In junior high, I was tasked to choose a book from the school library, read it and write, probably, my first ever official, book report. I was never an avid reader and shuttered at the thought of having to read a book of any length in a given amount of time. But, I took courage and to no surprise to those that knew me, I chose the autobiography of wildlife photographer, Armand Denis, titled, On Safari: The Story of My Life. It was not a book recommended for the faint of heart as it included photos of hunts by tribal natives with one that still haunts me today, an image of a gorilla pierced through the chest with an incredible look of fear and horror frozen on its face. To top it off, the book included 320 pages. Other students were choosing other books that may have topped out at 125 pages!! What was I thinking??
I muddled through and turned in the report. For lack of memory, I do not remember my grade. However, the book and its images were engraved in my brain. Decades later I have a copy of that book, published in 1963, in my African reading collection. And, I could almost claim the title of that book for my own life.
Armand Denis was born in 1896, in Belgium. Like many of my other blog subjects, he developed an interest of travel and the natural world as a child. He fought in the First World War, before escaping to England, where he studied chemistry at Oxford. He worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment on lubricating oils, and, on coke oven technology upon returning to Belgium. He moved to the United States and in 1926, he invented a system of automatic volume control for radio. The royalties from that invention would bankroll his love of travel and movie making. Armand moved to Hollywood to work as a cameraman with Andre Roosevelt, a first cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. He and Roosevelt set out for Bali to film Goona Goona, a dramatic/romantic film about a Balinese prince and a servant girl. The film released in 1930 with an American censored version released in 1932. The film's success brought Armand to the attention of the cinema industry. And, in 1934, he directed Wild Cargo, featuring adventurer and animal collector Frank Buck.
Armand married Roosevelt's daughter, Leila, who traveled with him to film native peoples of the African Congo. They would continue to make short documentaries together through the late 1930's and in 1944 produce Dangerous Journey, a film of the couples' travels. But, in 1948, Armand would meet Michaela Holdsworth, a British dress designer in New York. An affair would ensue, leading to the divorce of Armand and Leila. Armand married Michaela in Bolivia. Armand would continue making films, but, with Michaela, rather than Leila.
The newlyweds would travel to Africa in 1950 to work on the film, King Solomon's Mines, in which Michaela acted as Deborah Kerr's double. The couple produced Below the Sahara in 1953. The BBC picked up on the couple's chemistry and used them as presenters in a television series, Filming Wild Animals in 1954. The quality of Armand Denis' film-making, combined with his heavy accent and Michaela's enthusiasm and glamorous appeal, made them fixtures on BBC TV screens during the 1950s and early 1960s, revolutionizing wildlife documentaries on television.
The couple made their home in Nairobi, Kenya. Both tried their hand at writing, Michaela with Leopard in My Lap (1955), Ride on a Rhino (1960), and At Home With Michaela (1965), and, Armand with his autobiography mentioned earlier in 1963. Armand died of Parkinson's disease in 1971. In 1975, Michaela married her lawyer, but, he would die three months into the marriage. Michaela died in Nairobi in 2003 at the age of 88.
The following quote from Armand is a testament to the lives they lived. It would have been very easy and very simple to have performed other careers, and lived quite comfortably. However, stepping out of the norm and living a different life, a unique life, made a world of difference. Others, like myself, have been intrigued and inspired to see that not all lives have to be of the cookie-cutter variety. One can live with adventure and beauty.
" The only principle I have ever worked to has always been to do whatever interested me at the time. I have gambled quite consciously with myself and with my career. Just occasionally I regret the settled, comfortable life I might have led as a research scientist, but if I had stayed on in the laboratory instead of taking the gamble that I have been living ever since, I would have led a life that hundreds of other people could have performed equally well. Instead I have lived a life that, whatever its faults, has been unique." - Armand Denis