Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Fascinating Woman: Osa Johnson

Osa and Martin Johnson in their beloved Africa

I have female mentors, women who I find through articles, interviews, novels or film, and latch onto with great interest. Osa Johnson has become an obsession of mine in the last year; she is one of the most interesting, compelling women I have ever stumbled across. Osa was born in Kansas during the very tail end of the 19th century and welcomed the 20th as a preteen, beautiful and dutiful, with no expectations for herself past marriage and children, hobbies, homemaking and growing old and dying in the same town she was born in. Here is the opening to her autobiography: " IN THE LIGHT of the placid expectation that, because I was born in Chanute, Kansas, I would grow up, marry, raise a family and die
there, I find it amusing to recall a certain hot September day of my seventh year, when I asked my father for ten cents. "

As a teenager she liked to sing, and it was singing she met her future husband, Martin Johnson, a photographer and traveler just back from a sailing adventure with the writer Jack London and his wife; a trip on which Martin had won his place through a postcard to Jack in a magazine contest. Osa had actually met Martin years before, when he photographed her baby brother, but did not remember the confident, worldy Martin. Martin, years Osa's senior, fell madly in love with Osa, who was highly irritated by Martin at first, and acted entirely like a teenager, having hissy fits, sarcastic asides and a generally difficult attitude, which apparently did nothing to dissuade Martin. They were married in 1910, and their great adventure began.


In fact, Osa's autobiogaphy of their life is titled I Married Adventure, and this is how I fell in love with her, and learned of her and Martin's fascinating life. After stumbling across a 1st edition in a dusty, pee smelling used bookstore, I brought home and consumed this unique and energetic life story. Although Martin and Osa began life as a typical married couple for the time, Osa being the housewife and sharply dressed observer of Martin's work life, they could not stay still. Martin was concerned that Osa would quickly tire and leave if he 'subjected' her to a life of travel and adventure, something not done by women of the day, but eventually Osa convinced him that it was possible and so they packed up house and set off. After 7 years of work and saving money, Osa and Martin took sail on a large ship across the ocean to travel, film and explore the Solomon Islands and . They were not sailing on a cruise ship, but instead a hard working ocean ship meant for industry, and although Martin was very concerned with having Osa, a woman, on this ardous journey, she had the stomach of a true sailor, and it was Martin and the rest of the occupants who were miserable while Osa spent time on deck with the impressed Captain.

Met on the ship and on land with incredulous men who could not believe Martin 'let' Osa make this journey, Osa had to prove herself daily, making it clear she could do without nice clothing, proper bathroom facilities, other ladies to socialize with, or any of the comforts of civilization. Again and again Osa impressed men with her hard work ethic, positive attitude and teamwork.





Osa and Martin traveled and met the native inhabitants of these exotic locals- no man or woman had ever done so, and it was debated if these peoples even existed- and came close to death on their first encounter, which ended in a dramatic ( and stomach clenching story to read) run down a jungle mountain hillside to escape onto ship, away from the murderous Chief and his tribe giving chase. Amazingly, Osa did not give up or retreat to the cabin ( I'm sure I would have) and instead the persisted, eventually netting the first ever films of these peoples.
what is amazing to me about this, aside from the rich history, is how you see this exact dancing on MTV and in clubs now!



next post will continue Osa's story
Heidi said...

fascinating - i'm hooked! am going to scour book stores for the autobiography. Hx

Jeanne said...

Someone gave me a memoir, written during the same time period, by tye bride of a mining engineer, and her adventures in gold mining towns of Montana, North Dakota and Colorado. Made me feel like Wimp Woman....

Ms. Moon said...

What an amazing woman! What a spirit she had! Thank-you.

Elizabeth said...

Wow. This IS fascinating (and, I might add, the perfect story to follow the bullshit you've experienced with those mothers at school). Can you imagine what those goofy people would have thought of Osa? I'm fascinated by these early "pioneers" -- their incredible fortitude and spirit. I am going to look for this book!

katiecrackernuts said...

I am fascinated. More please.
And that video, the chick that hitched the crying bub over the back and just kept goin' Love it. No one looked at her like she needed go rest the baby in a "crying room". Yipee.

Megan Coyle said...

I stumbled upon your blog, and I really enjoyed this post. There really are so many interesting people in the world, with many lesser known to us than others--thanks for introducing me to Osa's life.

SJ said...

That's so interesting...I love hearing about people's lives like that.

Maybe that's why I love blogging too =)

willow said...

This was a wonderful post. I am going to look for more on her. Funny thing, WT's great grandmother had the same name, same time period and born in Missouri near the Kansas border.

JJ Keith said...

Oh swoon. I studied anthropology as an undergraduate and meant to do as Osa and hang with the Massai, but alas, I was too chicken shit to cross state lines. But these days I live at the intersection of Korean Town, Little Armenia, Thai Town, and Mexico, so that counts for something right? I'm worldly in my own small Angeleno way.

adrienne said...

maggie,

if you are amazed by the similarity in dance style to what you see today, please check out the documentary 'rize'...readily available.

about a dance movement in south central l.a.; initially a bit strange (there is an aspect where the participants dress like clowns which may seem odd). but the undeniable genetic memory which these young, relatively unworldly kids display is absolutely breathtaking.

starrlife said...

I love these educational, inspiring posts of yours!

Beth said...

I so wish I possessed that spirit of adventure but will have to make do living vicariously – the book (and the woman) sound fascinating.

mel carroll said...

I Married Adventure's zebra striped cover caught my eye when I was a young girl and weary of Nancy Drew mysteries. Forty some odd years later, I still consider it one of the most important and fascinating books I have ever read. Osa was my childhood role model, and she helped shape my world view and my sense of self. She was fearless and amazing and unstoppable. I'm proud to have my mom's faded copy of I Married Adventure on my favorite book shelf today, and I'm hoping it catches my daughter's eye soon. Thanks for this post!

CashmereLibrarian said...

There's an Osa and Martin museum in Kansas. Would love to go sometime.

Veronica, aka "Suzy Tofu" said...

What an utterly cool woman!

I feel somewhat lame by comparison.

Matthew said...

I just came across a 1940 copy of I Married Adventure with the wild zebra-skin patterned cloth covering on Saturday.

Kay said...

oh to live a life time in those shoes...remarkable! something to be learned here, something to be shared

Petit fleur said...

Thanks for this. I'm going to have to look her up! I love that name. Do you know if it's short for something?

jb said...

Awesome Maggie....I'm going to try to find the book. I love the video clip. Is there anymore to be found? What year was the book written in? Can't wait to read more.

huggs
jbxo

esther lee said...

I'm getting this book. This is incredible.

julochka said...

wow, what a woman. and what a great hat! must seek her out. thank you!

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