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Journey to Adventure

by Stephanie Hadik

John Heminway has devoted his life to documenting wildlife in film and on paper, and working to protect it.

“I was born in New York City, educated at Buckley School until age nine, when I went to Switzerland for my schooling,” begins the filmmaker and author John Heminway. “After three years at le Rosey, I returned to the States—as a ‘third-former’ at Saint Mark’s School in Massachusetts. Soon after arrival, I did all to shed my Mid-Atlantic accent.”


Born to a father who traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and a mother from St. Louis, John Heminway speaks respectfully of his “slightly nonconformist” parents who provided him with tools for a “slightly nonconformist” career. His mother, Jane Johnson Heminway, “was a celebrated equestrienne, with dark good looks, and Auntie Mame-ish humor. I am grateful she taught me to go my own way and that she insisted I acquire an education better than hers. Sadly, we didn’t have her for very long. I was 19 when she died.”


John’s father, son of Dolly O’Brien, grew up in Europe. Greatly influenced by his stepfather, Jay O’Brien, who captained the American bobsled team to glory in the 1932 winter Olympics at Lake Placid (as featured in Andy Bull’s Speed Kings), he excelled as a golfer, helping to win the 1936 German Amateur. “A certain chancellor-turned-dictator actually handed him his prize… Quite amazing because eight years later when he landed at Utah Beach, he was probably the only man in his battalion who had actually shaken hands with Adolf Hitler. Whenever I polish the silver tray, I experience a frisson of horror.”


After graduating from Princeton in 1966, John took off for Africa to write a book. This decision was not altogether surprising since he had fallen in love with the continent at age 16. His first encounter began at St. Mark’s, where “on an especially dreary weekend night, the Saturday guest speaker showed us his film about Africa. I don’t suppose it was anything special, but I was so taken by it, I went up to him afterwards and asked him whether I could join him on his next expedition. I did. That is how the summer of 1960 set me on a trajectory that continues to this day.”


The speaker who introduced Heminway to Africa was Quentin Keynes, a great-grandson of Charles Darwin. The journey began in Southampton, England, when he, three other schoolboys and a Land Rover boarded a Liberty ship, the Winchester Castle. Two weeks in third class later they were in Cape Town. For two months they drove on dirt tracks across what was then South-West Africa, Bechuanaland, Southern and Northern Rhodesia. Every day promised adventures with lions, elephants, and crocs. The people they met and the discoveries they made had a huge impact on Heminway. It can be said that Africa was the first step in a career that has spanned the globe.

Above: Heminway with Tim, the largest elephant 
surviving in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park




Above:Heminway, age 16, on his first trip to Africa, Skeleton Coast, Namibia Courtesy of JOHN HEMINWAY



Above: Heminway, more appropriately dressed, age 17, in Uganda Courtesy of JOHN HEMINWAY


Since 1960, he returned every year to Africa, one time even hitchhiking across the Sahara with his brother, Jay. In 1968, after his first book, The Imminent Rains: A Visit among the Last Pioneers of Africa, was published, Heminway remembers his father saying, “Now you’ve had your fun. It’s now time for you to settle down.” His attempt to pursue a career in business lasted all of nine months—“until finally I just couldn’t take it anymore.”


Serendipitously, a friend working as a cameraman for ABC Sports showed The Imminent Rains to a producer, who promptly gave Heminway a job writing the network’s American Sportsman series. Hugely popular at the time, it featured movie stars and celebrated athletes hunting and fishing around the world. This was a time when it seemed “that every taxi driver in New York was a starving but qualified filmmaker.” He felt “damn lucky” to have landed such a plum job “with no qualifications whatsoever, except one book, soon to go out of print.”


Heminway learned his craft first as a production manager, “with lofty responsibilities like bringing sandwiches to the crew. In those days films were edited on a Moviola; the film went in one set of sprockets, the sound in another. With a toggle switch you rock-and-rolled each scene, weighing what to say. Basically, I developed a sense for ‘film words’ and how to measure them through timing, sparseness and sparkle—pretty much the essentials.” Heminway wrote for the American Sportsman’s host, announcer Curt Gowdy, a Wyoming native well known as the “voice” of the Boston Red Sox for 15 seasons and for a career that spanned almost every major sporting event, including Super Bowls, World Series, and the Olympics. “He had a very special diction and cadence which I had to master. By the end of my four years, I was not only writing the series, but I had graduated to field producer and director. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. Getting along with others, showcasing their talents, practicing diplomacy in places where diplomacy was foreign—that was what I learned in those days.”


Heminway worked with a rich roster of legends, like Bing Crosby. “What a voice! He would sing lullabies to each member of the crew when we returned to camp in the evening… Then there was Ted Williams who we filmed in Zambia. Everything wild intrigued him. One day he and I spent hours studying an antlion take down flies twice its size. He was one of the most intense human beings I’ve ever met. Then there was actor Patrick O’Neal, who we got to capture and translocate a leopard, followed by the luminous Gene Kelly catching Nile perch in Lake Rudolph (now Turkana). From every encounter with a star I learned new lessons in my developing craft.”


John Huston was Heminway’s favorite. They both worked on a film about the search for Ahmed, the biggest elephant in Africa, in northern Kenya. “We traipsed all around, over four national parks, getting to know the wardens, and seeking out Ahmed. While I was only the film’s writer and production manager, my time with John primed me for big film ideas. I recorded his voice-over once in Madrid, later in L.A. Hanging out with the master was irresistible. Imagine sitting with a man with the voice of Moses, over a stiff drink and an illegal Cuban cigar, while he intoned: ‘When I was with Bogie and Katie in the Congo making The African Queen.’ You don’t even want to breathe in case you miss something. He made me realize the celestial power of the story.”


Heminway spent four years with ABC Sports, and, after a mountain climbing injury and a stint exploring the Southern Sudan and Ethiopia’s Omo River, he accepted a job offer from Aubrey Buxton (later Lord Buxton), an Anglia Television executive. “He invited me to London to join a fledgling group called Survival, composed of the world’s finest wildlife filmmakers. They needed an unimposing American who could, from time to time, film people. Over three and a half years I traveled to places like the Bangweulu Swamps in Zambia, to capercaillie haunts in Scotland, and to Iran’s Kavir Desert where we lived in a caravanserai. Hanging out with Iran’s tribal peoples, I began to sense the Shah’s days were numbered and Iran was destined for colossal upheaval.”


One of Heminway’s films for Survival Anglia was about dhows, “the oldest trading vessels in the world. For over 2,000 years they have done a cat’s-cradle circuit of the Indian Ocean, trading from India, to the top of the Persian Gulf and along the east coast of Africa. On board the Mir-El-Lah, we were blown by the trade winds from the top of the Persian Gulf along the Hadramaut, past the island of Socotra, then down the Somali coast, finally dropping anchor in Lamu off the north coast of Kenya. 


“It was a magical ocean adventure in the company of two mad Italians, Lorenzo and Mirella Ricciardi. We were arrested three times, each time suspected of espionage. Once, under house arrest in Somalia, our Mogadishu inquisitor shocked me by asking where I went to university. Then he grilled me about the name of my eating club. I said, ‘Huh? I’m in the middle of Somalia and you’re asking me about my club at Princeton?’ Then he wanted to know if I was a member of the Young Republicans.’ I fired back at him: ‘What about you?’ He responded: ‘University of Chicago, class of 1962.’ We ended up giving each other giant bear hugs.”


Above: Heminway, age 22, in Zambia, researching his first book




Above: Heminway’s first brush with television, with sister, Hilary, and mother, modeling



Heminway eventually moved back to the United States when he was invited to join a team making a series called The Brain. “Since I was supposed to know a thing or two about animal behavior, the producer assigned me The Animal Brain portion of the PBS series. It was a chaotic production, forever going broke. I fell under the spell of a science genius turned filmmaker, Richard Hutton. Most doubted we could pull off the project, since the human brain was seemingly un-filmable and since we appeared to be a bunch of lunatics.”


Heminway produced, directed, and wrote half the eight-hour series. Broadcast in 1984 to great acclaim, The Brain won a Peabody and a duPont-Columbia for outstanding broadcast, digital and documentary journalism. Later, Heminway wrote, directed and produced two hours of The Brain’s sequel, The Mind. For that he won a prime time Emmy.


When The Mind was completed, Heminway began producing and presenting a series called Travels. “The idea was simple: I dragooned all the writers, filmmakers, actors, actresses I admired and asked them, ‘Where would you like to go? John Gregory Dunne, Richard Hughes, Madhur Jaffrey, Ruby Wax and a score of others answered the call. At worst, the series was uneven, at best a rollicking explosion of talent in exquisite, far-flung places.


“Of our 40 shows, I was the traveler in four of them. One was called ‘The Africa Passion,’ and another ‘In Search of Paradise,’ about the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific… The other day I showed my 14-year-old daughter ‘The Waters Are Wide,’ about Tristan da Cunha—the most remote inhabited island in the world. She looked at me, looked back at the film, trying to place my long-ago presence. Her comment: ‘Dad, I never knew you were so young.’”


Not surprisingly, Heminway’s daughter has been to Africa three times. “I think she is enchanted by the bush. I don’t know if she’s going to end up working for Africa, but I know her life will be filled with animals. After all, we have three dogs, eight horses, five cats, a rabbit called Bosley and eight cichlids from Lake Victoria. Animal fascination must be a meta-gene.”


Heminway married for the first time in 1999. Not unexpectedly, he took his wife, the former Kathryn Wilmerding, to Africa on their honeymoon. “We hiked the edges of the Serengeti, climbed into Uganda’s Bwindi Forest for gorilla, wandered about in the northern desert of Kenya after elephant, and followed the Kenya coast not far from the Somali frontier. It was the end of one century and, for me, the beginning of an even better one. Now Kath is hooked on the continent too.”


For several decades, Heminway has attempted to make science and especially evolutionary theory accessible to a wide audience. He made The Mind’s Big Bang for the Evolution Series, broadcast in 2001. Later he dealt with a particularly thorny human issue in National Geographic’s Stress: Portrait of a Killer. “How lucky can you get learning from a certified genius—Dr. Robert Sapolsky—as well as a rowdy pack of baboons!” Heminway returned to evolution when he and his team made Bones of Turkana, about the centrality of Africa to human evolution, and the astonishing work of Richard, Meave and Louise Leakey.


During his film career, Heminway has written a total of five books (currently he is finishing his sixth). Three were about Africa, one about a Montana valley.



Above: On location in war-torn Garamba National Park, 
filming Warlords of Ivory, 2014




Above: Heminway and co-producer J. J. Kelley on location in Vietnam




In recent years, Heminway has taken up the cause of elephants. “I owe so, so much to Africa. I don’t think anybody can go there and not fall head over heels for these captivating creatures. Elephants put us to shame for their wisdom, memory, attachment to family, long-distance communication, redesign of the landscape and depth of mourning. An Africa without elephants is an Africa without a heart.”


“Back in 1989, when I witnessed my first elephant crisis, I did my bit, but it didn’t involve films.” At the time, Heminway was chairman of the African Wildlife Foundation. “We mass-produced t-shirts, emblazoned with one sentence: ‘Only elephants should wear ivory.’”


Heminway believes it was through the dedicated work of Kenyan paleoanthropologist, politician, and conservationist Richard Leakey that put an end to the poaching. In 1989, Leakey convinced his president, Daniel arap Moi, “to burn a huge stockpile of ivory. The images of the conflagration went viral around the world and slowed the trade for almost 10 years.”


Over the last 16 years elephant numbers have plummeted once again, this time because of demand for luxury goods in China. “The need to display baubles, a moronic frenzy for prestige, may drive this majestic being, the earth’s largest land animal, to extinction.”


In 2013 Heminway raised funds and produced the 2013 documentary Battle for the Elephants. “I had two great fellow producers, J.J. Kelley and Katie Carpenter, with National Geographic supporting us. We just wanted to tell a simple story of supply and demand, one Africa, the other, Asia.”


When he gave a sneak preview of the film to a gathering of opinion-makers in New York, he was startled by how little everyone knew. “Hardly anyone in the room had an inkling of the devastation and the cause.” The initial broadcast “was only a minor event in a progression of critical screenings—notably in Bangkok, at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The U.S. Senate and State Department later acquired 3,000 copies to distribute to embassies and consulates around the world.” In Kenya that one film has helped wildlife advocate Paula Kahumbu launch a nationwide wildlife TV series—the first ever in that country.


Because the killing of elephants did not abate, Heminway raised more money to produce a sequel, Warlords of Ivory, which premiered on the National Geographic Channel on August 30, 2015. “In it, investigative journalist Bryan Christy teamed up with one of the world’s top taxidermists to conceal a sophisticated GPS tracker inside a faux ivory tusk, dropping it into the heart of ivory poaching country to trace its course from the killing fields of Africa to the kingpins ruling the illegal trade.


“Much to our surprise, we discovered that the kingpins driving the trade are, in some instances, terrorist groups. Not only are elephants caught in their crosshairs; so too people—children especially. For me, it was a heart-wrenching discovery. Lives lost, futures permanently interrupted, carcasses everywhere, swathes of Africa denuded—all to please the lust for objects in Asia.


“I make films about elephants not because I think elephants are more important than anything else, but because, without them, life would be a horror. I do this for another generation. I have been the luckiest man alive to be in and out of Africa over the last 56 years. I have seen immeasurable glories, changes on a Biblical scale and tragedies that have left deep but wonderful scars. I want the insights, melancholy and pleasures to live on with my daughter and her generation. All I can do for that end is to make a film here and write a word there, for the elephant and anything else I deem important.”


In 2013 Dr. Richard Leakey appointed Heminway the international chairman of WildlifeDirect, which Leakey founded and the indomitable Paula Kahumbu leads. Its mission statement is “Changing hearts, minds and laws so that the wildlife of Africa endures forever.” So far, it has lived up to the rhetoric and Kenya has now become one of the better conservation stories in Africa.


Now based in Montana, Heminway still spends time in New York, to work on films. He and his wife moved to Montana 10 years ago “because it made sense, and is very nearly as beautiful and exciting as Africa. Having grown up in New York, loving New York, but not wanting to raise a child there, we chose a land of great spaces. We have a house in Bozeman and a few acres in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains. Doesn’t that sound a natural fit?”


Heminway believes he still has much to say, and stories to tell. “I imagine myself in a middle chapter of a long, unsettled novel with a happy ending.”


Above: Heminway’s inspiration, the African elephant




Above: Heminway in Montana



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