Will Beebe, naturalist, writer, inventor, New York socialite, jungle and ocean explorer, is a man whose like it would be hard to have today. But without his example, I don’t know if I would be the person I am. Tom McGuane also cites him as a childhood inspiration, not for writing (I think he slights him a bit here), but for adventure. He wrote his first book in 1905, a rather 19th century affair called Two Bird Lovers in Mexico, and wrote his last stuff for the Geographic in the early sixties. He was a friend to Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote the intro to (I believe) his second book, early, and to Father Anderson Bakewell much later, invented the Bathysphere and exploration of the abyss, shot flying fish with a 28 bore Parker, and married beautiful women…
I have intended to write on Beebe for a while, as I have a nice little collection of “Beeebeana”, but I was prompted by my correspondent, Kirk, one of the serious polymaths himself– geneticist, MD, gourmand, elk hunter, scholar of Icelandic history, sea trout fiend, student of esoteric lore (he is the only acquaintance of mine who has attended the Naropa Institute Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where he among other things read Conrad with William Burroughs!) Kirk, in a discussion of Kipling, asked me if I knew of the “Kiplingite” Beebe (who actually met Kipling when he was living in Vermont). When I replied that I did, and shared my modest collection, Kirk responded with the following:
“Since the first page I “self-identified” as a scientist.
A tiny sphere dangling deep in the dark with
a shaft of light on bizarre never-before-seen creatures.
My wife gave me Gould’s biography (out of print) this summer after hearing
her interviewed on NPR, and probably tiring of me
rave about William Beebe for 40 years (almost
from the day we met) i.e., why I do what I do.
What a combination – absolute scientific rigor,
wild bravery, aplomb everywhere (back of beyond to Vanity Fair),
work hard, party hard, a true advocate for women in
science (one of the first), smashing technical and popular writer,
bon vivant with no care for possessions or
wealth other than that needed for more science, genial
mentor to so many of the best of the best.”
Sing it, Kirk! Here are some things…
His first book:
A favorite, Pheasant Jungles — a signed copy. It was a VERY different time– read the caption (double click to enlarge)…
Books then were decorative- here are the endpapers of Jungle Days and The Arcturus Adventure. Both were published by Putnam, nature and adventure being mainstream in those days…
One of his most wonderful books is Pheasants, Their Lives and Homes – two volumes covering every species, in its natural home! Beebe, just after WWl and working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was given the kind of assignment that usually doesn’t exist even in fiction– to travel to Asia and collect and observe every species, paid for by the wealthy patron Colonel Kuser. The resulting volumes also used the great nature artists of the time– Knight, George Lodge, Fuertes. There is nothing else like them.
This is only the beginning, early, land based. His dives in the Bathysphere, his ocean stuff comes later. His bio, by Carol Grant Gould, and the bathysphere book, Descent, by Brad Matsen, are absolutely worth reading. His social life was amusing too- he knew father B, who collected snakes for the Museum, and who used to keep a copy of the Social Register beside his Alpine Journal and his cocked and locked Colt Commander (“What good is an unloaded gun?” he would always say), in front of a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his Santa Fe casita. I have joked that the American Museum , the Social Register, and the Explorers Club used to draw on the same crowd in the Thirties, and it is more true than not. To be continued…
Ahh, one more, from Beebe’s own Bathysphere book, Half Mile Down…