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I met Peter Beard through my friend Grace Jones at a club in Manhattan called Heartbreak in 1987. Grace said, “Daarrling, you have to meet Peter. You’re bananas from the same bunch!”
New York nightlife was like an amusement park back then. I was 22 and had no idea who Peter was or what kind of ride I was about to get on. He asked me, in a voice that sounded both righteous and almost obnoxious, if I wanted to come to Africa. I said, “Yeah, right,” and disappeared into a bathroom. In the morning there was a ticket to Nairobi waiting for me at my agency, Elite Model Management. I would be replacing Iman, of all people, in a TV movie he was shooting for ABC called Last Word From Paradise.
As I was handed the ticket, I was given the obligatory speech about how Elite girls should behave, along with instructions to be “very careful of very adult situations.” In those days, it was par for the course to show up at a shoot and find a pile of blow on a table in the dressing room. My motto was “Take it easy—but take it.” Peter’s approach, I would soon learn, was “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” I didn’t understand that until I got older. It was winter in New York, and I was going to Kenya to see things most people only read about.
On my first night, as we walked around Hog Ranch, I thought wild animals would pop out and surprise me. Peter had to hold my hand, and things were electric from the first touch; we spent hours kissing in the tub tent that night. We had the most chemical and physical attraction: end of story. I listened to his tales about life, love, and the way we were losing all of earth’s most beautiful treasures, about how many creatures would be extinct in my lifetime. He told me about Karen Blixen and The End of the Game, the book he wrote in 1965, the year I was born. We talked about his past marriage, and how sex had eluded him. He was amazed at how easy it was with me. We had long hours alone and were, frankly, addicted to each other.
On what turned out to be my last night at Hog Ranch, at about 2:30 in the morning, we’d been planning a nude photo with giraffes—but they hadn’t come around to eat for a while and we thought we’d lost the chance to shoot the image that became Night Feeder. Sitting by the campfire, waiting to go to the airport and leave Kenya, I had a very heavy heart. Then, when the giraffe walked into camp, Peter calmly said, “This is it, folks. Maureen, get ready.” My heart went from melancholy to beating out of my chest. I rushed to take everything off and tried desperately to stand on my toes to hold the feeding bowl. I was scared and in awe of the towering beast. I’d never felt so alive. It was cold and I was naked. This is fabulous, I thought. No one’s going to believe this. Then, almost immediately, it was time to get in the car and say goodbye.
Peter, of course, never mentioned that he was married. Peter Riva, his agent, told me that right before I got on the plane. I was devastated, but it was too late. I had fallen in love in the wilderness with an American icon. I remember wanting to spend the rest of my life with him.
The ABC movie was a real gem, but unfortunately, due to a television-writers’ strike, our movie aired last-minute without the PR it deserved. I don’t think I ever saw Peter so angry. I returned to New York to find the nude image of me feeding the giraffe all over bus shelters. Duggal photo labs covered their entire storefront on 20th Street with Night Feeder to advertise a new breakthrough in photo enlargement.
My mom wasn’t amused—nor did she appreciate the pictures we sent to Playboy. Peter showered me with positivity about the photograph and made me confident that it was artistic. He called me a living sculpture. I vowed not to give him up.
After Kenya, with Peter’s words in my mind, I couldn’t think of life as a model the way I had before. I stopped obsessing over money and other models—the “pecking order,” as Peter would say. I canceled my European shows that year to stay with him in Africa, where I felt connected to earth, nature, and art. I felt like a badass—maybe an outcast, sometimes—and I loved it. I realized life was too multidimensional to care about the little things. What about the very big elephants? Who was going to save them?
I’ve never owned a valuable print of Night Feeder; I do, though, have my own personal treasures—remembrances of a relentless, 16-year love affair. It just never got old. Period.
After the shoot, nothing excited me more than nude night shoots in public places with Peter. In Paris, between shoots, we camped out like hippies in five-star hotels, Peter writing in his diary with all the artwork involved in such a thing spread out over the suite and blue ink all over his fingers and clothes. My code name was Olympia—it’s all over the diaries, because we were always together.
Back in New York, we spent days at a time at the Gramercy Park Hotel, which was so close to Elite that sometimes the agency would send someone to bang on the door of our room to wake me up. We tried everything under the sun, without apology, for years.
Our shared taste for adventure brought us to some dark places, though, and in the end we knew it had to stop. No matter how close we came to disappearing into that darkness at times, we always found a way back to each other. Chemical compounds didn’t dissolve a shared heartbeat.
The last time we hung out, at the Bowery Hotel, we cuddled up together and camped out to watch the Sochi Winter Olympics, like nothing had ever changed. We had bull shots and room service. Peter was still great-looking—I loved his jawline, the shape of his face. He was always sexy to me, handsome and romantic. There was never going to be a love like ours again. I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d see each other. There was a lot of commotion about a lawsuit, and lawyers coming to the hotel. I had to act like I wasn’t there with him. I met him down in the lobby, and the last time I heard his voice he pointed to me and said to someone standing next to him, “That’s Maureen, the girl in the giraffe photo.”
It made sense when I read that Peter had disappeared. To most of us who knew him, it was too easy to imagine him simply strapping on his sandals, throwing his giant rattan bag over his shoulder, and hitting the road again, the eternal traveler. He left us his art to carry his soul into the future, reminding us what a glorious trip it was.
Originally Appeared on Vogue