Currently Reading – I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson

One thing good about spending so much time at home is that one can really blow through her reading queue. Under normal circumstances, I have anywhere from five to ten books waiting to be read. I’m down to one. It may be time to fire up the Kindle, or to search for some new treasures on eBay.

I found this book, I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson in my usual shopping place. I knew about Johnson from reading lots of books about “lady adventurers” of the past. And a quick look at the photos in the book sealed the deal.

Osa was from a small town in Kansas. Born in 1894, she was only sixteen when she married Martin Johnson in 1910. By that time, Martin had been on an expedition to the South Pacific with Jack London, and he was hooked on adventure. Martin was lecturing about his trip in Osa’s town when they met, and she was intrigued. Little did she know that Martin had no intentions of settling for a domestic life in Kansas.  He talked her into traveling again to the South Pacific with photographic equipment. He wanted to document the lives of people in the area before they became adapted to the Western lifestyle.

The five trunks you see in this photo proved to be inadequate for Osa and Martin’s needs. In future trips they traveled with three dozen trunks. On this first trip, the couple had only a small amount of film, and Martin had bought a motion picture camera. They did encounter the “natives” as you can see, but they ended up being chased off one island, nearly ending their lives of adventure.

This was just the beginning, as the Johnson’s returned to the US and went on the Vaudeville circuit, showing the movie and telling about their adventure. When they had enough money, Martin bought another camera, and the couple headed back to the Pacific, this time with enough movie film to make a short film for distribution.

This was in 1914, when movies were new. Most people in the West had never seen foreign animals in motion. The movie, the first of many, was a hit.

In the early 1920s, the Johnsons set their sights on documenting African wildlife. Over the next thirteen years they made several trips to Africa, sometimes staying as long as four years at a time.

Above is probably the most famous photo of Osa Johnson. It was taken in Kenya at the home of a man they met who was raising zebras and taming them.

Which leads me to the obvious – attitudes toward places like Africa and Borneo and the Solomon Islands were very different than they are today. Both people and animals were considered to be exotic, and were not treated with the respect we (hopefully) place on them today. Osa’s attitude toward the Black people she encounters is patronizing. Some articles about Martin Johnson describe him as a big game hunter, which is not strictly true. Martin was a photographer and filmmaker, and the couple did not hunt for fun. They did kill animals when they felt endangered, and they also helped kill animals for the exhibits for the Museum of Natural History in New York.

The book proves that one does meet people in the strangest places. Here are Osa and Martin enjoying an afternoon with the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the parents of the present Queen of England.

From their first trip in 1912, Osa adapted a practical wardrobe of pants, overalls, and breeches. This 1920s outfit is identical to the type worn by other outdoors women in the 1920s.

As time and technology progressed, the Johnsons were quick to adapt new inventions to aid in their photographs. They bought two airplanes, and produced what are most likely the first aerial films of African wildlife.

Back in the US in 1937, Osa and Martin were on another promotion tour when the plane in which they were traveling crashed. Martin was killed, and Osa was badly injured.  Several years later she wrote this book, which was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1940. On her own she made more trips to Africa before her death in 1953. Today there is a museum in Osa’s hometown of Chanute, Kansas, The Martin and Osa Safari Museum.

I didn’t know this when I bought the book, but it turns out that  the cover makes it a favorite with home decorators. There is a companion volume by her that has a giraffe print cover.



Filed under Currently Reading

11 responses to “Currently Reading – I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson

  1. I have his book “ Congorilla “ I’ve been reading it during this downtime . I run estate sales and find many interesting vintage everything !! I spotted your book at the same sale but a customer beat me to it !! It was a sharp looking cover !
    Now Perter Beard was another amazing lover of all things natural and Africa . RIP Peter Beard .


  2. jacq staubs

    Interesting. I do not “buy” the expedition / documentary purpose of these expensive endless trips. The expeditions were funded by someone for a specific purpose. The N Y Public Library? Even in 1910 the senseless kill of exotic animals was frowned upon by intellectuals / higher learning. Their tea party mates were severely scorn for it. Osa was no fashion plate. The son of a jewler in the 10’s dust bowl Kansas ?Adventure paid a high price in the end? Thank you for this. Some things / people never change. Love the cover. Says it all! O.


    • The trips were very expensive, and were financed by people like George Eastman of Kodak. The book doesn’t say (or I don’t remember) but I’d think they were getting financial assistance from the Museum of Natural History. The Johnson’s really were a breed apart from other “adventurers” as there purpose was not to kill (though they did, especially to provide meat to their workers). I honestly think Martin just could not hold a regular job and live the life that most people do.


  3. Here’s a photo of a replica of Osa’s Ark, one of their airplanes, that came through here a few years ago:


  4. Lizzie, I wonder if your posts haven’t started a run on that Goodwill outlet. Or a future, run, since we are all at home now.


  5. I found a Cutex nail polish ad from January 1929 with an endorsement from Mrs. Martin Johnson. She’s riding the zebra, and the text says she has Cutex sent to her because it’s “wonderful protection for the nails when roughing it.


  6. Grayspoole

    Fascinating post, despite all of the reservations one has today about such expeditions.

    I was introduced to Osa Johnson by reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room,” which captures the disturbing experience of identifying oneself with the Other, as seen through the lens of National Geographic camera:


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