The scenario conveys a sense of déjà vu. A twice-divorced woman from Baltimore winds up with a highborn Briton and lives happily ever after, with five servants, in three homes, on two continents. The continents though, are Africa and North America; the story is less Crown Matrimonial than Mogambo; and the couple is not the Windsors but the Leslie-Melvilles. If they are duke and duchess of anything, it is of the U.S. women’s club lecture circuit and of Kenya’s camera-safari trade.
Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville operate nearly half the year out of their Manhattan apartment base camp. Since their marriage in 1964, they have delivered their urbane travelogues (including film from friend Jack Paar’s documentaries) to travel agents and lay groups in 200 U.S. cities. Naturally, they also do talk shows, including NBC’s Today.
Back at their other headquarters in Nairobi, the Leslie-Melvilles reap the benefits of Jock’s position as managing director of Percival Tours, one of the major non-hunting safari outfits in East Africa. Betty, who still retains her American citizenship, cannot legally work in Kenya, but is unofficial co-director. For about a year they served as actual safari guides, but lately they go into the field only to scout new lodges and itineraries for Percival. (Though Jock was nearly attacked by a lion while changing a tire, they consider Kenya basically safer than Manhattan.)
They have stopped escorting groups, Jock says frankly, “because if you already disagree with them about Nixon and racial situations, then you’re in for three tense weeks, and you have to bite back your words.” So, instead, they just greet and send off each newly arriving group of tourist tenderfeet with a spread of cucumber sandwiches and tea at their $60,000 white stucco home in the exclusive Nairobi suburb of Karen (named for the Baroness Karen Blixen, whose famed nom de plume was Isak Dinesen).
The Leslie-Melvilles are feverish writers themselves, but their style is more Temple Fielding than Dinesen in their autobiographical guidebooks which sport coy titles like There’s a Rhino in the Rosebed, Mother. When they find themselves getting “over-peopled” or behind in their book deadlines, they flee to an escape-cottage they designed themselves 380 miles away at Malindi on the Indian Ocean. With vandalism a recurring problem, they were delighted to find that a formidable-looking, but harmless, fist-sized spider had installed itself in the living room. They christened it Poindexter.
“Africa is a disease,” Betty says and writes repeatedly, and she and Jock suffer from an incurable case. Now 46, Betty was a doctor’s daughter who in the bad days of the Depression had to sell eggs door-to-door. She later ran a nursery school, modeled, and hosted a TV show. After a 1958 visit to Africa, she persuaded her second husband Dan Bruce to forsake banking and go into the safari business. “People said, ‘You have so much courage to go to Africa,’ ” she recalls. “But it would have taken more courage to live in suburban Baltimore.”
Both liked their new home but their marriage foundered, and while on a vacation with her three children at Malindi in 1963, Betty met Jock. He was there recovering from an attack of cerebral meningitis and awaiting a divorce from his short-lived first marriage to an English peeress. Five years younger than Betty, he had been born in London and raised on a farm in Kenya. In common with the boys of his class (his father was aide-de-camp to the King of Greece), Jock was schooled at Eton and Sandhurst.
They became engaged on their second date. “We’d gone to a very sad Robert Mitchum movie in which they had a great affair and didn’t get married,” says Betty. Jock’s thrice-married mother suggested that they live together instead, which is commonplace among Kenyan colonials, but Betty demurred. “I have a hang-up left over from Sunday school,” she admits. “I have to be married. That’s why I keep getting married and divorced.”
Although Betty’s children were away at school when she married Jock, they are a welcome part of their lives. “I never wanted the responsibility of bringing somebody into the world,” Jock says, “but I’m happy enough to look after people who are already here.” He gets along also with Betty’s ex-husbands, who remain her good friends. “On Christmas,” she says, “my first husband comes for breakfast, my second husband comes for lunch, and Jock’s there all day.” It is all part of the laissez-faire, polyglot Kenyan life-style. After dinner, both cognac and marijuana are offered. Their friends range from the former vice-president of Kenya to the doorman of the New Stanley Hotel. Their Swahili is more than serviceable and is particularly useful in the U.S., says Betty, for questions like, ” ‘How much should I tip him?’ ” Or, adds Jock, “If I want to say at a cocktail party, ‘Don’t you think we can go now?’ ”