Looming in the dim light, eight enormous East African elephants stand ready to stampede. Behind them Grant's gazelle, hartebeest and brindled gnu graze near a copse of umbrella acacia. A few feet away sit half a dozen Manhattanites, insouciantly sipping sundowners. They're cool customers at a portable bar in New York's American Museum of Natural History.
The stuffed and mounted pachyderms appear to be headed for Central Park. They're perhaps the most famous elephants in America. Many a kid who grew up in or visited New York has stood in the semidarkness of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and marveled at the lead bull and imagined his fearful rumble. In the dioramas encircling this colossal centerpiece, the landscape of Africa stretches on forever.
Dorothy Davison comes to call on the elephants a couple of times a year. A slim, patrician great-grandmother of 85, she helped bag one of the beasts in 1933. She's a splendidly worldly and wealthy woman who lives with her dogs, Mig, Fowler and Noodle, on an estate slightly smaller than Swaziland. The Davison compound, on Peacock Point in Locust Valley, N.Y., sprawls along Long Island Sound not far from Sagamore Hill, home of another great white hunter, Teddy Roosevelt.
In this corner of Long Island, where many families go back generations, people talk of their long-dead ancestors as if they expect them to walk in the door any minute. The area almost seems closer to 19th-century England than 20th-century America. Davison's father, the Rev. Endicott Peabody, was the very embodiment of America's private-school ethic. He co-founded the Groton School in Groton, Mass., the upper-crustiest of prep schools.
Dorothy was married to the dashing F. Trubee Davison, son of a banker, a graduate of Groton and a decorated Navy pilot. Trubee's life was cushioned by a $4.5 million endowment from Daddy. Trubee became president of the American Museum in 1933, after serving as an Assistant Secretary of War. He delighted in describing himself as "the first member of Hoover's Administration to be put in a museum."
That same year the museum sent the Davisons off to Africa to bag four elephants and fill out the collection begun by Teddy Roosevelt and Carl Akeley, an inventor and taxidermist. Though Trubee was a fine marksman, he was far from bloodthirsty. "I haven't the slightest desire to shoot an elephant," he protested. But to complete the display, two bulls, a cow and a pregnant cow were needed.
By mid-June the Davisons had left Cairo with Pete Quesada, their personal pilot and a close friend, on a four-day, 2,500-mile flight up the Nile to Kisumu off Lake Victoria. (Quesada became head of the Federal Aviation Agency in 1958 and was president of the Washington Senators from 1960 to 1963.) The first two days were "worse than any dream of torment Dante could have conceived," Dorothy wrote her mother-in-law. "The heat stood like a solid wall. If we tried a mere peep through the windows [of the plane] our eyes were scorched and our heads swam. Of course, to add to our discomfort, it was rough as the dickens."
On the third day they saw their first elephants, about 350 of them shambling through the bush. The pilot buzzed the herd. "We pressed our noses to the windows," Dorothy recalls. "The excitement and confusion was so great, you might have thought the Armistice had just been signed."
The Davisons were feted at a ranch in Nairobi, Kenya by the explorer-filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson. Ernest Hemingway mentioned the Johnsons in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. "[The continent had been known] as Darkest Africa until the Martin Johnsons lighted it on so many silver screens where they were pursuing Old Simba the lion, the buffalo, Tembo the elephant and as well collecting specimens for the Museum of Natural History."
Dorothy was so impressed with the feast the Johnsons fixed that she described it in a letter: "cocktails, caviar, turkey (the best I ever tasted), potatoes, salad, ice cream with strawberries." Then it was off to the hunt. The Davisons hired porters and trackers from the Wapokomo, Wakikuyu and Wakamba tribes—the last known for dispatching kudus and such with illegal poison arrows—and, for good measure, a few Somalis. The expedition had a competent white hunter in Al Klein. "We always had the elephant downwind," says Dorothy. "Or was it upwind? I really can't remember." Like Robert Wilson in Francis Macomber, Klein backed up his clients' shots. "You never knew with an elephant if he was faking or really dead," Dorothy explains.
On July 17 the Davisons tracked their first herd. "Try to imagine the feeling of a sardine surrounded by whales," Dorothy says. "The elephants looked as big as Grand Central Station." They shot in turns, Trubee first. He brought down a small bull with a shot through the lungs. "He fell," Dorothy wrote in her journal, "or rather just squatted down on his haunches, and his eyes were wide open. I couldn't believe he was dead. My heart beat so fast that it nearly came out. About the most exciting part of the shoot was walking on him afterwards."
They measured the carcass and skinned it while the porters crawled inside and took the meat. The hide, a tusk and a few major bones—the skull, a foreleg and a hind leg—were sent back to the States in wooden crates to be recreated as a life-size exhibit. A week later one of the Wapokomos shoved a patty of steamy elephant dung under Dorothy's nose. "We're near them," he said in Swahili. "It's still warm." Ever the perfect guest, Dorothy graciously accepted the brown lump. "Of course I had to take it," she says matter-of-factly. "He would have been hurt if I didn't."
They came upon the herd in a clearing. Dorothy, in pith helmet and safari togs, shouldered her trusty "blunderbuss" and took aim at a cow. She aimed a bit too low, hitting the elephant in the jaw. The animal stumbled off into the tall grass. The party stalked her for two hours before giving up. "It was an awful feeling to have shot so badly," Dorothy says, "and to have wounded her so that she would die a lingering death. It just made me sick." So Klein and a Wapokomo later went out after the cow and finished her off.
Quesada soon nailed a bull. But the Davisons still needed the second female to lend some symmetry to the exhibit. So, on Aug. 3 the party left their camp near the Tana River. Isaiah, a Wakamba tracker, rejoined the party, shouting, "Tembo!" The Davisons et al. motored another mile and a half and saw a dozen or so elephants. Everyone piled out.
Klein and the others observed the herd for several hours, searching for a cow with no toto, or baby. When they were sure they had found one, Trubee drew a bead on his quarry, Dorothy backed him up with her movie camera. Klein whispered, "Shoot!" Trubee fired, Dorothy rolled the film and the cow collapsed. But a bull wheeled and charged them. "He didn't like having his wife killed, I suppose," offers Dorothy. Trubee hurriedly spent his last shell. The recoil sent him toppling into a thorn bush atop Dorothy. The two went glassy-eyed and pale. "As we lay there in the needles," she says, "the sound of the oncoming elephant was like a huge subway train approaching." Klein and Quesada opened fire, and the bull fell a mere 18 paces away.
"After many photos were taken," says Dorothy, "we left that nearly fatal spot. And I resolved then and there never to let Trubee or myself shoot an elephant again."