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A Memorable, Forgettable Character
on May 14, 2007
If you know of Denys Finch Hatton, you probably know of him as the flyer in _Out of Africa_, whether in the memoir by Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) or in the movie as played by Robert Redford. His long and troubled love affair with Blixen and her commemoration of him in her writing are now just about all there is to Hatton, but that was not what those around him would have thought. He was a legend in his own time, idolized by men and adored by women, as unforgettable a personality as anyone around him had ever met. The new biography of Hatton, _Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton_ (Random House) by Sara Wheeler, contains many reminiscences of those whom Hatton had impressed. "As for charm, I suspect Denys invented it," wrote aviatrix Beryl Markham, who also wrote of her lover in the memoir _West with the Night_. "The man with about the most impressive personality I have ever known," wrote Bertie, Lord Cranworth, who had fought alongside him. Yet as Wheeler admits, "the real Denys" is unknowable. He did not leave a diary, and there are only a few dozen letters existent. It is clear that except for making himself into a legend, his accomplishments were minimal. Since he died in 1931, no one now alive has adult memories of him. He is thus perhaps a thin subject for a full biography, but Wheeler has summarized both the life and the social forces of its time, to make a portrait of a man who charmed himself into history as effortlessly and successfully as he did everything else he tried.
He was schooled at Eton, which remained in his memory as his happiest years. He was admired there for his good looks, ability at sports, and his wit. At Oxford, he excelled in sports, and didn't care much about academics, leaving with a fourth-class degree and no particular enthusiasm for a career. In 1911 he headed for British East Africa, now Kenya. He had to do something, and he invested in land, in shops, in cattle, and in mining, with little effect. He served in the African arena of WWI, but a friend remembered that he "made no secret of the fact that warfare bored him to distraction." It was only after the war that he discovered the vocation of big game hunter (and guide to would-be big game hunters) that was perfect for him. He was just the fellow to kill two lions with successive bullets from a double-barreled rifle. He eventually worried about the toll that such killing was taking on the area's ecology, and long before his countrymen came around, he was talking about the importance of conservation. He took up photography and advocated that visitors come shooting with the goal of bringing back as trophies photographs rather than mounted heads. He had many satisfied customers, none more important than the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII), who didn't like anyone much, but liked Hatton. The Prince bet him that he couldn't affix the king's head to the bottom of a rhinoceros, but the fearless Hatton managed it, putting postage stamps on each buttock of a sleeping rhino. He had the Prince's admiration, and he also had the Prince's ear and understanding as he advocated for photography of game and against the useless shooting of it from motorcars.
On another safari, he was asked by American tycoon Frederic B. Patterson how it was that he came to the career of guide. "Oh, it just happened, if you know what I mean," came the reply. He was exactly right; striving for accomplishment was not in him. When he encouraged Karen Blixen to resume painting for relaxation, she wrote, "He has a great talent himself but cannot be bothered to do anything about it." He also could not do anything about relationships with women, of whom Blixen was merely the most important and enduring. Book and film have made her part in his story well-known, but he did leave her when she was emotionally and financially at her neediest. And then, never having accomplished much besides being well liked and admired by almost everyone, and loved by many, in 1931 he was killed in a plane crash, sealing the legend forever, and preventing any resolution of the many enigmas he personified. He might be a minor figure, but he is a fascinating one, and for all his limitations, and the sparseness of documentation of his own reflections, Wheeler has given as good a portrait as he is likely to get. No one knew him well during his lifetime, and not even Wheeler's careful attention explains him satisfactorily, but he is worth knowing even just a little, as all around him would have said.