Joy Adamson, Walking with Lions

To celebrate World Lion Day today, here's a look at the life of "Born Free" author and conservationist Joy Adamson.
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Joy Adamson Photo

Joy Adamson and Elsa, the lioness at the center of her 1960 book 'Born Free' and its 1966 movie adaptation. (Photo: Elsa Conservation Trust)

Lions have been much in the news lately, with the poaching of Cecil, a popular and ostensibly protected big cat in Zimbabwe. Cecil has become the latest powerful representative of a majestic, iconic, and threatened species. But before Cecil, there was Elsa—the lioness at the center of Joy Adamson’s 1960 book Born Free and its 1966 movie adaptation. Both told the story of Elsa’s rearing from a small cub by Adamson and her Kenya game warden husband George, who had shot Elsa’s mother. Within three years, the cub had grown to a 250-pound adult, without losing her tameness and affection for George and, in particular, Joy. But the Adamsons were determined to release Elsa to the wild, and eventually did so successfully in Kenya’s Meru Game Reserve. Born Free and its two sequels, Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1963), covered Elsa’s first attempts at hunting her own food, her mating with a wild lion, the birth and development of her three cubs, and sadly, her death from tick fever at age five.

But just who was Joy Adamson, the woman who nurtured Elsa and, not without heartache, cut the apron strings? Naturalist, artist, author, and conservationist, Joy was by all accounts a complex, mercurial figure. Some facts about her life demonstrate just how difficult she was to define.

Joy Adamson Photo

Joy Adamson was born in Silesia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1910.

Joy Adamson was born Friederike Victoria Gessner. Unlike the terribly British Virginia McKenna, who played her in the movie version of Born Free, Joy was of Austrian heritage. Born in Silesia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1910, Joy was the neglected child of a civil servant and paper manufacturing heiress, a woman who once fed her daughter a pet rabbit, and deserted the family when Friederike was 12. Joy retained a heavy Austrian-German accent throughout her life, and before Born Free was published, according to George Adamson’s autobiography My Pride and Joy, her editor “performed the unusual task of translating Joy’s ‘English’ into English.”

George Adamson was Joy’s third husband. She met her first, Victor von Klarvill in Vienna, and married him in 1935. Since von Klarvill was Jewish in an increasingly anti-Semitic Austria, he decided that emigration to Kenya, then a British colony, would be a wise move. He sent Friederike on ahead, and before her first husband could arrive, she met British botanist Peter Bally, who became her second husband in 1938. She traveled with him as he studied Kenyan flora, and found her first major calling painting flowers and other plant life, artwork that graced several books and museum exhibitions. She also contributed specimens to England’s Royal Botanical Gardens. It was Bally who nicknamed Friederike Joy; the name stuck, but not the union. Joy met George Adamson on safari and soon after divorced Bally. The Adamsons were married in 1943.

George Adamson Photo

George Adamson and Elsa. (Photo: Elsa Conservation Trust)

Joy’s maternal instincts were strong, but she never had human children.  She suffered through at least three miscarriages, a fact sometimes used to bolster a patronizing view of her animal nurturing as neurosis. George Adamson wrote that “Joy was not always easy to live with--she was restless in her body, her mind and her spirit.” She followed a number of pursuits, and did well at most. In addition to her painting, Joy was a talented pianist and tried her hand at sculpture, wood and metal work, dressmaking, and photography. She also turned her artistic gifts to documenting Kenya’s tribes, both through painting and ivory-carved chess-set pieces. But when George killed a lioness on the attack near their home in Isiolo, Kenya, and brought home the three small cubs she had been protecting, Joy was smitten.

Elsa’s "favorite lioness." Since three growing lion cubs were too many to handle, Elsa’s sisters were taken in by a Dutch zoo. Elsa was the smallest and most dependent of the siblings, and grew so attached to her foster parents that she accompanied them everywhere: on safari, to the ocean, on daily walks through the bush, and often to their sleeping quarters. She was liberal (sometimes too much so) with hugs, licks, tackles, and head buttings. As she wrote in Born Free, Joy felt that Elsa regarded their companionship in terms of the pride, and “among our pride I was her favorite ‘lioness.’” In her autobiography The Searching Spirit, Adamson also wrote, “Was it a portent that as children our favorite game was a lion hunt and that because of my blond hair and reputation for being a quick runner, I was always assigned the role of the lioness?” After she had her cubs, Elsa tried to coax them into this cross-species pride, but for the most part they remained steadfastly as they were born: wild.

Born Free Photo

Adamson's 1960 book 'Born Free' sold five million copies, and was translated in 24 languages. (Photo: Pan Macmillan)

Joy made a bundle from her writing, and poured most of the proceeds into conservation. Born Free sold five million copies, and was translated into 24 languages. Its sequels did almost as well, and the film version won two Academy Awards (one for the ubiquitous title song) and was also very profitable. With the royalties, Adamson established the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal, now the Elsa Conservation Trust, which continues to fund conservation projects in East Africa and around the world. 

Joy did not reserve her love for lions, but spread it across the animal kingdom. She fostered eagle owls, colobus monkeys, a rock hyrax named Pati, and, after Elsa’s death, a cheetah named Pippa, about whom she authored three books. Her final project involved the rehabilitation of an orphaned leopard cub named Penny, a particularly challenging process that also inspired a book. After retiring as game warden, George continued to work with lions in Kenya’s Kora National Reserve, while Joy took up residence at Lake Naivasha, where her house, named Elsamere, remains open to visitors. The couple lived apart for two decades, though never divorced.

Joy Adamson Photo

With the earnings from her book and its movie adaptation, Adamson established the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal, now the Elsa Conservation Trust, which continues to fund conservation projects in East Africa and around the world.

Joy was not killed by a lion. Despite initial reports that she had been mauled to death by a lion at Shaba National Reserve, where Penny had been released, it soon emerged that Joy’s murderer was a former employee. Her death came at age 69 on January 3, 1980. Nine years later, 83-year-old George Adamson was also murdered, by a band of Somali thieves. He was laid to rest at Kora, near the grave of his favorite lion Boy. Joy’s ashes are buried with Elsa, who was finally reunited with her favorite lioness.