AKA Friedericke Victoria Gessner
Birthplace: Troppau, Silesia, Austria-Hungary
Location of death: Shaba National Reserve, Kenya
Cause of death: Murder
Remains: Cremated, ashes scattered at Meru National Park, Kenya
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Naturalist, Author
Executive summary: Born Free
Friederike "Fifi" Gessner was born wealthy, the daughter of a successful Austrian architect, and she was raised on the family's sprawling estate. A turning point in her life came as a teenager, when she accompanied her father's resident gamekeeper onto the estate's hunting grounds, and shot and killed a deer. She found the experience deeply troubling, and vowed to never again kill for sport. As a young woman her interests wandered — she studied art, dressmaking, and metal crafts, trained as a classical pianist but eschewed performing, and planned to attend medical school but never took the entrance exams. Instead she married Victor von Klarwill , an Austrian businessman who, being Jewish, wisely worried about the rise of the Nazis. In 1937 he sent his wife to Africa to find a suitable place for them to stay until the Nazi era's end.
On her journey to Africa, however, Fifi met and fell in love with another man, a Swedish botanist named Peter Bally, who worked at the Nairobi Museum in Kenya. Promptly divorcing von Klarwill, she married Bally in 1938, and he was the first person to call her "Joy." She traveled with Bally on several African expeditions as he collected African plant life, and she illustrated his botanical papers and gained some renown as a scientific illustrator. Befriended by archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, she accompanied them on excavations in Kenya and Tanzania, and met George Adamson, a Kenyan game warden who became her third husband after she divorced Bally in 1944.
In 1956, while working in the wilds of Africa, her husband was charged by a lion, and fatally shot the animal. He then heard meowing from the nearby brush — the lion was female, and had attacked because, unbeknownst to Adamson, he had been approaching her three cubs. Two of the orphaned animals were soon deemed healthy enough to be given to zoos, but George and Joy Adamson raised the smallest and weakest cub, which they named Elsa. She wrote a book, Born Free, about raising and eventually releasing the lion, and the book became a best-seller, inspiring a hit movie and short-lived television series. The book and movie helped alter worldwide attitudes toward the value of preserving natural wildlife and habitat, and Joy Adamson was also among the first to call for a boycott of clothing made from animal fur.
When Elsa the lion eventually became sick and died, leaving three cubs who were too young to be released into the wild, the Adamsons adopted those animals as well, leading to additional books. Adamson also adopted a young cheetah who had previously been a house pet, which she named Pippa, training it to survive in the wild and writing two books about the animal. George and Joy Adamson separated in 1971, but remained close enough to celebrate Christmas together every December. She was murdered in 1980, and a former employee, Paul Wakwaro Ekai, was convicted in her killing, though he has always maintained that Kenyan police used torture to extract a false confession from him. Joy Adamson's ashes were divided and buried in two sites at Meru National Park in Kenya, adjacent to the graves of Elsa the lioness and Pippa the cheetah. Her husband continued their work until he was murdered by poachers in 1989.
Father: Victor Gessner (architect, d. 1929)
Mother: Traute Gessner (div. 1920)
Husband: Victor von Klarwill (businessman, m. 28-Jul-1935, div. 1937)
Husband: Peter Bally (botanist, m. Apr-1938, div. 1944)
Husband: George Adamson (b. 1906, m. 17-Jan-1944, sep. 1971, d. 20-Aug-1989 murder)
Author of books:
Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds (1960)
Elsa: The Story of A Lioness (1961, also titled Living Free)
Forever Free: The Final Volume of the Most Beloved Animal Story of Our Time (1962)
The Peoples of Kenya (1967)
The Spotted Sphinx (1969)
Pippa: The Cheetah and Her Cubs (1970)
Joy Adamson's Africa (1972)
Pippa's Challenge (1972)
Peoples of Kenya (1976)
The Searching Spirit: Joy Adamson's Autobiography (1978)
Queen of Shaba: The Story of an African Leopard (1980)
Friends from the Forest (1981)
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