed safari camp, didn’t film the charge, but they did film the aftermath (if you’ve a mind to, you can see it on YouTube). Beard, near death, was airlifted to a Nairobi hospital and from there to New York, where he endured many surgeries to repair broken bones, his pelvis shattered in seven places, and damage to several organs. It would be a long recovery.
Although I’ve been in touch with Nejma about all this on several occasions since, the only time I saw Beard after that was at a private beachfront home in Southampton, where many of his remarkable photographs were on display and for sale. He was able to stand and walk, but he was being assisted by three beautiful Russian young women. That is Peter Beard.
I hope he is found happily living in a cave somewhere.