For twenty years, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, Peter Beard was the Golden Child of New York. Born into wealth and privilege, possessed of an artist’s eye and a heart of gold, he found fame as a photographer of African wildlife and of beautiful women, and also as a diarist/collagist of rare insight.
Peter knew everyone who mattered (e.g. Jackie Kennedy, Francis Bacon, Mick Jagger, Truman Capote and Andy) and was liked and respected by all. He never pulled rank and he never put on airs.
He was a man’s man and also a ladies’ man, through brief marriages to Minnie Cushing of the Boston Cushings and to Cheryl Tiegs, during the period when she was wildly famous as a “super-model”. (Think Sofia Vergara with a Kansas accent.)
Peter had the world on a string, until he didn’t. In the late 80s, he met and married an Afghani woman named Nejma Khanum. The marriage went sour but she held on, became his agent, took control of his business affairs, cancelled deals he had made, and alienated many of his long-time friends and associates. Now they are being sued by one of those former associates. This is the story.
For the last couple of years, Peter and Nejma have been regulars in the gossip columns, and not much of it has been flattering. Peter would be sighted making out in a nightclub or a restaurant with an attractive woman, and Nejma would issue a statement denying it happened, even though photos proved otherwise. Things got worse.
Let’s go back to last year, when New York magazine ran a story called “Taming Peter Beard”. The subhead, known as the deck, read as follows: “The photographer, playboy, and Warhol pal never seemed to care much about his legacy or making money. Now that he’s 75, his wife, Nejma, wants to change all that—even if it means clawing back work he used to pay off bar tabs and infuriating his friends.”
According to writer Robert Kolker, and his article is well-researched and authoritative, “At times, in fact, it has seemed as if Beard were begging not to be taken seriously. He once said, ‘I don’t mind the word dilettante. A dilettante means someone who does what he loves.’ He has also been famously undisciplined about his business affairs, relying on gallerist friends and party pals to manage his career, and often giving away works to friends or treating them as currency to cover bar tabs and dinner bills.”
That was then, this is now. Writes Kolker, “For much of their life together, Nejma, twenty years younger, played the role of the devoted and tolerant spouse, not involving herself with her husband’s work and allowing him his dalliances with drugs, alcohol and other women. Recently, however, that has changed: Nejma is now actively seeking to secure Peter’s legacy—and his financial future….She prefers to sell directly to collectors now rather than work with galleries, to more carefully control the value of his work. Perhaps most controversially, for financial and legacy reasons, she has taken steps to reclaim, or claw back, some of the works Beard has given away over the years, a move that has infuriated some of his old friends. ‘She’s trying to control the purse strings and keep him on a short leash,’ says one friend. ‘She’s eager to establish him before he dies as an important artist. That’s going to be her nest egg.’”
Let’s look at an example. During the years the Lotus Club on West 14th was wildly popular, there was a small private room upstairs, accessible only by a keypad with a secret code, called the Peter Beard Room. It was used by celebrities and other well-connected patrons to partake of whatever it is celebrities like to ingest when they can’t be seen by regular customers. One of Peter’s photographs, a portrait of Francis Bacon, hung on the wall during all those years. Peter was there a lot, drinking Champagne and Cognac and entertaining the ladies and his friends. Jeffrey Jah, a nice guy who was a proprietor, rarely asked Peter to pay a bill.
The portrait has been in Jah’s possession since the club closed in 2008. After Nejma began her reign of terror on Peter’s old party pals, she sent someone around to collect the portrait, claiming it had been on loan from Peter and she wanted it back. Jah was stupefied; he suggests the burden of proof rests with Nejma. Jah was quoted in New York magazine saying, “If Peter loaned someone a piece, there should be an agreement stipulating the terms of the loan. The problem is, Peter made a lot of transactions that were not in his best interest at times when he did not have money, and probably a lot of those transactions were done without money.”
As Nejma continued her campaign to clawback Peter’s works of art, possibly for financial reasons, possibly as revenge on those who partied with Peter during the years that she got little of his attention, other well-known people got the hook. According to New York magazine, “people whom Nejma has allegedly asked to prove they legitimately own their Beard works include Jay McInerney, banking heir Matthew Mellon and restaurateur Nello Balan.” ( Let’s not get into the many long-legged beauties who were handed photographs by Peter the morning after and now find themselves holding valuable art they would have difficulty selling.)
Nejma has refused to authenticate works that Peter handed out as gifts. Writes Kolker, “In addition to the Jah work in question, Nejma is said to have reported several other pieces to the Art Loss Register, a database of lost and stolen art used by insurers and law-enforcement agencies (if the Beards can’t reclaim the works, listing them this way makes them difficult to sell).”
One friend of Peter’s told New York magazine, “Half the bars in Montauk have Beard photos on the wall. Not to mention in the south of France. He’d use a photo to pay off a $20,000 bar bill.”
The article concludes, accurately, “Nejma’s attempts to manage Beard’s career have cost him several relationships. A number of old friends see her as ruthless and meddling.”
Peter was caught in the middle, an unhappy place to be. Twelve months ago, he had a stroke. It is dispiriting to see this once-virile Adonis so diminished.
And now he and Nejma are being sued by Natalie White, 28. She claims she was Peter’s muse and “frequent artistic collaborator” and that they had a deal where she would set up two photo shoots with famous models, that Peter would take 50 Polaroids and sign them and they would share in the proceeds. According to the lawsuit, Peter delivered only 16 before his stroke last November and blames “his controlling wife Nejma” for squashing the deal.
White claims she laid out more than $100,000-her life savings and borrowed money—to pay expenses and she expected to make millions. Models who participated in the shoots include Pamela Anderson, Chanel Iman, and Helena Christensen.
Media-savvy attorney Gloria Allred is representing White. Uh oh. The complaint describes Nejma as Peter’s “possessive and estranged wife” and alleges that Beard calls his wife “an Afghan trench-warfare terrorist” he rescued from “the wilds of Kenya.”
In early October, the Beards counter-sued, calling Miss White a “leech” who allegedly coaxed Peter into a booze- and drug-soaked situation that could have left him dead, according to The Daily News. The suit claims Natalie White presented Peter with a consignment agreement in a “dimly lit nightclub, with music playing and the drinks flowing.”
Fasten your seat belts, folks. This is going to be a bumpy ride.
For the record, I should state that I have known, liked and respected Peter Beard for four decades. In 1971, I weekended at the Montauk oceanfront compound owned by Andy Warhol and his business partner Paul Morrissey while Peter stayed in the main house being rented by his then-girlfriend Lee Radziwill. In l974, at Warhol’s office, I listened in on an extension as Peter and Andy spoke with Leni Riefenstahl in Kenya, inviting her to visit New York. In l983, Peter invited me to be a guest at his Hog Ranch outside Nairobi. A giraffe strolled up to the campfire under a full moon, on my birthday.
Like everyone else in New York, I have always found Peter to be honorable and upstanding in every context and every situation.
Oh yeah, I also know Nejma.