I still have the sleeveless green dress I wore the first time I met Peter Beard. It was a crisp November evening in 2004, and I was 21 years old. I had just moved to New York City after graduating from university, and I was interning at a publishing house. My father invited me to join him at Beard’s book party at the Explorers Club. A photographer and an artist—he was sort of a big deal in the ’70s. I had never heard of him.
I felt a jolt the moment we were introduced. Beard had a clear-cut, electric face. Sixty-six years old, he was a dominating presence. “Tell me about you,” he said. The way he focused on me was startling.
When my father left the party early to drive home to Connecticut, he assumed I’d leave with him. He offered to drop me at the studio apartment I shared with my best friend, Kristina, in the Village. I told him I was going to stay a bit longer. My father questioned my choice and told me to be careful. He repeated himself, a rarity. I said of course I’d be careful, and I really believed myself. It was already too late.
Peter Beard died in April 2020. I’ve been haunted by him—my own memories of him, but also the way the world remembers him. To most, he was a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, a party-loving womanizer whose bold, subversive art offered a degree of cover for the way he lived. Obituaries classified him as a Tarzan, a lavish roué, a playboy, a bad-boy bon vivant. He was celebrated for breaking rules and pushing boundaries, his privilege as an adventurer and an artist. His magnetism and tremendous enjoyment of life were heralded as his signature traits. The fascination with Beard has persisted: Graham Boynton published a biography, Wild: The Life of Peter Beard, last October.
Boynton got in touch with me in the summer of 2020, a few months after Beard died. He’d heard about me from Leslie Bennetts, a journalist who profiled Beard in Vanity Fair in the ’90s. Bennetts and I had become close friends. I had told her about Beard’s violent side—a side I had experienced firsthand—and she thought Boynton’s portrait would be incomplete without it. I was wary of what it would mean to tell Beard’s biographer my story, but silence felt intolerable too. I’d been stuck and isolated in my ambivalence for years, wanting to talk about what I’d gone through but not knowing how to, afraid of the reaction. I’d often wondered if I was one of many who knew Beard the way I did and would scan articles about him in search of a voice of authority, hoping someone would describe an experience that resonated. It was only after Beard died that I realized the voice of authority needed to be my own. If his life was going to be written about, what happened between us should be part of it.
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Boynton and I met in 2021, and we both recorded the conversation, which began with him reiterating a promise that he would not publish anything I asked him to omit. He told me that I was key to the book, that I was the “most reflective” of the women who’d been involved with Beard. He seemed both critical and admiring of his subject—he’d been leery of Beard’s lifestyle, but also friendly with him. The longer we spoke, the more I worried about how what I shared would be portrayed.
When he sent me what he was going to include, I told him I did not want any of the material to be in his book. I was unequivocal, and made clear this included statements given to him by my two witnesses whom he’d interviewed. The whole experience had unsettled me.
Boynton’s book, contrary to our agreement, used my story. He calls me Nancy C. (Boyton denies that he violated any agreement. “I told a very small part of her story, carefully concealing her identity,” he says.)
He also used my witnesses’ written statements, but misquoted a crucial word in one: “I saw blood and wounds she’d had inflicted on her body” appears instead of what was actually sent to him: “I saw blood and wounds he had inflicted on her body.” With this change, he took responsibility away from Beard.
Another biography of Beard, Twentieth-Century Man by Christopher Wallace, is due to be published in July. We’ve never spoken. Instead, I’ll tell my story in my own words.
Beard was married, but never mind that—he convinced me that he and his wife had an understanding that allowed him to do whatever he pleased, and I accepted this.
After that first night at his book event, there was another. Soon we were seeing each other regularly—and intensely. Unlike men my own age, Beard was unafraid to show the depths of his interest in me. He pursued me with lawless enthusiasm, sending me letters, doodles, written notes and drawings on the backs of postcards picturing his family’s estate in Tuxedo Park.
“From riches to rags,” he wrote on one of them, showing the fortune he descended from. He played Leonard Cohen songs on my voice mail, and he called repeatedly, at all hours, never holding back from his complete desire to be with me. “The girl of a thousand faces!” he would say, looking at me. He marveled at my expressions. He loved my laugh. He was in awe of me physically, obsessed with my youth, and enjoyed our conversations. I felt seen, heard, noticed, elevated.
I was curious about his life and work. Most of his photographs were of African wildlife, and he imbued them with an eerie combination of beastliness and beauty. I read that he’d broken the bounds of photography by smudging his photographs with blood—most often animal blood he’d gotten from a butcher, but sometimes his own blood. The sepia-colored images of people living in Africa’s undomesticated wildlife did not quite look natural. Lions ferociously ripped apart smaller creatures. Crocodiles appeared to snack on human limbs. If he was trying to illustrate the war between nature and people, it was unclear whose side he was on.
He also photographed women. Gaunt supermodels curved around rocks, stretching out their sharp and bony bodies, lusting after the ground itself. Others propped themselves on their elbows, their legs akimbo, showing off taut breasts and protruding ribs. They looked aroused by the sky. He photographed hundreds of women, Black and white, blond and brunette, old and young. Most of his subjects were exquisitely disproportionate: extremely tall, shockingly thin. He depicted the forces of nature. But really, he showed that it was he who was in charge.
Whenever I met him, he would say something that made my heart turn over. “We are going to be close for the rest of our lives,” he said more than once—unnerving, given our age difference. Behind his casual manner, he was ferociously attentive to whatever interested him, as curious as he was cynical. He was comfortable everywhere. “And we’re off, like a prom dress!” he’d roar, leading me out the door. He was excessive, extreme, and full of contradictions, and he was as disarming as he was horrifying. We would meet in restaurants, clubs, at my apartment, at his, at his house in Montauk. His stamina was absurd. Constantly imbibing alcohol, amphetamines, and copious amounts of cocaine, cigarettes, and weed, he could stay up until 6 a.m. easily, but then he would take an Ambien and sleep all day.
One of his trademark features was never paying for things or carrying a wallet—he was delighted to be irresponsible and behaved like a child, making other people take care of him. At Cipriani and another restaurant by his apartment, he seemed to have some kind of arrangement because of his art on the walls, or tabs, where he paid for nothing and settled bills eventually. He could be wildly generous in spirit, but I remember having to pay for anything that required cash. He told me once that his wife didn’t let him have credit cards, because she knew he’d be out of control. An errant adolescent, he reported these things with glee.
I knew from the first time I’d met him that he was both wonderful and revolting, and I somehow believed that another dose of him would determine which he really was. My ambivalence toward him became the excuse for my behavior in the months following. I could never make up my mind.
It helped—or didn’t—that being with Beard meant being welcomed into rarefied rooms. An event with a rock star and his famous wife, a club with an actor from The Sopranos. An engagement party where the guests were mostly movie stars and TV idols. His status as an artist and a powerful social force spoke to my youthful fantasies. He was always ready for a new experience. He once brought me to the home of a hit man, where we kissed passionately in the kitchen and accidentally knocked the sink off the wall. We left without saying a word. I was cocky and excited by the sense of risk and adventure and possibility, and I believed I was about to figure out how to get life right in a major way.
Wherever we went, we would kiss and stroke each other like lovestruck teenagers where anyone could see. He thrived on his image in my admiring gaze, and I thrived on mine in his. Sometimes, he took my picture. On a trip to Montauk, I brought along a disposable camera. Outside in the sunshine, Beard grabbed the camera out of my hand and turned it on me. I felt powerful through his lens, seeing myself the way he seemed to see me: young, beautiful, full of promise. He made every moment feel heightened and meaningful.
When I wasn’t with him, time didn’t count. And when I was with him, hardly anything else mattered to me. Kristina found it embarrassing when we were at Cipriani Downtown, and we were all over each other in front of our friends. “Everyone saw you. Aren’t you bothered?” she asked. She became increasingly pissed off by him, and by my willingness to do whatever he wanted me to do. He found her boring, and always referred to her as being “like a relative.” And, he’d add, “She’s completely asexual. Just no fun.”
As the conflict between them increased, so did my willingness to focus entirely on him. But, even as I progressed deeper and deeper with Beard, my ambivalence remained: I continued to construct barriers to our courtship to persuade myself that I was in control. I would stay at the party, but that would be it. I would see him once, but only in public. I would kiss him, but it would be a one-time thing. Each rule I set, I broke. A romance, a dalliance, an affair—whatever you want to call it, we were fully, entirely involved.
And then he bit me.
The first time was in his apartment, with his teenage daughter asleep in the next room. His wife was away. “Shhhhh,” he instructed me.
We sat on a Kenyan blanket atop a daybed, close to the ground, and he mauled me through the night. Digging his nails into my back, drawing blood, tugging me in various ways, painfully, sharply, relentlessly. And, most terrifyingly, biting my flesh. Throughout, he told me to be quiet. The most awful part for me is that I didn’t say stop. Nor did we discuss what was happening. It got worse and worse, and he bit harder and harder as the night went on, and neither of us said anything about it. He only gave me compliments.
“You’re such a good sport,” he said. I remember I felt some kind of value in enduring the pain he inflicted on me without crying out. It hurt. All of it hurt. I wanted it to stop. But I took pride in letting him do as he pleased. And it went on and on and on.
He studied me with a kind of intensity and determination, and whispered into my ear with incredible seriousness. “Fresh as the pure, driven snow,” he said repeatedly. “Your body is so milky and alive tonight.”
I was embarrassed by his “pure, driven snow” comment. It was so old-fashioned, and I wasn’t a virgin, and he was making me a kind of Lolita when I felt more grown up than that. In my mind, we were playacting some kind of fantasy. Only looking back now, thinking about my young body and seeing myself in pictures from that time, I realize he wasn’t giving me a fantasy role. I really was young. In excruciating pain, I wriggled away and changed the subject. I remember hoping he wouldn’t realize I was impeding him from carrying on as he pleased.
When dawn broke and he popped his Ambien, I went on my way. His birthday was that day—Jan. 22—and he’d planned a dinner at Cipriani Downtown that I was supposed to attend.
At home, I looked in the rusted mirror of the tiny bathroom I shared with Kristina and scared myself. There were bite marks everywhere, scratches on my face, bruises surfacing, blood all over my back and chest and neck, other parts of my body dripping with it. It was so much worse than I had let myself comprehend in the moment, and the pain was miserable.
This shouldn’t have happened, I thought. I took myself to my bed and lay in the dark, feeling like the last thing in the world I could do was rest. By late morning, Kristina was bothered to find my clothes on the bathroom floor, stained with blood. I’m sure I left them there wanting, on some level, for her to see what had happened. I woke up in terrible pain, everywhere. The most agonizing were certain bite marks. They wouldn’t stop bleeding. I didn’t know bites could keep bleeding so much—but why would I know something like that? This isn’t normal, I kept thinking, realizing, shuddering. It wasn’t OK.
It was a freezing, snowy January. I told Kristina that my skin was cracked and bleeding because of the cold dry air, that I was chapped. My explanation made no sense, and we both knew it. Later that day, the surreal terror of the night hanging over me, I was with her and some of her friends when my phone rang. It was Beard, calling from his home landline. I stepped outside to take the call. I wanted to hear what he had to say.
His voice was low and earnest. “That was quite a night,” he said. “We got a little carried away. I’m not sure how that happened.”
“Yes, it was a little crazy,” I said. But nothing more. I waited for him to say something reassuring, but he didn’t.
“When you come tonight, cover up. I don’t want people seeing the marks. OK? Promise you’ll wear something that doesn’t show anything that happened?”
I promised. I remember thinking our pact was juvenile. He was plenty mischievous, but he didn’t want to get into trouble. Somehow I felt closer to him, conspiring with him to deal with this situation together. I felt like he was concerned. I told myself he cared. That we’d gotten carried away. But “we”? I never asked for violence, and I never returned it.
Kristina was upset with me. “This is clearly out of control,” she said. “He’s abusing you.” She was disturbed by what she saw. And I was falling apart. I was adamant that we still attend his party, so we got dressed, and I wore something that covered up all the marks—a black, conservative turtleneck dress. I didn’t feel sexy or stylish. I felt broken. But I was following his orders, and it was like wearing a costume for a school play, my assigned role. After all, I remember thinking, It’s his birthday. I’ll play along.
He was turning 67. When Kristina and I arrived, there were about a dozen scantily dressed women already there—and at first, just two men. His wife and daughter weren’t there. Nor were any friends his age. It was all young women and these two men, a young assistant photographer and a middle-aged sycophant who kept taking pictures of everyone. He was grotesque and overly jolly, screeching that Beard was like Picasso.
I was seated next to the birthday boy, and I remember feeling sulky and quiet, hoping he would inquire about how I was. He was wearing plaid pants and sandals. I hoped he would work for my forgiveness. To the contrary, he seemed irritated and not interested in me. I had been erased. Was it the turtleneck dress? Did the wounds he inflicted make me damaged goods? Or was he simply bored by me? I sat there feeling utterly miserable, invisible, and increasingly furious. I took myself to the bathroom, enraged.
When I returned to the table, another young woman was in my seat.
“Hi, you’re in my seat,” I said.
“Um, Peter asked me to sit here,” she said.
“Yeah, listen, Charlotte, I’m going to catch up with her for a bit, OK?” His voice was soft without being warm, as though he knew the devastating impact he had at this moment. “You can sit over there.” He gestured to the other end of the table, where the other woman had been sitting. I grabbed my jacket and moved myself to the demoted position, feeling a kind of despair.
In a letter I wrote to him two years later and never sent, I described him lusting over other young women that night: “… Girls who made me feel old … at 21. You made me feel old at 21. I hate you for that.” I go on to say, “They had youth and I no longer did, mentally. You scarred me and I was irrevocably older because of it … Who is really on my side? I don’t even think I am. I’m on your side in so many ways.”
Kristina looked very unhappy at the party, and came over to say she was leaving. “I don’t like this,” she said. “He’s horrible and violent. Do you want to be damaged?” The question reverberated for years to come. Did I? Her words hurt me deeply, but I understand them now.
The next day, I started a new job as a literary scout, and my boss told me how well I did. I briefly tried to feel omnipotent, thinking I could handle this debauchery and chaos by night, and still get up and get it together for my new job by day. I was falling apart while convincing myself that this was what it meant to live fully.
In the days following Beard’s birthday party, I decided to ignore him until further notice. But with Kristina upset with me, I felt isolated and vulnerable.
After a bout of silence, he resumed pestering me with phone calls, saying he missed me in voice messages. This felt better: I was back on track. I ignored his calls and felt more in control. He continued to hound me. I resisted, and then gave in.
We met, and he was violent again.
Only this time, it felt reparative. We were making the weirdness of the first time more bearable by normalizing it. I was so desperate to make things feel OK with him, I was willing to tolerate just about anything, so long as he was paying attention to me. He’d gotten under my skin in every sense.
It’s a familiar cycle: violence, followed by doting gestures and wonderful, sweet moments, followed by violence once again. I never enjoyed the violence, and I never said stop. I did, however, insist that he acknowledge it on one occasion.
“Do you realize you left marks, and these bruises are from you?” I asked one night. He didn’t respond. He stroked me and then started jabbing me. Neither of us spoke. His hands were rough and calloused, and he used his fingers brutishly.
“I just want heightened consciousness,” he said. I wonder to this day if part of the violence came from his boredom—from his desperation to push limits, to feel intensely alive, to make sure I felt something too, even if it was pain.
This time, the bites became infected. The wounds hurt from the inside, were hot to the touch, and the aching burn began to spread. The pain didn’t subside after several days, and I was scared. I went to a physician on Madison Avenue, and while I sat in a paper gown on the exam table, I studied an Oprah poster that said, “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” The idea felt far away.
The doctor asked how I’d been injured. I started to explain I was in a situation with a man and it had gotten out of control. He asked if it was consensual. I told him I didn’t want it and didn’t know how I’d let it happen. I cried as I struggled to explain. The doctor asked if he could write up a report so I could press charges if I wanted to. I absolutely did not want to—I remember thinking Beard would laugh at me for making a big deal out of it, and most of all, I hadn’t said no. Or stop.
The doctor prescribed antibiotics for human bites. He gave me Xanax too. This all felt extreme, and I realized I couldn’t continue to live this way, couldn’t continue to be with this person. I told bits and pieces to my mother. I was more circumspect with my father. They thought he was a creep I’d spent time with who assaulted me and kept harassing me and hounding me. I was deeply mortified that, in fact, I’d fallen in love with this man.
While feeling vulnerable and traumatized, I carried on with my life, functioning somehow. In spite of my vow to walk away from him, to be done with the whole thing, I saw Beard soon after, and I told him I couldn’t drink because of the antibiotics I was on. He didn’t care.
“Did you cut your hair?” he asked.
“No. Should I?”
“No. Keep your hair long,” he said. “It’s always a mistake when women cut their hair too short.” He had no interest in understanding the pain he’d caused me.
Finally, I felt myself break down on a particular day, at a particular moment. It was summer, but it was oddly cold and raining hard. I stepped into a puddle and soaked my entire leg. It sounds like a small thing now, but that’s what did it: it was all too much, my soggy leg and the consuming torture of the relationship. I simply couldn’t bear the life I was living anymore. I had to end things with Beard—immediately.
I extricated myself from him by vanishing. Maybe it was punishment for how erased I’d felt at moments with him. Maybe it was some vain wish for him to feel anguished by my absence and to preserve the bittersweet passion of all we had. He would remember me only as I’d been, and I might retain some power in his mind by abandoning him. He’d never explained his behavior to me, and I didn’t want to explain mine to him.
In contemporary terms, I ghosted him. I stopped returning his calls. I ignored his messages. I ignored the book he sent me. He sounded upset and persistent in his voice messages. This time, I stuck to my vow to be done. Perhaps the real reason I vanished from his life is because I couldn’t confront him, or I didn’t feel able to. I felt I’d end up dead if I stayed with him. I didn’t know how to tell him how much he tormented me, how deeply I loved him, and how I couldn’t continue. I feared my own weakness. I knew that if I faced him, I would get drawn in again.
“I’ve clearly done something to upset you,” he said in one of his rambling messages. He knew how to pursue, how to hunt, even how to grovel.
I decided to move to London, where I would continue my studies. I wanted to be a psychotherapist or a writer. Still unformed and uncertain of my plans, I felt I needed to leave the whole city, even the whole country. He had complete power in this way. For me, he owned New York.
My father didn’t know just how involved I’d been with Beard. He knew that I was traumatized, that I’d gotten enmeshed, but he didn’t know the details. He didn’t know that I was in love. Without being told the whole story, my father was deeply kind and understanding. He wanted me to recover and heal. “You’ll feel yourself again, I promise,” I remember him saying to me sweetly. “You’ll enjoy just opening a door.” He understood enough. I felt incredibly guilty imposing the horror on him, and he felt partially responsible for having introduced me to this man. But as I told him repeatedly, there was no stopping me.
I was embarrassed that I’d been a victim in some ways, that in spite of my upbringing and education, I’d gotten into a violent and scary situation—something I now understand can happen to anyone. I felt broken, but believed my father enough to know that I would be OK eventually.
At the same time, I found it difficult to get enthused about any new romances compared with all Beard had been. The largeness, the spectacular dazzle, just didn’t happen with most mere mortals I met. The only exception to this was the man who became my husband. I had met and had a summer romance with him before meeting Beard, and I also felt excited by him. Part of the attraction was the fact that I’d known him before Beard, and he returned me to that sense of myself while also allowing space for a future, for trust, for real love. He let me tell him all about Beard, too, without judgment or disapproval. He understood how it had happened.
A year or so after I moved to London, Beard had a big photography exhibition at the Michael Hoppen gallery in town. I decided to go. I wanted to see him, and face him, and have one final encounter. It felt essential. I dressed my absolute best. This counted, I told myself, and I wanted to get it just right. I actually think I did.
When I arrived, there was a skinny young blond woman manically smoking in front of the gallery. “I knew Peter well, a while back,” she said. She looked jittery and uneasy. I sensed that she’d been through something with him. I didn’t know if her experience matched mine, but I was suddenly aware that I might not have been the only one. He could have behaved this way for decades. A part of me felt bothered to recognize that I wasn’t special.
Inside, I looked at his art on the walls, the usual mix of sepia collages of models, animals, known faces and strangers, framed and adorned with his characteristic use of blood. The violence mixed in with sex and beauty was right there, for all the world to see. This was a person who was trampled by an elephant, who witnessed a man get attacked by a rhino and did nothing to intervene, who set up scenes of depravity and near-death encounters in the name of art. He was celebrated for how much he loved decay and debauchery, the access he gave his viewers to the shadowy thrill of dancing with darkness—the same qualities that made him so dangerous to me.
I approached the table inside the gallery, where he was seated and signing various things. People swarmed around him.
“Charlotte Fox Weber. Oh my God.”
I was relieved he recognized me instantly and said my name so fully. I was still walking that tightrope between feeling exceptional in his eyes and feeling completely forgettable.
“What happened to you? You just sort of, poof! You disappeared. What happened?” he asked.
“I know I vanished. I had to. But it’s good to see you. I wanted to see you.”
He asked again where I had gone, and I told him I’d moved to London. He invited me for a drink at his hotel.
“No, thank you,” I said. “You were a phase, and I’m no longer in that phase. But I’m really glad to see you and say hello after all this time.” As I said these words, I was desperate to be friendly and warm. I smiled and our eyes met. We were fully present for a moment.
“Well, OK. Hello.”
“Hello. It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” he said.
I said goodbye, and he followed with the expression I’d heard him say so many times before: “Bye for now.”
“Bye for now,” I echoed.
That was the last time we spoke. I wanted it to be. Though I moved on, I did not let go. I pursued healthier relationships, trained and became a psychotherapist, formed a family of my own. But the pain didn’t exactly go away. Time does not heal everything.
There’s always more. There are moments that get lost. Moments that are just too private to share. Situations that still make me wince in the retelling, and finally, I’ve accepted that not everything can be held onto, preserved, and that’s part of being alive. I have learned, in the years since, that it’s OK to let go. It’s also OK not to. What I understand now is that I managed to hold onto something—I haven’t wanted to forget what was unacknowledged. I’ve come to embrace that in some ways, this too shall not pass.
As exceptional and heightened as everything with Beard felt at the time, I don’t think I believed that my perspective actually mattered. That’s what silenced me during the violence. That’s what froze me in the years since. I talked myself out of feeling that I had the right to own the story even to myself. What happened with Beard felt so scandalous, so bizarre, so shameful, I didn’t think it could just be a part of my life history.
When Beard died, I felt devastated by his death in a completely surprising way. It was all over. Everything we’d had—my youth, the upset, the good times, the bad—it was entirely finished. He died alone. Dramatically, after getting lost in the woods near his Montauk home, and during the pandemic. This narcissist beloved by so many, a man who couldn’t stand being by himself, died in solitude.
Following his death, I let myself really begin to tell the story—to myself, and to others. I shared photographs with a few people close to me—provocative images Beard took of my young body. I showed them the photo album from my 21st birthday, the year I met him, which he had doodled on, drawing extra limbs and imprints of his hand, claiming my image as his own. I didn’t tell my friends and family everything—I still haven’t told anyone everything—but I told them the headlines. The story of our relationship wasn’t one of sheer abuse, but it was traumatic and scarring, and it wasn’t a pristine romance, either. It was everything it was, and I needed to talk about it.
As much as I was meant to hate Peter Beard, and still do at moments, I also miss him now and then. I miss his charm, his wit, and his eccentric, zesty conversational skills. He knew how to have a proper conversation. He knew how to listen, when he wanted to. And he knew how to notice marvelous details most people don’t catch. He was full of contradictions. My feelings are full of them too.
Beard often balked at the term artist and said he was a chronicler, a diarist, an observer. Detritus and scattered treasures lived side by side for him, in his life and in his art. For nearly 20 years, I felt the multitudes within myself—the trash and the treasures. These multitudes sat deep within me, chasing me and menacing me, taking up space. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing in my life, Beard followed, impossible to ignore but still undealt with. I couldn’t integrate all that had happened into my life experience. It’s with me now. It always will be. But I’m no longer at its mercy. It’s something that happened.
Beard believed the world was declining, and as he approached his own ending, he seemed almost giddy in his schadenfreude for the rest of us, that we’d missed the good old days, and it was all terrible now and forever more. His stance felt defensive and ungenerous. I wanted him to believe that life could go on in a beautiful way for others, that he could have some sense of wanting people to flourish past him. But I think he wanted the world to die whenever he did.
“It’s the end of the game!” he’d say far too frequently, about too many things.
“It’s the end of your game,” I often thought. But not for the world.
Fox Weber is a psychotherapist and the author of Tell Me What You Want.
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