Joy Adamson Biography

Activist, Journalist, Animal Rights Activist (1910–1980)
Joy Adamson was a conservationist who pioneered the movement to preserve African wildlife. She won renown with her books about raising the lion cub Elsa.


Joy Adamson was born January 20, 1910, in Troppau, Austria-Hungary. She relocated to Kenya, where she married George Adamson, a British game warden. She won international renown with her African wildlife books, especially the trilogy describing how the couple raised a lion cub, Elsa. In 1961 she founded the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal. At age 69 she was murdered by a disgruntled employee.

Early Life

Artist and naturalist Joy Adamson spent much of her life in Africa, following her passion for animals. In 1960 book Born Free, she detailed her adventures with a young lion cub called Elsa. This story struck a chord with readers around the world, helping to spur interest in animal conservation in Africa.

The story of this famous writer actually begins in Europe. Born Friederike Victoria Gessner, she grew up in Troppau, which was part of the Austria-Hungary empire and is now known as Opava, Czech Republic. Adamson enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege as the daughter of a wealthy architect. She studied piano and the arts, among other subjects, in school.

Adamson married for the first time in 1935, becoming the wife of businessman Victor von Klarwill. He sent her on a trip to Africa on her own. According to some reports, von Klarwill wanted her to see if they could move there. Adamson, however, soon met another man, botanist Peter Bally, during her travels. In love with this new land and Bally, she decided to stay in Africa and divorce her husband. Adamson wed Bally in 1937, and it was Bally who gave her the nickname "Joy"—a moniker she used for the rest of her life.

At first, Adamson painted the plant life of Africa. She eventually expanded her artistic endeavors to make portraits of people from indigenous cultures in Kenya. After ending her marriage to Bally in 1942, she met a game warden named George Adamson. He became her third husband, and they spent some of their early years together, traveling around East Africa for his job and living in tent camps.

Born Free

In 1956, Adamson's husband shot a lion in self-defense. He discovered that she had only attacked to protect her three cubs. Rescuing the young animals, George brought them home to Joy. They gave two away to a zoo, but they kept one that they named Elsa. Joy developed a close bond with the animal, which she raised. In Born Free (1960), she chronicled her relationship with Elsa and her efforts to return her to the wild. Adamson explained that Elsa "became almost like my child. Because I had no children, I have spent all my emotion on her and my other animals. But I cannot make them my own."

Adamson's book became an international best seller, and its success put the spotlight on the need to preserve African wildlife. She wrote two more books about Elsa and her cubs, Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1962). In addition to sharing her experiences and observations through writing, Adamson established her own conservation group, the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal.

In 1966, the film adaptation of Born Free became an international smash. The film starred Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as George and Joy Adamson. By the time of the film's release, Adamson had turned much of her attention to a young cheetah, which she named Pippa. Helping Pippa learn to be a wild cheetah became the subject of the 1969 book The Spotted Sphinx.

While on the big screen, George and Joy were depicted as a happy, loving couple, the pair became estranged over the years, and they stopped living together as early as 1971. According to some stories, they were divided over their conservation work. George preferred to be in the field, while Joy did more lecturing and writing. There are also reports that Joy Adamson had an intense personality and did not get along well with others much of the time. One associate told People that Adamson "was so stubborn and unyielding and people did not live up to her expectations."

Final Years

Adamson spent the last few years of her life exploring her interest in leopards. She was given a leopard cub in 1976, which she named Penny, and she lived in an area where she could observe other leopards in the wild. In addition to her animal studies, Adamson took the time to write her own autobiography, 1979's The Searching Spirit.

On the night of January 3, 1980, Adamson took her usual evening stroll. She never returned home. Only a short distance away, her body was found on the road. It looked like she had been killed in an animal attack at first. A few days later, the authorities determined that Adamson had been stabbed to death. A former employee was arrested and convicted of the crime.

Many were shocked by Adamson's tragic death. The World Wildlife Fund was among those who expressed sadness at her untimely passing. In a statement, the organization praised her for her "ability to present wild animals in such a way that people could relate to them" and credited her with helping "wildlife everywhere." Shortly after her death, Adamson's final book, Queen of Shaba, came out, which detailed her studies on leopards.

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