"Since we humans have the better brain, isn't it our responsibility to protect our fellow creatures from, oddly enough, ourselves?" -- Joy Adamson
Joy Adamson (20 January 1910 — 3 January 1980) (born Friederike Victoria Gessner) was a naturalist, artist and author best known for her book, Born Free, which describes her experiences raising a lion cub named Elsa. Born Free was printed in several languages and made into an Academy Award-winning movie of the same name. She was the wife of British wildlife conservationist George Adamson.
She was the daughter of Viktor and Traute Gessner and was born in Troppau, Silesia, Austria-Hungary (now Opava, Czech Republic), the second of three girls. Her parents divorced when she was 10 and she went to live with her grandmother. In her autobiography The Searching Spirit she wrote about her beloved grandmother: "It is to her I owe anything that may be good in me." As a young adult, she considered careers as a concert pianist and in medicine.
Joy Adamson is best known for her conservation efforts associated with Elsa the Lioness. In 1956, her husband George Adamson, in the course of his job as game warden of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, shot and killed a lioness as she charged him and another warden. Adamson realized that the lioness was protecting her cubs which were later found nearby, Taking them home, he and Joy Adamson raised the cubs. Early on, George Adamson attended to their physical needs while Joy Adamson and her pet Pati-Pati, a rock hyrax, raised them. Joy was completely devoted to the cubs from the beginning and named them "Big One", "Lustica" and "Elsa". After six months, it became apparent that three growing cubs were too much for the Adamsons and their staff. The two larger cubs, Lustica and the Big One, were sent to a zoo in Rotterdam, but they held back the third, Elsa. Deciding to set Elsa free rather than send her to a zoo, they spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own. They were successful in the end: Elsa became the first lioness successfully released back into the wild - the first to have contact after release, and the first known to have cubs. The Adamsons kept their distance from the cubs but they got close enough to photograph them.
After Elsa’s death in January 1961, brought on by a disease from a tick bite, the Adamsons worked to avert the possible execution of the young cubs. Without their mother to feed and guide them, the cubs had become a nuisance, killing livestock and angering local farmers. To capture them was a challenge. George constructed three identical cage traps, and after much waiting the three were captured and transported to neighboring Tanzania where they were promised a home at a national park. In The Story of Elsa, a compilation of the books about Elsa, Joy Adamson wrote: "My heart was with them wherever they were. But it was also with these two lions here in front of us; and as I watched this beautiful pair, I realized how all the characteristics of our cubs were inherent in them. Indeed, in every lion I saw during our searches I recognized the intrinsic nature of Elsa, Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa, the spirit of all the magnificent lions in Africa."
Writer and celebrity
Using her own notes and George’s journals, Joy Adamson wrote Born Free to tell the lions' tale. She submitted it to a number of publishers before it was bought by Harvill Press, part of HarperCollins. Published in 1960, it became a bestseller, spending thirteen weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and nearly a year on the chart overall. The success of the book was due not just to the captivating story of Elsa, but to the dozens of photographs of her. Readers had pictures of many of the events of Elsa’s life leading up to her release. Subsequent books were also heavily illustrated.
Born Free received largely favorable reviews from critics. Adamson worked closely with publishers to properly promote the book, which contributed to the Adamsons' new-found international celebrity. Joy Adamson would spend the rest of her life raising money for wildlife, thanks to the popularity of Born Free. The book was followed by Living Free, which is about Elsa as a mother to her cubs, and Forever Free, which tells of the release of the cubs Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa.
While Joy Adamson generously shared book proceeds with various conservation projects, she showed no such generosity towards her husband, George, from whom she was ultimately separated.
The 1966 film Born Free, starring husband-and-wife actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna and filmed in the bush over the course of many months, was a worldwide hit. The stars got to know the real Adamsons, and the couples remained friends for life, working for wildlife causes. Travers and McKenna decided to do all of their own scenes with the lions in the film in order to recreate the close relationship that Joy and George Adamson had with Elsa. This was a serious commitment and risk on the actors’ part but one that made the film more realistic. The film, which went on to win two Academy Awards (both for music) is widely considered to be a family classic. Six years later, Susan Hampshire took over the role of Joy Adamson in Living Free, a film based on the third “Elsa book”, Forever Free. The theme of the film, "Born Free", which appeared on the film's soundtrack album, was also a popular hit.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the filming of Born Free was that some of the lions used for the film were freed as Elsa had been. This story was told in a documentary produced by Bill Travers titled The Lions Are Free..
In the 1960s, Joy Adamson lived at Elsamere on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Elsamere is now an Education Center and visitors to Kenya can stay there and visit local wildlife.
The European community in Kenya during the decades leading up to the late 1970s, was as eclectic as it was intimate. It included naturalists, scientists, artists, diplomats, spies and the occasional passing aristocrat or celebrity. Though often greatly dispersed, Nairobi served as a social hub where news was traded and amenities briefly enjoyed; everyone seemed to know or know of everyone else. It was thus, that archaeologist Mary Leakey, wife of Louis, became acquainted with Joy Adamson and formed an unflattering opinion of her as a difficult character — “Joy was not a sympathetic personality, nor particularly easy to get on with.”
Pippa and Penny
During Elsa’s lifetime, Joy and George Adamson needed each other to educate her, but after she was dead and her cubs were forever free, their interests went in separate directions, as did their lives. While neither divorced nor legally separated, their conflicting interests (George wanted to continue to work with lions and she with cheetahs), made it necessary for them to live apart (though they sometimes spoke of living together again, it never happened). Every year they got together for Christmas, and they remained on good terms.
While television specials kept the Adamsons’ cause in the spotlight, Adamson spent her last ten years traveling the world giving speeches about the perils faced by wildlife in Africa. A book of her paintings was published. She rehabilitated a cheetah and an African leopard at Elsamere. Pippa the cheetah was raised as a pet and given to Adamson at the age of seven months in hopes that she could also be released. Pippa had four litters before her death. Adamson wrote The Spotted Sphinx and Pippa’s Challenge about Pippa and her cheetah family. Later, Adamson reached her goal of many years: she obtained an African leopard cub. Penny was eight weeks old when a ranger acquaintance of George Adamson found her in 1976. Penny had a litter of two cubs before the publication of Queen of Shaba, Joy Adamson’s posthumous and final book.
3 January 1980, in Shaba National Reserve in Kenya, Joy Adamson's body was discovered by her assistant, Peter Morson (sometimes reported as Pieter Mawson). He mistakenly assumed that she had been killed by a lion, and this was what was initially reported by the media. Her two former husbands and George Adamson were alive at the time of her death; Von Klarwill and George Adamson came to the memorial service, but Bally preferred to keep his feelings private and said his goodbyes at the mortuary.
Police investigation found that Adamson's wounds were too sharp and bloodless to have been caused by an animal, and concluded that she had been murdered. Paul Nakware Ekai, a discharged labourer formerly employed by Adamson, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to imprisonment at President Daniel arap Moi's pleasure. He escaped capital punishment because the judge ruled that he might have been a minor when the crime was committed.
Her widower, George Adamson, was murdered nine years later, in 1989, near his camp in Kora National Park, while rushing to the aid of a tourist who was being attacked by poachers. He is credited with saving the tourist's life.
In addition to her books about big cats, a book of her artwork was published, as was an autobiography entitled The Searching Spirit. George Adamson's second autobiography, My Pride and Joy, was published in 1986.
She married three times in the span of ten years. Her first marriage was to a Jewish-Austrian, Viktor von Klarwill (Ziebel) who during World War II sent her to Africa to find a safe place for the two of them to live out the war. There she met and married the botanist Peter Bally, who gave her the nickname "Joy." She met her third husband, game warden George Adamson, while on safari in the early 1940s. They made their home together in Kenya. Adamson appeared in "The Bargain" and "Death Walks by Night," two second-season episodes of the British television crime drama The Vise, which were broadcast in 1955.
Elsa & Her Cubs 25 minutes Benchmark Films Copyright MCMLXXI by Elsa Wild Animal Appeal and Benchmark Films, Inc.
Joy Adamson - About the Adamsons Producer-Benchmark Films, Inc.
Joy Adamson's Africa - (1977) - 86 minutes
The Joy Adamson Story (1980) Programme featuring interviews with Joy Adamson about her life and work in Austria and in Africa, and her famous lioness Elsa. Director: Dick Thomsett Production Company: BBC