The Great African Safari Bust

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Africa was part of my childhood. The attic in our Detroit home smelled like a zoo. There were lion, leopard, zebra, antelope, and colobus monkey skins that my sister and I and our friends used to take out of their trunks and forget to put back. There was also an elephant’s foot made into a wastebasket, ten or twelve elephant tusks and several small curved tusks of wart hogs, drums made out of antelope hide, and musical instruments with strings like the vines on which Tarzan swung from tree to tree.

The head of a Thomson’s gazelle hung over the door from the sun-room to the dining room. Its horns measured sixteen and a quarter inches. That quarter inch made it the world’s record in 1909, the year my father shot it. A Zanzibar chest stood under one of the windows in the sun-room. It was stuffed with photographs of animals, half-naked black men holding spears and shields, landscapes, native huts, and one of my father looking about sixteen—he was actually twenty-eight—and wearing a pith helmet as he sat under a tree with his typewriter in front of him and a smiling black man behind him. There were lots of guidebooks and pamphlets with pictures. They had titles like “What to See in Uganda” and “Beautiful Entebbe.”

The African trip was Dad’s honeymoon. But not Mother’s. Hers occurred at the same time but in Europe, and her companion was her mother.

 

Even though it did separate them, Africa was the catalyst that made it possible for my father, Charles Hughes, to marry my mother, Anna Corbin, with whom he had been in love since the age of nine, when he moved to Eaton Rapids, Michigan, from the nearby town of Grand Ledge and into a house next door to hers. It had seemed like a hopeless case until

Mother, who had been through Vassar and was teaching in a private school in Detroit, broke her engagement to another man and became engaged to Dad. But even then the waiting wasn’t over, because Dad’s salary as a baseball writer on the Chicago Record Herald wasn’t much more than Mother was making; and since she had grown up in a considerably more affluent household than he had, he was all the more anxious to give her the best.

The proposition that came to him out of the blue seemed too good to be true from whatever angle he looked at it. There were no limits to its possibilities. In addition to making it possible to marry immediately it offered high adventure and practically guaranteed fame and fortune.

W. D. Boyce, publisher of The Saturday Blade and The Chicago Ledger , with a combined circulation of 750,000 throughout the midwestern farm belt, had been swept off his feet by a man who was not only a noted photographer but claimed to be an expert balloonist as well. Only he, George R. Lawrence, had put the two accomplishments together, or so he told Boyce.

The whole country was in the grip of an African frenzy because former President Theodore Roosevelt was there collecting specimens that taxidermists would prepare for display in the Smithsonian—a decidedly secondrate approach to the wonders of Africa, Lawrence told Boyce. Boyce could finance and lead an expedition to produce a photographic record of animals against their natural background that would not only live for the ages but would also knock the readers of the Boyce papers for a loop. All Boyce had to do was put Lawrence in a captive balloon with cameras and let it float above the African veldt.

No other way of taking pictures could compare with this method, Lawrence explained to the publisher. On the ground a photographer had only a short time, probably only seconds, to get his pictures before the animals got wind of him and fled. In the balloon he had all the time in the world, for the balloon was as silent as a cloud and the animals never knew it was there. The photographer could take panoramic views to show the herds stretching across the horizon and at his leisure change to another camera better suited for close-ups of individual animals. There was nothing to hurry, fluster, or in any way discommode the photographer in a balloon.

Lawrence had some views of the Rocky Mountains that he told Boyce he had taken from a balloon, and they were indeed spectacular. There was no time to lose, because the African frenzy would start to peter out when Roosevelt left, and he would not remain in Africa forever.

Boyce bore a startling resemblance to William Randolph Hearst. It was conceivable that as a result of the W. D. Boyce’s African Balloonograph Expedition W. R. Hearst would begin to hear that he looked a lot like W. D. Boyce.

Dad attached only one condition to the agreement that made him the expedition’s writer and secretary—which really meant general manager—and that was that the publisher would finance the European stay of his bride and her mother. Boyce readily agreed.

Boyce went immediately to New York, Baltimore, Washington, and on to England. He collected letters of introduction to governors, princes, and other bigwigs and in London got in touch with the people who organized and outfitted safaris. At one point he wrote Dad that he had found someone to take him up in a balloon, even though there was something more enjoyable that he would have to forgo; but after all ballooning was now business, and it had always been his policy to put business before pleasure.