January 2012

Colleen Mondor


Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure by Kelly Enright

About twenty years ago, I had one of those moments in a used bookstore in my hometown that bibiophiles live for. It was a small, dusty (of course) store that was filled with towering piles of everything from Book of the Month Club titles to nineteenth-century encyclopedias. There were wire racks full of Harlequin romances and shelves of compact Shakespeare that were inscribed as Christmas gifts from the World War I era. There was only the most basic of shelving systems, and the proprietor, who was always camped out in a desk by the front door, could only provide the most general of directions. I poked around this store every few months, and one day discovered Osa and Martin Johnson.

The Johnsons were the definition of early twentieth century adventurers. Martin first left America crewing for Jack London on the Snark and dreamed of spending a lifetime visiting the more remote sections of the globe. As a couple, Osa and Martin became the preeminent adventure filmmakers between the 1910s and 1940s. They were with cannibals in the South Pacific, on safari in Africa, and feted by the scientific minds of the day. (Martin was even invited to join the Explorers Club; they did not invite their first female member until 1981.)

What I found in that bookstore was I Married Adventure, Osa's 1940 memoir of their travels published with a distinctive sepia-toned zebra-striped cover. It is filled with their accounts of shipping hundreds of pounds of equipment around the world, camping out in the jungle or the bush, meeting the locals, trying to communicate with the locals, getting scared to death by the locals, and facing down all manner of man and beast in the pursuit of moviemaking dreams. Osa clearly adored Martin, and while I Married Adventure is a great read, it left some details out (like why the Johnsons never had children). This is where Kelly Enright's excellent biography Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure nicely fills the gap.  

With a liberal amount of photographs and a solid collection of sources, Enright opens with a thorough look at Martin's childhood and how he came to be with the Londons on the Snark. The relationship between the two couples and Osa's dramatic health problems -- which make her presence on the expeditions that much more extraordinary -- are detailed. Happily, even while dealing with famous names, Enright does not dwell on gossipy revelations, instead referencing lectures, news reports, diaries, and letters as she recounts the Johnsons' journeys and their dynamic presence at packed lecture halls. (Osa was also renowned for her fashion sense.) There are plenty of exciting moments to recall, as Osa shot more than one charging lion, as well as encounters with royalty and the wealthy. Enright also shows how the Johnsons evolved in the way they saw the wild places they encountered, first recording the strange and unusual, and then becoming true nature documenters determined to do what they could to preserve the natural world.

While I Married Adventure is a decidedly upbeat recollection, Enright is careful to consider the more difficult periods that Osa suffered as she left her family behind again and again to accompany Martin to remote locations and how she often longed for her female family and friends. Usually the only woman in camps of men, Osa would cook and clean to provide the best possible working environment for Martin, but she missed her mother in particular. While she was always a willing traveler with her husband, the excerpts from the sad letters home provide a valuable peek into Osa's heart and the difficulty of being part of an adventurous couple.

Tragically, the Johnsons' story does not have a happy ending. The couple was involved in an airline crash in California in 1937, and Martin did not survive. Terribly injured, Osa still managed to come forward and promote their latest movie a few months later, but as Enright recounts, she was never the same after losing her partner. She careened from one bad relationship to the next, and descended into depression and alcohol. This is the story Osa never told, ending I Married Adventure simply with a news report about the crash, and it is a striking one. I assume that Enright had difficulty finding information on Osa's final years, because this part of the book is where the narrative reads a bit thin. She mentions the seven books Osa wrote in the thirteen years between Martin's death and her own, but does not elaborate on their titles or subjects. But she is careful to make clear that Osa was not a "depressed alcoholic" in the end and rather just struggled with the loss of the man she was with from the time she was sixteen. In the end, Enright makes clear that Osa and Martin Johnson are two Americans who led wholly original lives and should be remembered for never once deigning to be ordinary.

Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure by Kelly Enright
Lyons Press
ISBN: 978-0762763603
240 pages