The short happy life of Joan Root

The new crossroads of Kenya, the Nanyuki airfield. Photo by David Lansing.

They used to say that sooner or later you’d run into everybody of importance in Africa at the Thorn Tree Café in the New Stanley Hotel which has been there, more or less, since 1902 (I say more or less because the original Stanley Hotel burned down in 1905 and was reopened a few years later as the New Stanley). The hotel was where Hemingway recuperated from a severe case of amoebic dysentery while on safari in 1933 and where he began imagining the story that would become “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

The real crossroads of Kenya, if not Africa, these days seems to be Barney’s at the Nanyuki airfield. Okay, I can’t see Prince Charles and Camilla being feted at Barney’s the way Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth) and Prince Philip were at The New Stanley back in 1952, but in the hour or we spent there having lunch while Calvin ran around Nanyuki buying final supplies for our drive north, a lot of interesting people came through, nobody more so than the wildlife cinematographer Alan Root.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Alan and his wife, Joan, were to wildlife movies what Disney is to animation. As Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal wrote in his book about Joan Root, Wildflower (which is supposedly being turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts even as I write this), “They were pioneers, filming animal behavior without human interference decades before films such as Winged Migration and March of the Penguins were made. Their movies were often narrated by top movie stars, including David Niven, James Mason, and Ian Holm, and in 1967 one of their films had a royal premiere in London, where the couple was presented to the queen.

“They introduced the American zoologist Dian Fossey to the gorillas she would later die trying to save, took Jacqueline Kennedy up in their hot-air balloon, and covered much of Africa in their single-engine Cessna and their amphibious car. Then, for reasons the public never really knew, they suddenly vanished from the screen as mysteriously as some of the endangered species they had documented.”

Interesting, no? But it gets better. They divorced and Joan retreated to her home on 88 acres along Lake Naivasha “where she devoted herself to saving the ecologically imperiled lake just beyond her home. It was there, in her bedroom at one-thirty a.m. on January 13, 2006, that she was brutally murdered by assailants with an AK-47. Screaming in Swahili that they would fill her with so many holes she’d “look like a sieve,” they pumped bullets through the glass and the bars of her bedroom windows until Joan—who, at sixty-nine, had become one of the most indomitable conservationists in the world—lay dead in a pool of her own blood.”

The murder was never solved, though most everyone, including the police, had a pretty good idea who did it. And what the motive was (hint: it has something to do with roses). Which is why, I suppose, Julia Roberts is making a film of the story. Sort of a more violent, but undoubtedly just as beautiful, Out of Africa.

The murder was four-and-a-half years ago. And now here was her ex-husband, Alan Root, sitting at the table next to me at Barney’s drinking a Tusker and eating a cheeseburger. Just like me. You can imagine how badly I wanted to introduce myself and have a little chat. But just then Calvin and Keith pulled up in front of where we were eating, honked the horn, and the four of us climbed into the Land Cruisers, leaving Alan Root to finish his lunch in silence.



  1. Jeff Wilson’s avatar

    wow, what a beautiful woman and a great story. roses, eh? have to give that some thought.
    i want to hear about calvin’s great grandmother.

  2. Susi’s avatar

    I’m so devastated that Julia Roberts is foisting herself into this role! Joan Root was an amazing person and I just cannot imagine Julia managing to pull off her shyness and quiet strength and resolve. Any movie where Julia can’t use the trademark big smile and laugh has been a disaster (hello Mary Reilly) and Joan just wasn’t that sort of character. Julia is physically all wrong and does not have the requisite acting chops to pull off the wonderful Joan Root, just picturing her in this role, trying to do a White Kenyan accent makes me cringe. Gretchen Mol or, even better, Charlize Theron (who grew up on a South African farm) would have been wonderful. This story should absolutely be made into a movie, but not with Julia Roberts as Joan, I desperately hope she sees the light and decides to produce, or to play another role, why not Jennie Hammond? She’d be much better suited to that character both physically and in terms of the characters she is able to portray.

    End Rant.

  3. Tammy’s avatar

    I agree with Jeff Wilson, beautiful woman in every sense – devastatingly sad story. I am not so sure that it was about the Roses except more about conserving the lake. I have good reason to say this as when I went to live with her, she negotiated a post for me with the Rose growers.

    I disagree with Susi because I believe Julia is an accomplished actress, she will attempt to do justice to Joan’s character.

    I knew Joan personally, she was the cousin of my fiance. Her cousin lived with her for three years. Joan was an only child, was introverted and absolutely adored Alan he was her one & only – when she and Alan divorced she tried for years to get him back (and I encouraged it) and waited for him to come back. A reunion never happened, but in the interim Alan had her name taken off all of the Royalties for the films which they made together. This was a bitter pill for Joan to swollow. She was so saddened by this insult (albeit negotiated) that she refused to comment on the National Geographic pictorial on Couples who were successful teams in film making.

    Joan was a multifacited person, as we all are, and she was stubborn – things had to be her way. So believe me when I tell you this, who ever depicts Joan – needs to know her fully ‘warts and all’.

    I loved her, and am deeply disturbed that NO ONE to date has discovered who MURDERED her. This I know – that a contract killing had been ordered at least two years before they were successful.

    There are many white Kenyans who know this, and if you want all the facits and the full story – I can give you names of people to contact.

    Joan had few personal relationships, but the last one with John Sutton was real, he was the last person she spoke to before she died, – she kept all her relationships private because she was afraid that people only wanted to know her for her fame & importance. Maybe there was a little bit of Only Child syndrome here too – I am not a phychologist – but she kept people at arms length, and ended conversations abruptly. She would get quite puffed up and stand offish if someone important from media or conservation departments were coming to see her. She would actually tell me to leave as someone was coming to see her and that they only wanted to see her – so I would find something to do which took me away from the house.

    These were her moments of glory, and I understood that after Alan taking everything away from her this was where she felt respected, appreciated and needed.

    I loved Joan, I love the memories I have with her – does anyone have a picture of her with her preciuos porcupine?

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