Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dian Fossey Life and Death

Muddled Personal Life

Dian Fossey's reaction to the Belgian official was typical: She was an inveterate name-killer and was not above throwing a tantrum — or a piece of furniture — if something did not go her way.

And things rarely went her way in personal relationships.

Granted, living in a cabin on an African mountaintop does not invite stable domesticity. But Fossey had a bad habit of embarking on affairs with married men.

These included any number of visitors to Karisoke, from tourists to cameramen to students to visiting scholars. She had other similarly ill-fated relationships during her periodic sabbaticals to universities in England and the United States. Most ended the same way: with the man leaving a devastated Fossey behind.

She even had a brief fling with Louis Leakey, although that was the rare case in which Fossey dumped the love-bitten scientist, who gamely persisted with a series of sad love letters.

But Fossey's most trying relationship was a mix of personal and professional.

In 1970, during a doctoral-studies stint at Cambridge in England, Fossey met an ambitious undergraduate student named Alexander (Sandy) Harcourt. She invited him to Karisoke as an intern, and her journal indicates that they developed an intimate relationship, although he was half her age.

Harcourt returned to the Rwandan research center as a Ph.D. student in 1972. This time, instead of pairing up with Fossey, Harcourt fell for a young American student from Stanford, Kelly Stewart, daughter of the actor Jimmy Stewart.

Fossey wrote admiringly about the bright, clever Stewart during her first weeks at Karisoke. But her journal notes took a turn after Harcourt and Stewart became lovers. Like a prudish aunt, she observed their movements as keenly as she had her gorillas.

"Sandy's cabin lights went off early, and hers much earlier, but then come on again, and her curtains firmly drawn. Whom do they think they're kidding?"

For more than a decade after those jealous words were written, Fossey and Harcourt fought over control of the Karisoke center. Kelly and Harcourt disparaged Fossey behind her back as boozy, lazy and moody, and Harcourt lobbied hard with funding sources to be named director of Karisoke.

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