Fishermen see a lot when they’re at sea. But the pair looking for flounder off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, had never encountered anything like this.

A young woman approached them, wading through a peat bog, her face and white overalls covered in blood. Behind her, a small airplane stuck up nose-first in the water. Even more startling was what she said.

“Excuse me, I’m Mrs. Markham. I’ve just flown from England.”

Huddling over a cup of hot tea in a nearby farmhouse a short while later that Sunday afternoon in early September 1936, the 33-year-old flyer felt like a failure. She had crashed her Percival Vega Gull aircraft on the final leg of her incredible voyage. But her mood picked up considerably a little later when she realized that despite its rough and sooner-than-expected ending (she had been shooting for New York City), she still had made history.

Beryl Markham had just become the first woman to fly solo, non-stop, from Europe to America. And she had done it the hard way, too, flying westerly, straight into the wind.

In a time when the world celebrated aviation heroes (this was the age of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, after all), Markham’s flight ranked among the greats. Earhart had previously made the trip the same way Lucky Lindy had, heading east with the wind. Said Earhart, “I’m delighted beyond words that Mrs. Markham should have succeeded in her exploit and has conquered the Atlantic. It was a great flight.”

When she finally made it to New York, Markham received the full VIP treatment, including a glitzy motorcade through the Big Apple and a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. Her reaction: “America is jolly grand!”

But here’s the truly remarkable thing — her big accomplishment was just one chapter in a life crowded with amazing adventures.

Born in England in 1904, her father moved the family to Kenya (then British East Africa). By the time she was 17, she was an exceptional equestrian and already recognized as a talented horse trainer. She later squeezed in time to become a bush pilot, too.

Then there were her romantic escapades. Married three times, she even had an affair (while pregnant with her child by husband No. 2) with Prince Harry, Duke of Gloucester. He was totally smitten by her and put her up in an apartment not far from Buckingham Palace (where one biographer claims she once ran down the corridors barefoot). Her long-suffering husband found out and threatened to sue, naming HRH Harry as correspondent. The no-nonsense King George V finally put his royal foot down, ending the affair.

Perhaps the most remarkable of her range of talents was her writing ability.

Markham’s memoir was published in 1942. It’s a gripping read that’s still highly entertaining 82 years later. Plus, it earned the highest accolades from one of the 20th century’s greatest authors. 

“Have you read Beryl Markham’s book, ‘West With the Night?’” Ernest Hemingway asked in a letter to a friend. “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. … This girl can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. … It really is a bloody wonderful book.”

When a California restaurateur came across that passage in a collection of Hemingway’s letters in 1982, he was intrigued and tracked down a copy of the long out-of-print book. He fell so deeply in love with it that he persuaded a publisher to reissue it in 1983. Soon, the then-80-year-old-aviatrix-turned-author had a new generation of admirers.

It was a good thing, too, because when an AP reporter eventually tracked down Markham, he was shocked to find her living in poverty in Kenya. She had a shabby home near a racetrack where she was still training her beloved thoroughbreds and was recovering from a severe beating she had sustained during a robbery. A TV documentary about her life helped turn her reissued book into a best-seller.

Money from the royalties enabled her to spend her final years in modest respectability. When the end came in 1986, it was not from a plane going down, a bullet from a jealous husband, or a toss from an angry horse. She was 83, and her body simply wore out.

A collection of Markham’s short stories called “Splendid Outcast” was published soon after her death. It made The New York Times best-seller list, too.

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