The book, Born Free, came first, and Americans fell hopelessly in love with Elsa the lion and her selfless caretakers, Joy and George Adamson. Two sequels followed, and in 1966 Born Free was turned into a hugely successful movie (and popular song). On the screen and in a 1974 TV series the Adamsons came off as handsome, noble, 30ish, doting on the animals, the outdoors and each other.
Everyone knows Elsa returned to the wild and died of old age and disease. But whatever became of Joy and George Adamson? To begin with, their image, on big screen or small, involved a bit of romantic fraud. And today the reality of the Adamsons’ lives is not the sentimental stuff that fills theaters and climbs best-seller lists.
George Adamson is 70, lean, muscular, deeply tanned. He lives in a primitive camp far out in the Kenya bush, where he studies lions and occasionally lets his disappointment show. “I think people should see what I’m doing and learn for themselves,” he says. “Many board members of the Elsa Appeal support me, but Joy is the final word.”
Joy Adamson is a vigorous, tough-minded 66-year-old who lives on an estate 50 miles north of Nairobi, surrounded by servants. From this comfortable home on Lake Naivasha she oversees the worldwide conservation program of the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal. She is impatient with her husband. “If George would just come home I would arrange for him to have all the money he needs,” she tells a visitor. “When you see George, tell him to come home.” The Adamsons have been married 32 years; for the past five they have lived all but separate lives.
George was born in Dholpur, India, where his Irish father, a self-taught engineer, had gone to help build a railroad. When his parents moved to Kenya and a coffee plantation, he and younger brother Terence were sent to school in England. By the time George rejoined his family in Africa he was 18. “I did not care for school or farming, so I got a job checking poachers on a neighboring estate,” he recalls.
When the estate was sold, George did odd jobs. He peddled milk (in whiskey bottles) door-to-door, hunted buffalo from a motorcycle with Terence riding shotgun in the sidecar, traded goats, scouted for locust swarms, prospected for gold, sold insurance, beeswax and hams. Then in 1938 he became a temporary assistant game warden. After three months of arresting poachers and shooting marauding animals, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Joy was born Joy-Friederike Victoria Gessner in Troppau, Austria, the daughter of a successful architect. Even as a child she wandered the family estate trying to tame deer and foxes. After an eclectic education in Vienna—piano lessons, dressmaking, pre-medicine—she went to Kenya on vacation in 1937, loved it and moved there permanently. “For 10 years,” she once said, “I did nothing but paint flowers.” Some of her paintings now hang in the National Museum of Kenya.
She also divorced her first husband and, in 1938, married Swiss shoe manufacturer Peter Bally. She was Mme. Bally when she first encountered George Adamson on a safari in 1944. George, ever the noble Briton, left the safari when he and Joy started to get dangerously fond of each other. But then they met again in Nairobi and, as he once recalled, “That was the end of all my fine resolutions, and inevitably I decided I could not live without her.” Within a year she had divorced Bally and married the handsome game warden. “George was captured and temporarily civilized by Joy,” says Tony Fitzjohn, 31, an assistant in Adamson’s camp. (Fitzjohn does not care for Joy, nor she for him, and his observations about the couple are not unprejudiced.)
After a brief honeymoon, the Adamsons spent two months walking around the crocodile-infested shores of Lake Rudolf in northern Kenya. “One of our bearers was impaled by an elephant,” George remembers. “Both of us were nearly killed by rhinos. But Joy discovered some lovely rock engravings. I captured several poachers and learned to call crocodiles. All in all, it was a good trip.”
They began to spend much of their time living in tent camps, wandering by Land Rover across the flat plains of what was then British East Africa. George was senior game warden of Kenya’s Northern Frontier Province when he was sent to track a man-eating lion in January 1956. The lion’s mate charged him, and George killed her, finding later that she had been protecting three cubs only a few days old. “I was filled with remorse and finally, after so many years, sick of killing,” he says.
He brought the cubs to Joy, who, he recalls, “took absolute possession of them.” They sent two of the animals to a zoo in Rotterdam but kept the smallest, naming her Elsa after an old acquaintance. Over the next two years the Adamsons treated Elsa as if she were a house kitten. They taught her to eat from their hands. They let her sleep in their bed and suck their thumbs. They trained her to sheathe her claws when she played with them. They kept a close watch on her health, even examining her feces for parasites.
By 1958, however, Elsa was full-grown and too much of a threat—not to the Adamsons, whom she never harmed, but to nearby farmers’ livestock and the children who guarded them. So they took Elsa far out into the bush and began a bizarre experiment in which two human beings taught a lioness to kill.
Today, 18 years later, Joy still remembers how difficult it was for them to let Elsa go. “She became almost like my child,” Joy says. “Because I had no children, I have spent all my emotion on her and my other animals. But I cannot make them my own.”
In a sense, however, she did just that in her book. Born Free was published in England in 1960 and a few months later in the U.S. More recent studies of the King of Beasts have shown that, contrary to his reputation, he is a lazy creature who often scavenges food from hyenas and other carnivores, flees from such enemies as elephants and crocodiles and sometimes even resorts to cannibalism, eating the cubs of adults he has killed. But Joy Adamson’s portrayal of Elsa as a gentle, loyal member of the family made Born Free an international best-seller. (“I wrote part of the book and helped with the editing,” George says. “But it is hers.”)
Just before the book was published, Elsa gave birth to three cubs. She often brought them to visit, but since the Adamsons were wary of overdomesticating them, Joy and George never achieved much more than peaceful coexistence with the little lions. Several months later Elsa fell ill of a parasitic infection. George tried desperately to save her, but Joy, who had gone to Nairobi on book business, returned too late with medicine for it to be of any use. “Joy often wondered why Elsa died in George’s arms and not hers,” Fitzjohn says acidly.
Joy had already been working on a sequel about the birth of the cubs, Living Free, which came out in 1961. Forever Free, the story of the cubs’ liberation, followed in 1963. Then came the movie. As the Adamsons’ fame grew, so did their demands on local authorities to exempt their programs from game park regulations. The Kenyans patiently—and prudently—tolerated them. “Joy Adamson’s worth as a benefactor far outweighs her nuisance impact on authority,” says one high-ranking Kenyan civil servant. “Both she and George, in their different fashions, have done—and are doing—a great deal to ensure that Kenya’s heritage of wildlife, a vital source of tourist revenue, is preserved.”
In 1964 Joy taught a cheetah raised by an army officer to survive in the wilderness. The animal was named Pippa, and three more books resulted. George, meanwhile, took some of the lions used in the film version of Born Free and began untaming them. (One of the animals, Boy, survived in the bush for four years with Adamson’s help, but had to be killed after he attacked one of George’s African assistants. “Boy had this unfortunate bloke in his mouth, torrents of blood,” Adamson recalls unhappily. “He died, of course, and I shot the lion.”)
Looking back, the Adamsons realize that the film represented a watershed in their marriage. “Joy and I have more or less gone our separate ways since then,” George says. “There is nothing for me to do in Naivasha but sit and vegetate, and she won’t come here. It’s too remote and the climate doesn’t agree with her.” Their estrangement is not total. When George leaves the bush he stays in a small cottage behind Joy’s villa, and she occasionally travels the 300 miles to his compound. “They cordially exchange information, both scientific and domestic,” says one mutual friend. “With their disparate temperaments, the marriage is now more a warm relationship, kept alive by distance, than a romantic one.”
In 1970, inspired by worldwide contributions, Joy established the Elsa Appeal, which underwrites animal conservation and education programs in the United States, Canada, Japan, England and Kenya. In the last five years none of George’s projects has received any financial support from his wife’s foundation.
As founder of the Elsa Appeal, Joy remains its best publicist. But she says she has resolved to spend less time on globe-trotting lecture tours and more time on her next project—finding a baby leopard to rehabilitate.
“In every quality leopards outweigh the lion and the cheetah,” she says. “I’m most interested in cats’ telepathic capacity. I woke up at 5 in the morning in a hotel in Nairobi and knew Elsa was dead; I think we might have had the capacity before we developed speech.”
Joy’s interest in leopards may also represent something of a peacemaking gesture toward George. It is a field he would like to expand into. For the time being, though, he serenely tends his family of lions; his “children,” he calls them, laughing as he tells how they recently knocked him down while playing and broke his pelvis. His camp—a collection of burlap-and-thatch huts surrounded by a high wire fence—is 18 miles from a dirt airstrip. With a small pension and royalties from his own book, Bwana Game, he supports his entourage, which includes Fitzjohn, brother Terence, 69, and several Kenyans.
“George is generous and good,” Fitzjohn says. “He’ll do anything to avoid the hassle of society. Terence wants no part of civilization. He eats cheese sandwiches and straightens bent wire, but most of the time he’s out building roads to nowhere. I was here three years before I talked. I suppose we are three frail individuals who were unable to accept what the world has to offer.”
A mutual friend of the Adamsons says of Joy, “She has given most of her money to the Elsa Appeal for the preservation of wild animals,” adding, “but George has given his life to them.”